firstly, it is commonly said that, since its hard to define religion, its better not to, and just talk about belief systems in general... this is, IMO, kinda silly; sure, religions are belief systems, but so are many things that are not religion, and that have little to do with it: technical manuals and the technical skills they encompass being one of them [if I push this button and pull this level, the car will go forward], or colour theories, or fashion principles, or literary deconstructionism; It is not helpful to think about religion conflating it with every other system of beliefs, especially since most of what minds contain are beliefs. Better it is to define religion according to its subject matter; religious beliefs are a certain kind of beliefs. Which kind? there's been a few reasonable answers:
For example, Durkheim would tell us that religious beliefs are beliefs about the sacred: the sacred is constituted as a realm of subjective experience distinct from the profane. Durkheim's reply to 'okay, but what is the profane' is a bit problematic though. Otto's reply, though, that of the Numinous, is a bit more solid: for Otto, the religious is characterized by the experience of the numious, and is something like a buch of beliefs, practices, rituals and other social facts [Otto doesn't call them that, I do] that revolve around the knowing, experiencing, communing, appeasing or otherwise connecting with the numinous. The numinous for Otto is, in turn, characterized by three main features: without going into much latin and detail and stuffamajig, its basically the misterious, that which is unkown or half-known, that which, like all good mistery, suggests the world is more than it seems, that there are half-visible things, and promises the excellent feeling of discovering those things, the awe-inspiring, that which is huge and beyond comprehension for regular people, transcendentally majestic, that which, by its very nature and scope, humbles the human mind and makes you feel like nothing in comparison to its paroxistically superlative hugeness. And then you have the fascinating; that which attracts in spite of terror, or perhaps because of terror. That which one feels naturally compelled to understand or look upon, something that can profoundly transform your life exclusively by its contemplation: so religions are, by this concept, belief systems that are structured around the numinous, that is, around things that are fascinating, misterious and awe-inspiring, which is what I personally get the feeling of when people say transcendent. ways to achieve that experience, to connect it with regular non-numinous life, and stuff.
Sure, this isn't a perfect model, but it functions just as well... A good addition to it might be that religiosity is social: if you have a religion only you follow, most people would call that your spirituality or something. Finally, religions are not only belief; they're much more than doctrine, they encompass ritual saliently, but also personal practice, ethics, and stuff... they're pretty much total institutions, that is, most religions prescribe themselves as the center [or at least a central bit of] the life of the adherent: if you're a christian and christ is not a HUGELY important piece of your life, if you're a muslim and god, the prophet, the sharia, and all that good stuff is not a HUGELY piece of your life, you're doing it wrong: this last bit is more problematic, as not all religions are total necesarily, but they're at least pretty near total: they want to be pretty central to your life. Finally, religions have a pretention of truth: this is why, for example, the Lovecraftian Mythos are not a religion; they may be a mythology that is highly numinous in nature, but it doesn't prescribe that you should believe it, it hasn't pretentions of truth, it knows its fiction. So does literature or music, for example, which can also be articulated around touching the transcendent [some fiction and/or music anyway] buuut it isn't manifestly 'true' in the sense that 'god loves you' or 'i am typing in a computer' is true [or untrue]; you cannot say that La Boheme is either true or false, it just is. Also, let's throw in that religions tend to refer to metaphysics: the stuff that is 'behind' the material world, the immaterial, the spiritual, that stuff.
Sooo you have something approaching a definition of religion: a social fact, characterized by a generally metaphysical, non-materialist doctrine (myhology, ethics, etc...) that aspires to recognition as truth, a set of rituals, biographical prescriptions that prescribe their own centrality to a person's subjective experience of the world and a community, articulated around the numinous experience. Suuure, its not perfect, I know, but it manages to bite from Christianity to Bhuddism while leaving away stuff that is manifestly non-religious, like prescriptivist grammar, paper making, C++, and watching movies on saturday night.
It does chew, for example, some politics, especially marxist-leninist, fascist, and a huge chunk of ecologist ideologies... but I don't have a problem with that :P. Anyway, there, that's IMO a decent definiton of religion.
That being said, I never know -since I have never been religious- if religious truth works the same way as profane truth. Penn Jilette has a great rant on this idea. But the point is, do people really think that religious doctrine is true in the same sense as regular, profane doctrines are true? like, if I go 'this table is made of wood', I think about that phrase as true... do religious people think that, say, the bible, or the sura, or the myth of Amaterasu and whatnot are true, do they mean the same thing by true?. Probably yes and no, but that's a complicated question. On one hand, I just get the feeling that people who claim to believe/believe in angels would be pretty surprised if they saw an angel, and yet, they believe in angels! if I saw a platypus, I'd be anywhere from 'meh' to 'oh, that's pretty cool man!'... but I would not be surprised at the platipus! [and I assure you, I strongly believe there exist such a thing as a platypus, even though I've never seen one, only pictures in books and on the internet]. So surely religious people, by 'belief', mean something entirely different from what I mean when I say I believe the drug store should be open at this hour.
So why is any of this relevant for conreligion making? well, for one, it connects you to the fact that religions are not just copies of the bastard son of christianity, shinto and greek politheism that is generally presented in fiction: catholic-style churches with shinto-style rituals and lots of god-of-thing figures. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it tells you where you should focus on your conreligion-creating efforts:
If one accepts this definition, it becomes blatantly obvious that you should not, as is often done, focus primarily on doctrine during religion-making; religion is not doctrine, its much more than doctrine. Look at it from the Christian perspective, who the fuck cares, really, other than theologians, if christ had one or two natures, or if there were 12 or 11 apostles, or if, from the muslim view, you get or don't get 77 virgins in paradise? its at least just as important as defining doctrine to construct:a social fact, characterized by a generally metaphysical, non-materialist doctrine (myhology, ethics, etc...) that aspires to recognition as truth, a set of rituals, biographical prescriptions that prescribe their own centrality to a person's subjective experience of the world and a community, articulated around the numinous experience.
- biographical prescriptions [how people should live according to this faith]
- the biographical relevance of the religion to the persons who live it.
- how central the religion wants to be in your life, so to speak
- how does this religion generate the numinous?
this last point is pretty interesting; Sagan's Cosmos, for example, was really numinous for me when I was a kid. It's not now because I have seen it too much, but yeah; how can religions cause the numinous? let's go back to Otto.
- Mysterium: christianity has a lot of misteries, and the quran is huge on saying 'you don't understand this, just follow', and yet giving you the feeling like you sorta could understand god a bit, his 99 names and stuff like that. Many mythos refer to stuff that is alien, misterious, and yet oddly familiar; maybe you could exploit the uncanny valley effect to cause numinous experience?
- Tremendum: some religions like to entice you with huge people; gods, angels, characters with absurdly long lifespans and histories, or with amazing powers, a la DBZ, others just tell you to sit down and think about how huge the universe is, like bhuddism, which is a powerful experience in itself, if you care to do it. Others present you with a larger-than-life history of time, with huge cycles and reincarnation through millenia [this sort of grandiose language and play with orders of magnitude is common in religious language; Brahma is sleeping and he breates once every billion billion years, the universe is a billion billion billion kilometers wide, god has ALL the power and answers ALL the billion billion billion prayers, allah has created each of the billion billion souls individually, you have gone thru billions of billions of lives... you get the idea]. However it goes, religion and the stuff it talks about always is HUGE. it broadens the world, and makes you feel small. [maybe like a child? I don't know, this idea plays too well to my freudomarxist antitheist bias, so I reserve judgement on it]
- Fascinans: the fascinating is harder to achieve, but Campbell and Jung have it a bit figured out. Some of it is intuitive, though, scary half-sexualized beings are fascinating, archetypes are fascinating, impossible animals are fascinating, lost worlds are fascinating, conspiracies are fascinating, danger is fascinating; basically, the fascinans is using known exploits in the brain's operating system to catch its attention firmly. Impending doom is pretty fascinanting, for example, as is eternal torture, I mean, its like saying to someone 'I don't think your food has shit on it'... you instantly make him start smelling the food before putting it into his mouth, even though he has no reason to think there's shit on it... why? because you captured his attention to the fact that food and shit don't go together well, my michelle.
there you have it! Torco's tiny guide to conreligion. :P