We are so used to seeing the world through the lens of our particular religion that we find it hard to understand how other people see the world. This includes how people in the far past saw the world. So, a brief primer is in order.
Humanity and the Powers
Religion is always concerned with the presence of other Powers besides human beings, and the relationship between us and them. The various Powers that humanity reckons it must come to terms with include some or all of the following: the spirits of the Ancestors; Natural forces and spirits of Nature; gods and/or demons and their servitors/minions; Luck or Fate/Destiny. Some powers are seen as benevolent, others malevolent, some ambivalent. Some can be bargained with, others not. Some can be avoided, some turn up everywhere. The menu of powers each religion contains varies.
Managing the Relationship
Humanity approaches the Powers it believes in in several ways. Some Powers are approached with reverence. They are seen as being inherently worthy of honor. Often, the worshipers conduct rites to experience communion with a particular Power.
Most Powers are approached at one time or another through propitiation. The Powers demand sacrifice – for various reasons. This is sometimes a transactional thing: Do ut des, I give in order that I may receive, was how the Romans termed it; but then, the Romans saw everything as contract, including their relationship with their gods. Sometimes, the sacrifice is to prove proper intent, or to purify the one who approaches a Power to ask for something.
Sometimes, worship is merely to honor the Powers; at other times, the assistance of the Powers is sought: for guidance, for help in an endeavor, for good weather, for health or deliverance, or to exorcize a malevolent Power.
Ultimate destiny. Most religions have some sense of the essential problem Humanity has to solve in order to achieve a good outcome in matters of Life, Death, and Life Beyond Death. This can be preparing for heaven/avoiding hell. It can be deliverance from the wheel of rebirth. In religions that have no strong sense of life after death, it is often leaving a good reputation behind one so as to live in collective memory. It can be as simple as looking forward to watching over one’s descendants when one joins the Ancestors.
Most religions have some or all of the following concepts and practices. There is a sacred story or collection of wisdom, sometimes contained in an authoritative set of texts but sometimes merely proverbial.
There is a strong sense of patterning. Humans create rituals either to imitate patterns they see or imagine in the world, or to access divine patterns. There are seasons, holidays, routines, structures, art.
Prayer is almost universal in religion, and often sacrificial. There are also aids to devotion: icons, mnemonic jewelry (e.g., prayer beads), sacred colors, folk practices, incantations, vestments, special foods, etc.
Some things are taboo. There is sometimes an ethical component to forbidden things, but sometimes the mere fact that something is forbidden makes it a test or marker of the proper worshiper. There are words that are not said, foods that are not eaten, particular ways to achieve ritual purity.
Transformation is a major theme in many religions. Not all teach a form of mystical rebirth in this life (though this is commoner than you might suppose), but some are very concerned with future births, and others teach that it is possible to achieve altered (higher) states of consciousness and even physical transformation while under the influence of the Power.
Almost every religion has some sort of idea of the holy person, someone who has experienced a divine touch or call. This sometimes places them in leadership of the community; at other times, it separates them from normal community life. Those touched by God may seem like ordinary clergy; others seem mentally ill or possessed. All are capable of giving assistance to those seeking to manage their relationship with the Powers.
Some religions have strong ethical teachings, others do not. For much of human history, ethics was seen as philosophy’s concern, not religion. Yet, if you ask many people to describe the teachings of, say, Christianity or Islam, they will immediately start enumerating Dos and Don’ts.
And a final caveat: the actual beliefs of people following a religion are usually not derived from the high art produced by that religion. The stories poets and dramatists created about the gods of ancient Greece and Rome, for instance, had little to do with what the worshipers of those gods actually believed about them or why they sought them out. Two of the most popular gods of ancient times were Tyche (goddess of luck) and Asklepios (god of healing), which shows you what most people were concerned about. The great literary myths as we study them were not seriously believed in, at least in their narrative details. A modern example would be, say, Paradise Lost, by John Milton. Milton is writing an epic poem, not Scripture, and his Christ is not the Christ described in the New Testament or the Creeds; likewise, nobody writes liturgies to be recited in church quoting Paradise Lost. Trying to use high art like Paradise Lost to understand Christianity will lead you into a ditch; instead, you have to understand Christianity first in order for the poem to make sense to you.
Attempts to revive paganism with things like Asatru often wind up as pastiches of Christianity, the religion their creators are familiar with but don’t want. There is no going back to actual heathenry as practiced in the ancient North. We are not those people, and don’t look at the world as they did. Nor did the actual practice of their religion look like the philosophical game people who make up religions today create.
Certain secular – indeed, atheistic – ideologies function as religions for their adherents. Communism even had its eschaton, when it believed the State would wither away and we would all return to a state of nature. Intersectionality has its heresies and blasphemies that it eagerly punishes with cancel culture: an auto-da-fe in which people lose their livelihood, are hounded electronically and in real life, and are held up in shame before the community. Fanatical ideologies define sin, and taboo, and even create rituals to bond their followers together.
Christianity is the religion(s) created by Christians. Like all religions, it partakes of the nature of a religion. At the core of Christianity, however, is a statement of alleged Fact. If Christ be risen from the dead, then certain things are so, and the Christian story, the Gospel, becomes the most important thing ever uttered, which is why it is called the Good News. If Christ be not risen from the dead – if, in fact, the central Fact alleged by his followers is not true, didn’t happen – then Christianity is simply a family of religions no better and no worse than Jainism or animism or Norse heathenry. I point this out because many people are under the mistaken assumption that because they can prove that such-and-such a thing Christians do came from some other source, they have therefore debunked the Gospel. But Christianity, as a religion, is like all religions, and all the things said of religion as such, above, are at work in it. What makes Christianity different is that it is willing to put its central Fact to the test: either this happened, or it didn’t, and if it did there are consequences that follow from that. So we Christians don’t recommend our religion to you because we think it the only “true” religion, or even the “best” religion. We recommend our religion because we think Jesus rose from the dead to deliver us from sin, death, and hell, and we want you to know that.