what is religion? I believe religion is a system of belief motivated by faith, and ruled by dogmas. The whole thing being managed by religious organizations who take care of the believers.
The dictionary (Harrap's Chamber, 2005) gives 3 short definitions of it:
1) a belief in, of the worship of a god, or gods.
2) a particular system of belief or worship, such as Christianity or Judaism.
3) The monastic way of life.
There is an infinity of religious beliefs, but 3 major tendencies can be underlined :
Animism or shamanism or the belief in the spirit of nature as well as the worship of the ancestors.
Polytheism, the belief in many gods. There is a variation where we choose to worship one specific god among many others (such as in Hinduism).
Monotheism where one almighty god rules the universe and the people.
Buddhism is a particular case. It started as an atheist philosophy (being able to reach the Nirvana (or paradise) by obtaining enlightenment individually rather than through a god), but it degenerated into a religion where Buddha became God.
I will not discuss about animism which I don't know much about, as well as polytheism which has mostly vanished (except for Hinduism) and which I don't fully understand.
I will then talk about monotheism. Monotheist religions originate with a prophet having received revelations through the form of visions sent by God. Then he orally transmitted them (most of the time) to close disciples who, in turn, transmitted them to other disciples and so on (it eventually got on written form), from generation to generation in an exponential manner.
I think that prophets are people having a such high level of consciousness than when they received their revelation from God, they not only understood it with their intellect, but also felt it with their heart and even their whole being. It gave them an understanding nearing the Absolute and allowed them to reach God when they died.
The disciples, being close to the prophet and having a very high level of consciousness, but less than the prophet himself, reached an understanding proportionally lower than their messiah (and then a bit further from the Absolute), even though the majority of them were able to feel it with their heart.
Them in turn, passed on their knowledge to others with a lesser level of consciousness and so on. It automatically became a sort of "bush telephone" system, which everyone knows about. To avoid a too big gap from the original revelations it was put by written : so the dogmas were born and the revelations were understood in an intellectual manner (by the vast majority, except for saints, maybe). Religion then became a matter of organization with a hierarchical structure for the propagation of faith.
There is, however, an important issue of how religion evolutes. Personally, I think it does not evolute but rather it regresses. Prophets are rare and their understanding of this world is different from the understanding of an ordinary man (having a much smaller level of consciousness). What falsify this knowledge is how each individual understands the knowledge and how he/she shares it (the inability to tell what we understand because of a deficiency in our grammatical knowledge combined with a lack of proper vocabulary). But there is another problem : veneration.
Basically what is the message a prophet try to tell ? This is where you are now, and this is where I invite you to go. In an other word, you are in a decrepit frame of mind (full of bad passions) and if you want to get out of it to be close to God (or to reach enlightenment for a Buddhist), then these are the steps you must follow.
I can say that those religious text are roughly like touristic guidebooks: this is where you are and to go there here is the path to follow. You can look at this, watch out for those, be sure to have a suitable comportment and so forth. And what are we doing ? Instead of following the indicated path, we decide to deify the author and worship him. We are like the foul who, when someone is pointing a finger, we look at that finger instead of the direction it shows.
Finally we tend to confuse religion with religious organizations (official or officious). If religion is the communion of one with God, then they are often useless intermediaries. And if they possess a certain knowledge that we don't, they more use it for their own benefit instead of helping their followers.