Earlier, I took a course on the history of religions. I thought maybe my readers would find some of this enlightening, so I'm going to discuss the "six ways of being religious. " This is a framework for thinking about religions that was invented by a Dale Cannon. My professor's framework was based on Dale's framework, with a few differences; likewise, what I write here is slightly different from what my professor said.
The basic idea is that all religious practices can be categorized as one or more of these six ways of being religious. Each way fulfills a different human need. Any successful world religion will have incorporated all of the six ways some time during its history; at any particular time and place, the religion might emphasize one way over the others.
In no particular order,
Ritual is religious practice in which the details are important. The right things must be said at the right time by the right people. The human need being fulfilled is the lack of a sense of what to do and how to feel. ("So we're getting married... I feel we should mark the occasion, but how? With a traditional ceremony!") Ritual is usually associated with some religious authority that can perform the rituals.
Morality is all about doing the morally right thing. This can mean vegetarianism, nonviolence, dietary restrictions, charity, or social justice. Whether a religion favors charity or social justice depends on whether the religion views the world as changing or unchanging. The western religions tend to favor social justice. The human need being fulfilled here is the sense that humans don't always behave right.
Devotion is about loving and being loved. This doesn't necessarily mean loving a "god," but it tends to make more sense when the object of devotion is a personal being of some sort who can love you back. It is usually thought that through the personal being's grace, worshipers attain some sort of salvation. Devotion fulfills the human need for--you guessed it--love.
Mysticism is about connecting with the "divine" or "cosmos" whatever the religion may conceive that to be. It fulfills the human need for something "beyond" the mundane, material world. Mysticism, though it is often combined with devotion, is distinct in that the emotion is less personal. Unlike devotion, the cosmos don't have to be personal or conscious in order for mysticism to make sense.
Intellectual Inquiry is the part of religion that seeks answers. Either by studying texts or by doing theology, scholars try to discern things like cosmology, meaning, morals, or the character of God/Ultimate Reality. This fulfills the human need for knowledge about why we are here, and our place in the scheme of things. Just like ritual, this way of being religious is also associated with religious authority, though it is a different kind of authority (compare priests with rabbis).
Shamanic Mediation involves a special person, only sometimes called a shaman, who mediates between the material and divine, channeling down goods. These goods can include food, rain, fertility, health, guidance, etc. This category includes faith healers. Shamans are much more common in tribal religions than in world religions. When they are part of world religions, they tend to be separate from the main religious infrastructure.
I know most of my readers are probably critical of religion in some way. Well, there's no rule that says you have to simplify that which you criticize. I encourage people to use these categories to think about religions. For example, my professor seemed to have it in for ritual, and advocated social justice above all else. What do you think?