Buddhism can become a religion if in your practice you create a series of rituals that you practice every day, in exactly the same way ... from start to finish. In Buddhism there are no articles of faith that are one of the defining moments in the practice or worship in a religion, which makes Buddhism a non-theistic religion. Unlike some other religion that believes in a God that creates all lifeforms, the only deities that exist in the Buddhist cosmology are the beings that live in higher realms (plains) of existence.
There is such a realm in the Theravada teachings called the Realm of the Gods. This realm is identical to this realm in every aspect except the beings that reside there can do whatever they think or desire. Much the same way the beings in this realm create what they think is all around them as being real, because this is what they think and desire.
Some Buddhist followers, the ones who say they are Buddhist, but have no idea what it is they are practicing outside of the everyday ritualistic chanting and motions taught them by their parents, and their grandparents, on down through the generations, misapprehend who it is the Buddha really is. Even to the point of saying Buddha is a God. He isn’t. He is no more a God than you or I. And here is why someone who understands the core principle teachings of a Buddha (the Four Noble Truths) don’t believe in a God/god/gods. When you understand how it is your own thinking creates the reality around you -- the one you think is real -- then you understand how it is none of this exists outside of what you are thinking and fixating on, namely the thought of what it is you think is real.
When you understand this correctly, you understand why there is no system of belief in a creator being who controls your destiny, who controls your moments of happiness or who control your moments of unhappiness, you see it is you who are doing it all. Everything "Becomes" what you "Think" it is. And the formula for understanding this is in the Second Noble Truth, in the Theravada tradition called Paticcasamuppada, or Dependent Origination.
Paticcasamuppada starts off with "Ignorance" as the root of this whole process. That because of ignorance, there is a conditioned process, there originates dependent on ignorance "Volition", namely Mental Volition. Volition is the faculty or power to use one’s will. This word is called "Sankhara" in Pali (Saṃskāra in Sanskrit). In the Theravada tradition the Pali word Sankhara are divided into three parts: Mental Action (mano kamma), Verbal Action (vaca kamma), and Physical Action (kaya kamma). The pali word Kamma has its sanskrit equivalent of Karma. Verbal action and physical actions are a direct result of mental action, in that you have to have the thought of speaking in order to speak, and you have to have the thought of what to do physically in order to do it.
Let me make this entire explanation as simple as possible in order to lay Paticcasamuppada out like a [road-] map. I will replace the words "is conditioned by, originates dependent on" with a symbol ... → ... what is on the left of this symbol conditions what is on the right of the symbol. And so it goes like this:
Ignorance → Mental Volition → Consciousness → Name-and-Form → The Six-
Base → Contact → Feelings → Craving → Clinging → Becoming → Birth → Death. And so Paticcasamuppada becomes the "Twelve Limbs Of Dependent Origination."
As such, following this [road-] map the understanding is that Ignorance is the root of it all -- Not understanding what we are doing, we continue doing it -- and so we Act. We "Think" and from thinking we speak and do things with the body. Kamma (Karma) is a word used to represent "action and the results of actions." Mental Action is thinking. So let’s follow the map through from "Thinking", we become conscious, we begin to form a mental idea of the physical reality around us. Using our six senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind) we come into contact with the forms associated with these six senses (light, sound, aromas, flavors, tangibles, and thought), which in turn conditions the feelings we experience as a result of this contact. Experiencing these feelings we crave them because they provide pleasure, sensory pleasure and we desire to reunite with the experiences. Craving, in pali is called Tanha -- Thirst, a thirst for becoming, a thirst for pleasure, a thirst for the experience which produces pleasure which is a continuation in continuity of contact between the sense and its associated object. Clinging is a continuation, a non-stop conditioning of craving, and through our clinging -- not letting go of, attachment to craving -- things "Become" what we "Think" they are. This includes Birth, and Death.
There are those who really do believe they are being born over and over and over ... continuously, as well as dying in likewise manner. As long as they continue believing this, to them it is continually happening. But for those that understand and follow the [road-] map, the only thing that is happening is the one is continually creating reality around them from one realm to the next ... to the next ... to the next [...]. What the world thinks of as death is a transition between creating, resting, and creating again. The only thing that moves forward are the results of their actions exactly the same way that throwing a stone in a still-calmed lake would cause waves to continually move outward even when the stone has stopped moving. It is these results we continually act on which in turn conditions new results, and in this action the entire process starts over again ... Not understanding what we are doing, we continue doing it, again ... and again ... and again ... and again [...].
There is absolutely Nothing Religious to this understanding, nor to the way in which the understanding is gained from the practice which leads to the acquisition of this understanding.
The whole point of Buddhism is to gain understanding and enlightenment. The path that leads to Enlightenment is a path to understanding. The only way to put an end to Ignorance is to Understand. Ignorance is not Understanding. And if it turns out to become a "way of life," well ... the map has been misinterpreted and the one following the map has taken a wrong turn. But, never fear, they can still follow it in the right direction.
But, like mentioned earlier ... Buddhism can become a religion by the rituals we create and follow every single day (or hour, or second). But, this is not a bad thing. If the only way a person can even come close to this understanding (Enlightenment) is to create those rituals and practice to where Buddhism becomes their religion, that is okay. Eventually they will gain the understanding and it then no longer becomes a religion. Even the Buddha mentions that one of the fetters which keep one from attaining to enlightenment is clinging to Rules and Rituals (there are ten fetters: belief in a self; doubt and uncertainty; attachment to rites and rituals; sensory desire; ill-will; desire for physical existence, desire for physical rebirth; desire for existence in a formless realm, lust for rebirth in a formless realm; conceit -- excessive pride in one’s self; restlessness; and ignorance).
The end result is the extinction to the cyclic rounds through infinite realms of existence of birth and death ... an end to the mass of suffering ... .
The truth is that Buddhism can be both religion and philosophy, and the two aspects of its teachings can co exist in relative peace. But in it’s core Buddhism is nothing more than the teaching of a Buddha. A teaching for those who know there is something liberating of the every-moment experience of suffering. A teaching for those who seek to be free from suffering, but have no idea where to start. That’s it! Nothing more. And, nothing less.
Where philosophy is more involved in a study of the "fundamental" nature of reality and existence, Buddhism is involved in understanding the "ultimate" nature of reality and existence, and that is YOU! The end result of philosophy is a continuation in reality and existence, the end result of enlightenment is an escape from the continuation.
And to be honest, nothing religious about this.
People never tire of asking me what I believe in ... to which I reply, "I believe in nothing".