It’s a little embarrassing to admit that after having pondered religion for all of my life, I still have no clear idea what it is. In my case pondering includes three degrees in the study of religion and almost two decades in teaching it. I still read books that introduce religion, hoping to catch some distilled essence that I might label the core of the phenomena that go by the name. Some least common denominator. But that’s not how life works. Even the most basic of things can be complex, so I recently turned to John D. Caputo’s On Religion to find out what a philosopher thinks it might be. From the start this little book is jarring. Caputo, while staunchly refusing to tip his hand, defines the religious as those who love God. Or god. Or not really god, but something that might be as impersonal as the Force. Of course, love is as slippery a term as “God,” so Caputo suggests that it is caring for more than one’s own self. If many of our religious politicians and televangelists could get even that far perhaps we’d be closer to the religious idea of heaven itself. Then when Caputo turned philosophical, he started to lose me a little.
The big problem, and one of which Caputo is well aware, is that loving God is a western religious ideal. There are those who claim that some “Eastern religions,” such as Buddhism, Taoism, and that of Confucius’ followers, are actually philosophies and not religions. But if we’re trying to define religion, excluding a very large portion of the world’s belief structures seems to tilt the balance a bit dangerously westward. Come to think about it, the idea that all people have to have some kind of religion is a western conceit as well. Who are we to define the terms of another’s existence? That, it seems to me, is one of the problems of reductionism. Assuming that all people accept the premise that an empirical system can explain everything will not rid the world of religious martyrs. So what is to be done?
Caputo has thought about this as well. He concludes his short manifesto with a chapter entitled “On Religion—Without Religion.” Here the true root of the problem is exposed—religions that claim they alone can be true. For Caputo’s purposes western religions work best here because the three major monotheistic faiths share so much in common. Put crassly, the real question is where does the line of final revelation end. Is it Moses? Jesus? Mohammad? We could go on—Joseph Smith? Raël? Philosophically, at least, Caputo suggests that all religions could co-exist if they were willing to admit that they are all right. It boggles the reductionist mind. How can they all be right? How can they not be? After all, despite the millennia spent on the topic, we still don’t know what religion is.