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Is religion 'preposterous'? Yes, and often on purpose

I found it intriguing that Atlantic writer McKay Coppins, in this  article about Mormonism (Coppins is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), used the term "preposterous" as a description of some Mormon beliefs.

Religions-of-the-worldCoppins dug back into the magazine's ancient archives to find an 1863 article about his faith tradition, founded in America in the early 1800s just outside Rochester, N.Y. He writes this:

"In 1863, a writer for The Atlantic named Fitz-Hugh Ludlow traveled to the Mormon settlement in Utah, and was surprised by what he found. In his 11,000-word dispatch, Ludlow presented the strange desert civilization of exiles as a study in contradictions. The Mormons were clearly theocratic, yet he found no evidence of corruption. Their open embrace of polygamy was scandalous, yet somehow appeared more practical than lascivious. Their beliefs were preposterous, but sincere."

Preposterous. It's an interesting word. The "pre" part of it refers to something coming before something else. The "post" part of it refers to something coming after something else. So in something that's preposterous, the thing that should be first by normal reasoning comes last and the thing that comes last, by normal reasoning, should be first.

If you know much about the New Testament, perhaps this is ringing a bell. Hear what Jesus is reported saying in Matthew 20:16: "So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last."


It's what healthy religion does. It challenges conventional wisdom. It puts beggars at the banquet table.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, refers to this upside down god in the first chapter of the gospel of Luke in what's called "The Magnificat." Hear her preposterous words:

"He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed."

You can find this kind of preposterousness -- or at least some claims for it -- in all or nearly all the great world religions. For instance, many people have contended that the the angel Gabriel spoke the Qur'an to an illiterate man named Muhammad. There are questions about whether the Prophet Muhammad was really illiterate, but if he was it's an example of something preposterous, an illiterate man coming out with such a book. The Buddha preposterously walked away from family wealth to devote his life to a world full of sufferers. Moses killed a man but God chose him anyway to lead the people of Israel from slavery to freedom. Jesus was murdered on a cross on a Friday but rose from the dead on Sunday.

And on and on.

The point, of course, is not that religion should be rejected because it contains preposterous stories. The point, rather, is that adherents of one faith tradition should be instinctively reluctant to criticize the stories of another faith because it can rightly be said that all religions offer preposterous stories and thoughts -- and often do that on purpose.

That doesn't mean we toss out reason and rationality when it comes to faith so that absolutely anything goes. That's how you get to hijackers murdering people so they can spend eternity with 72 virgins each. But to call aspects of religions not our own preposterous is to fail to recognize those aspects in our own that deserve that term, too.

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You are welcome to look back on 2020 all you want, given that it's sometimes hard to stop staring at a multi-car wreck. But it's 2021, and I'm focusing on what's ahead. So is Religion News Service, which, in this article, looks toward stories its reporters expect to be covering this year. And so is the National Catholic Reporter, which, in this article, quotes experts on what they see coming on the religious scene in 2021. In the meantime, let's stay well, get vaccinated and be kind to one another. (Is that so preposterous to imagine?)


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