Years ago, while doing graduate studies in Egypt, I was introduced by an Egyptian friend to a chemistry professor at the University of Cairo. After a pleasant conversation, the professor wondered aloud what an American was doing in Egypt, studying Arabic and Islam. "Are you a Muslim?" he inquired. When I answered that no, I wasn't, he asked, "Why not?"
Such a question is, of course, a bit sensitive and difficult for anyone to answer who hopes to avoid offense or argument. So I answered, simply, "I'm a Christian."
"Really?" replied the professor. "You believe that God has a son (which, of course, everybody knows is completely impossible), and that he sent his son to earth and arranged to have that son killed in order to buy himself off?" I replied that, while that wasn't exactly how I would have phrased it, I do in fact believe something along those lines. "Amazing!" exclaimed the professor. "How can any intelligent person possibly believe anything so obviously crazy?"
A professor myself now, I've reflected on that experience many times since. The fact is that, however strange it may appear to this scientist (or to any other outsider), many people of extraordinary intelligence have been, and continue to be, believing Christians. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Pascal, Kierkegaard and C.S. Lewis are just a few who come to mind. And this is true of other faiths, as well. Brilliant men and women can be counted among the writers and thinkers of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and all the great religions of human history.
Undoubtedly, of course, there are also stupid, thoughtless and ignorant people in every movement, religious or otherwise. Some people believe on the basis of bad reasons or no real reasons at all. But, while certain insignificant movements have drawn their ranks largely from the unbalanced or uninformed — Jonestown and the "Heaven's Gate" comet cult seem likely examples — every religious or ideological group that has appealed to large numbers of people over extended periods of time has contained elements that satisfied and seemed plausible to sensitive, intelligent, sane men and women. Otherwise, it's simply inconceivable that such groups could have survived for any lengthy period.
This leads to an insight: If you encounter a religious group or an ideology or even an atheistic position that has attracted many people of diverse backgrounds for a considerable length of time and you cannot see "how any intelligent person can possibly believe anything so manifestly crazy," the problem is probably in you — at least as much as it is in the other person. You don't know or understand enough to make a judgment, for intelligent people undoubtedly do believe it. So long as you imagine that no "intelligent" person could honestly fall for such nonsense, you dehumanize those you disagree with, or you assume (and this is very common) that they're all, somehow, dishonest.
It isn't necessary, in considering another system of beliefs, to accept it. But it is necessary, if you truly want to understand it, to try to imagine how someone else could believe it, could find it emotionally appealing and intellectually satisfying.
Critics often publicly wonder how any honest, intelligent person can believe in the Book of Mormon, the visitation of God and angels to Joseph Smith or the divine potential of humankind. Yet, although their honesty and intelligence are frequently questioned by anti-Mormon crusaders, many such believers do exist, some of them quite well-informed. On the other side, I've heard more than a few Latter-day Saints vocally marvel over the years that anybody who knows anything could be a Catholic, or declare themselves unable to see how sane, intelligent people can possibly swallow doctrines like the Trinity. But the fact is indisputable: Many of the most brilliant thinkers in the history of Western civilization have been devout Roman Catholics, and, of these, many have written on precisely the issue of the Trinity.
In the inter-religous discussions and, yes, arguments that have arisen and are very likely to arise with even greater frequency as Mormonism becomes more and more of a public issue over the next two months (and perhaps the next few years), it would help if each side could grant the other to be, on the whole, sincere, honest, intelligent and sane — and if, in that spirit, each side could really listen to what the other says.
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org, the general editor of "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture" online at www.mormoninterpreter.com and he blogs daily at www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson.