Years ago, while a graduate student in Egypt, one of us was introduced by a friend to a chemistry professor at the University of Cairo. After a pleasant conversation, the professor asked what an American was doing in Egypt, studying Islam. "Are you a Muslim?" he inquired. When he was told no, 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 the answer was, 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 him killed in order to buy himself off?" The graduate student said that while that was not exactly how he would have phrased it, he did in fact believe something along those lines. "Amazing!" exclaimed the Muslim professor. "How can any intelligent person possibly believe anything so obviously crazy?"
The graduate student, now a professor himself, has reflected on that experience many times since. The fact is that however strange it may appear to a Muslim 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 people in every movement who believe on the basis of bad reasons or no reasons at all. But while insignificant movements have drawn their ranks largely from the unbalanced or uninformed, every religious or ideological group that has appealed to large numbers over extended periods of time has contained elements that satisfied and seemed plausible to sensitive, intelligent, sane men and women. Otherwise, it is 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 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 are 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 of members of The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints 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 people do exist, some of them quite well-informed. One of the goals of religious apologetics is precisely to make a religious tradition understandable to outsiders. In all of the great religious traditions some of the greatest minds of those traditions have been apologists.
On the other side, not a few Latter-day Saints vocally marvel that anybody who knows anything can be a Catholic, and cannot 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.
During inter-religious discussions and even arguments between believers and unbelievers, mutual understanding will be greatly increased if each side can grant the other to be, on the whole, sincere, honest, intelligent, and sane.
Next week, the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) — arguably the premier LDS apologetics organization — will host an LDS apologetics conference on Aug. 2-3, at the South Towne Exposition Center, 9575 South State St., Sandy. More information can be found on FAIR's web page at www.fairlds.org/fair-conferences/2012-fair-conference/conf12a