Peterson’s Rule
By Daniel C. Peterson

Years ago, while a graduate student in Egypt, I 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 Arabic and 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?” I replied that, while that was not exactly how I would have phrased it, I do in fact believe something along those lines. “Amazing!” exclaimed the Muslim professor. “How can any intelligent person possibly believe anything so obviously crazy?”

Brilliant Men and Women

Now a professor myself, I’ve 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, thoughtless, and ignorant people in every movement, people who believe on the basis of bad reasons or of no real reasons at all. But, while certain 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 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 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 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.

On the other side, not a few Latter-day Saints vocally marvel that anybody who knows anything could 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.

In the interreligous discussions and, yes, arguments that, for various reasons, are very likely to arise as Mormonism becomes more and more of a public issue in the next few months and years, it would help if each side could grant the other to be, on the whole, sincere, honest, intelligent, and sane.