As she so often does, Gail Collins of The New York Times summed up the situation with pinpoint precision today when she wrote that “it is important to remember that about 5 percent of our population is and always will be totally crazy.”

She wasn’t talking about people who suffer from a form of mental illness, which is a health matter and should prompt an empathetic response. She was talking out-and-out crazy, which is not at all what highly respectable organizations like the Mental Health Association try to address.

Ms. Collins’s column was prompted, in large part, by news accounts about a Florida “pastor” — a term that is widely misused and misappropriated — who has been much in the spotlight because of his plans to burn the Koran on the grounds of his tiny “church” (another term that is widely misused and misappropriated).

The news about this alleged “Christian” leader became even more bizarre today when he announced he would not burn the Koran in exchange for a deal he claimed to have reached to move the site of a mosque and cultural center proposed for a few blocks away from 9/11’s Ground Zero.

Burning the Koran is, of course, a stupid, hateful act, and the idea that a crackpot like this Floridian should be involved in a quid pro quo deal on the mosque is absurd on its face.

Most Christians in the United States would agree. But the conflicts between Muslims and Christians that play out occasionally in American cities remain cause for concern. Christians, who represent a wide range of views about their own faith, often misunderstand each other under the best of circumstances. The misunderstandings are even greater between Christians and Muslims.

I’ve been thinking, though, of an experience I had during the school year of 1970-’71. I took a course on “The Marxist-Christian Dialogue” at Duke University Divinity School. Taught at the peak of the Cold War, it was a great course, pointing out areas of commonality between Christians and Communists. I thought then how great it would be if this course had been taught not just at a fairly elite divinity school but at local churches around the country.

Just as needed today is a course on dialogue between Christians and Muslims, not just at divinity schools to further understanding between future religious leaders but at local churches — and mosques — to help all of us get to know each other better.

Some people, as Ms. Collins suggested, are too far gone in their hatreds and biases to learn much. But others of us — and I still hope most — could probably learn a lot.

Photo: Gail Collins, of The New York Times, says 5 percent of Americans are “crazy,” and she is not talking about the mentally ill, who need treatment and concern. This photo appears with her columns on The New York Times web site, which is far and away the best source of news in the U.S.: http://global.nytimes.com/ Even better than reading the Times on the web, subscribe to the print edition and help save real journalism.

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Keith Graham

Keith Graham

Keith Graham was among the recipients of the prestigious Stella Artois prize at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival. Named for a blind piano player, he is also well known for always giving money to street accordion players. A quotation that he considers meaningful comes from the Irish writer Roddy Doyle: "The family trees of the poor don't grow to any height." In addition to contributing to Like the Dew, Keith frequently posts quotations and links and occasionally longer articles at http://tartantambourine.com/