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March 28, 2011, 2011

Frequently, the Christian outlook is characterized as a comforting collection of certitudes that preserve adherents from doubt and save them from the hard toil of self-analysis. Religious dogmas are shrouded in mystery and beyond rational verification, but are guaranteed by power of an all-knowing authority. The fruits of such certainty are intolerance, intellectual servitude and self-righteousness.

Who, of course, would want to be associated with such a system? A liberated person would prefer the autonomy of reason, of working things out for oneself, even if it means not knowing all the answers. Such is the price of maturity; such is the price of a world that has overcome intolerance and has respect for the dignity of the individual.

So the caricature goes and one hardly knows where to begin in order to refute it.

One might begin with one's own experience. Religious belief does not end one's questioning; it deepens it. Faith does not provide an automatic answer for every moral situation. It leads one to greater concern that one's decisions respect all values and all persons. It leads one also to an acute awareness that one does not always practise what one preaches, that one is often powerless to overcome sin.

Religious intolerance, unfortunately, has played a huge role in human history. So too, however, has humility spawned by the awareness of one's own finitude in the presence of an awesome God. Without that humility, it must be said, human arrogance would have run completely amok and humanity would have destroyed itself long before the age of weapons of mass destruction.

History is a story of self-aggrandizement, evil and oppression; it is also a story of heroic self-sacrifice, compassion and humility. Religious bigotry may have stoked the negative story, but without religious belief the positive story would not exist.

"For those who take religion seriously, belief is a burden, not a self-righteous claim to some privileged moral status," wrote the late historian Christopher Lasch. "The spiritual discipline against self-righteousness is the very essence of religion."

Rather, it is the romantic disillusionment with religious belief that carries the greatest threat for humanity. For if one can find no principles worthy of standing for, one is liable to fall for anything.

If there are no moral certainties, heroic action is folly. And if human dignity exists, it must be rooted in something more substantial than a splendid isolation from all people and principles.

Human dignity must be seen as a consequence of our being created in God's image and likeness. That core fact of who we are calls out of ourselves into relationship with God and others. Religious belief is not a sign of immaturity; it is the very thing that calls us to maturity.