Progress in Human Society as a Result of the Pressure of the Religion of Humanity

During dark times when the world seems to be in flames, when dictators rule the globe, when mass killings, mass migrations, mass social, economic and political disruption seem to displace everything else in our vision, it is hard to see and appreciate progress that has been made in terms of the values of humanity.  Progress is not a straight line.  In fact, it tends to raise up the entrenched opposing forces who want to slow or stop that progress.  In many cases, the depth of the darkness can help us appreciate the forward motion.  The last century has witnessed unspeakable crimes against humanity, the holocaust, two World Wars, millions killed or displaced around the world, nuclear weapons used to the horror of all, and increasing stranglehold on the earth’s resources held by a small elite who are willing to allow, even create, immense suffering to maintain their control of those resources.  And yet, progress there has been, as notated by Sri Aurobindo:

“One has only to compare human life and thought and feeling a century or two ago with human life, thought and feeling in the pre-war period (n.b. prior to World War I) to see how great an influence this religion of humanity has exercised and how fruitful a work it has done.  It accomplished rapidly many things which orthodox religion failed to do effectively, largely because it acted as a constant intellectual and critical solvent, an unsparing assailant of the thing that is and an unflinching champion of the thing to be, faithful always to the future, while orthodox religion allied itself with the powers of the present, even of the past, bound itself by its pact with them and could act only at best as a moderating but not as a reforming force.”

“It to some degree humanised society, humanised law and punishment, humanised the outlook of man on man, abolished legalised torture and the cruder forms of slavery, raised those who were depressed and fallen, gave large hopes to humanity, stimulated philanthropy and charity and the service of mankind, encouraged everywhere the desire of freedom, put a curb on oppression and greatly minimised its more brutal expressions. … It made it possible for man to conceive of a world free from war as imaginable even without waiting for the Christian millennium. … It gave new conceptions of the dignity of the human being and opened new ideas and new vistas of his education, self-development and potentiality.  It spread enlightenment; it made man feel more his responsibility for the progress and happiness of the race; it raised the average self-respect and capacity of mankind; it gave hope to the serf, self-assertion to the downtrodden and made the labourer in his manhood the potential equal of the rich and powerful.”

“True, if we compare what is with what should be, the actual achievement with the ideal, all this will seem only a scanty work of preparation.  but it was a remarkable record for a century and a half or a little more and for an unembodied spirit which had to work through what instruments it could find and had as yet no form, habitation or visible engine of its own concentrated workings.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part Two, Chapter 34, The Religion of Humanity, pg. 296-297