Sri Aurobindo distinguishes the eternal aspect of religion from the temporal form, which he identifies as religionism. Religion, when it is true to its deepest intent and purpose, is not bound to a specific creed, format or practice, but puts the individual in touch with the spiritual basis of all life. Religionism, on the other hand, focuses on the outer forms and practices of a particular method or format, and thereby loses its focus on the real and essential need. Religion represents unity regardless of creed; religionism sets one creed against another. It is religionism that the intellectual Reason has taken issue with, based on a long history of misdeeds and misunderstandings caused by the divisions fomented by religionism. True religion helps human beings find their deeper purpose and truth in life, and thus, should be treated as the leader of life.
Sri Aurobindo observes: “It is true in a sense that religion should be the dominant thing in life, its light and law, but religion as it should be and is in its inner nature, its fundamental law of being, a seeking after God, the cult of spirituality, the opening of the deepest life of the soul to the indwelling Godhead, the eternal Omnipresence. On the other hand, it is true that religion when it identifies itself only with a creed, a cult, a Church, a system of ceremonial forms, may well become a retarding force and there may therefore arise a necessity for the human spirit to reject its control over the varied activities of life. There are two aspects of religion, true religion and religionism. True religion is spiritual religion, that which seeks to live in the spirit, in what is beyond the intellect, beyond the aesthetic and ethical and practical being of man, and to inform and govern these members of our being by the higher light and law of the spirit. Religionism, on the contrary, entrenches itself in some narrow pietistic exaltation of the lower members or lays exclusive stress on intellectual dogmas, forms and ceremonies, on some fixed and rigid moral code, on some religio-political or religio-social system.”
“… these things are aids and supports, not the essence; precisely because they belong to the rational and infrarational parts, they can be nothing more and, if too blindly insisted on, may even hamper the suprarational light. Such as they are, they have to be offered to man and used by him, but not to be imposed on him as his sole law by a forced and inflexible domination. In the use of them toleration and free permission of variation is the first rule which should be observed. The spiritual essence of religion is alone the one thing supremely needful, the thing to which we have always to hold and subordinate to it every other element or motive.”
Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 17, Religion as the Law of Life, pp. 177-178