One would think that religion, as the keeper of the flame of human aspiration for meaning, for relationship to the significance of existence, for exceeding the bounds within which we are limited, of the bodily life and the frame of the mental consciousness, would be leading the human path forward as consciousness evolves. Yet, for long periods of time, particularly in the West, religion was bound in dogma and concerned with limiting anything that would challenge that dogma. The history of the church’s oppression of those who developed the powers of their intellect, the tragedies of the Holy Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, and the Crusades made it seem that religion was the opponent of progress and development. Science and the pursuit of knowledge, in order to break free of the strictures imposed by religious authorities, took up the challenge and essentially took up opposition to religion and attacked it as lacking any solid factual basis. Much that is good and positive has come from the rise of Reason, including progress in freeing humanity from scourges of the past, including slavery. (This process of course is ongoing and not entirely solved as of yet). However, Reason has not succeeded in solving the ultimate questions of human existence.
There is a saying in common usage that says one should “not throw out the baby with the bath water”, and it suits this situation very well. The formalised hierarchy and powers of the Church as an organised religion did in fact act to suppress knowledge and advancement, and was indeed a retrogressive force in human development. Even today there are denominations and churches which rail against science and the use of the powers of intellect and reason as somehow being against “God’s will”. Yet, whatever the limitations or failings of the organised Churches and the dogmas they espouse, and the hierarchies they set up and protect, there remains still the underlying importance, value and essential nature of the seeking and aspiration that acts as the foundation of all religious activity, and it is this essential activity that must continue and thrive in order for humanity to move beyond the real limits, in many cases unacknowledged, of the intellectual reason and the scientific approach. A new balance needs to be developed which recognises the value of both the intellect and its contribution to human progress, and religion, with its aspiration for what lies beyond.
Sri Aurobindo notes in The Human Cycle: “…we must recognise the fact that in a time of great activity, of high aspiration, of deep sowing, of rich fruit-bearing, such as the modern age with all its faults and errors has been, a time especially when humanity got rid of much that was cruel, evil, ignorant, dark, odious, not by the power of religion, but by the power of the awakened intelligence and of human idealism and sympathy, this predominance of religion has been violently attacked and rejected by that portion of humanity which was for that time the standard-bearer of thought and progress, Europe after the Renascence, modern Europe.”