In The Human Cycle, Sri Aurobindo distinguishes between true religion and what he terms “religionism”. Religion is focused on those things that are eternal, infinite and transcendent. It takes us out of the fixation on the details of worldly existence to focus our attention on the “first cause”, and the meaning and significance of our lives. Religion connects us with our deepest and highest aspirations and helps us to understand who we are, why we are here, how we got here, and what we are meant to do with our lives. Religion bridges the differences in methods or approach or language used by the various traditions and paths that arise to connect us to the Divine, and sees unity through the diversity of religious teachings.
Religionism focuses on specific details of a specific persuasion, whether the ideas and creeds, the rites and rituals or the hierarchy of leadership and methods of management of a specific religion. By focusing on these things, religionism tends to breed separation and division. It has been the cause of countless wars and untold suffering as specific sects or churches attempt to make their own way or method preeminent and use force of one kind or another to control the religious impulse in their own approved method, and in no other.
“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 if 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. Not that these things are altogether negligible or that they must be unworthy or unnecessary or that a spiritual religion need disdain the aid of forms, ceremonies, creeds or systems. On the contrary, they are needed by man because the lower members have to be exalted and raised before they can be fully spiritualised, before they can directly feel the spirit and obey its law. An intellectual formula is often needed by the thinking and reasoning mind, a form or ceremony by the aesthetic temperament or other parts of the infrarational being, a set moral code by man’s vital nature in their turn towards the inner life. But 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.”