Herbert Spencer – Evolutionary Development of Religious Thought

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was railway engineer turned evolutionary philosopher who proposed his own hypothesis of the evolution and development of religious thought. Charles Darwin once called him “the greatest living philosopher in England.”

Some have suggested that it was either Spencer or E. B. Tylor who founded the idea of evolution, and the two sometimes had bitter public conversations over who was the first to conceive of the theory. Spencer published his article The Developmental Hypothesis in 1852 which rejected the doctrine of special creation for explaining differences between species and animals. In another work of his published in 1857, Progress: It’s Law and Cause, he broadened his engagement with the theory of evolution and applied it to society and to the universe itself. Evolutionary theory eventually came to apply to the universe, Earth, biological life, human beings, and society, which were all deemed to have found their present form through a process of progressive development.

In his later work, Synthetic Philosophy (consisting of several volumes penned from 1862 to 1893), Spencer elaborated on his ideas more fully. He defined evolution as “a change from a state of relatively indefinite, incoherent, homogeneity to a state of relatively definite, coherent, heterogeneity.” He attempted to trace the process where homogeneity broke up into increasing variety. He saw that just as animals evolved so did society into a proliferation of functions, grades, offices etc. (priests, kings, scholars, workers etc.). Disciplines themselves too evolved in this way from homogeneity into an increasing differentiation, and would eventually give rise to sub-disciplines and sub-fields which themselves give rise to integration and coherence.

When Spencer’s evolutionary hypotheses were considered it was clear that he possessed a particular view of religion. He saw religion to belong to the constitution of social organisms, namely, to societies. He observed that religion had been present since the beginning of civilization and had regulated the earliest forms of social organization. It still performed that same function in the present day where it operated as a means for social control. Spencer then looked into why religion and religious ideas persisted, and he proposed that religion came about when conceptions (of high generalization) were understood to refer to actual realities,

“To the primitive man sometimes happen things which are out of the ordinary course – diseases storms, earthquakes, echoes, eclipses. From dreams arises the idea of a wandering double; when follows the belief that the double, departing permanently at death, is then a ghost. Ghosts thus become assignable causes for strange occurrences. The greater ghosts are presented supposed to have extended spheres of action. As men grow intelligent and conceptions of these minor invisible agencies merge into the conception of a universe agency, there result hypothesis concerning the origin, not of specific incidents only, but things in general.”

Thus, Spencer proposed that the origin of religion was traceable to the human mental and cognitive tendency to engage in transemprical generalizations. In other words, religion was used to explain particular actions in terms of an overarching agency. The permanent occasion for religion lay in mystery to which no powers of reasoning or rational explanations had satisfying access. He associated religion with reality’s fundamental mysterious nature, and as the mode of intelligence which was able to recognize and encounter mystery.


  1. […] The French positivist philosopher and mathematician Auguste Comte’s (1798-1857) goal was to produce a progressive view of human history that could find use in improving humankind’s social and political conditions. Comte’s “three-state law”, which proposes an evolutionary development of human consciousness, was his means of doing this and can be added to a reservoir of other theorists who forwarded similar evolutionary ideas, such as E. B. Tylor, James Frazer, and Herbert Spencer. […]

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