The Evolution of Religion: The Gifford Lectures Delivered Before the

University of St. Andrews in Sessions 1890-91 and 1891-92.

Third ed.  Two vols.  Glasgow:  James Maclehose and Sons, 1899
[Originally published in 1893]


[30] Without as yet attempting to define religion, … we may go as far as to say that a man’s religion is the expression of his ultimate attitude to the universe, the summed-up meaning and purpose of his whole consciousness of things. … Whatever else religion may be, it undoubtedly is the sphere in which man’s spiritual experience reaches the utmost concentration, in which, if at all, he takes up a definite attitude toward his whole natural and spiritual environment.  In  short, it is [31] the highest form of his consciousness of himself in his relation to all other things and beings; and, if we want a brief abstract and epitome of the man, we must seek for it here or nowhere. …

           [42] Nay, if the different religions be stages in a single development, it is just in such elementary phenomena, if  anywhere, that  we must find the common element of which we are in search; for,  ex hypothesi, the simplest religion must still contain the essence of religion, and it will contain little or nothing else to disguise that essence from us.  Thus it appears that the search for a common element in all religions is entirely misleading.  If it yielded any reselt at all, it would constrain us to define religion in terms of the lowest possible form of it:  and it could not yield even so much as this, unless, in the order of development, each successive religion at once included and transcended the previous one….

           [43] What, however, we really want in a definition of religion is no such summum genus, reached by omission of all that is characteristic of the species, but a germinative principle, a principle of the genesis of religions…. For a principle of development necessarily manifests itself most clearly in the most mature form of that which develops.  As we take our definition of man, not from the embryo or the infant but from the grown man, who first shows what was hidden [44] in both; so, like manner, in defining religion, we must look to Christianity rather than to Judaism, to Buddhism rather than to the Vedic Polytheism, and to all the forms of worship which we find among civilized peoples rather than to the superstitions of savages. …

           [50] For [51] the present enough has been said to show that in the definition of religion we have not to seek for something which is common to all religions, but rather for that which underlies them all as their principle….

           [61] Rather, in conformity with the idea of evolution, the definition of religion must be derived from a consideration of the whole course of its history, viewed as a process of transition from the lowest to the highest form of it.  In fact, if the  different religions are to be regarded as successive stages in a development, what we have in that history is just religion progressively defining itself, and the idea of religion will be most clearly expressed in the most mature form which it has reached as the result of the whole process.  … while all religion involves a conscious relation to a being called God, this Divine Being is in different religions conceived in the most different ways….

           [67] To put more directly, the idea of an absolute unity, which transcends all the oppositions of finitude, and especially the last opposition which includes all others—the opposition of subject and object—is the ultimate pre-[68]supposition of our consciousness. …The idea of God, therefore—meaning by that, in the first instance, only the idea of an absolute principle of unity which binds in one “all thinking things, all objects of all thought,” which is at once the source of being to all things that are, and of knowing to all beings that know—is an essential principle, or rather the ultimate essential principle of our intelligence, a principle which must manifest itself in the life of every rational creature….

           [77] Man, by the very constitution of his mind, has three ways of thinking open to him.  He can look outwards, upon the world around him; he can look inwards, upon the self within him; and he can look upwards, to the God above him, to the Being who unites the outward and the inward worlds and who manifests Himself in both….  He is essentially self-conscious; and this self-consciousness… inevitably separates him from the things and beings he knows, even while he knows them….

           [79] A human consciousness cannot [80] exist without some dawning of reverence—of an awe and aspiration which is as different from fear as it is from presumption, from slavish submission as it is from tyrannical self-assertion.  And it is this reverence, this sense of a subjection which elevates us, of an obedience that makes us free, this consciousness of a Power which curbs and humiliates us, but at the same time draws us up to itself, which is the essence of religion, and the source of all man’s higher life….

[83] In religion, therefore, man beholds his own existence in a  transfigured reflexion, in which all the divisions, all the crude lights and shadows of the world, are softened into eternal peace under the beams of a spiritual sun. …

           [235] … it is always the consciousness, in some more or less adequate form, of a divine power as the principle of unity in a world of which we are not only spectators, but parts. Indeed, the presence of this unity as an element or presupposition of our consciousness is the only reason of man’s being religious at all….

           [236]  To take a religious view of life therefore, is, not only to see a divine agency in the world: it is to recognize that agency as a power which, in lifting us above ourselves, unites us to other individuals and  them to us.  Religion is the acknowledgment of a principle, in uniting himself to which, man is at the same time brought into alliance not only with nature but also with his fellowmen.

[Submitted by James A. Santucci]