Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


(1820-1903) British philosopher and sociologist; influential source of "social Darwinism" in the late nineteenth century. Nurtured by the middle-class radicalism and dissenting religion of Joseph Priestly, William Godwin, and others, he creatively synthesized the varied intellectual currents of his time. His early evolutionism anticipated Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) but emphasized uniformitarian continuity between the organic and "superorganic" (i.e., cultural) realms and rested on Larmarckism. Everything developed from homogeneity to heterogeneity, including society, whose social differentiation increased as it changed from a centrally coordinated "military" type to an "industrial" one marked by individual freedom of contract. If unimpeded by government intervention, industrial society's progress would achieve a complete adaptation of mankind to its social state. Because all ills result from the maladaptation of constitution to conditions, the "evanescence of evil" would result.

Spencer saw "the unknowable" element in reality as the root of religion. It was unlikely that scientific advance would eliminate religion because the sense of mystery formerly attributed to the world by religious thought would continue to operate at the point where scientific explanations ended. The third volume of his Principles of Sociology (1876-1896, part of his 10-volume Synthetic Philosophy ) presented a mass of evidence connected with "Ecclesiastical Institutions" in accordance with his evolutionary theory. Included were analyses of religious roles (e.g., medicine men, priests), organizations (church, sect), the conservatism of religious institutions, the differentiation of church and state, and religious elites as forerunners of the modern professions. The second volume of Principles also dealt with "Ceremonial Institutions," and contained an extensive amount of material on religion. Spencer's later writings (e.g., The Man Versus the State [1884]) showed increased pessimism concerning further progress of society and a fear of the return to a "military"-type regime.

Donald A. Nielsen


J. D. Y. Peel (ed.), Herbert Spencer on Social Evolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984)

J. Rumney, Herbert Spencer's Sociology (New York: Atherton, 1966 [1937])

J. H. Turner, Herbert Spencer (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1985).

return to Encyclopedia Table of Contents

Hartford Institute for Religion Research   hirr@hartsem.edu
Hartford Seminary, 77 Sherman Street, Hartford, CT 06105  860-509-9500