In his opening chapter of The Evolution of Religion, vol. 1, Caird argues that the science of religion is one the earliest and one of the latest of the sciences. It is one of the earliest because philosophy, which is the parent of the sciences, is the child of religion; it is one of the latest because knowledge comes in and through experience. Having established a continuum of the science and evolution of religion, Caird seeks some general idea or definition of religion which might serve as a guide in his subsequent discussion. He endeavours to show that the definition or idea of religion cannot be found in any element common to all religions. In conformity with the idea of evolution, the definition of religion must be derived from consideration of the whole course of history.
Next, the author maintains that the consciousness of God, or at least the principle out of which the consciousness of God arises, is as much one of the primary elements of our intelligence as are consciousness of the object or consciousness itself. Thus, all our knowledge of the objective world and all our knowledge of ourselves presupposes the idea of God; though it is equally true that, just because it is the presupposition of all other knowledge, it is the last thing on which we reflect, or which we try to explain to ourselves.
From establishing God as the presupposition of all knowledge, the author turns to illuminate the idea of religion by considering two views of it which, though not far removed from each other, yet are in one aspect contrasted and opposed. The view of Max Müller is that the infinite, which is the object of religion, is to be taken as primarily the negative of the finite, as a ‘Beyond’ to which we reach out from the firm ground of the finite, but which we cannot define in itself. In contrast, according to the author, Hebert Spenser seems to present a more adequate view of the subject when he speaks of the infinite and unconditioned not as the negative of the finite but as the presupposition of our consciousness of the finite, the positive basis of our thought of it.
Chapter 6, then, brings Caird to an important turning point in his argument. According to the definition previously given, the idea of God in its purest germinal form is the idea of the unity presupposed in all the differences of the finite, especially the difference of self and not-self, of inner and outer experience. But if this is assumed, we are necessarily led to regard that idea not only as the beginning or first presupposition, but also as the end and last interpretation of our lives, for it cannot be one of these without the other.
Next, Caird argues that the objective form of the earliest religion anticipated the highest religious ideas, which appear very early in the history of religion. He further explores what is implied in the objective form of a human being’s earliest consciousness, especially religious consciousness. He then discusses in what sense the earliest religion was anthropomorphic and what is meant by fetishism. He also argues that imagination gradually elevates and idealizes the objects of worship.
From the elevation of the object, Caird turns to discuss what he calls objective religion—the religion in which God, who is properly conceived as the unity beyond all differences, especially the difference of subject and object, is represented as one object among others. Here the author also examines the connection of the earliest phases of religion with morality. He argues that objective religion conceives God as father, and, in turn, explores how the earliest religion is ancestor worship. Caird then juxtaposes the social character of early religion and morality. He then explicates the development of objective religion, including the growth of polytheism as well as the effort to reduce the many gods to one and the importance of the stage in which the heavens or heavenly bodies came to be worshipped.
From pantheism, Caird turns to religion in Greece and examines the movement through pantheism to subjective religion in the Upanishads. He notes the Greek phase of objective religion and how its anthropomorphism mediates the transition to subjective religion through its attempt to humanize the nature powers and substitute a relation to man for the relation of nature. The author further discusses the tendency to unify Greek polytheism by setting fate above the gods and by introducing the monotheistic idea.
Caird then addresses the logical justification of subjective religion and addresses the principle of positivism that admits no exceptions and bears abstractedness as its defect. Having explored Kant’s inference underlying all subjective religion, the author moves into the subjective religions—Buddhism and the philosophical religion of the stoics. He explains how Buddhism developed from Vedic pantheism.
Finally, in the last chapter of the first volume, Caird speaks of the religion of Israel as the highest form of subjective religion. In addition to summarizing the development of subjective and objective religion, Caird discusses the moral strength of subjective religion and opposition of the spirit to nature. He addresses the transition from a national to a universal religion as well as the rise of moral individualism. In closing, Caird discusses the idea of the covenant between God and humankind, the limits of development of Jewish religion, and Jewish history as an illustration of the principle of development.