Reptiles with a Conscience – The Coevolution of Religious and Moral Doctrine by Nathan Cofnas
There are evolutionary books available presenting new scientific findings and theories. There are others proclaiming a specific thesis and bringing forth respective arguments. And there are, very seldom, evolutionary books that are able to evoke the spirit of university lectures and seminaries debating the very frontiers of knowledge. “Reptiles with a Conscience” belongs to this rare third category and is worth a read by anyone interested in the evolutionary processes that shaped our moral feelings and religious traditions.
Cofnas starts by outlining an evolutionary approach to the study of religion and morality, approaching today’s benchmark definition of religiosity as beliefs in superempirical agents. He acknowledges that religion is having a biological and heritable basis ready for cultural cultural shaping (comparable to music, speech and other biocultural traits that make us human). But then, Cofnas combines this (already well-established) evolutionary approach to religion with respective perspectives on moral instincts and moral reasoning, pointing out their interactions. According to him, religious traditions are not necessary to bring forth or legitimate morality, but they may strengthen it in the face of individualism and philosophical relativism.
As a brand new idea of his own, Cofnas proposes the idea of discernible ”trajectories” that religions go through as their simple, intuitive concepts are put to tests of rational debate and interreligious competition. “The first religious action was not done with an advanced conception of God. It was motivated probably by a vague sense that some natural forces are guided by an invisible agency. This did not require articulated formulations about God – it did not even require language. It is likely that some animals have vague religious notions.” (p. 379)
Cofnas presents a 15-step-model starting with
- The existence of a soul is deduced from our subjective experience of occupying our body.
through steps such as
5. Certain phenomena and events are attributed to the agency of Gods. To Gods are ascribed powers and personalities based on the actions attributed to them.
finally reaching at our current stage
15. Theological rebels deny the relationship between the physical and spiritual realms, and the salvific power of rituals. Breakaway movements deny the supposed relationship between the physical and spiritual realms, proposing that God, as a spiritual being, cares only about the internal, spiritual quality of individuals, and that the purpose of actions is only to put one in the correct state of mind to improve oneself spiritually.
Although identifying as a sceptic, the author is presenting deep knowledge of traditional Judaism and the Hindu “Laws of Manu”. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam are discussed too, albeit with less sympathy and details.
Discussing the “natural selection and the transmission of religion”, Cofnas opts for a model of rational deliberation and choice (on the base of evolutionary inherited and only partially rational emotions and perceptions). Ominously, he misses the main factors driving survival of growth not only of Orthodox Judaism but also of the Amish, Hutterites or Mormons – demography. Sustainably thriving religious traditions manage to build large families and institutions of child care, linking biological and cultural success by the evolutionary gold standard of reproductive success. As to now, secular worldviews have never been able to stop the unraveling of families and birth rates within their quickly ageing ranks.
In sum, Cofnas is presenting more than 500 pages of information, comparisons and debates concerning the coevolution of religion and morals. Although I would doubt that many would agree to any of those many points he makes, most if not all readers will garner fresh insights and ideas aplenty concerning the evolution of cognition, culture, morals and religions. I surely hope it will be found, read and debated by many reptiles with a conscience.