At their hearts, religions are sets of rules which:
- Justify, protect and propagate their own sources of power (eg 'There is only one god', 'You will not worship any other' etc).
- Encourage practices which, at the time they were written, were designed to protect some aspects of their societies (no adultery, no murder (unless it's people who threaten rule set 1), no stealing, no eating stuff that might make you ill, etc).
The cunning of dividing these sets into two distinct parts (even the 10 commandments split into 5 about god and 5 about society), is that if you don't abide by the rules for your society, you've got the wrath of your society's god to deal with. So the 'god rules' enforce the 'society rules'. Some have argued that there's a 'god-gene' which has evolved to ensure successful societies pass on this benefit from generation to generation. Makes sense for it to exist, although Darwin might have found the argument that there is a rational reason for irrational behaviour a little hard to accept. So when man-made powers of control fail, resort to threatening powers that you can't prove don't exist, but which are vastly greater than anything you could imagine or deploy on Earth. And which everyone you know (parents, teachers, tribal leaders, states) demands you believe and obey from birth.
So accepting that this process is effective, whilst continuing to argue that it relies on brainwashing children, I was greatly encouraged to learn that muslim leaders in Indonesia, the world's largest Islamic nation (230m), have this week issued a fatwa banning the killing and trade in endangered species. Time will tell whether it has an effect, but the early signs are apparently promising. What muslim would offend Allah? Unfortunately it seems that an Indonesian fatwa doesn't hold sway in other muslim countries where their own councils of 'wise men' pronounce on what their deity had in mind. But hopefully it sets a precedent that others will follow.
National Geographic published a piece about it here including the fatwa translated. There's a bit more about the implications in the The Guardian.
If this works, where rationality can't or won't, then why not use religions to enforce behaviours that mankind is failing to do on its own?