Want to Save the World? Enter the Priesthood

post by zdgroff · 2019-07-09T09:18:03.704Z · score: 17 (11 votes) · EA · GW · 17 comments

Effective altruism is now spending a great deal of time on improving prospects for the future. This is chiefly by avoiding extinction risks, but there are other strategies as well, e.g. moral circle expansion [EA · GW]. In any case changing institutions looks like a promising strategy, either to spread moral consideration for animals and future people. What are the longest-lasting institutions in the world? Certainly high among them is religion. For this reason, it seems to me that influencing religion, particularly old religions with a tendency to grow, is a highly-neglected strategy for improving the world.

I've seen posts in effective altruism (e.g. this one [EA · GW]) about outreach to religious groups, but I always saw them as a sort of diversity and inclusivity message: to grow a movement, you need to welcome all sorts of people. It's important to welcome and include people, of course, but this seems to be dramatically underselling the importance of religion. The Catholic Church is around 2000 years old [EA · GW], and while it and its religion have changed, many of its core themes continue to influence and frame society. Progress might be slow for a movement that smacks of secularism, but as much as religion is lasting, it does have a capacity to mutate under different influences. If you are interested in social change not for its rapidity but for its duration, then religion seems critical. 

There are already several organizations doing exciting work in this vein, notably Effective Altruism for Christians, which has a conference every year and an impressive website; Buddhists in Effective AltruismSARX Christians for animals; Animals in Islam; and Jewish Veg.

One obvious reason many people might not think this is an important long-term strategy is the view that as people become richer and more educated they become less religious. I think this is probably true, but at the same time, religious people have more babies, and religion continues to spread in Muslim-majority countries and maintain its hold in India. This predicts a growth in the percentage of religious people in the coming decades. The future, in short, is far from clear.

So what should we do? Is there an 80,000 Hours career profile in this? The easy idea one might have based on this argument is to do outreach to religious communities. I suspect that outreach from outsiders will be limited in its impact. A better route might be for do-gooders to convince themselves to believe (as I think is actually possible) and then to enter the clergy. Happily, this seems not to be my comparative advantage since I was raised a Jew, and Christianity and Islam seem to show the most growth potential. (Although Judaism, despite its proscription of proselytizing, seems to have some way of persisting remarkably for even more time and in the face of repeated threats.) But if you were born a Christian or Muslim and are losing your faith, stop, turn around, and become an altruistic, anti-speciesist,long-termist religious devotee.

17 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Julia_Wise · 2019-07-19T22:39:33.010Z · score: 19 (12 votes) · EA · GW

I keep thinking about this post.

How many EA would I like to see in the clergy? Not zero. I pretty much agree with the "portfolio approach" to careers - I think there are likely unexpected benefits of having EAs in a bunch of different careers, even ones that don't jump out as having obviously EA applications, and it's good to have some spread.

But who would I like to see in those not-obviously-EA careers? 8 years ago, nobody (including me) thought we needed social workers in EA. But I stayed with social work because it was basically the only thing I could imagine doing. It fit with so many of my interests and skills. Later it turned out that there was a useful way to apply those skills to EA. But if 8 years ago someone had said, "We should get some social workers in EA," I wouldn't have wanted random people saying, "Well, I don't feel all that interested in social work, but if that's the thing we need I guess I'll do it." I don't think that would have been good either for them or for EA.

So my best guess as to which EAs should enter the clergy is the ones who can't imagine doing anything else, or at least ones who feel pretty excited about it. If that's not you, you shouldn't try to force yourself into that mold.

comment by Liam_Donovan · 2019-07-13T06:57:21.530Z · score: 17 (7 votes) · EA · GW

This doesn't seem like a great idea to me for two reasons:

1. The notion of explicitly manipulating one's beliefs about something as central as religion for non-truthseeking reasons seems very sketchy, especially when the core premise of EA relies on an accurate understanding of highly uncertain subjects.

2. Am I correct in saying the ultimate aim of this strategy is to shift religious groups' dogma from (what they believe to be) divinely revealed truth to [divinely revealed truth + random things EAs want]? I'm genuinely not sure if I interpreted the post correctly, but that seems like an unnecessarily adversarial move against a set of organized groups with largely benign goals.

comment by Liam_Donovan · 2019-07-13T07:01:41.387Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

This post seems to have become garbled when I tried to fix a typo, any idea how I can restore the original verson?

comment by jpaddison · 2019-07-13T17:00:26.523Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Currently a work in progress feature that is admin only. (And has been in that state for a while unfortunately.) I've reverted this post. Do you know what the sequence of events is that caused it to get garbled?

comment by Liam_Donovan · 2019-07-13T21:17:06.919Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Thank you! I'm not sure, but I assume that I accidentally highlighted part of the post while trying to fix a typo, then accidentally e.g. pressed "ctrl-v" instead of "v" (I often instinctively copy half-finished posts into the clipboard). That seems like a pretty weird accident, but I'm pretty sure it was just user error rather than anything to do with the EA forum.

comment by ZacharyRudolph · 2019-07-12T16:39:26.126Z · score: 13 (8 votes) · EA · GW

I've spent some time seriously trying to convince a devout Catholic friend of mine about EA. The problem, as far as I can tell, is that EA and the Church have value systems that are almost directly at odds. I mean, that if you take seriously their value system, the rational course of action isn't EA. At least, not in the manner meant here.

My understanding: Essentially, the Church already has an entrenched long-termist view. It's just that the hugely disvaluable outcome is a soul or souls spending eternity in hell (or however long in purgatory). In an expected value analysis, eternity is always going to win out over the whatever the life of the universe is. To convince them, then, to pursue traditional EA goals would, I think, require the extra step of motivating them to think those EA goals are more important.

comment by Liam_Donovan · 2019-07-12T19:37:17.197Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA · GW

I'm fairly confident the Church does not endorse basing moral decisions on expected value analysis; that says absolutely nothing about the compatibility of Catholicism and EA. For example, someone with an unusually analytical mindset might see participation in the EA movement as one way to bring oneself closer to God through the theological virtue of charity.

comment by Khorton · 2019-07-12T23:11:02.082Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

The set of tools EA provides for considering how to help others, and the network/community, could be useful for any altruist.

Utilitarianism is less compatible with Catholicism.

comment by Liam_Donovan · 2019-07-13T06:34:13.228Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Yeah, I don't think I phrased my comment very clearly.

I was trying to say that, if the Christian conception of heaven/hell exists, then it is highly likely than an objective non-utilitarian morality exists. It shouldn't be surprising that continuing to use utilitarianism within an otherwise Christian framework yields garbage results! As you say, a Christian can still be an EA, for most relevant definitions of "be an EA".

comment by ZacharyRudolph · 2019-07-13T17:58:57.833Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

You're right. What I was trying to get at was that I presume Catholics would start with different answers to axiological questions like "what is the most basic good?". Where I might offer a welfarist answer, the Church might say say "a closeness to God" (I'm not confident in that). Thus, if a Catholic altruist applies the "effective" element of EA reasoning, the way to do the most good in the world might end up looking like aggressive evangelism in order to save the most souls. And that if we're trying to convince Catholic Priests to encourage the Church use its resources for usual EA interventions, it seems like you'd need to either employ a different set of arguments than those used to convince welfarists/utilitarians or convince them to adopt answer to the question we started with.

comment by Liam_Donovan · 2019-07-13T21:46:01.461Z · score: 14 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Tl;dr the moral framework of most religions is different enough from EA to make this reasoning nonsensical; it's an adversarial move to try to change religions' moral framework but there's potentially scope for religions to adopt EA tools


Like I said in my reply to khorton, this logic seems very strange to me. Surely the veracity of the Christian conception of heaven/hell strongly implies the existence of an objective, non-consequentialist morality? At that point, it's not clear why "effectively doing the most good" in this manner is a more moral [edit: terminal] goal than "effectively producing the most paperclips". It's not surprising that trying to shoehorn Christian ideas into a utilitarian framework is going to produce garbage!

I agree that this implies that EA would have to develop a distinct set of arguments in order to convince priests to hijack the resources of the Church to further the goals of the EA subculture; I also think this is an unnecessarily adversarial move that shouldn't be under serious consideration.

That doesn't mean that the ideas and tools of the EA community are inapplicable in principle to Catholic charity, as long as they are situated within a Catholic moral framework. I'm confident that e.g. Catholic Relief Services would rather spend money on interventions like malaria nets rather than interventions like PlayPumps. However, even if the Catholic Church deferred every such decision to a team of top EAs, I don't think the cumulative impact (under an EA framework) would be high enough to justify the cost of outreach to the Church. I'm not confident of this though; could be an interesting Fermi estimate problem.

(I've been trying to make universally applicable arguments, but it feels dishonest at this point not to mention that I am in fact Catholic.)

comment by zdgroff · 2019-07-14T14:14:45.962Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

This is all really interesting, and thank you all for chiming in. Liam, I'm curious—do you adopt EA tools within a Catholic moral framework, or do you practice Catholicism while adopting a different moral framework? I figure your participation in EA is some sort of anecdata.

comment by Liam_Donovan · 2019-07-16T07:08:46.197Z · score: 9 (3 votes) · EA · GW

The answer to your question is basically what I phrased as a hypothetical before:

participation in the EA movement as one way to bring oneself closer to God through the theological virtue of charity.

I was involved in EA at university for 2 years before coming to believe Catholicism is true, and it didn't seem like Church dogma conflicted with my pro-EA intuitions at all, so I've just stayed with it. It helped that I wasn't ever an EA for rigidly consequentialist reasons; I just wanted to help people and EA's analytical approach was a natural fit for my existing interests (e.g. LW-style rationality).

I'm not sure my case (becoming both EA and Catholic due to LW-style reasoning) is broadly applicable; I think EA would be better served sticking to traditional recruiting channels rather than trying to extend outreach to religious people qua religious people. Moreover, I feel that it's very very important for EA to defend the value of taking ideas seriously, which would rule out a lot of the proposed religious outreach strategies you see (such as this post from Ozy).

comment by ZacharyRudolph · 2019-07-14T17:20:47.665Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

I'm not sure I understand your objection, but I feel like I should clarify that I'm not endorsing consequentialism as a sort of moral criterion (that is, the thing in virtue of which something is right or wrong) so much as I take the "effective" part of effective altruism to imply using some sort nonmoral consequentialist reasoning. As far as I understand (which isn't far), a Catholic moral framework would still allow for some sort of moral quantification (that some acts are more good than others or are good to a greater degree), e.g. saints are a thing. If so, then (I think) it seems sensible to say a Catholic could sensibly take the results of a consequentialist reasoning as applied to her own framework as morally motivating reasons to choose one act over another.

My worry is that if that framework holds only one value as most basic, then this consequentialist reasoning might (edit: depending on the value) validly lead to the conclusion that the way to do the most good is something radically different from the things that this subculture tends to endorse, and that this should count towards the concern that this subculture's actions could produce serious disvalue (edit: disvalue from, say, the moral consequentialist's point of view).

On the other hand if this framework is some sort of pluralist/virtue system (you mentioned a virtue of charity), then yeah I definitely agree that effective altruism could represent the pursuit of excellence in such a virtue or that "effectiveness" could be interpreted as a way of saying that the altruist is simply addressing what he takes to be his most stringent obligations with regard to his duty of charity. These, though, I think would count as different arguments (i.e. arguments which make sense to Catholics) than those which utilitarians take to give morally motivating reasons.

comment by MarisaJurczyk · 2019-07-09T18:06:54.758Z · score: 12 (6 votes) · EA · GW

I definitely agree that religious outreach is a neglected but promising area of EA community-building.

I think a big part of what makes reaching out to religious groups at least somewhat promising is that a lot of them are already trying to do good. If we focus EA outreach on the general population, or most other subpopulations that EA currently focuses outreach on, you'll likely have some people who care about doing good, and others who have different motivations. But in many religious spaces, an obligation to help others is already at the heart of what they do. And it's a lot easier to sell EA to someone who already agrees that we have an obligation to help others as much as possible. Of course, different sects and individual religious communities have varying degrees of commitment to service and doing good, but I would imagine there's some research already available on which groups are most oriented towards doing good (and if not, this is certainly doable research).

Also, from anecdotal experiences from friends and ex-colleagues as well as my own personal experience, I know a lot of agnostic/atheists who are involved in religious groups because they're looking for a community, and often more specifically, they were looking for a community oriented towards thinking deeply about the world's truths and/or doing good in the world. I think EA groups would fulfill this need for a lot of people (and perhaps relieve them from having to pretend to believe something they don't in exchange for social support).

comment by zdgroff · 2019-07-10T09:44:31.234Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA · GW
I think a big part of what makes reaching out to religious groups at least somewhat promising is that a lot of them are already trying to do good.

Really interesting point. I hadn't thought of this, but I agree. In college I lived with seven guys who I in some ways really struggle to relate to for the most part because they don't have a sense of purpose that drives them. I always related well to one of them who was a devout Christian, because even though our religious views were wildly distinct, we both had some rich view about what we ought to do.

Also, from anecdotal experiences from friends and ex-colleagues as well as my own personal experience, I know a lot of agnostic/atheists who are involved in religious groups

This is interesting. I know in many Jewish congregations atheists and agnostics are common, although still usually not overt (although I had a Rabbi once who described himself as an "agnostic on a good day"). I participate in Buddhist and Jewish events as an agnostic atheist. I guess I would still be surprised if this was that common in religions that emphasize faith more, but then again, I'm not as familiar with the actual practice there.

I used to be an organizer with an animal rights group (Direct Action Everywhere) that had a lot of unattractive qualities, but one thing I think that they did for some people was offer a lot of what religion can offer: community, sense of purpose, regular events. I think there is an opening to fill a gap in a lot of non-religious people's lives. It makes me think of the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam about the decline in social life in America.

comment by Nathan Young (nathan) · 2019-07-09T09:29:39.134Z · score: 9 (6 votes) · EA · GW

Interesting take. I like your willingness to think about this and I agree that religion offers a lot and there are many lessons to learn. Some thoughts:

  • What will one say when their congregation asks what they believe and why?
  • Generally it seems EAs advise against going into harmful organisations to "change them". Have I misunderstood or why not here? Perhaps you don't think religious orgs are on balance harmful.
  • In my understanding the quickest growing religious sects are conservative, which will be strongly opposed to doing things for maximising wellbeing as opposed to what the Bible/Qu'ran says.
  • I think seeking the growth of more liberal branches is an interesting idea but what if that gives the "oxygen" required by more conservative groups. What if this ends up aiding the growth of conservative dogmatism?