[Religious people: ironically, this post is not going to be welcoming to you guys, because it takes atheism as a base-level assumption.]
I pretty fervently believe that effective altruism should make deliberate efforts to reach out to religious people, to the point that my litmus test for whether I take someone seriously in the perennial Effective Altruism PR Wars is whether they agree with me on this point. Many people have strongly disagreed with me about this, but I think it’s mistaken.
(I want to say that ‘religion’ is a very broad category encompassing a wide variety of different things, and unfortunately in this post it is mostly used as a synonym for ‘Christianity and maybe Judaism.’ This is a flaw in my knowledge, and I hope effective altruists who understand other religions better can speak to its relevance in those religions.)
One of the most common objections to the idea of incorporating religious people is the idea of ‘effective evangelism’. The idea of fundamentalist Christians doing randomized controlled trials to see what best spreads the idea that Jesus saves or inventing evidence-based interventions to prevent masturbation strikes fear into the heart of any atheist. But I think this fear is overblown.
Effective altruists, as a whole, tend to have a trait one might call “taking ideas seriously”– that is, when they are presented with a proposition, they will figure out every logical implication of the proposition and behave accordingly, no matter how counterintuitive the implication may be. This tendency goes back to Famine, Affluence, and Morality (cw: scrupulosity), one of the foundational essays of the effective altruism movement, which suggests that an implication of thinking it is wrong to allow babies to drown in front of you is that you should give all your money to charity.
But I don’t think there’s any reason effective altruists necessarily have to take ideas seriously. Most of our core ideas are not, in fact, counterintuitive implications: they’re perfectly intuitive. “You know the powerful techniques we use to figure out life-saving medical technologies? We should use them to figure out how to improve the world better!” “It’s wrong to eat something if beings were tortured to make it.” “It is a bad idea for life on earth to be destroyed.” “People know their own needs better than we do.” The absolute cutting edge of effective altruism– wild-animal suffering, artificial general intelligence, and so on– probably requires a certain amount of the ability, but the average effective altruist is and should be donating to an ordinary charity like Give Directly or the Against Malaria Foundation.
Of course, taking ideas seriously is absolutely necessary to be a utilitarian. But there’s no reason why a person interested in improving the world in the most efficient fashion should be a utilitarian. They might be a deontologist performing supererogatory deeds or a virtue ethicist cultivating the virtue of compassion or an ethical egoist who has decided that the continued existence of malaria is not in their enlightened self-interest. They might feel like they’re very privileged and they have a duty to give back, or that they’ve committed a lot of harm and they want to make up for it. Or they might be someone with the simple, common-sense intuition that it’s sad how much people in this world hurt and they wish that they could do something to help.
The obvious way to prevent the existence of ‘effective evangelism’ is simply to create the norm that effective altruism is secular. You can do whatever you want in the privacy of your own church, synaogogue, mosque, pentacle, or dark blood-splattered temple into which only fools dare enter, but in effective altruism we deal strictly with natural things. This is, of course, a complete special case of the sort that gives people who take ideas seriously hives. But it works pretty well in a lot of contexts, from political activism to science, and in practice no one seems to have any difficulty following the rule.
A second objection is that religious people may make effective altruism less rational and committed to evidence, because they believe something that is obviously untrue. But Insert Your Least Favorite Political Party Here also believes untrue things, and I think most people would agree that people they disagree with politically should be part of effective altruism. Indeed, I have personally been involved in a conversation in which multiple libertarians schemed about how to reach out to Communists.
Furthermore, people have a remarkable ability to compartmentalize. Famous Christians in science include the inventor of Perl; the winners of the 2007, 2012, and 2013 Nobel Prizes in Chemistry; the famous computer scientist Donald Knuth; the winners of the 1978 and 2012 Nobel Prizes in Medicine; the inventor of the MRI; the director of the Human Genome Project; and the winners of the 1974 and 1984 Nobel Prizes in Physics. The irrationality of some eminent people in the sciences is not limited to religion: Ben Carson, the first person to ever separate conjoined twins at the head, is in his spare time Ben Carson. It seems to me that if surgery as a field went “we’re going to exclude people who believe Joseph built the pyramids to store grain“, then the quality of surgeons available to them would go down.
Similarly, effective altruists can maintain their high standards of rationality and evidence and simply expect religious people to compartmentalize. If a person is being irrational and refusing to listen to evidence about charity, of course, they should not be welcome in the effective altruist movement– whether they are religious or atheistic. And, conversely, if someone makes insightful points about whether deworming leads to increased income later in life, then we should welcome them, even if in their free time they’re a young-earth Creationist or whatever.
A third objection is that there’s no point to reaching out to religious people, because they don’t actually give any more to charity. Research suggests that, while religious Americans give more to charity, they give a similar amount if you exclude money given to churches and faith-based organizations. However, it’s a mistake to assume that, because donations are currently going to a faith-based organization, they couldn’t be redirected to effective altruism. Catholic Relief Services works on agriculture, education, and public health in the developing world. World Vision gives money to children in the developing world. The people who give to those organizations are precisely the ones we should be targeting.
And, frankly, a lot of times it feels sort of weird to be saying “you shouldn’t donate to that charity! Our charity is much more effective!”– it’s sad that you’re taking money away from guide dogs for the blind, instead of away from the purchase of a new foosball table. None of those concerns apply to World Vision. My fellow antitheists! Would it not be deeply satisfying for those homophobic fuckwits to go bankrupt? Let’s offer a better product than them, take their donations, and laugh.
A fourth objection is that religious people may change the culture of effective altruism undesirably. My first response to this is that effective altruist outreach to religious people should not start at Bob Jones University. Indeed, probably the easiest way to begin would be by targeting liberal religious people, who behave very similarly to atheists. Unfortunately, liberal religions are hemorrhaging members, which sort of limits their potential for recruitment.
I suspect a lot of our best luck– at least in terms of Christianity, which I’m most familiar with– would be found targeting Catholicism. Catholicism has a rich intellectual tradition that continues to today– First Things is a lot more erudite than, say, Relevant— and more importantly Catholic theology pairs really well with effective altruist values. Catholic social teaching, with its emphasis on the option for the poor and vulnerable and on caring for people across international borders, is a core part of Catholicism even for relatively conservative Catholics. It is true that the church has some fairly regressive opinions about sex and abortion. But there is really no need for that to come up in an effective altruist context, and I suspect we’d quickly develop norms of politeness to deal with it: the Catholics would tolerate me holding hands with my boyfriends, and I would tolerate their prayers; they’d call me the right pronoun, and I’d bite my tongue about the evils of Mother Teresa. I suspect that, approached open-mindedly, a lot of atheist effective altruists would find a lot to like about the Catholics most easily seduced to effective altruism.
But my more fundamental objection is that effective altruism is not a social club. There is already an option for people who want to hang out with the people who are currently attracted to effective altruism. It is called “the rationalist community.” Effective altruism is about making the world a better place. Although of course it is good if you find friends in effective altruism, if your ability to more easily find friends trades off against actual human lives, then the human lives win. And if you disagree, then frankly the person who should be unwelcome in effective altruism is you.