Want to Save the World? Enter the Priesthood

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. In any case changing institutions looks like a promising way to improve the world. What are the longest-lasting institutions in the world? Certainly high among them is religion. For this reason, it seems to me that expanding religions' moral circles (especially 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) 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 prominence of religion in virtually every society. The Catholic Church is around 2,000 years old, 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 evolve. 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 important is the view that as people become richer and more educated they become less religious. I think this is mostly true, but at the same time, religious fertility is higher, 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 room for an 80,000 Hours career profile on religious involvement? 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 is for do-gooders involved in the world's influential religions to work to cultivate that spirit within these communities.


  1. Thanks for your encouragement on this topic, Zach. I left christianity at 16, came back at 45, left again about a year ago. I didn't want to be associated with Christianity which seemed so negative. But I have returned, determined to help from the inside and with a lot of hope. I did attend the SARX conference for Christian Animal Welfare, and really love what SARX is doing.

    I also see a lot of hope with fundamentalists who used to believe in eternal conscious torment waking up and realizing that a loving God would never condemn His children to a life of everlasting torture! Not even a human parent would do that unless he or she was a psychopath!

    More Christians are becoming vegan, and I hope to help more be inspired to do so.

    And remember, the movie Prayer for Compassion which just came out--is all about spiritual leaders who are vegan and promoting animal rights!

    1. This is awesome! Thanks for sharing this. Yes, I agree there is a lot of hope in this.

  2. In order for this to make sense I would need to be convinced that either religion didn't harm epistemics, or that epistemics aren't very important for Effective Altruism. For example, working in long-termism requires considering existential threats and large changes in humanity as a whole, and I have never met any religious people who were able to reason about these topics. Can one believe in the Christian God, the possibility of creating beings more intrinsically valuable than humans, humans wiping ourselves out, and asteroids wiping us out, all at once? Also, believing in an infinite-utility heaven makes utilitarian calculus on Earth logically impossible, which I think is a bad thing. I would like to hear from highly rational religious altruists who can do all this at once.


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