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 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) 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, 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 Altru­ism; SARX 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.