Religious Texts and EA: What Can We Learn and What Can We Inform?

by Tony.Sena7 min read30th Jan 202111 comments

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HistoryHistory of effective altruismReligion
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Summary 

I am starting a project to read a number of core religious texts through the lens of Effective Altruism. I am interested in both seeing what can be learnt from religious texts by Effective Altruism and how Effective Altruism may inform, even to a small extent, the interpretation and application of religious texts in our modern world. 

If this project is something that may be of interest to you or if you otherwise have advice on how to proceed, please feel free to comment publicly or reach out to me directly. Additionally, I look forward to sharing what I learn periodically with the community. 

I do not have expertise in reading religious texts and as such would be very appreciative of advice or thoughts on:

  • What topics or characteristics I could focus on when reviewing the texts to derive the most value from this process. In this piece I share some of the key criteria that I plan to focus on but I would appreciate thoughts on other considerations, which may be relevant and valuable
  • How to read various religious texts. This includes the order in which to read passages in texts, what reference materials may be the most effective in increasing understanding of the original intent of the authors of the texts, and how to minimize personal biases in reading the texts
  • Other similar efforts that may have been undertaken, particularly from an Effective Altruism perspective
  • General thoughts on the value in a project such as this

Key Caveats 

I understand that religion naturally brings up many challenges and concerns (it is of course a part of the old trope of things not to discuss at a dinner party). My goals through this project are not to make determinations on the validity of people’s religious views. Furthermore, I will not proselytize on the existence or otherwise of God (or other religious figures). 

I hope to take a textual approach to reviewing texts, wherein I will focus largely on the words in the texts and supplement with secondary materials minimally. This is only insofar as to better contextualize the words of the text to align with the intent of the authors (I understand that this is already fraught with potential biases). 

I come to this project with my own biases (which I shall detail out further). I understand that this will influence how I read the texts, as any reading of a text will be highly influenced by one’s own context, but I aim to be transparent about these biases to the extent I may be able.

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Background

Recently I have been interested in thinking about how those outside of the Effective Altruism community think about giving and altruism more generally. This interest has often led me into conversations about the role that religion plays. Considerations of ‘doing good’ are of course not unique to the Effective Altruism movement and have their roots deeply embedded in religion and the human condition more generally. 

In reviewing what has been written on the EA Forum and more broadly, I was surprised to see how little appears to have been written on the topic (a sentiment observed in this piece). A fair argument was posited in the article, “A Response To Making Discussions In EA Groups Inclusive” that conversations about religion can lead to less inclusive spaces for discussion. I am highly sympathetic to this position, especially where such discussions focus on aiming to convert the reader or seek to argue for the merits of various religious views at the expense of other views.  

I do believe that there is an opportunity for the EA movement to constructively engage with elements of religious texts. Core religious texts have had an incredible influence on moral views of large swathes of humanity over the last 2,000+ years. A fair counter argument is that primary religious texts themselves form only a part of the reason for the success of certain religions and that other contextual investigations including historical, anthropological and political studies are required (see for example). I agree with this argument, and do not wish to overstate the value of an exercise that focuses just on a textual analysis of religious texts themselves.

However, I would argue that a project such as this may be able to start conversations around the following:

  1. What can be learnt from religious texts by Effective Altruism. I hesitate to write a complete list of what may be learnt given my relative lack of experience and the fact that I am just embarking on this project. However, the following are some initial hypotheses:
    • Effective Altruism may glean insights on effective community building techniques. Many of the most popular religious texts have spurred highly cohesive, long-lasting communities under a common world view. Undoubtedly there have also been challenges (which I do not plan to delve into); however, I hope to see whether there exist common elements within the words of popular religious texts that may provide insights or hints into why they helped amass such fervent support.
    • Effective Altruism may be able to learn how to more effectively spread ideas around encouraging charitable giving and altruism. Religious texts have acted as the catalyst for significant investments across a wide range of cause priority areas. It may be possible to generate ideas from the techniques used directly from within the words of religious texts.
  2. How Effective Altruism may (even to a very small extent) inform the interpretation and application of religious texts in our modern world. If interpretation of religious texts are to be seen through a ‘living tree’ style of contextual interpretation (lending the term from constitutional interpretation theory) then there may be an opportunity for Effective Altruism to engage in conversations of how altruism may be interpreted through certain religious texts.

From a personal perspective, I have some some additional goals including:

  1. To better understand historical sources of charity and altruistic virtue. What are the similarities and differences in how altruism is viewed by religious texts and how it is viewed from an Effective Altruism perspective.
  2. To challenge and update my priors on how I view Effective Altruism and its relative merits and deficiencies as a framework for my own life. It is my hypothesis in entering this project that reading religious texts will cause me to update towards a broader interpretation of effective actions. By this I mean incorporating more independent variables into how I internally calculate actions to be ‘effective’ relative to the next best alternative action.
  3. Personal development and curiosity. I am interested in reading the primary texts (or at least reputable translations of the texts) without being biased by someone else's interpretation of the texts.

Process

At the outset of the project, I plan to read the following texts: Tanakh, Catholic Bible, Quran, Bhagavad Gita and Tripitaka. Prior to reading each text, I plan to do some research on how to read the texts in order to maximize the value of the exercise given my goals. This research will include conversations with people who have experience with the texts themselves. I shall synthesize key verses from the texts in a publicly viewable Google Sheet with a specific focus on the following: 

  1. Justification for doing ‘good’
  2. References to charity and altruism
  3. Use of data and evidence in justifying actions
  4. Prioritization of actions
  5. Overlap with key EA cause priority areas including: global poverty and health, animal welfare, long-termist causes, etc.

Personal Context

Naturally, I come to this project with my own biases and cultural context which will influence how I read and perceive religious texts. I do not consider myself a religious person; however, I was brought up in the Roman Catholic faith. If I were to put a label on my religious beliefs currently, I would say I am agnostic. Furthermore, I have spent the vast majority of my life in Anglo-Western communities and as such have engaged significantly more with interpretations of the Tanakh and Catholic Bible than of any other religious texts that I plan to read. I work for an EA-aligned organization that operates in the global poverty alleviation space and I spend most of my time focused on activities in India. 

It is my hope that this project may help start productive conversations that will add to the overall discourse and application of Effective Altruism in our wider world. Please do not hesitate to message me directly with questions or concerns. 

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11 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:16 AM
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Hey Tony, have you heard of or joined the Christians and Effective Altruism facebook group? Some of them might be interested in this project, such as reading the Catholic Bible or other Christian texts with you, or they might be interested in what your output is from this.

This project sounds great, I love how you flesh out the plan and pre-commit to it. 

I have a minor concern, which might be mistaken as I don't have any relevant experience. In the "what we can learn from religious texts"-section you mentioned potential applications to community building and spreading ideas. However, the process involves a synthesis of verses more directly related to EA. Also, I imagine that general lessons about how religious communities and ideas evolved have been investigated quite a bit in the academy and might have used historical sources and sociological methods. So all this makes me less excited about these specific applications.

On the other hand, I hope that it will inform more about how to communicate better with religious groups and lead to a better understanding of how EA-related views were seen in the past. 

Also, David Manheim is doing some work on the space of Judaism and EA.

These lectures on historical analysis of the New Testament are neat and might be of interest to you. They give good context for understanding the contemporaneous interpretation of scripture.

Cool project!  For the Tanakh (aka Hebrew bible aka old testament) a great resource is Sepharia.org.  An important element of Judaism is not just the original Tanakh but also  rabbinic commentary on it (as well as commentary on the commentary).  This is codified into the Talmud and other documents. Sepharia allows you to search the Tanakh as well as the Talmud and other commentary--for instance, here are the results for a search for "Tzedakah" (not a direct translation to charity but encompasses charity).  You can also click on a particular passage, for instance, Isaiah 58:7-8 ("share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him...") and see all the commentary about that passage.  If you want to chat about Judaism specifically when you get to that part of your project feel free to get in touch!

It sounds similar to this project from 5 years ago.

The religious texts I am familiar with contain calls for charity, but not much on making it effective. 

It is also worth considering that the relation between the contents of religious texts and their adherents actual actions is kind of complicated. Very often even devout followers do not follow the prescriptions of their religious texts, but the content of religious texts clearly have some influence. 

This kind of pursuit is something I am interested in, and I'm glad to see you pursue it.

One thing you could look for, if you want, is the "psychological constitution" being written by a text.  People are psychological beings and the ideas they hold or try to practice shape their overall psychological makeup, affecting how they feel about things and act.  So, in the Bhagavad-Gita, we are told that it is good to be detached from the fruits of action, but to act anyway.  What effect would that idea have if EAs took it (to the extent that they haven't already)?  Or a whole population? (Similarly with its advice to meditate.)  EAs psychologically relate with the fruits of their action, in some way, already.  The theistic religions can blend relationship with ideals or truth itself with relationship with a person.  What difference would that blending make to EAs or the population at large?  I would guess it would produce a different kind of knowing -- maybe not changing object-level beliefs (although it could), but changing the psychology of believing (holding an ideal as a relationship to a person or a loyalty to a person rather than an impersonal law, for instance). 

I highly recommend the Bodhicaryavatara by Shantideva! It's the most significant ethical text of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, with some serious Madhyamaka metaphysics sprinkled in. I'm currently writing my undergrad thesis on it, and I'd be happy to talk about it.

Here's a great guide: https://www.shambhala.com/guide-to-the-way-of-the-bodhisattva/. I took an intensive course on the Bodhicaryavatara in the traditional monastic style in Kathmandu, Nepal; see https://ryi.org/programs/degree-programs if you really want to dive deep. The school is currently offering all courses online.

I'm also studying The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus, with the accessible commentary Thirty Steps to Heaven by Vassilios Papavassiliou. St. John is venerated in both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, but he gets more attention from the Orthodox. I find Orthodoxy fascinating because it has such a mystical relationship-oriented spirituality compared to the legalistic style of both Catholicism and Protestantism. However, this text focuses on individual spirituality; there's not much discussion of ethics. 

Hi Tony. I could be interested in looking into Islam with you.

The trappings of organized religion are a hollow shell of the mystic states at their core. Make sure the texts you focus on constitute the heart of that system's spiritual practice.