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Substantive revision published June 2023 here.

The prize money mentioned below was awarded in November 2022 

A word of warning: 

The aim of this essay was to help figure out how the most effective altruism is done, but in the process I had to touch upon sensitive themes such as our mortality and a lack of justification of many current religious viewpoints (including athiesm/naturalism[1]).

About financial compensation 

As if I wasn’t already convinced that Effective Altruism[2](EA) is the best, major EA organizations are giving away hundreds of thousands of dollars to solicit criticism and explore new ideas. I would like to offer some suggestions and I’d really like your input. You’re more than welcome to try to strengthen my arguments, but I’m even more interested in being corrected if I’m wrong or missing something important.

I'm sure your time is precious, and you deserve to be compensated for reading this. Sadly, I am still a student, so my budget is currently near nonexistent. However, if my suggestions are awarded prizes,  I pledge to give back at least 30% of the winnings to commentors that gave me the best feedback (which means your comment could earn thousands of dollars). If you are interested, there are more details in the footnotes[3], but without further ado:

Summary of Main ideas

Effective Altruism[2] (EA) is not even close to pursuing the best causes; that’s probably what most people would think, if they knew of EA, because about 84% of the world adheres to a religion[4] and EA is far from that.[5] Most of the world’s tacit disapproval of EA need not trouble the movement since most of the world is surely sorely mistaken.[6] However, I think this deserves to be a grave concern for now because Effective Altruism’s incredible efforts may be undermined by untested assumptions.

For example, a very consequential and controversial premise EA seems to take for granted is that there is no consciousness after bodily death (or none that we can prepare for)[7]. Most American adults would disagree[8] and most religions would affirm that EA is missing information essential for the most effective altruism.[9]

Although truth is not determined by popularity, I think it would be imprudent to dismiss the majority of humanity without a fair trial. I suggest how to properly conduct a “fair trail” in the tractability section [link to that] and if my suggestions are sound, then they are currently very neglected [link to that]. That would imply this cause is full of low hanging fruit that could nourish EA,[10] although even falling short could be very fruitful.[11] 

I will also try to address some possible questions a reader might have (e.g. Why take religious ideologies seriously?) and I invite you to offer more. If you’re concerned certain objections could undermine my entire essay, feel free to read that section first. If you’re not bothered by any or all of the questions I bring up, then feel free to skip them. I wrap up by confronting a challenge that most, if not all, people will be forced to face before they can engage in the most effective altruism.


I would really to know how to the most effective altruism is done, so religion really bothers me.[12] I have studied religion for about five years mostly through resources online (and partly by immersing myself in religious communities) but have had almost no formal education on the topic. I acknowledge I am far from an authority on even a single religious ideology, so I have tried to cite every important claim on the topic with a quote from at least one expert.

Upon request I could probably provide more references because I have not mentioned all my sources in the interest of time. I will also do my best to indicate when I am uncertain about a claim, but I would like to stress my ideas are tentative (especially before they have been subjected to the scrutiny of great minds like many in EA).

I’d really like to be corrected if I’m wrong and will do my best to fix any mistakes in this post as soon as I discover them. Feel free to try to shore up my arguments, but also do not hesitate to let me know if you think they are misguided to the core. If these ideas are unsalvageable, I would like to find out as soon as possible.

The Importance of Investigating Ideology

The stakes could not be higher

It is a common refrain that the heart of EA is the question “how can I do the most good?".[13] Virtually all religions claim to know the best answer,[14] [15] though I prefer to call them religious ideologies[16] since differing ideologies often exist within a single religion and nonreligious ideologies also give conflicting answers to EA’s quandary (e.g. communism vs capitalism). 

I will focus on religious ideologies, because they often claim to know by far the best ways to do the most good. This is usually predicated upon the belief that human sentience usually persists for a forever (or at least for a while)[17] after our bodily death.[18] And this belief often comes with mutually exclusive advice for how to best prepare for consciousness after death (e.g. accept Jesus as your lord and Savior vs don’t equate Jesus with Allah).[19]

I would like to explicate the implications of these claims: If even a single person’s sentience was never extinguished, then even the mildest pleasure or pain compounded over infinite time will outweigh all the pleasure and pain felt by all the creatures in this finite universe, because the product of finite numbers cannot exceed an infinite number. 

To put it another way: If you became just one penny richer every year but lived forever, you could rest assured you would eventually be wealthier than Jeff Bezos. If a penny represents a modicum of pleasure than most people think you are eligible for such an endless jackpot.[20][21]

If they are not mistaken, is there anything more worthwhile than making an investment that will accrue infinite interest? Wouldn’t such a possibility be especially enticing for Effective Altruists trying to maximize their positive impact given limited resources? And isn’t it in everyone’s best interest to try to find out for sure if any religious ideologies have reliable information about this incomparable opportunity?

Better sooner rather than later

If just one religious ideology is (at least mostly) correct, it may mean that much of EA is currently barking up the wrong trees because EA does not directly address the bulk of our sentience. However, it would necessarily mean that all of EA’s work is in vain, and the entire movement needs to change course. 

Numerous religious ideologies vociferously advocate many of EA’s current causes such as global health and development or preventing factory farming from wreaking more havoc on the world and its most marginalized.[22] Such service is part and parcel of a panoply of religious ideals. There are almost limitless examples but to name just two: 

Mathew 25:31-46 speaks of the eternal import Jesus allegedly attached to caring for the impoverished and oppressed[23]:

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’"[24]

The passage goes onto warn of dire consequences for those that neglect the needy. Although Gandhi considered himself an Orthodox Hindu[25] he similarly stressed:

“All that I do by way of speaking and writing, and all my ventures in the political field, are directed to this same end [which is “self-realization, to see God face to face, to attain Moksha”] for the essence of religion is morality… If found myself entirely absorbed in the service of the community, the reason behind it was my desire for self-realization. I had made the religion of service my own, as I felt that God could be realized only through service." [26]

Of course, many religious ideologies contain more than affirmations of EA’s work so far but if it turns out one is mostly correct, it may adjust rather than upend EA’s current course. For example, many religious ideologies make claims about eschatology, and if some were reliable, that could improve forecasting and inform longtermist causes.

It is needless to say that if EA or anyone else is currently heading down a suboptimal trajectory, it is best to course correct as soon as possible. However, I think it is worth mentioning that our time, and the pace of its technological innovation, may be particularly decisive for the future of humanity. I feel no need to elaborate because this argument has already been put forth by people wiser people than me including but not limited to Holden Karnofsky and Prof. Huston Smith:

The 20th century proved to be “the bloodiest of centuries; but if its ordeals are to be birth pangs rather than death throes, the century’s scientific advances must be matched by comparable advances in human relations."- The World's Religions.

Failure would not be worthless

I do not know what the outcome of investigating ideologies will be (or if it is even possible for people to figure that out decisively), but the above has convinced me it is imperative to try and find out for sure.

However, if it turns out that all religious ideologies are fundamentally flawed (except for something like naturalism[27]), that does not mean that investigating them was a waste of time. EA could still reap valuable insights from learning more about religion, even if none of their claims should be taken too seriously. 

Religions are powerful if nothing else[28] [29] and can easily stymie technological progress.[30] If reasonable altruists do not participate in religious discourse, that lacuna may be filled by fools with vested interests.[31]

"From a strategic standpoint, at least here in America, it is worth noting that no moral cause ever got very far that could not speak to religious conviction, drawing on the deeper sensibilities that guide public opinion even in our more secular era" – Dominion by Matthew Scully

Making progress on ideological investigations can also bear fruit on EA causes like improving institutional decision making and individual reasoning. I will elaborate below when I address tractability but, in the meantime, I hope to have made it clear why I think it would be a grave mistake to explore religious ideologies solely from this angle i.e., with the sole aim of being better able to bend religion toward the EA movement’s current trajectory.

I  do not mean to argue that this cause is an essential part of EA’s path of least resistance, but I hope to have demonstrated that different possibilities lead to the same conclusion: investigating religious ideologies is an important cause for Effective Altruism to consider. If so, EA has so far not considered it nearly enough.


A sea of confusion with no oasis in sight

“Aside from a small number of broader discussions about utilitarianism, Peter Singer, and religion, the body of academic work on EA and faith appears to consist of no more than a handful of articles.”[32] I have read the aforementioned “handful of articles” and they did not provide adequate justification for EA’s current dismissal of all religious ideologies. If such justification exists, I’d love to see it. 

However I will not get my hopes up because James Fodor’s 2019 analysis concluded that EA did not apply its characteristic rigor to this issue:

  • “most EAs [members of Effective Altruism] are highly dismissive of religious or other non -naturalistic [33] worldviews, and tend to just assume without further discussion that views like dualism, reincarnation, or theism cannot be true" &"I have not found any evidence that this choice is the result of early investigations demonstrating that emerging technologies [an area popular with EA] are far superior to the cause areas I mention [like investigating religious ideologies].”

I do not intend to demean EA; it’s oversight seems all too common (unlike contests for soliciting criticism):

“Although religious institutions have extensive resources, the amount of time and money dedicated to systematically analysing the evidence and arguments for and against different religious traditions is extremely small.”[34]

For now the void is generally being filled by amateurs and ideologues in echo chambers instead of experts and qualified professionals with the necessary resources. I hope that by now it goes without saying that I’d like to be corrected if I’m mistaken about that, but I’ve tried and failed to find a reliable, balanced, up-to-date source of the evidence for and against even a single major religious ideology (with one possible exception listed below).

By the way, if you’re skeptical that such evidence exists that may be because you haven’t googled something like “evidence of [insert the name of a major religion] ”. If you try that even briefly, I think you’ll conclude there is a lot of (confidently) alleged evidence for and against virtually every major religious ideology. For example, there are “hundreds of websites that attempt to prove the authenticity of the Quran on the basis of modern science."[35]

I think it’s worth noting that I’ve heard purported evidence that isn’t easily accessible on google (e.g. tucked away in books or other media that isn’t published online). And I think it’s important to stress the fact that there’s a lot I haven’t heard, especially from ideologies whose adherents primarily speak languages other than English. 

In sum I think the quantity and quality of evidence pose harder questions for investigating religious ideologies (which I will try to address in the Objections section) than the pervasive claim that there is no evidence for religious belief.[36] After all, "most religious traditions allow and even encourage some kind of rational examination of their beliefs."[37]

Some Mormons may be role models?

So far, the best sources of evidence for and against the fundamental claims of a religious ideology I have seen come from Mormons and former Mormons. Although it’s hard for me to judge, since I’m nearly a complete ignoramus when it comes to this topic, I can’t help but be impressed by the following work (especially after trying and failing to find convincing critiques of it):

A relatively popular Mormon magazine has published an attempt to classify, contextualize, and condense the major arguments for and against claims fundamental to Mormonism, while providing sources for further research along the way (and even illustrations too).[38]

Meanwhile mormonthink.com goes into more depth with the aim of presenting “the strongest and most compelling arguments and explanations from both the critics and the defenders of the [Mormon] Church”.[39] To this end they cite over “300 pro-LDS [i.e. in support of Mormon ideology] website links and book references”[40] and many more sources from other sides of the isle. They even invite readers to send them critiques of their work.[41]

I think there are more lessons to be learned from these Mormons, but perhaps the ones I’ve mentioned should be taken with a grain of salt since I may be very unqualified to comment on the topic. However, if you conclude that there are sources (on the evidence for and against Mormon ideology) that are above reproach, could that be enough to properly judge unrelated religious ideologies i.e. religions that claim Mormonism is fundamentally flawed (which includes virtually all religious ideolgies except for Mormon splinter sects like FLDS, Community of Christ, etc.)?

Frankly I doubt that just perusing the evidence for Mormonism could even provide sufficient justification to declare Mormonism the most correct ideology, aka “the one true religion” since I think that would involve comparing the evidence in its favor with the evidence behind competing ideologies (including naturalism).

As argued above,[42] subscribing to (or rejecting) an ideology is an incredibly consequential decision but I think EA can meet the challenge. I’d like to share some ideas on how to reach justified conclusions on religious ideologies that are not meant to be exhaustive. I’d be glad to elaborate, but I’m itching to hear your input first.


A source that sifts gold from garbage

I think it is crucial to compile major arguments for and against (at least major[43]) religious ideologies (including athiesm/naturalism) and steelman[44] them to the satisfaction of their proponents.[45] A plausible next step would be to make the best critiques of these major arguments easily accessible as well. I also found it enlightening how the aforementioned Mormon magazine article’s overview[46] contextualized the major arguments e.g. charted an argument’s impetus and its evolution.

A philanthropic funder could enable this work by sponsoring experts and the most qualified apologists to make their case as convincingly as possible, as well as by financially incentivizing criticism (perhaps with a contest like this one). I suspect that many passionate ideologues would not need much coaxing, so perhaps this intervention would be relatively inexpensive. I think this response requires the least elaboration but may be the most presumptuous if it is founded upon an untested evidentialism.

Scrutinizing evidentialism and alternatives

Evidentialism is the belief that justification for a proposition should be proportional to the available evidence. I don’t know about you, but to me it seems like evidentialism is the only reliable method to arrive at correspondent truth i.e., the only way to figure out the facts. However, I worry that this conviction stems from my entrenchment in evidentialism and is currently unjustified. Let me explain:

I was raised by ardent atheists and during my upbringing the best and brightest people I knew of endorsed only evidentialism, explicitly or not. For most my life I did not even realize there could be alternatives, yet renowned religions scholar Huston Smith claims:

"There are two distinct and complementary ways of knowing: the rational and the intuitive... All religions carefully spell out the distinction between reason and intuition. In the West, intellect (intellectus, gnosis, sapentia) is not reason (ratio); in Sanskrit, buddhi is not manes; in Islam, ma’rifah, situated in the heart, is not aql, which is situated in the brain. In Hinduism, the knowledge that effects union with God is not discursive; it has the immediacy of direct vision, or sight."[47]

I cannot vouch for these alleged “ways of knowing”, because I understand little about them, which is why I have trouble dismissing them either. Feel free to shed light on them if you’re able to. For example, the esteemed Muslim philosopher Al-Ghazali thought that “we can comprehend the possibility of this state (revelation by means of ecstasy [i.e. learning important facts about religion through mystical experience]) by a chain of manifest proofs."[48]

On the other hand, there is no need for a chain of proofs to bolster evidentialism, which alone is responsible for tremendous technological progress. It is also obvious that "we implicitly rely upon evidentialist principles in many different areas of enquiry… [but] this is far from conclusive evidence."[49]

Evidentialism’s amazing track record does not rule out the possibility that its application is limited. Isn’t it plausible that evidentialism is like a car that works wonders within its domain (like paved roads) but is unreliable in other terrains (like a sandy beach) or may be a hinderance sometimes (like in the ocean)?

For example, I think evidentialism’s tangible success would not refute proponents of jnana, which is a term in Hindu philosophy with a range of meanings “focusing on a cognitive event that proves not to be mistaken”[50]

“Its opposite, ajnana (also called avidya), is the false apprehension of reality that keeps the soul from attaining release [i.e. optimum wellbeing]; it is a form of mistaken knowledge, which has a large measure of validity as far as the realities of the present world are concerned but conceals the truth of a reality outside it."[51]

If you are convinced that the proponents of these different epistemologies i.e., alleged “ways of knowing”, make claims that too important for effective altruism to be dismissed  fair trial, then I would like to suggest some possible responses to the challenge. 

Even if these suggestions are sound, they may not be able to prove that evidentialism is completely reliable or the only epistemology required for investigating ideology. However, they could provide justification for concluding evidentialism is (or isn’t) the best epistemology, or what shouldn’t count as evidence, and what to do in addition or instead of evidentialism if need be.

  1. It seems to me that a cataloguing of epistemological alternatives to evidentialism is in order
    1. ideally done by an epistemology’s best expositors, especially ones that are willing to entertain being mistaken because…
  2. It seems to me like due diligence would entail giving the best proponents of these epistemologies a chance to make the case for them and address critiques.
    1. It seems to me the alternative would be letting questions fester inside evidentialist echo chambers.
    2. It may be prudent to start with the process of elimination i.e. epistemologies that have led people to ideologies most likely to be mistaken (e.g. ones that are extinct or virtually universally rejected like cults) as it may be harder to recognize truth than absurdities. This process could quickly yield practical insights on what decision makers should avoid (examples culled from cults follow).

Let me give you an example of what this process might look like:

The majority Mormon position is that “intellectual conviction” is not enough to reach the right conclusions about the Mormonism.[52] Although mainstream Mormons may affirm evidentialism in theory, in practice they seem especially dismissive of rational arguments[53] and more permissive about what else counts as evidence. Here is a Mormon author in his words, speaking on behalf of the majority position in Mormonism:

“rational arguments or evidence in favor of historicity [of its foundational Scripture, the Book of Mormon] do not provide sufficient reason for concluding that the Book of Mormon is true [or fiction] … More is needed: a limbic, existential witness to soul.. from an LDS [i.e. Mormon] point of view, one must weigh the issues intellectually as part of a broader process of seeking truth through prayer and examining one’s most deeply rooted feelings”[54]

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that this is the best explanation of this epistemology, and proponents can provide no reasons to bolster this position (so we can ignore that in this demonstration).

I think reasonable responses would include pointing out that ideologies contrary to Mormonism including many cults “place considerable emphasis on the experiential—on feelings and emotions."[55] so could that be a reliable epistemology?

And I’d like to hear how they respond to examples of adherents of incompatible religions claiming that sincere prayer, or perhaps even the semblance of the Holy Spirit, had led them to one of Mormon’s ideological competitors.[56]

In response Mormon authorities might offer rebuttals, or provide nuance, or retort with a similar criticism of evidentialism: it seems plain to see that exposure to the same evidence does not stop equally intelligent people from reaching mutually exclusive conclusions, especially in a field has charged as religion.

Refining evidentialism

It seems clear that simply mulling over all the relevant evidence is often not enough for people to reach the right conclusions, but I think it’s less clear exactly what else is needed. For example, rationality researcher Julia Galef proposes that evidence most needs to be supplemented with an overriding desire for learning truth and avoiding falsehood in order to result in sound judgement.[57]

To this end, her book “The Scout Mindset” provides many reasons why falsehood is often more destructive than most people realize (and vice versa for truth) along with concrete tools for developing clearer thinking. For example, it is often tricky for people to understand, instead of unconsciously misrepresenting, an opposing viewpoint. A simple remedy she proposes is the Ideological Turing test[58]: “an exercise where you try to pretend to hold an opposing ideology convincingly enough that outside observers can't reliably distinguish you from a true believer.”[59]

I would recommend the book to anyone who wants to be less wrong (or wants to want that), but I don’t think it was ever intended to be exhaustive. In fact, I’m sure there is room for further research, because she did not mention many of the 200 cognitive biases that Buster Benson (with the help of Wikipedia) has catalogued.[60]

The list is helpful, because people can only work on correcting biases, they are aware of[61]  but still leaves much to be desired, at least when it comes to this cause. There are little to no practical remedies suggested, and perhaps it would not be too much to ask for how prevalent or how influential a particular bias is, so we could prioritize responses.

On the bright side many of these 200+ biases do not seem very relevant for investigating ideology. For example, the denomination effect is the tendency of people to favor spending money in smaller denominations (e.g. spending 5 $20s is usually preferable to spending a $100 bill). I think this cause will not be compromised if we let such sleeping dogs lie.

Possibilities for philanthropic funding 

A reputable EA organization, 80000 Hours, makes the case that refining evidentialism is moderately neglected and proposes ways to fix this. They argue that there is room for more research to identify techniques that "reliably improve judgements and decision-making." They also concluded there are currently not enough researchers working on "robustly testing the most promising techniques". [62]

I would like to add that it may be fruitful to fund research into what to avoid e.g. how cults or patently false idealogues (e.g. white supremacists) distort evidentialist principles to reach their silly conclusions. However I daresay that scrutinizing evidentialism itself, and alternative epistemologies, is more neglected. I don’t know of anyone professionally working on that, but if you do, please let me know. Work on this could include:

  • Funding research to identify distinct epistemologies and their most qualified proponents
  • Financially incentivizing proponents to define, explain, and/or argue their position; and consent to being questioned on the record

However, I worry that if surveys are simply sent to proponents, something may be lost in translation even if everyone is speaking English. EA’s key concepts can be very foreign to many ideologies (e.g. “Secular utilitarianism, for example, is utterly out of place in modern India"[63]) and definitions can be slippery (e.g. what exactly is meant by “faith”). A “mediator” may be essential for bridging cultural gaps.

On mediators and insiders

By mediators I mean people well acquainted with staples in EA’s cognitive toolkit (e.g. naturalism) yet are familiar with the foreign concepts in question. There is precedent for the cultivation of mediators, especially with the help of philanthropic funders. Here is the instructive example of Huston Smith:

Smith was already a renowned teacher of the world's religions when a wealthy patron gave Smith the chance to visit the places he taught about, instead of just parroting others.[64] This offer would prove pivotal for Smith. His travels led him to writing one of the most important and popular books about world religions, selling over three million copies.[65]

Smith remarked in his autobiography: “I have taught innumerable students about world religions, but my teacher of the world’s religions was the world.” Remarkably, his success did not seem to hinge upon being a gifted writer, a talented expositor, or even his intelligence.

I don’t mean to speak ill of him, but here’s how he describes himself in his autobiography: “I was not a writer. Having been considered intellectually backward growing up, I had little reason to suppose I would or could ever become one.”

Although he went on to receive a PhD in philosophy, afterwards he pulled back from the field. Instead he devoted half his time to “immersing” himself in various religions[66] (e.g. “studying the Hindu Upanishad texts in India, living with Zen Buddhists in Japan, keeping the Muslim monthlong fast of Ramadan…”[67]). 

Though Smith’s hands-on approach has ignited the ire of many academics,[68] I propose it is also what sets him apart from them. It seems to me to be the best culprit for his phenomenal success understanding and explaining foreign religious ideologies (after all, he denigrates his own intellectual prowess[69]). 

Like Huston Smith, people on the ground will probably have a better chance of identifying the most well-respected ideological proponents in a religious community. My experience has demonstrated it is not always the people that appear most in the press, are most popular online, or shine most in the secular spotlight.

So, to make a long story short, I think that simply soliciting descriptions of differing epistemologies would not be enough to properly scrutinize alternatives to evidentialism. It seems to me that employing insiders and/or training “mediators” would be essential to doing this topic justice.

It’s hard for me to estimate the impact per dollar of my suggested solutions, but if I am not mistaken about the importance of this cause, I think it’s safe to say it would clear Open Philanthropy’s bar of 1000x social return on investment.

I have not worked out all the details, such as particular grantees, because I’m far from sure you’re interested in that. But if you’re still with me, I’d be happy to help figure that out. On the other hand, if I’ve lost you, the Objections section may remedy that. The following answers can be read a la carte, or completely skipped in the interest of time.

Answering potential objections

I have tried to address the most pressing objections readers may have, but if you feel I missed something important, and you can’t find a good answer online, please let me know.

Why take religious ideologies seriously?

To put the question another way: Isn’t it obvious ideologies rooted in the Medieval or Iron Age are more outdated than what contemporary philosophers and modern scientists could come up?

It’s not obvious to me, or most people[4] I tried to explain why the basic premise of many religious ideologies is logically plausible in this essay (section entitled Why take religion seriously?).

Why not take most religious ideologies seriously?

Most religious ideologies are at least somewhat mistaken, since most are mutually exclusive, and none are in the majority.[70] In my experience most religious people would claim that other religious ideologies are sorely mistaken, which is why their particular religion had to come along and set the record straight. 

Also “religions differ in what they consider essential and what negotiable. Hinduism and Buddhism split over this issue, as did Judaism, Christianity, and Islam"[71] so I am confident that most religious ideologies are largely malarkey. However, it doesn’t follow that there is no exception to this rule, and it doesn’t seem obvious to me that atheism or naturalism[72] is the exception. 

“The fact that men have had stupid and obviously incorrect ideas about God does not justify us in trying to eliminate God from out of the universe. Men have had stupid and incorrect ideas on almost every subject that can be thought about.” – Aldous Huxley[73]

Are you pushing any religious agenda here?

Not at all, I’m just an agnostic that’s confident there are more pressing issues than spreading agnosticism like making sure Effective Altruism's philosophical underpinnings are sufficiently justified since those premises are extremely consequential for the movement and (since I think and hope EA will become more popular and powerful) the world at large.

In this essay I argue that reaching justification is not necessarily impossible, but probably not a one-man job,[74] at least in the current era. However in the process I seem to have unintentionally implied that most (if not all) people do not have enough justification for their religious viewpoints (including atheism).[75] 

If my arguments are sound, religious agnosticism seems to me like a reasonable conclusion in most cases (for now), though that would be a side effect, not my goal. And as always, my conclusions are tentative, at least until the preceding arguments have been scrutinized. 

Would investigating religious ideologies properly be overwhelming?

Long story short: I'm not sure, but I think there's only way to find out (and it's worth finding out). After all, it's almost unbelievable what people can accomplish when they put their mind to something (especially when they have internet access). 

Long story long: Passionate ideologues have spilt a lot of ink over arguing in favor of the “one true religion” or rebutting such claims. The Mormons provide yet another good example:

"the literature on Book of Mormon historicity [i.e. a claim fundamental to Mormon ideology] is so extensive—especially the literature orthodox scholars have produced in support of historicity—it is hard to believe that someone could actually decide what to think about the historicity question by impartially weighing all arguments and evidence.”[76]

If that is the case for a relatively small and recent religion, then all the relevant evidence for and against all or even most religious ideologies would probably overwhelm anyone. Especially since that person would have to be proficient in multiple languages. For example:

A popular argument in favor of the Quran’s divinity is its alleged inimitability and inhuman eloquence (known as I’jaz[77] which cannot be truly appreciated in translation.[78] However even if this argument was discounted, it is hard to deny that Quranic apologetic material in English pales in comparison to what is in Arabic and other languages. Surely this truer of ideologies that aren’t part of huge worldwide missionary religions. 

Therefore, weighing all the evidence is likely too great a task for a lone researcher to shoulder. However, I think it is difficult to predict ahead of time what groups can achieve when they put their mind to something. Two examples of collaboration’s incredible track record:

  1. Modern medicine has come a long way from bloodletting [79] and amputation without pain relief. For example “We have data from a Boston hospital from 1941 that shows that 82% of bacterial infections of the blood resulted in death.
    1. We can barely imagine the horror this number represents—a scratch and a tiny bit of dirt literally could mean that your life was about to end. Today in developed countries less than 1% of these kinds of infections are deadly.”[80]
  2. "Imagine a world in which every single person is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing [with Wikipedia]." -  Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's co-founder

I don’t know if our ancestors could have foreseen the advent of antibiotics or anesthesia, but Wikipedia’s growth exceeded even the most optimistic expectations of its founders.[81]

Investigating ideologies will certainly present challenges that doctors and even Wikipedians have not yet faced. If it turns out the task is insurmountable at least we can be left with pride instead of regret. That’s what compelled Bezos to quit his day job and start Amazon, despite thinking it would probably fail.[82]

“In most cases, our biggest regrets turn out to be acts of omission. It’s paths not taken and they haunt us. We wonder what would have happened,” Bezos said at Summit LA. “I knew that, when I’m 80, I would never regret trying this thing [creating Amazon] that I was super excited about and it failing. If it failed, fine. I would be very proud of the fact when I’m 80 that I tried. I also knew that it would always haunt me if I didn’t try."[83]

I think it’s worth reiterating that the rewards of leading even a single person to a mostly correct religious ideology, and even a marginally better eternity, could be unimaginably greater than becoming a billionare (for more info see the section The stakes could not be higher). Renowned philosopher Al Ghazali’s writes in his autobiography: 

“My object in this account is to make others understand with what earnestness we should search for truth, since it leads to results we never dreamed of.”[84]

Closing thoughts

Long story short, religious ideologies claim to know by far the best way to be an effective altruist and yet EA has condemned them without a fair trial (so far).  However, EA is still the most impressive organization I know of and if anyone has the power to reevaluate their worldview, I think it’s EA.[85]

However, I’ve wondered if it’s asking too much of anyone to question their own ideology, especially on the basis of an essay of a stranger. So even if my arguments are sound, I’m afraid I’m being unrealistic. 

However, I’m afraid quite a lot of paradigm shifting would be required of most people if they are going to succeed in doing the most effective altruism they can, since most people are raised in ideologies that assert misinformation critical for doing the most good. Therefore most people would need to reconstruct their worldview to align with the truly best causes. Let me explain with an example:

Let’s assume for the sake for argument that all religions are fundamentally mistaken. In particular let’s assume that all holy scripture is just the product of fallible people, mostly ancients that were surely more ignorant than the best of our contemporaries. There is no afterlife either, so basically atheism is correct.

Only a tiny minority of the world are athiests, and a whopping 84% of the world adheres to a religion. So wouldn’t the vast majority of people need to detach from religious ideologies in order to realize that their altruistic potential lies in pursuing something like EA’s causes (e.g. AI alignment, improving nuclear security, etc.) instead of wasting their time and energy on religious pursuits (e.g. spreading the gospel, fasting during Ramadan, studying the Torah, etc.) and preparing for an afterlife that will never arrive?

Of course, the aforementioned religious practices are not necessarily contrary to effective altruism (if kept in moderation) because they may be a source of vitality for some. However, devoting oneself to religious ideals competes with devoting oneself fully to EA’s current causes:

"Both religious commitment and effective altruism demand a singular focus. They both demand that one keep a particular aim at the forefront of one’s mind, and make the bulk of one’s life decisions with this aim in view. And they each can see the other as a competitor for that singular focus. As we know, you can only serve one master."[86]

Actually, I think many religious ideologies overlap with EA’s current causes more than the above quote lets on (for more, see above Better sooner rather than later section).   But more importantly, I hope you won't hesitate to let me know if I’m missing something important, or made a mistake, or am woefully misguided. If I’m not the latter, I hope this stimulates discussion among the incredible people of EA, because I really want to know how to do the most effective altruism and I can use all the help I can get.


  1. ^

    I am defining naturalism as the view that “The natural world is all that exists, or at least all that should be of concern to us when deciding how to act.” This was lifted from Fodor’s  https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/uxFvTnzSgw8uakNBp/effective-altruism-is-an-ideology-not-just-a-question This view is often opposed to religious ideologies which claim the natural, material world doesn't contain all of reality.

  2. ^

    If you are unfamiliar with EA, in a nutshell “Effective altruism is a project that aims to find the best ways to help others, and put them into practice. It’s both a research field, which aims to identify the world’s most pressing problems and the best solutions to them, and a practical community that aims to use those findings to do good.” – source: https://www.effectivealtruism.org/articles/introduction-to-effective-altruism accessed September 1 2022  

  3. ^

     I  awarded 30% to the top commentor who asked me donate it to GiveDirectly.

     Here's a record of the terms and condition:

    If possible, I may give away higher percentages of earnings from this post (especially if EA gives the top prizes to other people) because I really want to incentivize feedback regardless of the decision that EA makes. I really don't want anyone to pull any punches or try to dress up my ideas in hopes of winning higher prizes. 

    I will do my best to reward the most insightful input regardless of whether it’s critical or supportive. Either way I really appreciate you taking the time to read this post. I’m afraid not everyone who gives feedback will get financially compensated, but I will do my best to consider all of it.

  4. ^
  5. ^

    "The EA movement clearly has a secular character. When leaders of the movement state its core project, or articulate reasons for pursuing it, they rarely ever put forward explicitly religious claims.” – source: “Effective Altruism and Religion Synergies, Tensions, Dialogue” edited by D. Roser et. al; published 2022; accessible at https://philarchive.org/archive/RIEEAA-3 

  6. ^

    In a nutshell that’s because most religions, and ideologies in general, give contradictory answers to important questions and none are currently in majority, so if a correct ideology exists, it is in the minority. 

    For more info see the section entitled Why not take most religious ideologies seriously?

  7. ^

     I back up this claim in the section A sea of confusion with no oasis in sight

  8. ^

    For example, only “17% of US adults "do not believe in any afterlife at all. " Source: https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/11/23/views-on-the-afterlife accessed August 30, 2022

  9. ^

    I elaborate in the section: The stakes could not be higher

  10. ^

    I elaborate in the section: Better sooner rather than later

  11. ^

    I elaborate in the section: Failure would not be worthless 

  12. ^

    I explain why in the “Importance” section.

  13. ^


  14. ^

    Religion Prof. Charles Kimball Th.D: “The religions are united in presenting worldviews that explain the nature and purpose of existence. Sacred stories convey vital information about the human predicament, namely, what went wrong or why people are blocked from experiencing the ideal state of existence. The structural patterns are the same, though the actual ‘problem’ humans must overcome varies significantly." Source: Prof. Kimball’s online course on Comparative Religion (Lecture 16) Accessible at https://www.audible.com/pd/Comparative-Religion-Audiobook/B00DAGYZNO?ref=a_library_t_c5_libItem_&pf_rd_p=80765e81-b10a-4f33-b1d3-ffb87793d047&pf_rd_r=R5648MQ75WBH4C2SAF16 

  15. ^

    Influential religious philosopher John Hick affirms this in more religious terminology: "For salvation, redemption, re-creation is really what the religions are all about. They are not primarily sets of doctrines, or philosophies, but ways or paths of salvation — salvation being our Christian term for a radical change from a profoundly wrong to a profoundly right and fulfilling relationship to the divine or the ultimate" – original source accessible online at https://bahai-library.com/hick_one_true_religion

  16. ^

    I am defining ideology the same way Merriam Webster’s dictionary does: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ideologies (on September 9, 2022) namely: 

    “the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program; a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture”

    James Fodor provides more information on and examples of ideologies (although I do not necessarily endorse all his conclusions) https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/FpjQMYQmS3rWewZ83/effective-altruism-is-a-question-not-an-ideology 

  17. ^

    For example, Eastern religious ideologies often assert that humans have soul that can get reincarnated into a different body after death. However, many claim the intervening time can be incredibly long and intense. For more information look up Naraka which is roughly the Eastern equivalent of Hell. Although, naraka is ultimately temporary it purportedly has the potential to be unimaginably more grueling than an individual lifetime. 

  18. ^

    I have yet to see an exception to this rule, only confirmation. Although I don’t have a good single source for this broad claim, I thought this one would be better than nothing:Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained. Gale, 2003. (Accessible online at  https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/how-major-religions-view-afterlife accessed August 29 2022:

    “all the major faiths believe that after the spirit has left the body, it moves on to another existence… All the major world religions hold the belief that how a person has conducted himself or herself while living on Earth will greatly influence his or her soul's ultimate destiny after physical death.” 

  19. ^

    Although I don't have a good single source for this, it is largely affirmed by Prof. Kimball mentioned in the footnote above

  20. ^

    A large majority of world adheres to a religion and, as mentioned above, the major religions affirm an afterlife.

    About 84% of the world adhered to a religion in 2010, mostly Abrahamic ones. Source: https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/#:~:text=A%20comprehensive%20demographic%20study%20of,world%20population%20of%206.9%20billion

    Accessed August 30, 2022

  21. ^

    Pew offers more precise data on Americans: "Nearly three-quarters of all U.S. adults (73%) say they believe in heaven, while a smaller share – but still a majority (62%) – believe in hell." Source: https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/11/23/views-on-the-afterlife/ accessed September 8.

  22. ^

    “Every religious traditions contains at least some elements directing us to treat other animals in a humane and compassionate way.” according to religion Prof. Mark Berkson’s course on the Afterlife (lecture 21). After a few years of study, I haven’t heard of any religious leaders that would call factory farming a trifling matter if they knew about how it harms people as well:

     Factory farming does not just impose tremendous unnecessary suffering on about 70-250 billion helpless creatures, often for the sake of a luxury. It also contributes to the malnutrition/starvation of roughly 1 billion people, increases everyone’s risk of disease, and more you can learn about here: https://www.ciwf.org.uk/factory-farming/

  23. ^

    Although I am far from an authority on biblical exegesis, the Catechism of the Catholic Church cites this passage when affirming the Christian duty to care for the “disadvantaged” (see more at http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s1c2a3.htm accessed September 2022) and an international Christian humanitarian aid organization called Mathew 25 was ostensibly established to fulfill these words (see more at https://m25m.org/about-us/)

  24. ^
  25. ^

    Source: Mishra, Ravi K. “Gandhi and Hinduism.” Indian Journal of Public Administration, vol. 65, no. 1, Mar. 2019, pp. 71–90 https://doi.org/10.1177/0019556118820453

  26. ^

    Source: Gandhi’s Autobiography; Translated (from Gujarati) by Mahadev Desai. Accessible at:


  27. ^

    I am defining naturalism as the view that “The natural world is all that exists, or at least all that should be of concern to us when deciding how to act.” This was lifted from Fodor’s https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/uxFvTnzSgw8uakNBp/effective-altruism-is-an-ideology-not-just-a-question This view is often opposed to religious ideologies which claim the natural, material world doesn't contain all of reality.

  28. ^

    John Kerry, US secretary of state from 2013-17, wrote: "I often say that if I headed back to college today, I would major in comparative religions rather than political science. That is because religious actors and institutions are playing an influential role in every region of the world.” source: "We ignore the global impact of religion at our peril' published by America Magazine on September 2015; accessed August 27, 2022. Accessible online at: https://www.americamagazine.org/issue/religion-and-diplomacy 

  29. ^

    “Religions are powerful forces for good and evil… religion in one or more forms still holds sway over the minds of most people in the world.” Source:  Linzey Andrew and Linzey Clair, Routledge Handbook of Religion and Animal Ethics, Routledge, 2019

  30. ^

     "Any new technology, be it the computer or biotechnology, creates a vacuum in social ethical thought and fear. ‘What effect will this have on our lives? Is it good or bad? What do we need to control?’… [for example, before animal cloning was accomplished Prof. Rollin advised scientists to] create an educated populace on cloning and help them define the issues… Some years later, the creation Dolly [the cloned sheep] was announced to a completely uninformed public. Time Warner conducted a survey one week after the announcement. Fully 75 percent of the U.S. public affirmed that cloning ‘violated God’s will. There are many other, similar stories…” source: Rollin, Bernard E. Putting the Horse before Descartes Temple University Press, 2011.

  31. ^

    Adapted from ibid.

  32. ^

    “Effective Altruism and Religion Synergies, Tensions, Dialogue” edited by D. Roser et. al; published 2022; accessible at https://philarchive.org/archive/RIEEAA-3 

  33. ^

     I am defining naturalism as the view that “The natural world is all that exists, or at least all that should be of concern to us when deciding how to act.” This was lifted from Fodor’s https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/uxFvTnzSgw8uakNBp/effective-altruism-is-an-ideology-not-just-a-question

  34. ^
  35. ^

    Muzaffar Iqbal’s essay entitled “Scientific Commentary on the Quran”; featured in “The Study Quran” published 2015

  36. ^

    For example Richard Dawkins writes: “I have met this kind of absurdity elsewhere, when I have challenged religious but otherwise intelligent scientists to justify their belief, given their admission that there is no evidence: [for example, a quote from Stephen Unwin:] 'I admit that there's no evidence. There's a reason why it's called faith'” – The God Delusion published in 2006 

  37. ^

    https://www.iep.utm.edu/faith-re/ accessed August 11 2022

  38. ^
  39. ^

    According to http://www.mormonthink.com/ accessed August 11, 2022

  40. ^

    According to http://www.mormonthink.com/introductionweb.htm accessed August 11, 2022

  41. ^

    For more info see http://www.mormonthink.com/introductionweb.htm , in particular “If you believe we have misrepresented a position, please contact us and let us know the specific information you believe is in error, and provide us with what you believe is the accurate information as well as corroborating sources.” 

  42. ^
  43. ^

    By “major religions” I mean religions with the greatest longevity, influence, and number of current adherents. Most experts I’ve encountered concur that the following are major religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism.

  44. ^

    “Steelmanning is the act of taking a view, or opinion, or argument and constructing the strongest possible version of it. It is the opposite of strawmanning.” Source: https://www.lesswrong.com/tag/steelmanning accessed August 11, 2022

  45. ^

    For more information about this, look for “Ideological Turing test” in this essay and/or https://www.lesswrong.com/tag/ideological-turing-tests

  46. ^
  47. ^

    Huston Smith’s autobiography; Tales of Wonder published in 2009

  48. ^

    He claims to explain this in the treatise entitled "Marvels of the Heart," which forms part of our work, 'The Revival of the Religious Sciences.” The quote is from his autobiography entitled “Confessions”, or “Deliverance from Error” c. 1100 CE available at https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/1100ghazali-truth.asp. Last I checked you could listen to it for free here: https://librivox.org/the-confessions-of-al-ghazali-by-abu-amid-muammad-ibn-muammad-al-ghazali/ and it only took about an hour or two

  49. ^

    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/religion-epistemology/ The Epistemology of Religion; First published Wed Apr 23, 1997; substantive revision Tue Jun 22, 2021; accessed August 11, 2022

  50. ^

    Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "jnana". Encyclopedia Britannica, 19 Oct. 2007, https://www.britannica.com/topic/jnana. Accessed 3 February 2022.

  51. ^


  52. ^
  53. ^

    A major Mormon apologetic organization: “Are we to assume that the human intellect is perfect, that we can’t be fooled by our intellect?... [spoiler alert: their answer is negative.] They go onto say “Christ seems to place more value on having faith, without evidence.” From https://www.fairlatterdaysaints.org/archive/publications/can-we-trust-our-feelings accessed August 30 2022

  54. ^
  55. ^

    "Cults Inside Out" by Ross 2014

  56. ^

    Many poignant examples shown here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ycUvC9s4VYA&t=214 although I would be remiss not to mention that I disagree with the dichotomy he gives at 3:15 minutes in because it's clear to me the answer doesn't have to always be one of his two options. If you’re curious about other possibilities, I listed some examples in the comments of that YouTube video.

  57. ^

    "The Scout Mindset” by Julia Galef, published 2021

  58. ^

    “The Scout Mindset” Ch. 14

  59. ^

    Definition lifted from https://www.lesswrong.com/tag/ideological-turing-tests; accessed August 29 2022. For more information about the Ideological Turing test and how to apply it see “The Scout Mindset” Ch. 14

  60. ^

    The most helpful list I could find is on his app “Pocket Biases” https://pocket-biases.glideapp.io/dl/d0a5f4 (section “All Biases”) which briefly summarizes each bias, usually provides links for further reading, and is convenient for casual perusal. He’s written a lot more about cognitive biases, but I don’t agree with much of his conclusions, so I’m not linking to that stuff. 

  61. ^

    "Individuals can only work to correct for sources of bias that they are aware exist… Simply knowing about implicit bias and its potentially harmful effects on judgment and behavior may prompt individuals to pursue corrective action… Although awareness of implicit bias in and of itself is not sufficient to ensure that effective debiasing efforts take place… it is a crucial starting point that may prompt individuals to seek out and implement the types of strategies listed throughout this document"; Source: Strategies to Reduce the Influence of Implicit Bias, produced by the National Center for State Courts; available at https://horsley.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/IB_Strategies_033012.pdf

  62. ^
  63. ^

    Linzey Andrew and Linzey Clair, Routledge Handbook of Religion and Animal Ethics, Routledge, 2019

  64. ^

    “Thanks to Mr. Danforth’s generosity, my travels began; and so began my love affair with the world” source: Smith’s autobiography Tales of Wonder

  65. ^
  66. ^

    Smith writes “Mysticism pointed toward the ‘mystical East,’ so, Ph.D. in hand and teaching now, I cut back on philosophy to devote roughly half my time (as I have ever since) to immersing myself in the world’s religions; immersing is the right word, for I have always been devotee as much as scholar.”; source: The Way Things Are: conversations with Huston Smith on the spiritual life

  67. ^
  68. ^

    “While Huston Smith’s books and classes have been popular, his eclectic approach has turned many an academic apoplectic” source: The Way Things Are: conversations with Huston Smith on the spiritual life

  69. ^

    “I was an agonizingly slow learner. Had I gone to a public school, and not received the attention she lavished, I might have been segregated into a class for ‘special’ children”-  Smith’s autobiography Tales of Wonder

  70. ^


  71. ^

    “The World’s Religions” by Huston Smith

  72. ^

    As mentioned above, I am defining naturalism as the view that “The natural world is all that exists, or at least all that should be of concern to us when deciding how to act.” This was lifted from Fodor’s https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/uxFvTnzSgw8uakNBp/effective-altruism-is-an-ideology-not-just-a-question  

    This view is often opposed to religious ideologies which claim the natural, material world doesn't contain all of reality.

  73. ^
  74. ^

    For more on the topic see the section entitled Would investigating religious ideologies properly be overwhelming?

  75. ^

    "I’ve tried and failed to find a reliable, balanced, up-to-date source of the evidence for and against even a single major religious ideology (with one possible exception listed below)." From the section entitled Neglected.

  76. ^
  77. ^

    "From the beginning of Islam, Muslims have upheld the notion of the miraculous and inimitable nature of the Qur’an as proof of Muhammad’s prophethood. “Indeed”, says Muhammad al-Baqillani (d. /1013), “(his) prophethood is built upon this miracle” (1930, 13), a miracle which “abides from its revelation up to the day of resurrection” (ibid.). The belief that the Qur’anic revelations cannot be equaled or surpassed by any human power in its eloquence and its contents acquired a more precise form in the teaching that each Prophet was given a verifying miracle and that the Prophet Muhammad’s miracle was the Qur’an.” – Farid Esack’s The Quran: A User’s Guide

  78. ^

    "Because [it is alleged that when it comes to the Quran/ Koran] content and container are here inseparably fused, translations cannot possibly convey the emotion, the fervor, and the mystery that the Koran holds in the original. This is why, in sharp contrast to Christians, who have translated their Bible into every known script, Muslims have preferred to teach others the language in which they believe God spoke finally with incomparable force and directness." source: The World Religions by Huston Smith

  79. ^

    "But in earlier historical periods losing blood was considered to be beneficial to health. This practice was called bloodletting and was the most common procedure performed by surgeons for almost two thousand years. They did it to balance the humors, as a surplus was thought to cause ill health." source: "Bloodletting". British Science Museum. 2009. Archived from the original on 15 April 2009. Retrieved 12 July 2009. Thanks to Wikipedia for finding this source.

  80. ^

    Immune by Philipp Dettmer, published 2021

  81. ^

    “By January 2002, one year after launch, Wikipedia had gone from zero to twenty thousand articles. This was far beyond the imagination of even the most optimistic of the bunch." - The Wikipedia revolution by Andrew Lih. By August 2022, twenty years later, Wikipedia has 55 million articles in 309 languages, at least according to this Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Size_comparisons#:~:text=Currently%2C%20the%20English%20Wikipedia%20alone,million%20articles%20in%20309%20languages

  82. ^

    Galef’s book the Scout Mindset lists more examples of successful entrepreneurs like Elon Musk that faced overwhelming odds. She also provides more background info on Bezos:

    “In 1994, Jeff Bezos had a cushy and well-paying job as an investment banker in New York City. He had been increasingly considering quitting to launch a company on this exciting new thing called ‘The Internet.’ But he wanted to make sure he had a clear view of the odds facing him. By his estimate, about 10 percent of internet start-ups grew into successful businesses. Bezos suspected that his skill level and business idea were better than average, but he also knew that wasn’t a justification for ignoring the baseline odds completely. All things considered, he gave himself about a 30 percent chance of success. 

    How did he feel about that level of risk? Could he stomach the possibility of failure? Bezos imagined being eighty years old and looking back at his life choices. Missing out on his 1994 Wall Street bonus wasn’t the kind of thing he would care about decades later. But passing up the chance to participate in the growth of the internet absolutely was. ‘If it failed, fine,' he decided. 'I would be very proud of the fact when I’m 80 that I tried.’ That’s what clinched his decision to take the plunge, quit his job, and start the company that would become Amazon.” 

  83. ^
  84. ^

    As mentioned above: This quote is from his autobiography entitled “Confessions”, or “Deliverance from Error” c. 1100 CE available at https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/1100ghazali-truth.asp. Last I checked you could listen to it for free here: https://librivox.org/the-confessions-of-al-ghazali-by-abu-amid-muammad-ibn-muammad-al-ghazali/ and it only took about an hour or two

  85. ^

    The Centre for Effective Altruism acknowledges that what EA  “focuses on could easily change. What defines effective altruism are the values that underpin its search for the best ways of helping others [which includes]... Open truthseeking: Rather than starting with a commitment to a certain cause, community or approach, it’s important to consider many different ways to help and seek to find the best ones. This means putting serious time into deliberation and reflection on one’s beliefs, being constantly open and curious for new evidence and arguments, and being ready to change one’s views quite radically.” Emphasis added. Source: https://www.effectivealtruism.org/articles/introduction-to-effective-altruism Accessed August 29, 2022

  86. ^

    Effective Altruism and Religion Synergies, Tensions, Dialogue” edited by D. Roser et. al; published 2022; accessible at https://philarchive.org/archive/RIEEAA-3 

  87. ^


  88. ^

    “Steelmanning is the act of taking a view, or opinion, or argument and constructing the strongest possible version of it. It is the opposite of strawmanning.” Source: https://www.lesswrong.com/tag/steelmanning accessed August 11, 2022

  89. ^

    As mentioned above, I am defining naturalism as the view that “The natural world is all that exists, or at least all that should be of concern to us when deciding how to act.” This was lifted from Fodor’s https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/uxFvTnzSgw8uakNBp/effective-altruism-is-an-ideology-not-just-a-question This view is often opposed to religious ideologies which claim the natural, material world doesn't contain all of reality.





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Here's a couple ideas:

  1. make use of studies of ideology in general
  2. study religious epistemologies using research done to date

I would be skeptical of the claim that religions all pursue effective altruism of some sort. Yes, altruism was part of the religion I grew up in and a couple of others that I have first-hand knowledge of, but religious philosophies are complicated, and the comparison of EA with religion wrt altruism might not be an apples to apples comparison.

You could investigate religious models of morality using western distinctions (deontology, axiology, consequentialism, utilitarianism, ..).

A final point, a person engaged in a religion adopts it articles on faith, and its philosophy after generous study. It's unclear to me that anyone "inside" a religion will ever supply an outsider's perspective well. However, your idea to use Julia Galef's Ideological Turing test would make sense for someone outside a religion wanting to explore it with a more open mind. 

The major world religions are more or less immune to epistemological challenges and I am tempted to think the same about any deeply held beliefs of folks who identify with EA. 

One such belief is likely to be technological determinism, actually an element of marketing use by Silicon Valley companies. We have all bought into it, to some extent, and EA folks probably more than most.

Thanks for the feedback, it got me thinking and led to me clarifying my work. Feel free to offer more.

"make use of studies of ideology in general
study religious epistemologies using research done to date"

Good idea, it would be wasteful to try to reinvent what has already been done. However I have tried and failed to find  comprehensive studies and research thorough enough for an issue whose stakes are so high. How about you?

"I would be skeptical of the claim that religions all pursue effective altruism of some sort."

Me too! To clarify, one of my points was that religions claim to know by far the best ways (and so aspiring effective cannot afford to dismiss them without a fair trial), not they are good at putting those answers into practice [more on this in the section The stakes could not be higher].

In fact, I think it is safe to say most religious adherents often fall short of the ideal. For example popular Christian apologists write "Someone once said the biggest problem with Christianity is Christians" (Geisler and Turek, 2004) and I've heard similar sentiments from prominent Muslims and Jews and I bet they exist in other religions.

"You could investigate religious models of morality using western distinctions (deontology, axiology, consequentialism, utilitarianism, ..)."

Could you elaborate why? I was thinking it's less important to classify claims (essential to effective altruism) and more important to focus on verifying or falsifying them asap.

"[#1] The major world religions are more or less immune to epistemological challenges and [#2] I am tempted to think the same about any deeply held beliefs of folks who identify with EA."

Re #1: I don't disagree and that's okay with me since I want to figure out how the most effective altruism is done, not waste my time convincing religious people who don't share that interest.

#2 I empathize, but think it would be a mistake to underestimate EA without giving them a shot. Not only do they pledge allegiance to selflessness and seek criticism more than most, but the Centre for EA even states that radical open mindedness is a core value of EA. Thanks to your comment I have specified that in (what is currently) footnote [83].

Hi Dov

Study of religions is not my main interest, so I don't have a good list of resources for you, but I believe they exist. There have been many studies of religion over the years, from outsider and insider perspectives, evaluating all aspects of religions. I remember that much from literature searches on the general topic done many years ago. Some studies are sympathetic, some are critical. Religious scholars that adhere to one religion will study another. Some scholars find common ground, others catalog differences. Some get it right, and some don't. Some religions have sects and subsects, with different philosophies, so there's lots of confusion in any discussion of the beliefs of actual religions.

Religious philosophies about altruism are based on religious ideas of the world. They assume a certain ontology and then discuss where they find instances of entities identified in that ontology. For example,  if a faith has angels in its ontology, it might also keep a history of the actions of a particular archangel. That ontology was not necessarily constructed in a manner that everyone agrees is valid. But  do you believe that the ontology applies? If you do, then regardless of whether you identify its entities operating in the world, you can trust that they do or have. The implications for what you consider altruistic are strong, particularly when the religion insists that you suffer consequences if you do not meet its definition of altruism or goodness. You can use that for your outsider's perspective, if you like.

If you apply western ethics to religious philosophies, then you gain the distinctions that western ethicists use to evaluate altruism.  That lens is helpful for you to try to bridge the gap between EA and religions. In particular, with thorough knowledge of a religious philosophy, you can steelman its arguments for altruism to an EA crowd, provided you understand western philosophy and ethics to some degree. I don't have the background knowledge to steelman any religion to an EA crowd.

Overall, I think your approach poses an unnecessary challenge to religion.  Religions are formed based on articles of truth that they typically take on faith (for example, the divine inspiration for a religious text articulating the religion's precepts). Religion is not a human enterprise formed around maximizing altruistic activity per se. The belief systems of religions go beyond altruism and center on how to do deal with a world containing the supernatural or the spiritual as those religions define it.

It's usually the case that knowing the truth (about the world or existence) and knowing what to do about it (how to practice your faith) are part of a religion. Once you know the truth, and are taught what to do, you can go apply it and save yourself, or others, or something, maybe ascend a spiritual ladder as part of your self-development, recognize deeper truths, etc. The actions you take might be altruistic in some cases in some religions but not in others. Nevertheless, they are appropriate for the religion. In addition, the definitions of altruism that religions use might be different, depending on the religion's priorities or beliefs.

I think that you seek an an incompatible (apples-to-oranges) comparison of religions and EA. The ontologies, purposes, and means are all different. Comparing religious altruism with EA altruism will leave out a large part of what each believes about the world, resulting in misleading conclusions about each's purposes and actions.  

You can evaluate the fit of each's ideas and execution of altruism to their own epistemology and ontology, but that is really a more general analysis about ideologies and their implications for altruism, the concept. EA's might appreciate the focus on altruism, but that's not all of what religions are about, so it would be unfair to religion. 

Religions are about responding to the state of the world as they find it, which involves an ontology that is not always built around the need for altruism. If  a religion practiced altruism in a less effective way, that might be because their ideology demands it and so their priorities are different.

Sorry if that was rambling or repetitive. I don't have time to edit this down.

"There have been many studies of religion over the years, from outsider and insider perspectives, evaluating all aspects of religions"

I agree because I have been reading these studies for years.

I have added a preface [link] that explains my background, but as I mentioned above I have yet to find " a reliable, balanced, up-to-date source of the evidence for and against even a single major religious ideology (with one possible exception)" [more on that here] or a proper inquiry into alternatives to evidentialism [more on that here].

How about you?

"If you apply western ethics to religious philosophies... understand western philosophy and ethics to some degree."

Well put.

"I think that you seek an an incompatible (apples-to-oranges) comparison of religions and EA."

I don't think so and I don't see how comparing them is necesssary for figuring out how to do the most good. If truth is not dependant on its source, then I don't care if the information vital for maximally effective altruism comes in the garb of EA or religion or any other label. 

"Overall, I think your approach poses an unnecessary challenge to religion."

I didn't intend to challenge religion at all. Can u please explain why u think I am being "unfair to religion" (preferably while referring to specific quotes)?

"Sorry if that was rambling or repetitive. I don't have time to edit this down."

No worries (your unedited comments are a lot better than nothing :)

Well, I did  my best to understand your essay, Dov. 

I will say that some religious organizations do good works as part of their faith, and that those organizations offer value to their communities. There might be effective ways to support their community that a religious charity would adopt with help from the EA community, and vice-versa. The two communities could help each other.

Thank you very much for doing your best and sorry about not being clearer in my first draft. I really appreciate your comments, they have definitely helped me clarify this essay. I'm sorry I was harsh in my last comment (I deleted the harsh parts).

"I will say that some... The two communities could help each other."

I agree. As I mentioned in my essay, there is considerable overlap in EA and religion. 

Here's a quote I like but didn't get a chance to mention:

"But, curiously, religious commitment and effective altruism are united in telling us we should not serve mammon. They are united in claiming that the ordinary, 21st-century American and Western European way of living has gone drastically wrong, and that we need to create a different way of living from the ground up. They are united in thinking that people who are not part of our everyday social group should occupy a much larger part of our concern. They are united in thinking that our focus should be on others rather than on ourselves, not just part of the time, but as a way of life." 

Source: “Effective Altruism and Religion Synergies, Tensions, Dialogue” edited by D. Roser et. al; published 2022; accessible at https://philarchive.org/archive/RIEEAA-3 

I get the feeling you might like this book and thanks again for your feedback!

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