EA is Not Religious Enough
Effective Altruism should emulate peak Quakerism
Pretty much every criticism of Effective Altruism has some claim that EA “is a lot like a religion”. This is a strange and useless criticism. Religion is just an example of what it looks like when people believe things. If you watch political people (or even sometimes sports fans) together in large groups, multiple aspects of their behaviour look decidedly religious - they address one another with special terms, they have chants, sing songs, have sacred texts or even sacred unimpeachable characters, they adorn themselves in signals of their beliefs, they pontificate about perfect worlds in which their policy (or victory) is fully realised and everyone lives happily ever after, and they have special beliefs built upon assumptions they protect emotionally regardless (frequently) of evidence - it doesn’t mean these are religions. However, I think EA does have a religion problem, namely, that it isn’t religious enough.
Tyler Cowen argued at EAG DC that EAs should “be more Mormon”.1 His point was, essentially, that the historical lessons from Mormon communities showed clear upsides and thrust people in the general direction of “doing good”. In other words, the vibe of Mormonism was probably an overall good vibe and we shouldn’t spend forever analysing a priori what is best to do - we can learn from history and emulate successful groups. (I should note, he didn’t use the word vibe, but that is a good description of the approach to take to large historical trends we want to emulate). I agree with his criticism that EAs should weigh, understand and emulate suitable historical precedents and learn more clearly from them, but I strongly disagree that Mormonism, or another established church, is the right fit. Instead: EAs should emulate Quakerism. There are very good reasons for EAs to consider this history as the closest set of lessons they could learn from.
Doing Longterm Good as a Minority View
Quakerism, since its inception, was a reforming and productive presence. Quakerism, at its heart, is essentially a radical form of protestantism. Quakers believe that no individual has a privileged access to the word of God and thus everyone is to be listened to, heard and able to speak. It is, in many ways, more radical than evangelicals today - it takes further the concept of individual interpretation of the bible and instead moves this to individual interpretation writ-large. God speaks through everyone, and it is only through reflection, consideration and understanding of multiple views, that the Quaker community believes it can better understand what it is to do.
This belief has had outsized positive effects since its inception. George Fox proposed these ideas in the English civil wars, a time period wherein radical protestants were voicing increasingly violent and concerning things. Inspired by George Fox, the Quakers arise, continue that radical protestant logic a step further, emphasising how this actually leads to a belief in toleration of views and non-violence and set about trying to convince essentially ISIS-level protestant groups that “hey, maybe you should be non-violent and actually listen to others and be productive?”… and it works? Just take a moment to appreciate the success of that. They took vast numbers of people ready to do old testament style wars and genocides and instead directed them towards non-violence, toleration and understanding. And did so just through argument, logic and reasoning from their baseline assumptions. It is incredibly impressive.
But this is not why EAs should consider better understanding Quakerism and its history. For precedent of how to achieve longterm good at a policy and social level, with a minority membership, you cannot find much better examples than those within the Quakers. Quakers were not just reformists, but were ahead of the moral curve on a bunch of issues, and improved these without violence, and often whilst constructing useful businesses that spurred the progress of the industrial revolution. Let us look at a very brief rundown of only some of their achievements:
A Super Quick Rundown of Quaker Achievements
Quakers were ahead of the moral curve, and acted consistently in a way we would now consider moral - even when within the context of their own time periods. Take, for exmaple, slavery.
The first statement of any religious group against slavery within the Thirteen Colonies was by Quakers in 1688. Not only this, but their beliefs were not limited to statements, they affected massive policy change across the British Empire. Quakers lead the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787, being the chief drivers behind the policy of ending of the British slave trade in 1807. Not being satisfied with simply ending the practice of slavery (a practice undertaken by every civilisation in history), they continued to drive changes, succeeding in assisting the banning of slavery across the british empire in 1838.
Again, this is not the case of a single individual pushing an agenda, or a benevolent leader: this is multiple Quaker communities deciding on morally good actions and working together to achieve them. This is the result of the Quaker approach to discussion, and policy change. They were non-violent, considered, calm but principled. They had beliefs that were well constructed, well founded and considered - and beliefs they held strongly to, but never violently.
One of my personal favourite examples of this is the Quaker marriage ceremony. As Quakers refuse to recognise any privileged access to the bible, they do not have priests. In the mid-17th Century, the English state wanted everyone to be married according to the Book of Common prayer, administered by a priest.2 Quakers did not adhere to this. Instead, Quakers did their own ceremonies, without vicars, and outside of the Church of England, but they asked everyone in attendance to sign as witnesses.3 In the 18th century, the English state moved to reform the law so that all marriages were to be recorded in a church, by a priest. The effect of this was to regulate and record marriages, and to encourage membership of the Church - ie to expressly stop minority religious groups growing. Quakers couldn’t compromise on that final point - they could, however, compromise on recording and regulation. So when the state asked “Where is the proof you got married?”, Quakers could show their certificates and reply “There were 100 witnesses present, are you really saying it didn’t happen because we didn’t get a priest to do it?”. This reasoning worked, and the 1753 Marriage Act has a specific exemption for usual marriage registration for Quaker ceremonies - an exemption in English law which continues to this day.4
Again, this is a religious minority group, managing to obtain an exemption from a law that existed (at least in part) to regulate religious minority groups, but their marriages solved a significant problem for the state and thus they could compromise in such an unobjectionable way that this enabled them to successfully lobby for a specific exemption for their beliefs. This is real positive policy change, and policy change achieved without compromising central tenents of their beliefs.
Not only this, but Quakers were disproportionally successful in major businesses that spurred the progress of the industrial revolution. They were not objectivists, or obstructivists. They built, they created and they improved the world around them through contributing meaningfully to economic growth. They were not degrowthers. Here is a brief list of some of the major companies headed by Quakers, many of which were central to the industrial revolution and some of which are so successful they still exist a couple of hundred years later. (Here is also a link to work on Quaker Capitalism, attempting to describe why they were so industrially successful).
This is not to say that all Quakers were unimpeachable. That is not the point. It is instead that, in aggregate, they were influential in the longterm, that this influence was, in many instances, more moral than their counterparts, and that they were successful in positive ways across social, industrial and policy lines.
Futher, am I arguing that the world would be a better place if Quakers had ruled the West? No. I am unsure that a state run by Quakerism could survive - much like Constantine in his conversion to Christianity, the theory of just wars was necessary to defend a state, and Quakerism would have to come to terms with such compromises - in other words, would have to become less Quaker in order to sustain a state. I am instead arguing that Quakerism as a minority religious group, within a wider political ecosystem, did real longterm good through policy entrepreneurialism and corporate and social innovation. This is the history that EA should explore, and spend time studying. Real lessons are to be learned from this.
Some Broad EAs Analogies to Quakerism
I know many EAs will dislike considering learning from religion. But there are a few points of similarity that particularly make lessons from the Quakers more immediately applicable than we otherwise might assume.
EAs are not centrally political. Insofar as they have political views, they are more likely to be informed by demographics than logical conclusions from EA ideas (a point made by Cowen at EAG). What unites EAs as a whole is a focus on working out the best good that they can do. This is not a popular view, and invites suspicion and competition from other policy groups. In this sense, EA is closer to a religion than it is to political parties or pressure groups. It is less useful to learn from Democrats, or Republicans, or the UK Conservative Party or so on. It is far more useful to draw the analogy to religion. Especially to a religion which was not the head of a state, was not focused on forcing others to adopt their views, and instead on just doing what they considered God wanted them to do - in other words, in their own lights, what was good. But, unlike other groups that claim this, Quakers have real tangible achievements which we would consider unanimously good.
Further, EA is built fundamentally on well intentioned, good faith debate, with a desire to do the most good. Quakers had an analogous approach to debate - emphasising that no one had a privileged access to the word of God and, thereby, that all points of view should be listened to, considered and prayed over. This lead to many Quaker communities adopting a rule that no position should be taken without complete agreement within the community. Though this wasn’t strictly debate - it was about listening to one another, and considering deeply each opinion. God was attempting to tell you something, whenever someone spoke. Radical openness to a variety of views is not the norm in human social groups - EAs are exceptional in this, as were Quakers.
Connectedly, both Quakers and EAs are comfortable, and even encourage, criticisms. Quakers are not a church which punishes heresies. Indeed modern Quakers even encourage atheists to attend because criticisms are as equally as informative of God’s view as support is - no one has privileged access to God. EAs increasingly seek criticisms because we may be wrong on something, and EAs want to hear views (even sometimes those not made in good faith), to ensure they we are truly doing good, and doing so effectively. This, again, is not a normal part of a movement. There are very few examples of groups - especially successful groups - that this behaviour can be found in (beyond, perhaps, very successful adaptive companies and national intelligence agencies on occasion). Quakers provide an analogous blueprint of this working for a few centuries and provide EAs something to refer to and to learn from.
Finally, and briefly, Quakers also provide a model for success as a minority. Perhaps EA will become the main moral belief of the majority. I doubt this - at least for quite some time. It is far more likely that it becomes a belief of smart, connected and generally moral people. These are people likely to start businesses (and indeed many already do), or work in governmental positions of power, or create technologies, innovations or otherwise build things. If a criticism of Quakerism was that it was a religion of powerful aristocrats and business owners, I think this speaks to the audience drawn from its chief appeal: a form of concerted reasoning about what is the best thing to do - a reasoning process that invites people with the time, energy and ability (both financial and otherwise) to spend time considering this and then acting upon it. Quakers, again, provide a blueprint for a similar community - with different baseline assumptions - that EAs can learn from.
What do we do with this?
The answer is to dedicate time and energy to understanding the success of Quakerism. How did they achieve so many incredible policy and businesses successes? How did they best ensure they were on the right-side of the moral curve? We may also ask why now their beliefs are far less distinctive - perhaps the loss of religion, or that their beliefs tracked with mainstream progressive causes that are now wholly subsumed by other groups? But I think the better question is to look to their successes in industry, policy and society more broadly. If we can understand this, and emulate the better parts - perhaps even adopt some of the vibe that made them so successful, we can expect future EAs to look back on three centuries of good results. That would be a legacy to be proud of, and we have blueprints we can follow. I propose we pay attention, consider and learn from them. History is a fantastic blueprint, do not ignore the data.
Cowen did so through appealing to the work of Edmund Burke. Burke, a staunch defender of the Anglican Church, was also an outspoken tolerationist - emphasising the success of religious institutions from Hinduism for India, and arguing for toleration of Catholics in England. This probably arose from his mother being Catholic, his father Protestant. It probably also didn’t hurt that he attended a Quaker school until university.
Communion wasn’t required after 1660, to appease the more radical protestants, but the general trend was clear.
It is unclear if this was technically legal or not at the time, but they successfully skirted the law