Should some variant of longtermism identify as a religion?

by MakoYass2 min read11th Sep 20208 comments


Personal Blog

The material is already there, it wouldn't involve any lies at all. There are many advantages that need to be weighed.

How could it plausibly identify as a religion?

There are many reasons you might think that it couldn't. We do not lie to our friends, even if the lie is pleasant and locally adaptive. If there were a god, we would respect and admire it but there is no circumstance in which we would worship it. Technology's pace makes blindly inherited culture always maladapted, there isn't enough time to evolve, any more, we must instead design, we must imagine that we can build something better than what we had before, we must be lucid and objective about the underpinnings of our culture, none of our myths can be sacred enough that no evidence could allow us to find them to be false and reject them. Those claims, in combination, distinguish us from everything that has been called a religion before. I believe this to be true.

But there's a lot of other stuff weighing on the other hand, arguably, more.

I have not seen anyone around me compellingly disagree with the simulation hypothesis. We can put forward some new work in decision theory that literally inserts a non-physical entity into our world models that represents an ideal agent that links us all. It provides a moral framework for approaching coordination problems that all robust agents, human or not, can be expected to adhere to, which exceeds the requirements of Yuval Harari's operational definition of religion. I've been wrestling with an acausal protocol for trade with simulators for 7 years and though the first version had been given had some accounting problems I still have not been able to dismiss its biggest most religion-flavored claim. We all seem to agree that humans evolved, and we seem to believe it to an extent that most western secular liberals do not, and that lets us approach a greater depth of understanding of human psychology, it gives us a shared creation story and a notion of the sacredness of nature as it pertains to us, a direct relationship with the process that created us, it is profound and it is useful. We behave as if these things are not important, but they are important. They add up to something.



Shared worldviews and moral resolutions build communities that are strengthened by trust.

It is good to write about nature in a way that lets you feel it viscerally, and if you do that enough, eventually you will start to have profound experiences, and it's foolish to run from that.

Governments are sometimes nice to religious organizations. Personally, living in New Zealand, I get a 33.3% tax rebate (which can be paid onward) for donating to charities. Religious organizations are also not subject to income taxes or property rates (which is important if you want to be able to retain an inner city community center, and I currently do). This is materially important.

In Europe, there is a pretty neat thing called church taxes (Iceland's Congregation Tax seems like the best implementation). Church taxes, in essence, let you choose which stewards of the commons some of your taxes go to. This has the potential to become a good institution and so it deserves our participation (if there isn't a longtermist org for Icelanders to pay congregation tax to, there definitely should be. This is not even in question. The current humanist organization is Siðmennt. I don't know much about them.).


Why not?

There seem to be no tax advantages to identifying as a religion in the US, perhaps even a disadvantage.

In 1947, the US Supreme Court ruled in Everson v. Board of Education that "No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion."

I wasn't raised in a religious environment. I did not learn to resent any of it. So I wont be the best at writing about the "why not". For that I invite comment from others.

But don't forget to agree, if you can. It takes a lot more than a squick response to dismiss some of these benefits.


8 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:59 PM
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I have just now noticed that using words like should about things like religion stopped making sense to me at some point. I don't know when this happened.

It feels like a more natural way to approach this question is to ask: if long-termism were to embrace ritual, community, and other activities of religion, would long-termism benefit?

Phrased this way, it feels like the answer is yes. There are a slew of reasons for this, but here are a few obvious ones:

  • Use the bias to destroy the bias: people have a hard time with long-termism because of things like future discounting and scope insensitivity. The systematic employment social proof would go a long way to counteract these problems.
  • Learn from the best: religious institutions are heavily over-represented among long-term institutions. This includes things which are practical in purpose, like universities or libraries, but were built under religious auspices or as an extension of other religious institutions. Further, several religions have a lot of rhetorical experience on the subject of eternity (which thanks to scope insensitivity is not distinguishable from the long term among the laity).
  • Administration: a religious organization is a convenient place through which to offer useful long-term services, like financial planning to ensure a stable future for members and help them budget for that 10% charity tithe. Likewise for other areas that are neglected, like mental health, or poorly managed, like the rest of medicine.

And then of course there are the regular concerns like how people in this community often lack physical community, which have been talked about here before. As a single institution, a long-termist religious org has the opportunity to do a reasonable job of harmonizing any sort of village/mission dichotomy.

if long-termism were to embrace ritual, community, and other activities of religion, would long-termism benefit?

While that is worth asking, it's not the brunt of the question I'm wrestling with. I agree we should do more of that, I think that falls under the consequences of simply taking adequately seriously a system of claims that touch on many aspects of life, which doesn't necessarily need to be described as religious.

The question is, should we call it a religion now, or soon after a thorough account of its religion-like qualities is written, or should we only start calling it a religion if it is forced.

Physical community

I'm not sure how identifying as a religion would help, in that respect. I think it would make it harder to grow, at least in the current atmosphere, than just sticking with EA. I don't think it would make it easier to acquire physical churchehouses/community centers, but I should probably look into that more. Maybe talk to my Quaker friends.

If you want to draw the boundaries in concept-space that are simple and useful for compressing ideas, then taking the stereotypical examples of religion to be concepts like Christianity and Hinduism, then longtermism isn't in that cluster.

If a bizarre tax system forces you to count it as a religious charity to gain tax breaks, then that's between you and the tax man. 

Setting aside disagreements about what aspects of religions makes it practical to distinguishing them from other kinds of organizations, or about whether longtermism is on a trajectory to develop those

that's between you and the tax man. 

And no one else? It seems likely that this conversation with the tax man will need to involve other people, via a requirement that the variant publicly identifying as a religion somewhere, or via at least one published text that analyses the group as a religion (which I'd probably have to write).

Although skimming NZ's laws, it does seem as if the texts we have might already be enough! (for reasons I will prefer not to publicly expound until a decision has been made.)

Fully agree with both points (that it's not "naturally" a religion, and that groups are free to try whatever they like to optimize government and other-group interactions).

The best approach is probably not to be as general as "some variant of longtermism". Identify an actual group (or set of groups) that would sufficiently benefit from getting this religion recognized in some specific jurisdiction(s). Then those groups can discuss the actual weights of the pros and cons among their constituents.

Religion is symbiotic to humans - that's how it has persisted for millennia, despite being factually mistaken about many important things. Some of us get along fine without it, but we seem to be a minority.

It would be great to have something honest to fill the niche taken by religion, including community, moral guidance, and making people feel better about their lives. I would be willing to donate some money toward the project.

Most religions involve an afterlife - without that the "religion niche" may not be filled. One truthful way to offer this might be to talk about quantum immortality - if the MWI is correct and we can only experience worlds in which we survive, then subjectively (only!) we may each perceive ourselves to be immortal. Cryonics is another option here.

Ideas about destiny and duty seem to play important roles in religions. I suggest something along the lines of "spreading the light of life and intelligence thruout the universe". Frank Tipler has written a lot about this - mostly nonsense in my opinion, but we could take his vision of the Omega Point not as inevitable, but as a goal we (intelligence in the universe) have a duty to accomplish.

That seems to fit pretty well with long-termism, however defined. We could take it as our project realize Tipler's dream - to colonize the universe with intelligence, to make the universe an ever-better place to live.

Charities do not have to be religious in NZ .......just do good and apolitical.

Many don't.

I should add, most of the longtermist projects I could imagine initiating in NZ would help people in the present, but I'm not sure how how much of that is a result of me limiting my hopes to fit through the overton window. I should think more about that.