Rational Evangelism

Not “ra­tio­nal­ity evan­ge­lism”, which CFAR is do­ing already if I un­der­stand their mis­sion. “Ra­tional evan­ge­lism”, which is what CFAR would do if they were Catholic mis­sion­ar­ies.

If you be­lieve in Hell, as many peo­ple very truly do, it is hard for Hell not to seem like the world’s most im­por­tant prob­lem.

To some ex­tent, pros­ely­tiz­ing re­li­gions treat Hell with re­spect—they spend billions of dol­lars try­ing to save sin­ners, and the most de­vout of­ten spend their lives preach­ing the Gospel (in­sert non-Chris­tian var­i­ant).

But is Hell given enough re­spect? Every group meets with mixed suc­cess in solv­ing its prob­lems, but the prob­lem of eter­nal suffer­ing leaves lit­tle room for “mixed suc­cess”. Even the most pow­er­ful re­li­gions are stuck in pat­terns that make the work of sal­va­tion very difficult in­deed. And some seem will­ing to re­duce their evan­ge­lism* for rea­sons that aren’t es­pe­cially con­vinc­ing in the face of “non­be­liev­ers are quite pos­si­bly go­ing to burn, or at least be out­side the pres­ence of God, for­ever”.

What if you were a ra­tio­nal­ist who viewed Hell like cer­tain Less Wrongers view the Sin­gu­lar­ity? (This be­lief would be hard to rec­on­cile with ra­tio­nal­ism gen­er­ally, but for the sake of ar­gu­ment...) How would you tackle the prob­lem of eter­nal suffer­ing with the same pas­sion we spend on prob­a­bil­ity the­ory and friendly AI?

I wrote a long thought ex­per­i­ment to bet­ter define the prob­lem, in­volv­ing a re­li­gion called “Nor­momism”, but it was awk­ward. There are plenty of real re­li­gions whose mem­bers be­lieve in Hell, or at least in a Heaven that many peo­ple aren’t go­ing to (also a ter­rible loss). Some have a stated mis­sion of sav­ing as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble from a bad af­ter­life.

So where are they fal­ling short?

If you were the Pope, or the Cal­iph, or the supreme dic­ta­tor of some smaller re­li­gion, what tac­tics would you use to con­vince more peo­ple to do and be­lieve ex­actly the things that would save them—whether that’s faith or good works? Why haven’t these tac­tics been tried already? Is there re­ally much room for im­prove­ment?

Spread­ing the Word

This post isn’t a dig at be­liev­ers, though it does seem like many peo­ple don’t act on their sincere be­lief in an eter­nal af­ter­life. (I don’t mind when peo­ple try to con­vert me—at least they care!)

My main point: It’s worth con­sid­er­ing that peo­ple who be­lieve in Very Bad Fu­ture Out­comes have been work­ing to pre­vent those out­comes for thou­sands of years, and have stum­bled upon formidable tech­niques for do­ing so.

I’ve thought for a while about ra­tio­nal evan­ge­lism, and it’s sur­pris­ingly hard to come up with ways that peo­ple like Rick War­ren and Jerry Lovett could im­prove their method­ol­ogy. (Read Lovett’s “con­tact me” para­graph for the part that re­ally im­pressed me.)

We speak of­ten of bor­row­ing from re­li­gion, but these con­ver­sa­tions mostly touch on so­cial bond­ing, rather than what it means to spread ideas so im­por­tant that the fate of the hu­man race de­pends on them. (“Rais­ing the San­ity Water­line” is a great start, but those ideas haven’t been the fo­cus of many re­cent posts.)

I’m not say­ing this is a perfect com­par­i­son. The ra­tio­nal­ist war for the fu­ture won’t be fought one soul at a time, and we won’t save any­one with a deathbed con­fes­sion.

But cryo­genic freez­ing does ex­ist. And on a more col­lec­tive level, con­vinc­ing the right peo­ple that the far fu­ture mat­ters could be a coup on the level of Con­stan­tine’s con­ver­sion.

CFAR is do­ing good things in the di­rec­tion of ra­tio­nal­ity evan­ge­lism. How can the rest of us do more?

Liv­ing Like We Mean It

This move­ment is go­ing places. But I fear we may spend too much time (at least pro­por­tion­ally) ar­gu­ing amongst our­selves, when bring­ing oth­ers into the fold is a key piece of the puz­zle. And if we’d like to ex­pand the flock (or, more ap­pro­pri­ately, the herd of cats), what can we learn from his­tory’s most per­sua­sive or­ga­ni­za­tions?

I of­ten pass up my chance to talk to peo­ple about some­thing as sim­ple as Givewell, let alone ex­is­ten­tial risk, and it’s been a long time since I last name-dropped a Less Wrong tech­nique. I don’t think I’m alone in this.**

I’ve met plenty of Chris­ti­ans who ex­ude the same op­ti­mism and con­vivial­ity as a Rick War­ren or a Ned Flan­ders. Th­ese kinds of peo­ple are a ma­jor boon for the Chris­tian re­li­gion. Even if most of us are in­tro­verts, what’s stop­ping us from teach­ing our­selves to live the same way?

Still, I’m new here, and I could be wrong. What do you think?

* Text ed­i­tor’s giv­ing me some trou­ble, but the link is here: http://​​www.rele­vant­magaz­ine.com/​​god/​​prac­ti­cal-faith/​​evan­ge­lism-in­ter­faith-world

** Peter Boghos­sian’s Man­ual for Creat­ing Athe­ists has lots to say about us­ing ra­tio­nal­ity tech­niques in the course of daily life, and is well worth read­ing, though the au­thor can be an ass­hole some­times.