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Building rationalist communities: lessons from the Latter-day Saints

14 Post author: calcsam 09 May 2011 03:14PM

Or: How I Learned Everything I Know About Group Organization By Spending Two Years on a Mormon Mission in India.

The official name is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You may know us as ‘Mormons.’ We like to call ourselves ‘Latter-day Saints.’

If you’re a Less Wrongian and trying to organize a rationalist community, you should be interested in the Latter-day Saint organizational model for four reasons:

-       it’s a nonprofit, but franchise-based and designed to propagate itself,

-       everyone has a responsibility,

-       no one is paid, and

-       it works.

This is an introductory post. I'm not trying to persuade you to join, but rather that there’s something to learn here.

Here, I will give you some basic details about what the LDS Church is.  In later posts, I will explain more how it works. A series overview is here.

A franchise model

The Church has about 55,000 missionaries worldwide, all of whom follow the same basic dress code and go about in pairs, basically recruiting people to join the organization. For men, white shirt and ‘conservative’ tie, suitjacket if it’s cold. Clean-shaven. No chewing gum in public.  Short hair. And so forth.

Church buildings are selected from a basic set of designs. Each congregation unit has about 150 people each week at Sunday services. The internal organization is the same for each congregation, albeit with procedures for simplification in smaller units. Everyone has a responsibility, from the congregation head down to the teenage boys who prepare and serve the ‘sacrament.’[1]

And nobody is paid.

Everyone has a responsibility

The Church is an organization, but members also comprise a distinct culture. Within the culture, there is an expectation that church members accept a ‘calling’ or specific unpaid organizational responsibility.

Callings are assigned by the head of the local congregation. You can privately decline, but there is an expectation is to accept the responsibility.

Examples include:

-       visiting specific church member families monthly (“home teacher”)

-       helping local unemployed church members find jobs

-       teaching a class every week in church

-       presiding over the congregation.

As you see, some roles are more time-intensive than others.

(My current responsibility is to co-chair a committee that organizes weekly social events on Monday nights, to which around 40-50 young single adults come.)

Probably about 70% of church members with a calling fulfill that calling.[2]

No one is paid

This holds to three decimal places but not to four. The exceptions are:

-       A few people have jobs in church headquarters writing curricula.

-       Local members who are paid to organize weekday adult religious education programs. In California, there is about one for every ~15 congregations.

-       A paid ‘General Authority’ to oversee every ~150 congregations. (One congregation has about 150 attending every Sunday.)

So I would approximate that for every 2000-3000 active church members, of which 1000-1500 are helping to run the church for no salary, there is one paid church worker.

It works

-       The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the fourth-largest church organization in America.[3]

-       It’s also around fourth in growth rates, depending on how you measure growth.[4]

-       It’s fairly new, only starting in 1830. It has achieved this growth while receiving the disdain of mainstream Christianity.[5]

-       It’s basically the only church that doesn't pay local leadership. Google “unpaid clergy” and you get only Mormon links.

You might be wondering what Less Wrongians possibly have to learn from some…weird religious organization?

Simply put: because the Church has figured out how to construct an organization and cultural identity that works and spreads without almost anyone being paid.

That’s what Less Wrong-ians are trying to do, right?

Here is the next part, a series overview.



[1] Sacrament is roughly equivalent to communion; a ritual where bread and water are served individually to each member of the congregation in memory of Christ.

[2] My estimate. Of course, there is a gradation of effort possible. You can improvise a Sunday lesson on the spot, or carefully prepare it over the preceding week, for example.

[4] I would classify growth as ‘percentage growth rate of a church organization for a fairly large and well-established church.’ If you have one church and you open three more, you don’t count. Data is  here  and  here . The main faster-growing churches are Assemblies of God, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventists. Catholics are just growing in America because of Hispanic immigration.

[5] Latter-day Saints, including church leadership, is sometimes rather unrealistically enthusiastic about the rates of church growth. However, that there is an underlying success is hard to dispute.

Comments (70)

Comment author: Cayenne 10 May 2011 08:51:04AM *  5 points [-]

Although drawing some ideas from the LDS church may work, and I will be trying a few of them in my community building efforts, I am going to shy away from a lot of the more intrusive practices. I'm ex-Mormon, and I'm not going to be implementing anything that makes me uncomfortable.

The problem with everyone having a responsibility is that there must be a structure of authority to delegate the responsibility. We don't have or want a divine authority. We absolutely don't want to use something web-based for this either; something like karma is a bad metric since the people that have the time to get the most karma may be very uncomfortable in positions of leadership. I don't yet have a solution to this.

tl;dr: some ideas may be good, but it will take careful vetting.

Edit - please disregard this post

Comment author: waveman 09 May 2011 11:29:06PM 12 points [-]

The book "The Rise of Christianity" by Rodney Stark was an interesting discussion of the rapid growth of the LDS.

The main point was that the LDS like most religions, propagated via relatives and friends. People tend to "convert" when a preponderance of their friends and relatives have converted. It becomes increasingly uncomfortable to resist.

I suspect that atheism is benefiting from this syndrome at the moment.

Missionary work, including LDS, has a phenomenally low success rate. I don't recall it, but from memory a missionary might convert 1-2 people per year based on cold calls. I suspect that missionary work is done, not so much to get converts, as to reinforce the group identity of the missionaries.

Comment author: jasonmcdowell 13 May 2011 01:15:46AM 1 point [-]

I like to learn more about missionary success rates. That sounds really low.

What happened in South Korea?

Comment author: wilkox 10 May 2011 06:41:32AM 6 points [-]

Missionary work, including LDS, has a phenomenally low success rate. I don't recall it, but from memory a missionary might convert 1-2 people per year based on cold calls.

A one year doubling or tripling time doesn't strike me as "phenomenally low".

Comment author: Document 10 May 2011 07:19:18AM 3 points [-]

Conversion means conversion to an official church member, not another missionary, and conversion can be (and depending on who you ask, frequently is) reversed, for missionaries as well as new converts.

Comment author: atucker 09 May 2011 10:17:20PM *  2 points [-]

No one is paid

Everyone has a responsibility

The Church is an organization, but members also comprise a distinct culture. Within the culture, there is an expectation that church members accept a ‘calling’ or specific unpaid organizational responsibility.

Is this actually optimal? The whole volunteer thing.

It seems to me like it might work to, rather than have most of your members spend a few hours a week volunteering for the Church have all of your members work an extra hour at their jobs in order to hire a professional to attend to those duties.

On the other hand, that probably makes members feel much less involved in the Church.

That might be okay -- we're trying to save the world, not become a ginormous cult.

Comment author: Vaniver 09 May 2011 10:40:28PM 1 point [-]

On the other hand, that probably makes members feel much less involved in the Church.

It seems to be pretty clear from here (second point under herding cats) that the calling doesn't exist to get stuff done (though that is a great side effect) but to keep you coming back. If you don't show up, then who will teach your class?

Comment author: atucker 09 May 2011 10:52:12PM 3 points [-]

keep you coming back

If there's a reason to come back other than feeling personally involved in the group on that level, then why pull wool over people's eyes to maintain attendance when you can actually just be worth coming back to?*

On the other hand, it seems (based on my personal experience leading a volunteer robotics team) like keeping people involved is a good way to keep people in a group. But I'm not convinced that the optimal tradeoff between inclusion and inefficiency is almost pure inefficiency.

Like, ostensibly rationality classes should help you improve your life. People are already willing to pay for classes in that. If rationalist groups helped me have fun and live a better life, then I personally would continue attending for the tangible benefits, and not need convincing that I'm needed.

I think that a difference between rationalist groups and religions should be that rationalist groups exist for reasons other than their own propagation.

Comment author: Vaniver 09 May 2011 11:01:10PM 1 point [-]

If there's a reason to come back other than feeling personally involved in the group on that level, then why pull wool over people's eyes to maintain attendance when you can actually just be worth coming back to?

Enjoying and wanting are different- I might genuinely enjoy services more than sleeping in, but only choose to go to services instead of sleep in if I've committed to going.

It also seems likely that personal involvement magnifies other things (that is, you can't separate them in the hunt for efficiency without losses), but I'm not as sure of that one.

Comment author: Desrtopa 09 May 2011 10:26:59PM 0 points [-]

It seems to me like it might work to, rather than have most of your members spend a few hours a week volunteering for the Church have all of your members work an extra hour at their jobs in order to hire a professional to attend to those duties.

Cleaning up a beach is one thing, but hiring professional evangelists? I think you'd have a much harder time finding a comparable number of people willing to do it as a job. Plus, how convincing they are matters a lot; a halfhearted manual laborer can get plenty of work done, but a halfhearted evangelist might as well not be bothering at all. How many skilled, committed rhetoricians do you think are available for this particular work for less than the church members are making themselves?

Comment author: Eneasz 12 May 2011 07:46:09PM 2 points [-]

but hiring professional evangelists?

That's basically what brand marketing is

Comment author: atucker 09 May 2011 10:29:43PM 0 points [-]

I meant hiring professional administrators, like replacing the people who had callings.

So like, hire someone to manage the building, or someone to teach classes or help with employment.

Comment author: badger 09 May 2011 06:23:34PM *  3 points [-]

While I'm sure there are specific lessons we could learn from LDS organizational structure, I don't think there is an overall model we could adopt. Membership growth is not what we should be optimizing, even if adopting LDS-like practice would do that. It's also not apparent that relying on unpaid teachers or leadership is a sign of success. Giving everyone responsibilities and teaching opportunities is a good way to build skills, but that's a slightly different issue.

One area the LDS church excels is with social accountability and social support. Maybe there is a useful variant of home teaching, where members are assigned specific families to teach once a month and offer general support. If you are going through a major event, members are ready to bring you food or help out.

Comment author: Costanza 09 May 2011 08:02:53PM *  13 points [-]

Agreed.

A lot of organizational models "succeed" in the sense that they grow and spread, but they do so at a terrible cost to their rank and file members. It's like the memetic equivalent of a terrible plague. Just because it grows and spreads doesn't mean you want to catch it. LDS is right up there with Scientolology and criminal street gangs. You demonstrate your commitment to the group by metaphorically cutting off your own feet, and then you stay because you can't run away any more.

Doesn't it matter a lot that Mormon doctrine is false from beginning to end? Am I wrong in thinking that it's bad when a cause so obviously wants to be a cult ?

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 10 May 2011 05:54:57AM 4 points [-]

I grew up Mormon (for my first ~12 years). It's not as harmful as Scientology. I have no idea what you mean about cutting your feet off.

Comment author: Costanza 12 May 2011 12:23:46PM 6 points [-]

Here's one take on the experience of being a Mormon missionary:

The true meaning and essence of the mission is to make a young man go through two years of complete and living hell. The worse the experience is, the more the child believes he has sacrificed, therefore solidifying the investment value of a completed mission. When the elder finally returns to the flock what else is there to do but protect the investment? After all, he paid for it with two years of blood, sweat and tears. He purchased the investment with the currency of youth. You're only 20 once. The idea that the best part of your golden youth was squandered knocking on doors hassling people with religious propaganda is unbearable. Return missionaries are all too willing to adopt the company line, close ranks with other returned missionaries and protect the precious investment. At least this was my experience.

Your mileage may vary.

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 12 May 2011 05:29:45PM *  1 point [-]

That seems fair. I'm not sure why I didn't think of that interpretation. Two years with the only gains being some emotional experiences and learning to sell (to a specific script) is mostly a waste, like cutting your feet off would be.

My friend stayed Mormon through an objectively successful two year mission. He had no problem leaving the church a few years later. But he's unusually intelligent and principled.

Comment author: wedrifid 12 May 2011 03:26:55PM 1 point [-]

Run of the mill hazing outcome!

Comment author: MartinB 12 May 2011 12:37:30PM 2 points [-]

Yes. There are way worse fates. It is not living hell to be an annoying advertiser.

I do not know how nice Mormons are to each other. But I would guess the group bonding usually rather pleasant.

Comment author: Costanza 12 May 2011 12:54:58PM 2 points [-]

Tough to tell from the outside. There's a lot of stuff on the internet about the Mormon mission experience, but, unsurprisingly, it's affected by selection bias. Ex mormons can tell some horror stories. Current Mormons still active in the church tend to report much more positive memories, but here's an evaluation of the pluses and minuses of the missionary experience by believing Mormons.

Comment author: Vaniver 09 May 2011 10:51:15PM *  2 points [-]

Doesn't it matter a lot that Mormon doctrine is false from beginning to end?

Why would it?

In some sense, it simply does not matter what crazy things your neighbor believes, because that's not what determines his value as a neighbor. I would prefer Mormons to the general population as neighbors.

And, as a strategy- if this works for people that are obviously crazy, that suggests it'll work for people who are (hopefully obviously) sane. If people went door to door in business shirts and ties and tried to convince people that they should join an evolution appreciation society, I expect they might do as well or better than the Mormons.

Comment author: Costanza 09 May 2011 11:15:14PM *  7 points [-]

Why would it?

It would matter if the doctrine -- reward and punishment in the afterlife, for example -- is tied with the practice of the members. I would suggest that the Mormon church, like a lot of churches, motivates its members at least partly with false threats and false rewards based on a fictitious afterlife. If you once tell a lie, the truth is ever after your enemy. Rationalists cannot use these methods and remain rationalists.

Comment author: Vaniver 10 May 2011 05:21:16AM 1 point [-]

It would matter if the doctrine -- reward and punishment in the afterlife, for example -- is tied with the practice of the members.

Ok. Does it look like that's the case? Which of these lessons hinge on reward and punishment in the afterlife?

Comment author: drethelin 12 May 2011 06:28:23AM 2 points [-]

unfortunately, much of the motivation. It's easy to get yourself motivated to do something if you have a clear reward for it. If you truly believe that working to convert people to your faith will get you into heaven, it's not hard to get up in the morning and go do it. If you think that there's a 1 percent chance that one of the 57 people you talk to today will become slightly less wrong about the world and go on to lead a somewhat happier life, it's a lot less motivating. I think the entire unpaid ministry/missionary thing would be much harder to get recruits for here than in the LDS.

Comment author: DSimon 09 May 2011 09:05:24PM 3 points [-]

We can perhaps study delivery method separately from payload: consider the retrovirus. I think the broadly described LDS organizational model alone doesn't imply any terrible costs to the members.

Comment author: Costanza 09 May 2011 10:41:25PM *  4 points [-]

That may be a valid point. Sometimes the medium and the message are quite separate.

With that said, the "LDS organizational model" as broadly described in the original post was a bit short on details. It's described that everybody works, nobody is paid. I'm sure that's convenient for the Mormon church as an organization, but why are the rank and file members of the organization so willing to pay this price? Conspicuous by its absence in the original post is any mention of how members are required to abstain from alcohol and caffeine, store up supplies in the event of a tribulation, and tithe ten percent of their income to the church. It costs a lot to stay a member of the Mormon church in good standing. Saying it's "the culture" doesn't really go a long way as an explanation as to why the members are willing to pay this price.

I would suggest that at least one of the reasons that Mormons submit to these costs is the promise of heavenly reward. A rationalist community cannot adopt this method.

Neither could a rationalist community adopt the specific practices of the Mormon missionaries, even if they wanted to. Mormon missionaries don't try to attract converts by means of rational argument -- they are specifically forbidden to debate or argue. The same page says missionaries can only read "books, magazines, and other material authorized by the Church."

A rationalist community could only adopt the methods and practices of the Mormon church by abandoning rationality.

Comment author: DSimon 10 May 2011 03:08:16PM 1 point [-]

It's described that everybody works, nobody is paid. I'm sure that's convenient for the Mormon church as an organization, but why are the rank and file members of the organization so willing to pay this price?

Well, I do volunteer work myself, so unpaid work is certainly not a phenomenon unique to Mormonism or religion. Perhaps a more detailed look at volunteerism's motivations and psychology is in order?

Comment author: Desrtopa 09 May 2011 05:48:15PM 3 points [-]

The Church has about 55,000 missionaries worldwide, all of whom follow the same basic dress code and go about in pairs, basically recruiting people to join the organization. For men, white shirt and ‘conservative’ tie, suitjacket if it’s cold. Clean-shaven. No chewing gum in public. Short hair. And so forth.

I have to wonder if this is really optimal. I've often heard people poke fun at LDS missionaries for exactly this image. Possibly it exudes respectability on a level that people who aren't receptive don't want to acknowledge, but has the church ever experimented with this?

It's hard to compare the relative growth rates of religions because so many do not keep good statistics, and besides which, many databases do not keep statistics for the LDS church separate from those of mainstream Christianity, but the Baha'i faith seems to have had comparable if slightly lesser growth, and far more international success.

Many religions throughout history have achieved explosive growth rates, but none so far as I know have done significant experimentation to optimize their methodology, and a lot of religious conversion tactics rely on what we consider here to be Dark Arts, which are not nearly as conducive to encouraging people to become rationalists.

Comment author: MartinB 12 May 2011 10:15:41AM 0 points [-]

I would guess the Mormons are more successful, and more widely know. WP lists 14mio Mormons and 6million Baha'i, but i would expect both groups to inflate their numbers.

The Baha'i do not actively proselytize though. They do more indirect advertising by dance workshops and discussion events.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 12 May 2011 11:01:55AM 0 points [-]

I expect that the Mormons are more widely known in the US and the Bahai'i are more widely known in the middle east.

Comment author: atucker 09 May 2011 10:06:27PM *  2 points [-]

Many religions throughout history have achieved explosive growth rates, but none so far as I know have done significant experimentation to optimize their methodology, and

I'd guess that most widespread religions have pretty good methodology for getting spread, because they were selected for effectively spreading. Like, every major religion started out smaller, and we don't often hear about the ones that didn't make it big.

a lot of religious conversion tactics rely on what we consider here to be Dark Arts, which are not nearly as conducive to encouraging people to become rationalists.

Is this true?

Like, I know the Dark Arts would be bad for rationalists to exploit, but I'm not sure that it would necessarily be less effective at introducing people to rationality.

Comment author: Cayenne 10 May 2011 08:55:19AM *  4 points [-]

Like, I know the Dark Arts would be bad for rationalists to exploit, but I'm not sure that it would necessarily be less effective at introducing people to rationality.

A 'defense against the Dark Arts' focus might be a good way to implement this. Come join us and find a way to protect yourself from the worst parts of marketing and manipulation.

Edit - please disregard this post

Comment author: Desrtopa 09 May 2011 10:13:52PM *  5 points [-]

The formatting here is confusing. You've lumped together responses to what I said with my own text in the quote.

Edit: Fixed.

Religions are the product of memetic evolution, and thus, are more fit than memes which haven't been subject to selection pressure, but evolutions are stupid, and there's little reason to suspect that any religion is truly optimal for propagation. Plus, optimizing for propagation tends to require playing upon biases that rationalists are encouraged to recognize and avoid.

Comment author: atucker 09 May 2011 10:38:23PM *  6 points [-]

but evolutions are stupid, and there's little reason to suspect that any religion is truly optimal for propagation

I think that religious memes are probably more optimal than organisms because successful ones can spread much faster, rely less on pre-existing machinery, can change faster, and because so many of them have been tried.

However, its also possible that we've simply reached a local maxima, and that our current memes are too strong for most upstarts but many upstarts would, with further development, be much more effective.

Overall, I'm inclined to agree with you that rationalist memes would need to be designed.

Rationalist memes probably simply wouldn't be selected for and would have to be designed, because of the fact that you're specifically trying to get someone to weaken the biases that make it easier for religions to stay together.

Comment author: Alicorn 09 May 2011 06:53:23PM 12 points [-]

I'm pretty sure people would make fun of any consistent look adopted by Mormon missionaries.

Comment author: Desrtopa 09 May 2011 07:04:23PM 3 points [-]

It does probably help make them Those Silly Outgroup People, yes.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 09 May 2011 06:59:44PM 6 points [-]

Yup, even a business shirt and tie. But I think the point is that it's the consistency which creates the vulnerability. Suppose we took the look of anyone in our organization, including say Lukeprog, and duplicated it on all the members...

Comment author: Alicorn 09 May 2011 07:33:50PM 2 points [-]

Yet Mormon missionaries act on the official behalf of an organization that cares very much about being perceived as beneficent and wholesome; if they didn't have a dress code someone in their employ would offend someone and there would be kerfluffle about it. Albeit perhaps this portion of the purpose could be served by a less narrow dress code.

Comment author: Cayenne 10 May 2011 09:03:09AM *  4 points [-]

I'm not sure that we should adopt any kind of dress code at all, other than not offending the fashion sense of others inadvertently. Perhaps something small, like a sigil that people could wear as jewelry would be sufficient?

Branding ourselves should only be done after we become an effective group, and one that is admired. We want to be known as 'those sensible people that get things done', not 'that group of nerds that talks way too much about how my thinking sucks'. Eventually we'd like everyone to aspire to rationality, not just the people that test over some arbitrary IQ score.

Edit - please disregard this post

Comment author: byrnema 09 May 2011 07:48:47PM 14 points [-]

Eliezer uses the word 'vulnerability'. I think this is close to what they are trying to signal, which is 'harmless'. It is a good strategy to have a very disciplined dress code, and build a brand as having a 'dorky', squeaky-clean manner, so that people feel comfortable allowing the missionaries in their home. In my home town anyway, they went door to door and I had no qualms about inviting them in, knowing that any odd behavior would be newsworthy, and quickly become widely known, exactly because the branding is so strong.

Comment author: Nornagest 09 May 2011 06:26:37PM 5 points [-]

What I've read of the psychology literature generally indicates that mirroring the dress sense and behavior of your target audience gets you further than adhering to some codified notion of respectability when you're trying to sell something, and that this remains true when your product is a religion.

When what you're trying to sell is status-linked, it can be useful to act one or two status levels above your target audience. But there's no clear link to status here, so I'd imagine the Mormon uniform has more to do either with intra-group signaling or with an attempt at mirroring a large cross-section of potential recruits that became fossilized sometime in the past.

Comment author: Vaniver 09 May 2011 10:44:12PM 6 points [-]

What I've read of the psychology literature generally indicates that mirroring the dress sense and behavior of your target audience gets you further than adhering to some codified notion of respectability when you're trying to sell something, and that this remains true when your product is a religion.

This strikes me as a feature. Outside of hacker culture, recruiting people who wear collared shirts and not recruiting those that don't is a very strong strategy.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 09 May 2011 09:37:07PM *  4 points [-]

I'd imagine the problem with trying to mirror "the dress sense and behavior of your target audience" is that if you're not actually a member of that culture, you'll mess up in the details and end up looking like a clueless phony. As such you're probably better of with a generic vaguely respectable look.

Comment author: Nornagest 09 May 2011 10:54:15PM *  4 points [-]

That would make sense if the Mormon missionary dress code constituted a generic vaguely respectable look, but it's a lot stricter than that: more like a uniform, and distinguished from mainstream respectable in several subtle ways. (The thin black ties are what comes first to mind; I've never seen one off of a Mormon missionary or, in one case, a classmate playing Orson Scott Card.) People pick up on that; it fairly screams "outgroup", and in fact it's why we're having this conversation in the first place.

In light of this, I think I'm more inclined to buy the theory mentioned elsethread, that the missionary tradition is meant to produce loyalty in existing members rather than new recruits. If that's what you're going for, you want distinctive identifying features for your ingroup.

Comment author: JGWeissman 09 May 2011 05:01:58PM 4 points [-]

In a recent discussion about taking the SoCal meetup group to the next level, I explicitly refered to the Mormons as a model of what an effective community could accomplish. Keep this series coming. Actionable advice is very appreciated.

Comment author: MartinB 09 May 2011 04:51:04PM 8 points [-]

I hope not to model LW after churches. The big difference is the monopolism of faith for the believing member. It would need some serious problems to make people fork of the current main line, but it does happen. Otherwise the one true church is a monopoly. It might be interesting to explore the success rates of those who were not born into the church but choose it on their own.

For rationalist communities the barrier to fork of is pretty low. It will happen at some point, or maybe it already did. But the measurement of use is not the number of members, but the strength of the people that went through it's training. Anyone can take the content and ignore the community or pick and choose. Or keep a well liked belief but profit from the rest. With religions it is a package deal.

Comment author: atucker 09 May 2011 09:50:01PM 1 point [-]

Is that a problem?

So long as a sufficient number of people are involved in the rationalist community for it to continue growing and innovating, I'm pretty okay with having other people using rationalist ideas and purposes to further their own goals, as long as they're not destructive.

Though, if a person's propensity to split is correlated with effectiveness, that would be bad.

Comment author: MartinB 09 May 2011 10:50:44PM 7 points [-]

I might have phrased it badly. I think I would enjoy a fork to some degree. The more obvious one being a rationalist group without all the 'crazy' transhuman and AI stuff. Or maybe around some base disagreement.

Sadly limited thought power can lead to all kinds of destructive purposes. But eitherway we should not assume that LW is already the best place there is.

Comment author: Cayenne 10 May 2011 09:10:45AM *  2 points [-]

In some ways, my 'Insufficiently Awesome' project is a fork. I'm going to be concentrating on community-building, helping people to become effective physically and socially, and most importantly having fun. I'm not ever going to be one of the 'first-tier' rationalists, and I view a contribution on the supporting side to be my most effective plan of action.

I'm not going to try to pull people away from LW. Instead, I'm going to try to form a group that is fun enough that people not already in LW join it, and possibly get interested in joining the main community.

Edit - please disregard this post

Comment author: katydee 09 May 2011 04:48:20PM 3 points [-]

This is very interesting but doesn't seem to have enough content for a full post. The title is also misleading, since this post essentially serves only as an overview of the structure of the LDS church and you don't actually get into the material that has to do with rationalist communities here.

Comment author: calcsam 09 May 2011 05:22:02PM 0 points [-]

Point on the title. Changed. I used to write for a newspaper and prefer brevity.

Comment author: MartinB 09 May 2011 04:46:27PM 3 points [-]

When was the last time the Church reviewed the procedures of its door to door PR campaign for effectiveness?

Comment author: gwern 09 May 2011 07:06:57PM 12 points [-]

I have heard it said (here, even, I think) that the main point of the door to door stuff and overseas missionary work is to inculcate an extremer faith in the Mormons doing them - a sort of cognitive dissonance/brainwash-yourself strategy. Strategies which result in more conversions may result in fewer zealots, and as Jesus tells us, zealots are more valuable than the lukewarm.

Comment author: JohnH 14 May 2011 08:13:23AM 0 points [-]

Door to door is for the most part discouraged when there is any other reasonable form of finding people to teach available. The stats I have seen is that on average it takes 100,000 doors answered for a conversion to occur. Contrast this to teaching someone that has a friend that is in the Church and (the important part) the friend is present. This gives a success rate of something like 1 in 12 or so.

Half of all missionaries from any given country serve within the country of origin. This doesn't by itself contradict anything you said but is interesting.

zealots are more valuable than the lukewarm

Depending on what you mean then you are either wrong or right here. Actually practicing the religion and believing and seeking out to know, if considered to be zealots, then you are right. Unthinking practicing is discouraged which is generally part of what people mean when they use zealot.

Comment author: calcsam 09 May 2011 11:55:26PM 1 point [-]

Well, sort of. There is a common understanding that one of the biggest effects of "missionary work" is on the missionaries themselves. A joke line I've heard is "I had one convert on my mission: me." This is a common theme in Mormonism, for example.

But I see this as experience rather than cognitive dissonance/brainwashing. For example, if you spent two years exclusive trying to explain to people about rationality, you'd probably get a far better understanding of what rationality is. As a result, you would become more rational. You would also be happier that you were able to become more rational.

Comment author: Costanza 10 May 2011 12:53:39AM 6 points [-]

...if you spent two years exclusive trying to explain to people about rationality, you'd probably get a far better understanding of what rationality is. As a result, you would become more rational.

But isn't the "experience" of a Mormon missionary rather different than trying to argue with people rationally? Aren't missionaries forbidden to debate or argue ? Aren't they required instead to attempt to lead potential converts along the so-called stairway to heaven ? What would happen to a missionary who said to his superiors, "If Joseph Smith was a prophet, I desire to believe he was a prophet. If he was not a prophet, I desire to believe he was not a prophet"? Is Mormonism trying to win converts by rational means?

Comment author: calcsam 12 May 2011 03:06:55PM 1 point [-]

Costanza, I'd be happy to answer that. But for purposes of keeping the thread more on the community organization topic, I wanted to channel discussion of my religious beliefs over on this discussion thread. Would you like to repost your comment over there?

Comment author: Desrtopa 10 May 2011 12:14:16AM 2 points [-]

But if you spent a couple years trying to convert people to Islam, or Buddhism, or Baha'i, you'd probably come away with stronger faith in those. The increase in faith is independent of the truth of the religions one proselytizes, given that they can't all be true, and the idea of gaining a better understanding of something that's divorced from reality, without realizing that it's divorced from reality, isn't even coherent. So if there's more to it than cognitive dissonance, how would you demonstrate that?

Comment author: calcsam 10 May 2011 01:16:30AM 0 points [-]

Well, I'm sure cognitive dissonance is the case for some -- probably a lot -- of people. But there's an alternative explanation for others.

But if you spent a couple years trying to convert people to Islam, or Buddhism, or Baha'i, you'd probably come away with stronger faith in those.

True. Remember what I said in my previous comment, that "you would become more rational" -- the increase in faith is due to successful application of principles.

The increase in faith is independent of the truth of the religions one proselytizes, given that they can't all be true, and the idea of gaining a better understanding of something that's divorced from reality, without realizing that it's divorced from reality, isn't even coherent

Not true. Remember, the above faith-growing effect is due to practicing the religion you're preaching. All major religions tap into a subset of a large group of techniques generally useful for improving life quality: forgiveness, prayer/meditation, belief that good deeds will ultimately be rewarded, discouragement from taking addictive substances, etc.

My argument, basically, is that fervently religious people can mistake a successful experience implementing universally good principles as a truth claim for a particular religious system.

Do you believe that this scenario is entirely impossible, or do you believe that at least some people would fall under this rubric?

Comment author: Desrtopa 10 May 2011 01:39:19AM *  8 points [-]

My argument, basically, is that fervently religious people can mistake a successful experience implementing universally good principles as a truth claim for a particular religious system.

Do you believe that this scenario is entirely impossible, or do you believe that at least some people would fall under this rubric?

I believe that some religious prescriptions are useful for many people, and that the community aspects of religion improve a lot of people's quality of life. But this is an entirely different matter from gaining a better understanding of the religions in question.

When I was a teenager, I was part of an online community based on a shared interest in fantasy and fantasy creatures. There was a strong community spirit, and a lot of close relationships among the members. There were also a lot of members who actually believed in the existence of said fantasy creatures, in a literal or spiritual sense, and some believed that they were themselves fantasy creatures, in a spiritual sense.

If a member of that community improved their life through the bonds with other members, and thus strengthened their own spiritual beliefs, do you think it would be fair to say that they gained a better understanding of fantasy creatures?

Framing the improvement in quality of life as an improvement in understanding of the belief system is either a falsehood, or, at best, a misuse of words.

Comment author: Emile 10 May 2011 11:27:13AM 1 point [-]

Are you actually disagreeing with calcsam, or is this what they call a heated agreement?

I don't think he's "framing the improvement in quality of life as an improvement in understanding of the belief system" - he's saying that some religious people mistakenly do that:

My argument, basically, is that fervently religious people can mistake a successful experience implementing universally good principles as a truth claim for a particular religious system.

Comment author: Desrtopa 10 May 2011 01:08:16PM 0 points [-]

I'm not really sure; if he's not actually asserting that people are gaining a better understanding of their religions, then I can't tell what it is he's claiming is there aside from cognitive dissonance.

Comment author: MartinB 09 May 2011 07:55:14PM 0 points [-]

Does the church openly acknowledge this? Do the leaders see it this way in their secret planning meetings?

I sometimes wonder how strong delusions of reality effect the goal achievements. Here: would the Church be more successfull in their PR when the leaders or designers of the methods were conscious of their real world factors, or is it better if they are actual believers in their respective faith?

Comment author: Emile 09 May 2011 09:02:16PM 1 point [-]

Does the church openly acknowledge this?

My bet would be that they do, but don't phrase it the way gwern did - maybe something like "missionary work puts your faith through the test of fire" or "talking with unbelievers will give you a deeper understanding of your own faith".

Comment author: Desrtopa 09 May 2011 07:12:41PM 3 points [-]

Is this the comment you were thinking of?

Comment author: gwern 10 May 2011 01:24:04AM 1 point [-]

Probably not; looking through that thread, I haven't previously up or downvoted any of them, interesting though some of them are.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 09 May 2011 04:13:29PM 9 points [-]

Google “unpaid clergy” and you get only Mormon links.

Confirmed; "volunteer clergy" brings up specific situations (hospitals, prisons) where clergy might volunteer; "unpaid priest" brings up a less focused mixture of results.

Comment author: Dustin 09 May 2011 03:48:00PM 4 points [-]

I'm familiar with Jehovah's Witnesses and your description of how LDS is organized is very similar to how JW's are organized and operate.

Since they are one of the groups that are faster growing than the LDS, it seems plausible that the method of organization is one of the leading causes of the growth of both.

That being said, I have to expend a modicum of mental effort overcoming the fact that the offered advice comes from a religon!

Comment author: David_Gerard 09 May 2011 07:46:28PM 2 points [-]

Since they are one of the groups that are faster growing

I don't mean to seem churlish, but claims of "faster/fastest growing" need quantifiers of both percentage and numbers.

Comment author: Dustin 09 May 2011 10:35:16PM 1 point [-]

See footnote 4 in the post.