Effective Altruism and Religious Faiths: Mutually Exclusive Entities, or an Important Nexus to Explore?


In this post, I will seek to understand the interactions between effective altruism (EA) and religion. The accessibility of this information to EA organisations is important for many reasons, including; developing a heightened awareness of the EA movement in relation to other movements (religious or social), understanding the overlap or tension the movement may have with a very important player in the charitable sector, and setting the research-based groundwork for consideration of future attempts at outreach.

The four following findings were among some of the most significant:

  • Faith-based organisations (FBOs) or Religious NGOs (RNGOs) have huge amounts of money and power with which they wield significant influence and shape outcomes in the charitable sector
  • Notwithstanding the presence of several ideological clashes and branding issues that arise with the motivations and implementation of some FBO policies, the positivity of the work undertaken (particularly in poverty alleviation efforts) largely outweighs the negativity associated with more publicized scandal
  • EA has a large amount of philosophical and practical overlap with religion; and particularly the religions of Christianity and Judaism
  • Given the amounts of money held in FBOs, the overlap religion shares with EA, and the probability of high reward that outreach strategies might yield, considerations for future partnership should not be ignored

 As such, the two following two points are relevant to next steps EA organisations could take:

  •  Based on interviews conducted, it became clear that, although both Christianity and Judaism were groups that scripturally and practically would be (and are) sympathetic to EA mandates, different outreach strategies would have to be pursued for both. For example, interviews conducted demonstrated that within Christianity, top movement builders would have to be identified and utilized in partnership. In Judaism, however, practical examples of EA (such as promotion of the GiveWell website) would most likely prove more tractable.
  • Based on interviews conducted, it became clear that informal attempts at outreach have already been attempted. More research should be undertaken to decide if formal strategies of outreach should be pursued; and if so, which ones, and how.



Though understudied, significant interaction between the effective altruism (EA) movement and religion is undeniable. The commitment of most religions to some notion of altruism (and sometimes effectiveness within altruism), along with the sheer monetary contribution religious giving adds to philanthropy, makes this interaction an important area of study. Though they share many of the same objectives, points of tension between the two are surfacing. This report aims to explore and describe these interactions and tensions between EA and religious giving.


In the U.S. alone, 32% of all charitable giving went to religious organisations, totaling almost $115 billion.[1] In the U.K., Faith-Based Organisations (FBOs) represent 1 in 5 charities, spanning all parts of the humanitarian sector.[2] With the decline of a Keynesian state in favour of market-led systems, FBOs, like their secular counterparts, are becoming increasingly important in filling funding gaps.[3] The four largest FBO networks (including organisations such as World Vision and Caritas) have a combined annual income of approximately US$2.5 billion, two-thirds the annual budget of the UK Department for International Development.[4] In addition, religion plays a particularly central role in social and cultural life in most developing countries. Due to the widespread prevalence of religiosity in the developing world, along with the fact that religious leaders are often amongst the most respected in these countries, opportunities for partnership should not be neglected.[5] These considerations and others speak to the relationship between large-scale charitable giving and religiosity, and highlight the need for EA organisations to better understand religious philanthropy.


One caveat to note from the outset: the vast majority of academic research on religious giving deals with only one of the world’s primary religions–Christianity—and lacks examination of non-Western religions. Initially, this research sought to examine all of the major religions: Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism. It quickly became clear, however, that there was a lack of sufficient data on altruism and non-Western religions. After consideration, I chose the the following factors in deciding which religions to focus on: the existence and strength of evidence-based research, the donating potential of the religion, and the scriptural and practical similarities shared with EA. In addition to sharing numerous similarities with EA, followers of Christianity and Judaism posses great donating potential. Christianity has 2.2 billion followers representing 55% of the world’s wealth.[6] Though numbering only 14 million, followers of Judaism posses 1.1% of wealth.[7] I will therefore use a mixture of academic literature, informal online sources, and interviews to examine the current interactions of EA with Christianity and Judaism. Without prejudging the outcomes of these findings—or undermining the importance of breadth in such an endeavor—this report will answer the following questions:  


i. What is the division of religious charitable giving; where do these religious groups and individuals typically donate money?

For practical considerations, I will focus more on actual giving patterns, rather than theological scriptures. Theological bearings will mostly be considered insofar as they influence the actions of religious groups.


ii. Are certain principles of EA also found in religious practice or scripture?

Here, I will examine the similarities between EA and the religions considered. Effectiveness and altruism will be studied as separate considerations, as will EA principles more holistically, of which “doing good better” often acts as a core mantra.


iii. Are there areas of tension between these faiths and EA? Are these tensions reconcilable?

Notwithstanding the practical similarities that EA and religious faiths share, tensions are equally as important to examine. To this end, clashes in value systems and ideologies will be considered.


iv. Given the said overlap and tension, what are the next steps for the EA movement—with its approach to religion—if any?

Should the EA movement begin to consider ways in which the nexus between EA and religion could be more meaningfully explored? Given the amount of charitable giving that occurs on behalf of religious groups, are there ways in which EA principles could be more successfully incorporated into religious giving?



i. What is the division of religious charitable giving; where do these religious groups and individuals typically donate money?


In 2012, the Pew Research Centre estimated that 84% of the world's population considered itself as religiously affiliated.[8] Pertinently to EA, supporting the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people is a common central tenet of the major faiths. [9] Given the prevalence of religiosity in the world’s population, and a theological and practical tendency towards altruism, the potential overlap between EA and religiosity deserves analysis.


The relationship between religion and philanthropy

The relationship between religion and philanthropy has received ample attention in academic circles. In general terms, there is a positive relationship between religiosity and charitable giving. Altruism is central to many religious teachings and results in high levels of financial philanthropy by religious individuals and groups. Research demonstrates that religiously affiliated individuals donate more money to charitable causes than secularists.[10] In Australia, to provide one example, the Giving Australia Report revealed that those with a religion gave an average amount of $460 per year, compared to only $223 per year for those with no religious affiliation.


That said, the relationship between religion and secular giving has not conclusively been proven positive. When giving within a religion is not included, the overall rate and amounts given are about the same for religious and non-religious individuals.[11] The majority of the literature indicates that the main recipients of faith-based giving are actually FBOs or churches themselves. In the U.S., these organisations and institutions combined receive two-thirds of all contributions by religious individuals.[12]


In the U.S., the 2012 Chronicle of Philanthropy revealed that people living in deeply religious parts of the country (Bible Belt states) gave significantly larger amounts than those living in more secular states such as New York or Massachusetts. But when religious giving is excluded, such as donations to a church or FBO, heavily Christian areas of country have some of the lowest percentages of charitable giving. [13]


Interestingly, higher participation in one’s religion—as in church attendance—engenders higher rates of donation. Community represents a huge point of overlap for EA and religion. This will be further elaborated later in this report, where recommendations for a potential future between EA and religion will be provided.



ii. Are certain principles of EA also found in religious practice or scripture?


A definition of some of the central tenets of EA would help us understand the similarities it shares with different religious faiths.


-      Altruism: the idea that helping other people, particularly those who are the most in need, is important.

-      Universality: The necessary application of the principles of universality to this idea—that is, not prioritizing people based on race, religion, geography, social status or gender. The assumption that all are equal.

-      Cause prioritisation: the use of reasoning and evidence to understand which causes to favor. Extreme poverty alleviation, factory farming, and risks to the long-term future of life (such as X-risk or artificial intelligence) are some of the key focuses of EA. [14]

-      Effectiveness: the use of robust evidence and/or careful reasoning to determine the most good EAs can do for others, and the most effective organisations to support (on a per dollar basis).



Theology: Theological and practical altruism are institutionalized in most religions, particularly Christianity and Judaism. Charitable giving, one manifestation of practical altruism, is also common to many religious scriptures. In Judaism, “tzedaka” is the idea of donating a certain portion of one’s income to effective charities on a regular basis. The similarities between this notion and core EA principles are startling. Judaism calls on followers to donate 10% of their income, which is the same amount the bedrock EA organisation Giving What We Can asks its members to pledge towards cost-effective charities. In the Christian context, the work of certain scholars would imply that Christians have no reason to regard effective altruism as incompatible with their religious beliefs. The Protestant academic Eric Gregory underscores the benefits of a Christianity open to empirical research on effective aid. He claims that Christians should pay attention to the best social-scientific and economic literature to make empirical judgments on how to best reduce poverty. Similarly, the Roman Catholic scholar Charles Camosy adds that “Peter Singer and the Roman Catholic Church are stunningly similar when it comes to articulating our duties to the poor” inasmuch as a shared moral obligation to further poverty alleviation is concerned.[15] There is, for example, a 10% tithe within the Christian church.[16] John Wesley, who started the Methodist Church in the 18th century, was well known for living very frugally with the aim of donating the vast remainder of his wealth to the poor.[17]



I anonymously interviewed several members of the EA movement from Christian and Jewish backgrounds. Insights beyond the purely academic or statistical were found, and have very been helpful in shaping some of the key findings of this report. Several stark similarities emerged:


Christianity: Christian members of the EA community felt there was significant overlap between the Christian faith and EA. The following represent the most salient points of similarity:

Community: Both Christianity and EA share a strong sense of community. In fact, many Christian effective altruist interviewed mentioned that the community aspect of EA lends the movement a religious appearance to some outside of it. Furthermore, in both Christianity and EA, community is leveraged to encourage in-group members to act positively in ways they might not otherwise, not only in terms of donating time and money to good causes, but also with regard to self-improvement measures.

Stewardship: The notion of stewardship, or the careful and responsible management of resources, is also present in Christianity and EA. In Christianity, the principle of stewardship is the theological belief that humans should take care of the world, and many Christian denominations have high degrees of support for environmental stewardship. For many EAs, being vegetarian or vegan for reasons relating to animal welfare and environmental responsibility is important, and has some semblances with Christian notions of stewardship.

Effectiveness: One Christian effective altruist studying politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University pointed out that many Christians buy into the “Wesleyan” style of Christianity. Those that are formal members of the Wesleyan church amount to approximately half a million, with many more informally subscribing to this style of Christianity.[18] As was previously discussed, John Wesley significantly limited his expenses so he could donate the remainder of his large salary to poverty alleviation. While not all of EA advocates this approach, it is hard to deny that this approach towards moral living mirrors some key principles of EA, particularly those associated with Singerian lifestyle choices, and with the “earning to give” approach to effective altruism.

Proselytizing: Members of (some parts of) Christianity and EA often share the desire to propagate their respective belief systems and movements. For both belief systems, this involves proselytizing(preaching to the end of conversion) [1] [2] and conducting humanitarian work. A Christian effective altruist interviewed mentioned that EA could potentially learn from the Christian Church in terms of movement building.

Radicalism: Interestingly, a Christian effective altruist interviewed claimed that while he/she thought both Christianity and EA were difficult belief systems to adhere to in a practical sense, EA presented a more challenging set of financial and lifestyle standards to meet.


Judaism: Interviews with Jewish effective altruist demonstrated that there is also a startling amount of overlap between EA and Judaism:

Altruism: as was previously discussed, the idea of charity (tzedakah) is key to Judaism—as it is to most religions.

Effective or prioritized giving: Not just charity, but effective charity is a particular point of emphasis in Judaism. Within the Jewish notion of altruism, there are eight levels of giving. Very relevantly to EA, the two highest—or most respected—levels of giving are 1) Giving with a view to helping a person be empowered and independent, and 2) Giving in such a manner that the giver and recipient are unknown to each other. In a host of different ways, these levels of giving prove strikingly compatible with EA. An emblematic EA organisation that embodies the first level of giving within Judaism is GiveDirectly, which has been recommended since 2012 by GiveWell, and provides cash transfers directly to impoverished recipients.[19] The second level of giving, or that which is anonymous, is a defining characteristic of most EA organisations and philosophy: to give for the purposes of achieving high levels of social impact, rather than for self-aggrandisement or status.

“The Life You Can Save”: A Jewish interviewee noted the similarities between this early EA text by Peter Singer and Ethics of the Fathers, a compilation of ethical teachings and maxims of Rabbis within Judaism. This didactic text, dealing solely with ethical and moral principles, places a large degree of positive emphasis on helping the poor, focusing on community, and being personally frugal, as can be seen below:

➣            “Your house should be open wide, and you should make the poor members of your household." (1:5)

➣            "Anyone who works for the community, let your work with them be for the sake of Heaven... And as for you all, I will make your reward great as though you had accomplished all the work." (2:2)


But religious scriptures, scholars, and ideations aside, do these teachings revealed by my interviews translate to action? The following part of this report will examine the contribution of FBOs and religious groups to the alleviation of global poverty, and will use evidence-based research to do so.


Acts of altruism within religion 

The historical relationship between religion and poverty alleviation has been a longstanding and established, albeit complex one. Positive efforts and outcomes notwithstanding, up until quite recently many Western governments and development agencies have seen religion as being counter-productive to poverty alleviation. Faith and FBOs attract a large degree of controversy, particularly in international development circles. This is particularly salient with regard to FBOs and global health efforts. While a large portion of the literature focuses on scandals within religious health interventions, recent studies have done a better job at impartially examining the substantial volume of healthcare interventions that FBOs have delivered within the developing world, and with positive findings.[20] Indeed, in the past couple of decades, significant players in the international development sphere—namely the World Bank and United Nations—openly recognized FBOs as critical partners in the future of sustainable development.[21]

FBOs, as we have seen, possess enormous amounts of capital, and in many cases put this money to impressive use. In public health efforts alone, the World Health Organization has found that FBOs provide roughly 40% of services in Sub-Saharan Africa.[22] In West and Central Africa, the Global Fund—a public-private partnership combatting HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria—channels 11.8% of their resources through FBOs.[23] More generally, faith-based entities have been identified as being active in all aspects of public health, including immunisation,[24] antimalaria campaigns,[25] child and maternal health services,[26] and tuberculosis. Interestingly to the precise mandate of EA, a World Bank analysis found that FBOs are often located in the poorest, most remote areas, both due to a commitment to serve the most marginalized and to make up for the lack government services in these locations.[27] While many development agencies struggle to reach the extreme poor, many FBOs have the grassroots networks and legitimacy required to deliver aid efficiently and effectively.[28] Furthermore, research shows that FBOs use cost-recovery strategies to keep their overhead costs low.[29] Since FBOs attract a large number of volunteers, some argue that in saving money on salaries, such organisations can direct more of their funds to intended recipients.[30]


The organisational dimension of FBOs, namely the extensive networks of congregations, affiliates, organisations and individuals, demonstrate another interesting asset they possess: social capital. [31]These horizontally and vertically organised networks are highly effective channels of communication as well as human and financial resources, and carry significant potential for mobilizing resources. While the networks within EA may not be as extensive, this emphasis on social capital and community constitutes another similarity between EA and religion.

 iii. Are there areas of tension between these faiths and EA? Are these tensions irreconcilable?


Notwithstanding a significant body of research that speaks to the positive work conducted by FBOs in extreme poverty alleviation, comparative weaknesses associated with some of these organisations must also be known. For example, according to numerous publications, FBOs can be of poorer quality than their public alternatives, and have weak governance due to managers being hired on their religious beliefs rather than merit.[32] Also, FBOs that try to champion a particular set of (often perceivably radical) values, or favour the interests of one group of individuals at the cost of others, must also be mentioned as they clash with EA principles of universality. For example, when theology combines with health-service policy (particularly with sexual reproductive health initiatives) negative health effects have been found.[33] There are conflicts within certain religions when it comes to family planning methods, including contraception and abortion—along with controversy on how to prevent and or provide education on HIV/AIDS. These health initiatives are practically relevant to the jurisdiction of EA, as they are often associated with global poverty alleviation efforts. The effective altruism movement is significantly based on principles of equality and evidence, so the following concerns present the biggest points of policy (rather than ideological) tension with regards to religion and EA in global health and poverty alleviation.


Sexual Reproductive Health

Contraceptive measures and abortion

One serious consideration when examining the tensions between EA and religiosity involves views on family planning and sexual reproductive health. Different religions hold different viewpoints on when human life begins, and thus what methods contraceptives are acceptable.

Within Christianity, Catholics teach couples to employ family planning based on a woman’s menstrual cycle; protestants accept oral or injectable contraceptives and condoms. Islam is divided—with a minority arguing categorically against contraception but the majority permitting condoms and oral contraceptives. Judaism allows oral contraceptives and intrauterine devices; condoms are prohibited.[34]

Based largely on varying views of when human life begins, different religions have different beliefs on abortion. Catholics teach that abortion is prohibited in all cases (even in the case of preservation of maternal life). Protestants vary. In Judaism, some rabbis accept abortion before 40 days of gestation for serious abnormalities, or for preservation of maternal life. [35]



The first cases of AIDS were reported in the early 1980s. In the three and a half decades since, infections with HIV have grown to pandemic proportions, resulting in 65 million infections and 25 million deaths. HIV/AIDS disproportionately affects countries that already suffer from extreme poverty (namely, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Caribbean), and so has been a primary concern in extreme poverty alleviation of the past few decades. Although such concerns have been well publicized, it is important to mention that the ways in which certain religious groups (and particularly those that identify with Christianity) have dealt with the HIV/AIDS pandemic have been controversial. Failure to acknowledge the disease, along with taking a stance against condoms, and alienating those carrying the disease, have been among the more counter-productive strategies used by some Christian groups. In recent years, however, far more responsible and helpful programs have been initiated by FBOs, which will be further elaborated on later in this report.[36]



An area of significant controversy, inasmuch as religion is concerned, is homosexuality. Traditional interpretations of Christianity and Judaism state that sexual activity is to occur between a man and woman exclusively—homosexuality is prohibited.[37]


The above treatment of birth control, abortion, HIV prevention, and views on sexuality held by some religious groups could be seen as incompatible with the key principles of universality and evidence-based research within EA. These factors must be carefully considered in future attempts at partnership or EA outreach.



As we saw with the insights gained from interviewing religious effective altruists as to the overlap between different religious faiths and EA these interviews were also illuminating in highlighting existing tensions, and providing insights that may shape future attempts at outreach 


Philanthropic prioritisation within Christianity: As one religious outreach strategy implied, the emphasis EA places on global rather than relational bonds (or those found in a direct community) may be upsetting to some Christians. In speaking with a member of the Christian EA community, I discovered that within charitable giving three predominant forms of giving exist: contributions to direct suffering (global poverty), contributions to local churches, and contributions to missionary organisations. The latter two of these categories are quite hard to justify in terms of effectiveness or maximization, principles key to EA. This also poses difficulties inasmuch as cannibilisation of funds is concerned. A Christian effective altruist (an individual that is quite prominent within the business community) interviewed underscored the fact that missionary organisations, both in mandate and operations, directly contradict the effectiveness principles of EA. He pointed to the fact that within most missionary organisations, there is no impact for dollar analysis, and that management and staffing decisions in such organisations are often nepotistic and religiously-driven rather than based on any notion of merit.

Biases towards funding Christian charities: Statistically, Christians prefer Christian charities, such as “TearFund,” that use local churches to distribute services, but which might be marginally less effective than EA charities such as the Against Malaria Foundation. It is uncertain whether this is because Christians strongly believe that Christian charities are more effective in distributing aid, or if this is just done on a basis of habit, an important point of future inquiry for outreach purposes.

Philosophical differences: Many philosophical differences exist between EA and different forms of Christianity. Firstly, Christians interviewed felt that the EA commitment to a consequentialist or utilitarian philosophy was in many ways incompatible with Christian values, and would lead to outcomes that many Christians would not support. Indeed, one Christian effective altruist interviewed thought that certain EA principles such as earning to give may be seen as instrumentalizing people. Further, the rationalist component of EA might turn Christians away as commitment to faith and belief may not have such firmly rational (but instead emotional) underpinnings. Lastly, it was mentioned that the more extreme proponents of EA (such as Peter Singer) may offend some Christians, particularly regarding arguments relating to sentience—and by association, abortion or infanticide.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Eschatology: Although some tenants of EA (and particularly regarding AI) and Christianity hold in common the notion of Eschatology (or the study of “the end of things”), this seems to be a point of tension rather than agreement. Some Christians interviewed (as well as those on online forums)[38] found it personally insulting that EA focused on AI risk—which many view as a fringe concern—while dismissing the conviction of divine existence that roughly 84% of the world hold. Though sharing some superficial similarities, the concept of AI ending human existence is counter to much scriptural belief in a divine creator. While this may not be considered significant for EA research, it is nonetheless important to note as something the EA movement should be mindful of in approaching religious groups.



Judaism arguably has the most significant overlap with principles of effective altruism. That said, some tensions do nonetheless arise. Again, these must be carefully considered for any future outreach initiatives.

Cause prioritisation: One Jewish EA interviewed said that within the Jewish notion of charity, some prioritisation was at odds with those within EA. Like Christianity, Judaism teaches that one should work to improve themselves first, their family and local community second, and finally the rest of the world. EA, contrastingly, prioritises extreme poverty alleviation, existential risk to humanity, and animal welfare. These convictions are conveyed rather aggressively by certain effective altruist, which might not bode well for future attempts at partnership. Jewish effective altruist interviewed also mentioned that causes such as AI risk or animal welfare weren’t particularly important to Jewish ideas regarding charity. In conversations with Jewish EA communities, rhetoric surrounding the validity (or lack thereof) of cause prioritisation within local humanitarian efforts, community development, animal welfare, or existential risk to humanity should be tempered by a respect for other worldviews.

Philosophy: As with Christianity, Jewish principles clash with EA’s philosophical inclination towards rationality. Explicitly, a Jewish effective altruist mentioned that the emphasis on one’s “relationship with god” within Judaism contradicts with more rationalist tenets of EA. As with issues regarding cause prioritisation, this does not exclude any potential for future partnership, but rather serves as a consideration of which EAs must be respectful of in future interactions.

As has become clear, the interactions between EA and religion are not without tension, and any future attempts at outreach must be mindful of this. There are tensions specific to each religion, but also those that might pose difficulties for religion in general. Most notably, EA may be perceived as being in competition with religion: for charitable funds, and for belief systems. Indeed, as many regard EA as something of an “non-denominational religion”, religious groups may believe that EA could draw people away from religious devotion and towards a more EA-oriented lifestyle. (For a discussion on EA and religious tensions, please visit this Facebook thread

iv. Conclusion: given the said overlap and tension, what are the next steps for the EA movement—with its approach to religion—if any?

After having explored theological principles and philanthropic actions that are common to both EA and some of the world’s major faiths, it is now possible to comment on a collaborative future that might exist between these groups. Given the significant conceptual overlap present, along with the sheer monetary might of the examined religions, there is significant potential for partnership between EA and religion. Moreover, the future of religious philanthropy seems, for several reasons, to be very secure—potentially more so than secular philanthropy. Throughout the last recession, religious groups fared far better than other charities. Between 2007 and 2009, donations to FBOs declined a mere 0.1 % in the U.S. Secular charities, however, suffered a decline of 10 % or more during this same period.[39] Furthermore, FBOs and church goers, as can be seen by the giving trend infographics below, are recorded as having steadily rising (rather than declining) levels of giving and growth—significantly more than groups of any other nature in the charitable space. These factors combined make religion a very important point of future inquiry for EA groups. This report has found that, at present, the greatest current potential lies with the religions of Christianity and Judaism. Now, I will draw on findings to provide some suggestions for potential “next steps” that could shape future interactions between religion and EA. As with previous sections, these recommendations will use a mixture of academic research, informal online resources, and interviews to provide suggestions.



Due to the significant amounts of money held in FBOs, churches, and religious individuals themselves—in addition to its commitment to principles common to EA—Christianity is likely the most important religion to consider for future outreach. One Christian effective altruists interviewed was the President at a social justice organisation at The University of Oxford; the interviewee mentioned that when principles of EA were discussed, they were relatively popularly received. Some Christian effective altruists have stated that EA aligns well with their religious views of charity, potentially more so than charitable religious efforts themselves (or the superficial lip service paid to them). Christians have centuries-old practises which facilitate the daily practise of altruism that EA calls for and, if leveraged properly, could be very beneficial to the EA movement. This individual also thought that if EA could capture large Christian audiences the impact would be considerable as Christians are already primed for radical giving. As we have seen, religious individuals are far more generous than their secular counterparts, with religious giving in the U.S. exceeding secular giving by roughly $500 per capita per annum.[40] At present, however, there is limited official partnership between Christianity and EA; merely (mostly online) embryonic attempts at wedding elements of the two communities. At this stage, it would also be important to note that the age of the Christian individual in question would probably cause their giving patterns to dramatically differ. The older the individual, the more likely they will be to give to organisations beyond their congregation. For example, in the U.S., 94% of Christians over the age of 65 who donate to their church will also give to other groups.[41] This finding demonstrates another significant outreach challenge for EA: the need to connect with an older audience for maximal impact (effective altruists are typically young).


There is a Facebook group for Christian effective altruists that has around 80 members, but isn’t hugely participative or proactive beyond the online discussion space. The Christian effective altruists interviewed thought that a more formal community beyond Facebook was needed to promote EA ideas to the wider Christian community. Indeed, those interviewed consistently stated that, in order to broach the Christian community, trusted and prominent spokespeople from the church (such as pastors or vicars) were needed. These individuals could act as key movement builders by capitalizing on their access to large segments of Christianity. This is important as secular effective altruists may not be the best people to appeal to a Christian audience. Christian effective altruists will know the best tactics, and sensibilities of their church or congregation, so must be identified and tapped into. This idea in particular differed from other religions so is important to flag as a potential strategy specific to Christianity. Other outreach strategies that were offered up by those interviewed could include: developing a presence in the Christian media, writing a text for Christian effective altruists that introduces key EA principles, or locating high-profile individuals that have a link to both Christianity and EA. Such individuals could be Christians billionaires that have taken the Giving Pledge, or individuals such as Alex Foster, Paul Niehaus, Charles Camosy, Bruce Wydick or Leah Libresco who have a prominent link to both EA and Christianity.


In drawing upon resources other than interviews, one study conducted by Princeton University scholars has proved particularly useful. This study reviewed other academic works that explored the importance of various factors surrounding community in determining individual levels of religious philanthropy within Christianity.[42] Some insights found demonstrate mere similarities with EA; others present future learning opportunities, along with movement building potential.


Notably, in Christianity, stronger social connection with the Church appears to engender more donations, and specifically to organisations working to combat international poverty. Indeed, Putnam and Campbell (2010) found that the number of close friends in the congregation is also a significant predictor of giving internationally. Having more close friends at church and belonging to a small group within the congregation were both associated with higher overall charitable giving. Holding other factors equal, each additional close friend in the congregation is associated with 1.6 percent greater odds of making a donation to international causes.[43] This provides further evidence for strengthening the EA movement, and promoting strong friendships with EA groups; as within religious groups, such strong bonds implicate higher levels of giving.


These studies also found that heightened levels of religious philanthropy within Christianity are often linked with higher rates of “exposure to need”, or increased exposure to issues that deserve funding. Churchgoers were found to be more likely to give when they were presented with specific information about the conditions where assistance was needed.[44] This framing of needs was found particularly important for international causes, because churchgoers tend to have limited personal knowledge of development issues. This mirrors a lot of the knowledge and informational components within EA communities, too.


Another particularly interesting insight was that international causes within Christianity entailed higher levels of giving when congregations had higher percentages of immigrants. These studies demonstrated that immigrants within Western congregations often serve as visible links to a generalized, impoverished part of the world that might otherwise be neglected. In thinking about recommendations, this evidence could be interpreted in two ways. Firstly, to aim to sensitize religious congregations to the importance of having members from the immigrant community, and to leverage in-group benefits that EA may not be able to do with other target groups. Or secondly, that given the “male and pale” reputation EA holds, EA should actively try to make itself more ethnically diverse as this might also increase donations from members. This latter suggestion is not widely discussed in EA circles, but is nonetheless worth stating.


As a report in the Nonprofit Times argued, a practical outreach strategy that could be useful in Christian congregations would be to run courses in personal financial planning and charitable giving in Christian churches. Indeed, in the U.S., only about one-third of congregations offer courses, workshops classes or seminars on personal finance or charitable giving.[45] This could happen alongside EA sensitization programs, and could quite possibly lead to a spike in EA giving from Christian groups.


These strategies could certainly prove useful in shaping methods of outreach to Christian groups, but must be considered in line with challenges posed to the EA movement. The adaptation, watering down or radicalizing of EA in order to allow compatibility with Christianity must be strongly considered before any formal outreach strategies implemented.



Judaism is a religion that shares a significant amount of overlap with EA, and whose members seem sympathetic to its mandate, warranting an exploration of next steps in EA outreach. In previous sections of this research, we have seen that Judaism scripturally aligns well with certain parts of EA. In particular, effectiveness, inasmuch as charity is concerned, was a shared priority. That said, to deny current tensions between EA and Judaism would be detrimental to any next steps in future attempts at outreach. As with Christianity, some elements of cause prioritisation (namely, AI and, to a lesser extent, animal welfare) along with some of the philosophical positions promoted by effective altruist (namely, utilitarianism and rationalism) may be unpopular with some in the Jewish community. As such, it is not necessary to change EA to appeal to a potential religious audience; rather, to emphasize points of similarity, and be respectful with points of difference. 

One Jewish effective altruist suggested two points of consideration for future partnerships.

Firstly, it was mentioned that formally presenting EA ideas to Jewish communities may have a positive uptake (the idea of a Jewish EA handbook was suggested). This individual emphasized, however, that the “social movement” aspect of EA should not be the first contact a Jewish audience has with the philosophy. Rather, it was emphasized that something practical, evidently impactful, and tangible such as GiveWell or examples of other effective charities should be promoted.


Concluding remarks:


The forces of interaction between religion and EA are numerous, complex, and certainly worthy of further consideration, research, and action from EA organisations. A point of personal reflection could provide an interesting analogy on the complexity of such interactions, and the need to further add to this research and organisational policy making. Upon receiving this research project, one thing seemed clear to me: the fact that the interactions between EA and the different religions of the world would be largely negative. Potential attempts at partnership would be closed off by tensions, rather than opened up by similarities; ideological differences could only be divisive. However, preliminary reading quickly demonstrated the opposite. I soon discovered that EA and the main religions of the world share many similarities—both in the characteristics of the respective belief systems, and also in many charitable mandates they hold. For reasons relating to the strength of the pre-existing research available, and the religions that could yield the highest impact if properly sensitized to the EA movement, Christianity and Judaism were chosen as the two primary religions to examine. Theologically, both share many similarities with EA. Altruism, effective charity and community are concepts found in Christian and Jewish scriptures and practises alike. Faith-based charitable efforts undertaken by Christian and Jewish FBOs were examined, and positive findings relating to the effectiveness, scope and universalism of such initiatives were established. There were, however, several points of tension between religion and EA. These tensions do not appear to undermine the potential of future attempts at partnership. Rather, they would highlight issues of ideological tension, issues upon which to not devise outreach attempts, and aspects of EA that may prove off-putting to those from a different philosophical belief system. Precise ideas relating to specific outreach strategies that EA could pursue with regard to Christianity and Judaism respectively were explored fully in the body of the research. Some recommendations involved identifying top movement builders within the two religions; others involved describing aspects of EA that could prove insulting or off-putting to religious followers. In concluding, however, two things become clear. Firstly, given the similarities between religion and EA, effective outreach strategies can be developed and implemented. Secondly, if effective, these efforts could prove highly impactful on EA central cause: the alleviation of extreme global poverty.




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Comments (6)

Comment author: UriKatz  (EA Profile) 21 September 2015 10:58:52AM *  2 points [-]

I love the depth you went to with this post, and just wanted to share a bit of personal experience. In the past few years my religious practice has flourished, as has my involvement with EA. I doubt this is an accidental coincidence, especially since my highest aspirations in life are a combination I took from EA and religion (sometimes I refer to them as the guiding or organizing principles of my life). Religion gives me the emotional and spiritual support I need, EA fills in the intellectual side and provides practical advice I can implement here and now. As a side note, I also delve into general Western philosophy to fill in gaps from time to time.

Coming out of EA I heard some concern about the "eternal September" syndrome, i.e. the movement only appealing to the enthusiasm of youth, with the result that it replaces its members all the time. I also heard older members claim they have lost some of their passion and drive. I think we sure can look to religion and religious institutions to see how to avoid such pitfalls. My personal commitment keeps growing because I have a daily practice intended to do just that.

It is important to note, that religion might not be strictly necessary, we might just need to adopt some of its better practices, as some atheists do: http://www.ted.com/talks/alain_de_botton_atheism_2_0?language=en

Comment author: dominicroser 24 September 2015 03:17:45PM 1 point [-]

Thanks so much, Sophie, for this very rich and helpful text!

I'd be very interested to hear more about this claim: "In Judaism, “tzedaka” is the idea of donating a certain portion of one’s income to /effective/ charities on a regular basis." Is there anyone specific I could ask or anything specific I could read on the relation of tzedaka and effectiveness?

[Two minor corrections: I think the reference to Eric Gregory's work is missing. And, churches going back to Wesley (such as the United Methodist Church) have much more than half a million members -- a pity they don't follow Wesley's advice....]

Comment author: Julia_Wise 10 November 2015 05:55:05PM 1 point [-]

I was curious about this too - I haven't seen tzedaka connected with effectiveness before.

(Yes, also noticed that churches descending from Wesley have a lot more people than mentioned here - there are around 10 million Methodists.)

Comment author: tomstocker 20 September 2015 10:03:58PM 1 point [-]

WHat about what EAs can learn from FBOs?

Comment author: tomstocker 20 September 2015 10:04:43PM 0 points [-]

e.g questions of the good life, where things go wrong how to resolve, how to stay focused on what matters etc. - complicating the EA worldview a little

Comment author: AlasdairGives 20 September 2015 01:52:15PM 1 point [-]

Interesting! I don't know if you are still at CEA but There is an event being held next weekend in Oxford and London for Christian effective altruists that I saw advertised on Facebook.