An Invitation to Christian Effective Altruism

Last month, I gave a talk on Texas A&M campus about effective altruism from a Christian perspective. While that presentation isn’t available, I recorded myself presenting the same talk (with a whole one additional slide) and it is now up on YouTube. In it, I introduce effective altruism, which is the idea that we should use evidence to determine which charities are most effective so that we can do the most good we can. I connect this with Christian thought, especially surrounding loving our neighbor as ourselves, especially when everyone in the world is our neighbor. In the end, I think that Christians should be effective altruists, and we should donate substantial amounts of our income to charities that are making the biggest difference in the world for the good of our global neighbors.

First, there is a noteworthy difference between the impact of charities and their cost-effectiveness. For example, helping a blind or soon-to-be-blind person using $78,000 (via a dog from Guide Dogs) or $20 (via a surgery for trachoma from SightSavers). Another example is of the importance of investigating various methods for providing help is when looking at school attendance for young females in East Africa. While providing free school uniforms was twice as impactful as merit-based scholarships and five times as impactful as providing cash incentives to families that send their daughters to school, merely informing the parents about their increase in potential future earnings from school attendance increased attendance 20-fold, for around 21 years of schooling increased per $100 USD. GiveWell investigates charities at a deeper level than typical charity evaluators, like CharityNavigator, by requiring evidence for high-impact, cost-effectiveness, and funding needs as part of their primary evaluation.

Second, we all have opportunity to make a difference with our donations. Someone making $50,000 per year after tax is in the top 1% in the world in income, graduate stipends around $25-30k per year are in the top 5% in the world, and minimum wage of $7.25 per hour (~$15,000 per year) are in the top 10% globally for income. And yes, all these numbers are normalized with respect to purchasing power, so the difference cannot be explained by cost-of-living differences (source).

Third, we can make a difference in our careers or graduate work. 80,000 Hours is an excellent resource (an organization and book) to talk about working at the intersection of what you are good at, find fulfilling and passion, and actually helps people. This can be done with earning to give, direct work (non-profits or global health or missions work), or leveraging your skills and connections to help others. Furthermore, Effective Thesis can help connect you to a network and provide resources and perhaps a graduate mentor to give you the chance to help people with your thesis research.

I invite everyone to be a part of the Effective Altruism for Christians community, who thinks that effective altruism is a valuable tool for helping us love and serve our global neighbors better. You can join the Facebook group here, and we have Zoom calls every Sunday at 1 pm central time (get the Zoom link in the Facebook group).

Finally, I challenge you all to increase your giving to charities by 1% this year (or start a giving goal of at least 1%). Effective Altruism for Christians has set up a giving campaign, partnering with One for the World that asks people to give at least 1% of their income to effective charities. You can pick from a few selections, all of which are based on GiveWell’s charity giving recommendations. The maximum impact fund is a great place to start, as that selects the top few charities every three months, continuously updating based on funding need, etc. Additionally, you can pledge to give an amount starting at some future date (e.g. when you graduate).

Ultimately, there are much need in the world (e.g. 7,000 young children dying daily of starvation and preventable disease) and much we can each do to help, I think we should do that when it is not incurring any greater moral cost to ourselves. Many more than just 7,000 ‘Good Samaritan’ type scenarios exist every day, where there are charities in place to help, and we know there is a need, so let’s help be the change for the better in the world. 

P.S. I talk about all of this in more depth and address a few common questions about effective altruism from a Christian perspective in the video, so I encourage you to check it out!

Recommended Reading
Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference by William MacAskill
Christians in an Age of Wealth: A Biblical Theology of Stewardship by Craig Blomberg
The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer
80,000 Hours: Find a Fulfilling Career that Does Good by Benjamin Todd

7 thoughts on “An Invitation to Christian Effective Altruism

  1. James Banks

    I read this and watched the talk, thanks for making them. You emphasize what is basically “short-termist” effective altruism. Do you have an opinion about longtermism? Especially the transhumanism plus space colonization version that seems most popular in EA. (Maybe a pitch about becoming an EA isn’t the place to mention it, but it seems like it could be a topic for your blog, given your first post.) What is the EA for Christians take on longtermism? I can imagine Christians and secular people having a lot in common on short-termism, but having more differences of opinion on longtermism.

    (I’m a Christian who has been interested in EA ideas since 2013, and I’m into the intersection of Christianity and altruism/ethics.)

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    1. Alex Strasser Post author

      Thanks for the interest! Your blog looks cool. There’s definitely a range of opinion within EA for Christians (EACH) on longtermism stuff; I’ll probably do a blog post on it sometime. One person I know in EACH is supportive of transhumanism in particular, whereas I have some worries (though space colonization sounds good to me). Dominic Roser is working on writing a book on EA and Christianity, and he talks about how there is a potential theological motivation to temporal discounting: that the distant future is God’s territory and he did not give us responsibility for it. I personally would think otherwise because of the emphasis on evangelism in the Bible, which is a very long term focused endeavor (though not exclusively!). Generally I would probably think that there is noteworthy divergence between EA concerns for the long term future and common Christian concerns for the long term future (‘God would never allow x to happen’), but perhaps we should take them seriously given how often we’ve been wrong about that historically.

      Eric Sampson (postdoc at Rhodes College) is writing a paper right now regarding longtermism that I found fascinating (and convincing): even secular effective altruists should give substantial funding toward evangelism and evangelism-adjacent activities (e.g. philosophy of religion for figuring out the ‘true’ religion) because there is a nonzero probability that the eternal conscious torment view is correct, or even just that some fraction of the population gets to an infinitely valuable heaven. Since EAs already consider very low probability events, like asteroid destruction, we should also consider “religious catastrophe,” which debatably has a higher probability (again where secular and Christian EAs may differ on such a probability assignment).

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  2. James Banks

    I’m interested to see Roser’s book when it comes out.
    Sampson’s project sounds like a part of my overall project. That’s interesting to hear. Another angle is to say that God is a being who might exist and thus might possibly be harmed (and we might be harmed if we act in a way that ignores his possible existence).
    I tend to think that God is significantly constrained and that there’s a lot of room for human responsibility, but I know that’s not a popular view in Christianity. I think it’s entirely possible that humans could have prevented the Holocaust, but God did not. So future catastrophes might be things we should think about. Hinge of history discussions talk about value lock-in, and Christians might need to speak up soon so that spiritually bad futures don’t get locked in. The bad futures I consider most likely in this respect are secular utopias that inhibit people connecting with God, or semi-utopias along the way (like some dynamics in current Western societies) that have the same root values as secular utopias. I think secular EAs (and I would guess all the other secular futurists) already know to be against Orwellian kinds of futures, but many would not see the problem with hedonism as a foundation for value. (“Speak up soon”, as in, in the next few decades or century, depending on how fast AGI comes and how much the transition to AGI dominance locks in values.)
    Is EACH in touch with (or aware of) other Christians interested in the future? I know of the Christian Transhumanist Association who are in favor of transhumanism, maybe with qualifications (I don’t know much about them) and the “Christian humanist” scene (which I mainly know through the Plough magazine and podcast), who are opposed. Someone I know a bit runs a pseudonymous blog at wearenotsaved.com. He is LDS and a fan of SSC/ACX and Nicholas Nassim Taleb. He is basically opposed to transhumanism (IIRC) and tends to be somewhat pessimistic about our civilization’s ability to avoid collapse.

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    1. Alex Strasser Post author

      I like your thoughts and agree!

      I’m not sure if EACH is in touch with these groups. I think I missed the meeting where we discussed transhumanism. I’ll have to ask around.
      We’d love to have you at a meeting! I think we could all have some great and interesting dialogue.

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