Is effective altruism a Christian movement?
Whilst the effective altruism movement is predominantly secular and does not have Christian foundations there are many active Christians within the community. This website is a Christian-led initiative that aims to explore the connections between Christianity and effective altruism, and to encourage Christians to adopt some of the insights. This is not to say that every idea from the effective altruism movement is necessarily helpful; as Paul advised, “Test everything that is said. Hold on to what is good.”
Does effective altruism mean we can’t give to our local churches?
We think that being involved in a church community is an important part of a flourishing Christian life, and as such, we believe that it is important for us to contribute to the life and community of our local churches. At the same time, we are aware that many of the best opportunities to make a difference in the world are found outside of our local communities and so we are excited about the opportunities that supporting such causes bring. However much money one allocates towards suffering alleviation we believe that thinking carefully about the effectiveness of the charities you give to is a vital part of Christian stewardship.
What about evangelism?
Many Christians involved in effective altruism believe that evangelism is an important part of the Christian faith. As such they often use their time and resources to support evangelism as well as suffering alleviation. As effective altruism is at present a predominantly secular movement, our focus in this context is on areas of common ground. Global poverty, for example, is a concern shared by people of many worldviews, and there is a great deal of rigorous analysis that has been brought to bear on examining the most effective charitable projects in this area.
It’s worth noting that among effective altruists generally, a wide range of causes other than global poverty also attract significant support, and there is no widespread agreement on which are the most important. What binds the community together is a commitment to carefully analyse different ways of doing good and a willingness to take action on that basis.
It is also helpful to remember that those facing difficult questions around how to split their giving between different Christian cause areas also have the option of choosing to give more and live off less to help ease these tensions. Many in the Christian effective altruism community have taken the 10% Giving Pledge to help support the most effective suffering alleviation charities and then choose to give to their local church and evangelism on top of this.
Is effective altruism contradicted by the way Jesus responds to Mary pouring perfume on him?
In the gospels we read an account of Mary breaking a jar of expensive perfume and pouring it over Jesus. After being challenged that she could have sold the perfume and given the proceeds to the poor, Jesus comes to her defence and says that she has done a beautiful thing, because although they will always have the poor amongst them, they will not always have him. On the face of it this seems to challenge the optimising nature of effective altruism, but on reflection it need not. As Christians we think that alleviating suffering is a very good thing, but we don’t need to think it is the only good thing. Most Christians would want to affirm that worshiping God is also an intrinsically valuable end. Therefore the opportunity to worship by pouring the perfume over Jesus was quite plausibly the best action for Mary to take.
The question then becomes what we should do now that Jesus is no longer with us. One of the best answers seems to be that we can worship God by caring for those he values who are suffering. If this is the case, then the encouragement of extravagant worship seen in this passage might actually affirm the importance of caring for others that effective altruism takes so seriously. For more on this topic, see this blog post.
In the Bible, does Jesus prioritise effectiveness?
For Christians, Jesus is the ultimate example of the virtuous life. Clearly he spent much of his time alleviating suffering but it might seem that Jesus did not attempt to be maximally effective in doing so. If this is the case then we might doubt whether effectiveness is so important. Yet we must also remember that Jesus spoke positively about the wise deployment of resources. In Matthew 10 he encourages his disciples to be ‘as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves’ as he sends them out. He also gives us the Parable of the Talents to emphasise the importance of effective stewardship. Therefore a compelling case can be made that Jesus’ life and teachings do in fact encourage effectiveness.
One reply to the original question is that Jesus’ life is a special case, for there were many other things that Jesus was trying to be effective in achieving as well as suffering alleviation. One other clear goal was to disciple his followers such that they could found the global church. Perhaps Jesus’ goal to train his disciples meant that he approached suffering alleviation less efficiently, in order that they could more clearly understand his method. In this sense, we shouldn’t reason from the fact that Jesus’ suffering alleviation might not have been perfectly effective to the fact that we shouldn’t pursue effectiveness ourselves.