Course Syllabus

Economics 452: Religion, Ethics, and Economics (of Inequality and Philanthropy) -- Spring 2023

Professor: Mahmoud A. El-Gamal

Classes: MW 2:00--3:15 KRF 125

Office Hours: M 12:30--1:30 KRF 429

TA: Xinhui Xu

Course Description:

This course is a research seminar on the interactions between religion, ethics, and economics. Traditional topics include empirical tests of classical theories such as the Durkheimian (Secularization) and Weberian (Protestant Ethic) hypotheses, as well as more recent models of the economics of religion and the economic effects of religiosity.

My goal this year is to have a strong emphasis on voluntary philanthropic giving and its relationship to ethics, religiosity and economics. Example questions include the following: How do we understand the relationship between religiosity, ethics and attitudes toward inequality? Does redistributive taxation crowd out private giving to disadvantaged groups? What is the relationship between religiosity and ethics  (e.g. utilitarianism, often mistaken for egoism, which is an extreme form), on the one hand, and the "effective altruism" movement (which is super-utilitarian at another extreme), on the other?

Students will work in groups on small projects to replicate and/or extend empirical results in some of the readings that we will discuss throughout the semester. Student will also write individual term papers on topics of their choice subject to approval of the professor. 

While supplementary readings are recommended (i.e. not required), some selected readings may prove helpful for your team projects and individual term papers.

AI-Assisted Learning: 

I am experimenting with chatGPT to see how it can be incorporated in generating your project presentations and term papers. The software does a remarkable job producing R codes that will suffice for plotting and data analysis required for this course (for example, if I didn't know how to get data from a website, I'd do this, or if I didn't know how to produce a barplot, I'd do this). It can give you some ideas to pursue, and does a great job generating first draft paragraphs and sections, but unfortunately may include factual errors, citations to papers that don't exist, etc. Therefore, you will still have to use other AI tools such as search engines to find actual articles to cite, extract information from those papers to feed chatGPT, etc. AI use in the course is optional (but be forewarned, chatGPT is not always available).

An excellent source for data and term paper ideas: theArDA. 

We will also explore data sources not included in theArDA during lectures and in group projects.

Tentative Recommended supplementary readings: 

  • Witham, Larry. Marketplace of the Gods: How Economics Explains Religion, Oxford University Press, 2010
  • Bowles, Samuel. The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens, Yale University Press, 2016
  • Kolm, Serge-Christophe and Jean Mercier Ythier (eds.) Handbook of The Economics of Giving, Altruism and Reciprocity: Foundations (Volume 1), Elsevier, 2006
  • Scharf, Kimberley and Mirco Tonin (eds.) The Economics of Philanthropy, Donations and Fundraising, The MIT Press, 2018

Tentative syllabus: 


  • Class participation: 20%
  • Team project presentations: 30%
  • Individual term paper presentation: 30%
  • Term paper: 20%

Course Summary:

Date Details Due