Religious or Non-Religious: Who is More Likely to Be a Good Samaritan?

Imagine that you’ve been asked to give a presentation for your school on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. You’ve researched it, prepared your talk, practiced it, and now you’re about to give it. When you arrive at the lecture hall, you’re informed that the location of your presentation has changed at the last minute, and it is now at the other end of the campus. You have to hurry to make it in time. On your way, you see someone slouched over in pain. What would you do? Would you help the man and miss or be late for your talk, or would you dismiss the very situation regarding which you have prepared a speech. This isn’t just a thought experiment – this classic study has been conducted, and the results will probably surprise the modern inquirer.

Religion and Compassion

There is a stereotype that religious people are inherently good. That is, they will do things for their community, and are compelled help others where they can. This is probably because most religions include tenets of helping their fellow man. But is this stereotype warranted? Or is the stereotype that religious people make the better samaritans just a myth? Before looking at the surprising research that investigated the interaction between religiosity and aiding a stranger, it would be worth it to look at the recent relevant work of several academics.

Harvard University professor Robert Putnam co-authored the book “American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us,” in which he argued that religious people make better neighbours and citizens. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Putnam’s book has suggested the following:

On every measurable scale, religious Americans are more generous, more altruistic and more involved in civic life than their secular counterparts. They are more likely to give blood, money to a homeless person, financial aid to family or friends, a seat to a stranger and to spend time with someone who is ”a bit down”.

Putnam and his team interviewed 3000 people twice over two years, asking a range of questions about people’s religious lives as well as their civic involvement, social relationships, political beliefs, economic situation and demographic profile.

The religious landscape is very different in Australia, but what information we do have suggests similar results here. A 2004 report by the Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Research and Philanthropy in Australia, found that people who said they were religious were more likely to volunteer, and for more hours, than others. The Australian Bureau of Statistics data suggests the same.

But a review from the University of British Columbia (UBC) posits that this kind of research may be misleading. As LiveScience reports:

Studies that do show a link between altruism and religion are often based on self-reports — subjects saying they did something unselfish, rather than direct observation of them doing so. This type of data is notoriously unreliable.

The review also mentioned that altruism may be motivated not by the simple desire to do good, but because they believe someone is watching them to ensure they “do the right thing,” or “because they want to maintain their reputations as righteous followers of religious teachings.”

“We found little or no evidence that empathy plays any role in religious prosociality,” said lead author Ara Norenzayan, a UBC social psychologist, adding that jury is still out. Religious types might engage in unselfish generosity coming from a place of empathy or compassion, but there is currently no data to support this, he said.

In fact, a few months ago, a study from the University of California at Berkeley found that atheists or otherwise less religious people were more motivated by compassion to be generous, whereas religious people were not. For very religious people, compassion played an insignificant role in how generous they were. That’s not to imply that atheists are necessarily more generous than religious people, but that compassion is not what motivates religious people to engage in generosity as much as it does their irreligious counterparts.

There always seems to be a nearby counter-example, or an additional complicating factor in the research literature on religion and altruism, though. For example, a report that came out just a few weeks ago found that religiosity correlates to money given to charity among states within America. That is, the more religious a state is, the more willing they are to give to charity. Whether or not the reasons for this were because of compassion, these findings essentially suggest that religious people are more generous (at least when it comes to giving money).

[September 6 edit: It is very possible that religious Americans are more likely to give money because they are encouraged to support their local churches or religious charities. According to an article published last year on researcher Jerry Coyne’s WhyEvolutionIsTrue blog, “Direct donations to churches and to religious charities make up nearly half of all charitable giving by US households.” Some, like the politically incorrect comedian Bill Maher, argue that these should not be considered valid charitable donations. As far as I’m concerned, this is just a further complication in the consideration of generosity, compassion, and altruism among religious and non-religious people.]

However, when it comes to general prosocial behaviour, NewScientist notes that “evidence from self-reports suggests that devout people may be more altruistic than non-believers – but it could be that they care more about appearing to be selfless.” So perhaps religious people are just self-reporting more altruism than actually acting. How would we ever know?

This is where the study of the Good Samaritan may be helpful.

Religious Good Samaritans?

From Jerusalem to Jericho

In 1973, a study called “From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior” was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The thing I love about these kinds of studies is that they’re not conducted in laboratory settings – the participants don’t even realize they’re participating; they think they’re just having an ordinary day. This means that they can be generalized to other settings, unlike surveys in which respondents are acutely aware that they’re being measured. Some surveys can be generalized, but not necessarily as well as experiments done in natural environments.

So let’s talk science.

First off, forty theology participants first completed a questionnaire to determine their levels are religiosity (variable A). Then, they were randomly assigned to two groups (variable B) – the groups were both asked to prepare a talk; one on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and the other on a non-helping topic. The Experimental Theology blog has a good description of what happened next (variable C):

Upon arriving at the designated place the seminarians were told that the location of the sermon had been changed at the last minute and that they were to go to a new location. At this point the seminarians [i.e., participants] were randomly assigned again, this time into three groups.

A third of the seminarians were put under strong time pressure, told that they needed to get to the new venue in a hurry (the high hurry condition). The second third was put under moderate time pressure (the intermediate hurry condition). And finally, the final third was told that they could take their time getting to the new venue (the low hurry condition). After this hurry manipulation the seminarians were pointed to the exit and directed to proceed to the next venue.

This is where it really gets interesting. When walking between two buildings, the participants encounter what the researchers describe as “a shabbily dressed person slumped by the side of the road,” whom they planted there. Experimental Theology describes them as follows:

Specifically, they were sitting slumped against the wall, head down and eyes closed. As the subject passed, the confederate would cough twice and groan. Basically, they showed signs of abdominal pain. As the seminarians passed the key variable was recorded: Would they stop to check on the groaning person?

Ironically, the preparation of a talk on the Parable of Good Samaritans (variable B) did not motivate participants to actually become a Good Samaritan when the parable had come to life. Furthermore, the highly religious were no more likely to stop and help than the non-religious (variable A), even when giving the Parable talk. In fact, some people who were hurrying literally stepped over the man to get to their consequently hypocritical talk on Good Samaritans.

So what really made the difference between a participant helping vs. walking by? Variable C: the degree to which they were in a hurry. In the low hurry condition, 63% of participants stopped to help, whereas 45% did in the medium hurry condition, and only 10% did in the high hurry condition. In total, 40% of all participants helped.

What’s Going On?

The only thing this research is missing is more participants. Also, it was conducted almost 40 years ago, so perhaps things would be different today. But whatever the case, these results do seem pretty clear: Religious people are no more likely to be Good Samaritans than non-religious people. A brief write-up from Babson College offers an explanation that’s also worth mentioning:

Many subjects who did not stop did appear aroused and anxious when [they] arrived at the second site. They were in a conflict between helping the victim and meeting the needs of the experimenter. Conflict rather than callousness can explain the failure to stop.

Experimental theology also had an interesting point to make about this research, regarding Christians today:

Jerusalem to Jericho makes this acute observation: Most of us pursue spirituality as a hobby. That is, Life with God is pursued as a leisure activity. Why do I say this? Well, hobbies and leisure activities are what we pursue when we have free, expendable time our our hands. But when we have “stuff to do,” we tend to place our hobbies to the side. They are not allowed to interfere with our urgent agenda. If so, then the Jerusalem to Jericho study suggests that helping others, for many, is a hobby. It’s something to do on weekends, when you have some spare time. This is a penetrating diagnosis. Too many Christians treat altruism as a hobby rather than as a central and urgent feature of their life.


I wish someone replicated the study today; but regardless, this Good Samaritan study is something to keep in mind for those who may have preconceived ideas about other regarding religiosity. Namely, for believers. For example, last December, researchers from the University of British Columbia and the University of Oregon found that religious people have a significant distrust and prejudice towards atheists. In fact, they consider atheists as trustworthy as rapists. This is as shocking to me as it is dumbfounding.

So all we can really say is that more research needs to investigate the altruism, generosity, or “Good Samaritanism” of people throughout the spectrum of religiousness. Have the times changed since four decades ago? Or is it still the case that being religious makes you no less likely to offer aid than an atheist when in a hurry? People make mistakes and are careless in what they do, whether that’s telling a loved one how they feel, or helping someone at the side of a road. No one’s perfect.

After all, even Jesus wasn’t being sensitive when he was trying to explain the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Or at least according to British comedy duo David Mitchell and Robert Webb:


Saslow, L. R.,, Willer, R.,, Feinberg, M.,, Piff, P. K.,, Clark, K.,, Keltner, D.,, & Saturn, S. R. (2012). My Brother’s Keeper? Compassion Predicts Generosity More Among Less Religious Individuals Social Psychological and Personality Science. DOI: 10.1177/1948550612444137

Darley, J. M., & Batson, C. Daniel (1973). “From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27 (1), 100-108

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14 Responses to Religious or Non-Religious: Who is More Likely to Be a Good Samaritan?

  1. Ashley says:

    I agree that religion doesn’t affect someones willingness to be a good Samaritan. People can go to the same church and hear the same things and be on the same religious level and still not react the same towards someone that needs help. I think there are other factors that are far more telling of someones willingness to help such as the time they have available and the compassion that they have for people as mentioned in this post. I believe that this post is successful in pointing out that religion and helping people doesn’t usually go hand in hand without bashing religion and without bashing people that are atheist. I also agree that some people that are religious are just out there doing “the right thing” to gain reward and seem as though they are selfless when on they inside they know it is not true.

  2. Sophelia says:

    I’m on the bus right now so I can’t check the references, but I recall there being a definitional problem with at least one of those studies. It/they considered tithe and church work as donations to charity and volunteering, definitions that massively skew the results. Many atheists would argue that putting a dollar in the plate at church is not comparable with donating to a specific cause or charity.

  3. Sydney Miller says:

    The study is a little outdated and could use more participants but the main idea that came from it can still be applied. Being religious does not automatically mean the person is a good person. Being a good samaritan comes from the willingness of someone to help other people, not someone studying the bible. To be considered a priest, seminarian or a religious figure you should have to have these characteristics but how can that willingness be tested? The people studying in these seminars, have the potential to be good samaritans, but only if they are not willing to help from the start.

  4. Amber says:

    Helping people is one of the topics discussed in chapter 11 of my intro to psych textbook, Discovering Psychology. In the book, prosocial behavior is discussed and defined as any behavior that helps somebody else. The 40% of participants who stopped to help the stranger engaged in prosocial behavior. I would be interested to know the motives of those who did help, particularly the religious people who stopped. Were they acting altruistically or because they believed they were being watched and judged by God? Did they stop because they expected a “reward” for being a Good Samaritan, such as entrance to Heaven, or because it was simply the right thing to do?

    As the study mentioned, the bystander effect was also a factor in the experiment. The more people there are around, the less likely a person is to help someone else. I wonder if the results would have been different if the participants were the only ones around to help the stranger? Diffusion of responsibility takes place when there are other people around to share responsibility; if the obligation was solely with the participants, would they have been more likely to stop and help?

    The textbook also says that people are less likely to help someone when the price of helping is greater than the benefit. The majority of the participants in this study proved this, as they were more likely to help when it did not negatively affect them in a significant way. On the other hand, those who were in a hurry were less likely to stop because they felt the cost (being late to or missing the speech) was too high.

    I find it interesting that religion does not seem to make people more likely to help someone in need. I’d never heard of or considered the idea that altruism and religion are more like hobbies to some people than ways of life, but that makes sense and explains why the belief systems of some people are out of touch with their actions, as they were for many people in this study. It’s great that atheists care about helping others as much as their religious counterparts (and vice versa); however, it would be even better if both groups were a bit more likely to help out.

    • Ryo says:

      Hi Amber, thanks for your comment! It’s great to see that your textbooks are not just collecting dust on a shelf somewhere.

      I would say the question you brought up about the motives of the religious people to intervene were beyond the scope of the Good Samaritan study. But the research in the “Religion and Compassion” section of the article paints a more conclusive picture. That is, religious people act not out of compassion but because they believe they’re being watched, either by other members of their community, or by God. But on the other hand, religious Americans gave more to charity than non-religious Americans…

      …Actually, Amber, you just reminded me to check up an important piece of information, which I have just edited into the article (clearly identified in the Compassion section). That is to say, most of the money donated by religious people is likely given to religious charities or churches. Thanks!

  5. Sam says:

    The results of this study are basically what I would expect. I agree that, as expressed by the Babson College write-up, conflict has an impact on one’s willingness to help. However, if one were to assume another person’s life was in danger, shouldn’t it be more important to help than to be on time to a conference? It’s just human nature for personal gain to outweigh helping strangers. It also seems that religious people would be more willing to help when other people can see, or when other people know about it, in order to leave onlookers with a good, if unrealistic, idea about their character (like at church). But when no one else is looking, they’re (probably) generally just as altruistic as the rest the population.

  6. Shawn Welsch says:

    I believe that non-religious people are just as likely to commit acts of Good-Samaritan as religious people are. Environmental factors play a part in this situation because of the bystander effect. Religious people may only help people in need because they think someone could be watching, someone like God. If Religious people really think that they are better than an atheist like suggested in this article by the University of British Columbia and the University of Oregon, then they should know all the factors surrounding a situation that decreases a person’s chance of help such as the bystander effect. Even if that individual is in a hurry, that individual could point someone out in the crowd to help the person in need, because that would put the responsibility on one person and force him to act instead of the responsibility being shared among a group of people.

  7. Kaylan Hosto says:

    We just talked about this in Psychology. Well, about this experiment. My teacher volunteers at food kitchens and he is an athiest. But, he also made the comment that he is often working beside church groups. I think altruism is based on yourself as a person, no matter if you are religious or not. There is also other things to consider though, such as how empathetic you might feel towards the man rolling in pain or how much you think you would be able to help. I think they should do the same study on people who claim to be atheist or not have strong religious ties. That would be a better comparison for this question.

  8. Tori says:

    Who is better, the Religious Good Samaritan or the Secular Good Samaritan? The studies and research that focuses on the willingness of religious people to volunteer or donate money verse non-religious people to do the same have all been focusing on the wrong idea. Whether a person is religious or not, that doesn’t control their readiness to altruism. Religious and non-religious people are just people, when a person converts to a religion their whole though process does not change. Therefore when studying the willingness of people to be “Good Samaritans” there are the same six factors that influence everyone’s motivation to help others. These six factors are: the “feel good, do good” effect, feeling guilty, seeing others willing to help, perceiving other person as deserving help, knowing how to help and a personalized relationship. So when psychologists are researching the conviction of a person to help others the focus should be on these factors, not on religious beliefs.

    • Ryo says:

      Hi Tory! Thanks for the comment.
      Well I agree and disagree. I agree about most of what you say, except with the statement that researchers should be focusing on the factors you mentioned rather than religiosity. There are two things I want to say about that:
      1) It’s easy to say that religious conviction shouldn’t be focused on in retrospect, because we know now as a result of studies like this;
      2) people (religious and irreligious alike) still believe otherwise, which is why it’s so important to educate them on the facts you mentioned.
      So the real question is “Do we have enough research/knowledge to justify stopping research in this area?” and I think the answer is a resounding “no.” We’re still ignorant to the extent that these factors make a difference, and I’m still shocked that no one has replicated this study. And in four decades a lot could have changed.
      But I know what you mean and I understand why you said it.

  9. TaShara Crawley says:

    i honestly believe that people who have no religion are just as helpful as religious people if not more. religious people stress that no one but god can judge you, but they tend to be very judgmental. However, i think the bystander effect applies to both religious and non-religious people. We always are more hesitant to help others when more people are around out of the fear that we will be judged or people will think that our intentions are not good. people today are less trusting. They may think that we have some underlying motive wanting more than just to help. Just because you have no religion doesn’t mean that you aren’t nice. That’s another thing that people today assume that if you don’t have a religion you are a sinner and no good can come from you. everyone has done something out of the goodness of their heart. even if it wasn’t out of the goodness of their hearts they have helped someone in need with motive of getting something in return. i think society’s perception of religious people is all wrong. not all of them are nice, giving, happy, people. not saying that all people without religion are. i just feel that religion is put on a pedestal, while we defame the character of people who have no religion.

  10. Dylan says:

    I definitely disagree with what Putnam says of how religious people make better neighbors. I see a contradiction to this every day in my life. My family, neighbors and I are not religious at all. Yet every day I see my neighbors helping either on yard work or just simple things such as trying to figure out how to work the telivision.

    I like how ths article touches on people that go to church. How the people are almost only more likely to give money because they are being watched. Just because someone gives money to a charity doesn’t make sure they go to heaven. Also how going to church is loke a hobby. I know personally people who act like they are holy because they go to church but their personal life would completely contradict a holy life.

    Finally, how some christains find atheists to be rapists. The author uses the best word to describe my reaction “dumbfounded”. I grew up and was confirmed as a Catholic but fell away from religion in high school. This closed minded thinking is exactly what drove me away from Church. How can you preach about values but judge others in such negative terms just because they dont share your beliefs.

  11. Pingback: Religiosos ou não religiosos: Quem está mais propenso a ser um bom samaritano? | Blog Cético

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