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

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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