JUST ABOUT everyone knows the Bible story of the "Good Samaritan," in which Jesus tells about a man who was beaten by thieves and left on the ground. Two of his neighbors passed him by.
"But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
"And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, 'Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.'
"Which now of these three," Jesus asked, " . . . was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves?"
The answer, of course, was the Samaritan.
Too often, however, people think of the "Good Samaritan" as anyone who does a good deed. But that misses the point.
The point was not simply that the Samaritan did a good deed; it was that he did it for someone of a different tribe, a different background.
That kind of behavior is, if not rare, not exactly commonplace. A new branch of social science research has focused on altruism to try to learn why some people help others at a cost to themselves and no apparent benefit -- and to see if altruism can be taught.
Two recent books describe this research and its findings. One is "The Compassionate Beast: What Science is Discovering About the Humane Side of Humankind," by Morton Hunt (Morrow). The other is "The Brighter Side of Human Nature: Altruism and Empathy in Everyday Life," by Alfie Kohn (Basic Books).
Both books have a similar premise: When we talk about "human nature," we tend to talk about weakness and cruelty. But, Hunt and Kohn argue, there is a positive side to human nature that we overlook -- and which research proves exists.
But, ironically, Hunt and Kohn both reach the same conclusion about the role of religion in promoting altruism.
"Religious faith," Kohn writes, "appears to be neither necessary for one to act prosocially nor sufficient to ensure such behavior; in fact, there is virtually no connection one way or the other between religious affiliation or belief and prosocial activities."
Both Kohn and Hunt wrote about the research of Samuel Oliner, a Nazi concentration camp survivor. In the 1980s, Oliner received several grants to examine "rescuers" -- Gentiles who protected Jews during the Holocaust -- and to compare them to a group of people with similar backgrounds who were not rescuers. The goal was to determine what made the rescuers different.
Oliner told Hunt, "We were astonished to find that although 90 percent of our rescuers had had a religious upbringing, only 15 percent cited religion as the main reason for what they did, and that there was no significant difference between rescuers and bTC controls as to religiosity."
Oliner did find a number of significant differences between rescuers and controls. First, rescuers were more "empathic" -- they were more easily moved by pain than the controls. They also had a strong set of beliefs about social and personal responsibility.
Oliner found that a key difference was in the way the rescuers were raised. When their parents disciplined them, they were far more likely to emphasize reasoning or explaining than physical punishment. They also praised altruistic behavior in their children and were themselves good role models of altruism.
All of this tied together into a trait Oliner called "extensivity" -- "the extent to which caring goes -- how far it reaches out to include outsiders and not just the intimates in your ingroup, and how strongly you feel that justice is not just for yourself and your own kind but for others beyond your group."
"Extensivity is the essence of the altruistic personality," Oliner said, "and the data give every reason to believe that it's teachable."
Altruism research offers lessons for organized religion -- as well as for everyone else. It also serves as a reminder that the important part of the Good Samaritan story is not that the Samaritan helped someone, but that he helped a stranger from outside his "in group."
Jim Castelli writes a syndicated column on religion and public B policy.