I’ll give you $5 not to pray for me

CNN reported this week on a recent study intended to determine “The value of thoughts and prayers.” Citing the “heated debate in the US about the value of thoughts and prayers in the wake of disasters,” the researchers figured some empirical data might be useful towards settling the debate. The results were unsurprising so not likely to impact the debate whatsoever (I could have predicted them and saved them all the time and effort), plus the co-authors of the study seem not to fully understand the gestures they were studying.

Both of the links above explain the metrics of the study, in which both “religious and nonreligious” Americans were asked to monetize their attitudes about “thoughts and prayers” that strangers would offer for them. The researchers summarize their findings this way:

Our results suggest that thoughts and prayers for others should be employed selectively. While Christians value such gestures from fellow believers, nonreligious people negatively value such gestures from Christians and are indifferent to receiving them from other nonreligious people.

The nonreligious people, identified by the researchers as atheist or agnostic, were “prayer averse,” which surprised one of the study’s authors, University of Wyoming economics professor Linda Thunström. They were not merely indifferent to prayers on their behalf from religious people, they would pay to have them NOT pray for them. “Why care,” she asks, “if you don’t believe in the gesture?”

I think the answer is simple. Their aversion to prayers from strangers is likely a reflection of an aversion to theism itself, and Christianity in particular. Many atheists and agnostics came to their unbelief by way of an experience of superficial, distorted, simpleminded, or even abusive Christianity, or have such views of the faith, leaving them soured to any expression of religiosity. Why not take the opportunity this study afforded them to put their money where their animus is? It wasn’t theirs anyway; the $5.00 was given to them by the researchers.

Both the study, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and the CNN article on it suggest that their authors have a poor grasp of what prayer is. Both speak of prayers being sent to or received by those being prayed for. But of course prayers are directed to God on behalf of the one needing help. I see this misdirection on Facebook pretty regularly. Someone will express dealing with a difficult situation and a friend will comment something like, “Prayers coming your way!” Or, “Sending prayers to you!” That’s not how it works.

Plus, the published study states that Christians believe prayers “may have healing powers,” as if the power is in the words themselves and not in the God to whom they are spoken.

But does prayer work at all? Atheists naturally (no pun intended) see prayer as a waste of time and probably get irritated by the pointless though well-meaning gesture, so easing their irritation is worth five bucks.

I see this study as a waste of time. No monetizing of the value of “thoughts and prayers” is going to stop the nonreligious from complaining about them, nor the religious from offering them. Stopping the religious from expressing their intent to pray for victims of disasters, however, does seem to be desired by Ms. Thunström.  She tweeted this week after the study’s publication that, “atheists/agnostics should ideally be shielded from strangers sending them prayers.”

So, if she could, she would prohibit telling strangers you will pray for them? This trend towards creating safe spaces, shielding people from offending speech and maybe prayers as well, is not helpful in a world where disasters and other bad things happen. We need to toughen up, not be protected and coddled.

I’ll pray for us all about that.