Atheists and agnostics are willing to pay real money to avoid “thoughts and prayers” from their Christian counterparts, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The new research sheds light on the heated debate over how people respond to natural disasters and tragedies like mass shootings.
“What got me interested in this was the observation that thoughts and prayers were offered, and sought, in the aftermath of major catastrophes, and yet there is also often a strong opposition to using such gestures in those contexts,” said Linda Helena Thunstrom, an assistant professor at the University of Wyoming and the lead author of the study.
“It puzzled me that people seemed to have such diverse ideas about the value of these gestures, and it made me want to learn about that specifically.”
To examine people’s willingness to pay for thoughts and prayers, the researchers conducted an experiment with 482 individuals in North Carolina shortly following Hurricane Florence in September of 2018.
The researchers found that Christian hurricane victims were willing to pay on average $4.36 for prayers from a Christian stranger and $7.17 for prayers from a priest. In contrast, non-religious participants were willing to pay $3.54 for a Christian stranger and $1.66 for a priest to not pray for them.
“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 authors of the study said.
The study also found that non-religious participants tended to disagree with statements such as “I may sometimes be more helped by others’ prayers for me than their material help.” Christians, on the other hand, tended to agree.
“Just because you think these gestures are meaningful or meaningless, that doesn’t mean others feel the same. In fact, some people feel worse from receiving thoughts or prayers in the wake of a hardship. So if you really want to be supportive, inquire about the preferences of the person you aim to support, and adjust your support accordingly – some want your thoughts and prayers, others do not,” Thunstrom told PsyPost.
But there are still several areas that warrant future research.
“Lots of interesting questions are left unanswered. For instance, it would be interesting to know more about what makes people value, or not value, these gestures. It would also be interesting to know if the value of thoughts and prayers differ across religious affiliations,” Thunstrom explained.
“Also, I have studies underway that look at how thoughts and prayers affect material help. The study published in the PNAS shows many people are willing to abstain money in return for especially prayers, in the wake of hardship. A natural follow up question then becomes; do people give less material help, if they provide thoughts and prayers?”
The study, “The value of thoughts and prayers“, was authored by Linda Thunström and Shiri Noy.