After every major tragedy people announce they are sending “thoughts and prayers” to the victims and their families. Seldom do they ask whether either are welcome, so it’s just as well someone now has. It turns out that while American Christians do indeed appreciate having others praying for them in their hour of need, atheists hate it so much most would pay people to stop including them in their prayers.
The “thoughts and prayers” refrain after events like mass shootings, particularly from politicians with the power to stop such events if they wanted to, has spawned a thousand mocking memes. On the other hand, there are many tragedies where people with little capacity to do much about such disasters are forced to front the cameras and find something to say. In such circumstances, offers of thoughts and prayers may seem not only the best option, but the only one.
Nevertheless Dr Linda Thunström of the University of Wyoming and Dr Shiri Noy of Denison University, Florida decided to see whether people appreciate these gestures. In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they describe a study using the common economists’ measure of “willingness to pay”.
After Hurricane Florence tore into North Carolina in 2018 Thunström and Noy contacted 482 residents of the state through a web-based survey tool that pays people to respond to surveys. The researchers increased the normal payment by $5 and told them a stranger would receive a description of the hardship they were suffering post-hurricane. Those unaffected by the storm were asked about any other events in the previous year that had serious consequences for them.
Thunström and Noy then offered their participants a choice – would they give up some or all of the $5 to determine whether they got supportive thoughts from an atheist stranger, thoughts from a Christian stranger, prayers from a Christian stranger, or prayers from a priest. This meant they could choose to have thoughts from either a religious or non-religious stranger, but only prayers from a religious person, thus making their preferences clear.
The responses among Christians (members of other religions were excluded as they would provide too small a sample) were predictable. The prayers of a priest were valued the highest, followed by prayers of a religious stranger, which in turn beat being in the thoughts of a religious stranger. A non-significant negative value was placed on receiving non-prayerful thoughts of non-religious strangers.
The athiest responses were more unexpected. While they felt neutral about the thoughts of other non-believers, atheists and agnostics were actively hostile to either the thoughts or prayers of religious people, to the point they expressed a willingness to pay some of their money to avoid it. Intriguingly, the greatest opposition was to receiving the prayers of a non-religious layperson, priestly prayers, like mere thoughts, were seen as less burdensome.
Though the results clearly show that not everyone values such gestures, some actively resent them, the reasons are not clear – if you don't believe prayers work why would you care about someone you don't know praying for you? However, Thunström and Noy draw one obvious conclusion: “Thoughts and prayers for others should be employed selectively.”