Whenever a catastrophe strikes in the United States, political and public figures almost always offer “thoughts and prayers” and call the public to join them in their gestures for those negatively impacted by the catastrophe. However, until recently no one had conducted a scientific experiment to determine the value of these thoughts and prayers to the intended recipients.
An Incentivized Prayer Experiment
Shortly following Hurricane Florence, which struck North Carolina in September 2018, Linda Thunström, an economist at the University of Wyoming, teamed up with Shiri Noy, an anthropologist-sociologist at Denison University in Ohio, to perform an incentivized experiment on 482 North Carolinians who suffered some kind of hardship as a result of the hurricane. Thunström and Noy preselected the 482 North Carolinians so that they would fall into one of these two groups: (1) people who believed in God and identified themselves as Christians and (2) people who denied or were unsure of God’s existence and identified themselves as either atheists or agnostics. People who held to other religious beliefs were excluded from the experiment.
All participants in Thunström and Noy’s experiment each received a standard payment plus an additional $5 to be used in the experiment. Participants were given the opportunity to exchange some or all of their $5 for:
- prayers from a Christian stranger,
- supportive thoughts from a Christian stranger,
- thoughts from an atheist stranger, or
- prayers from a priest.
Of the 482 participants, 105 chose option #1, 103 option #2, 119 option #3, and 109 option #4. On average those who identified themselves as Christians were willing to pay $7.17 for prayers from a priest and $4.36 for prayers from a Christian stranger. Those who identified themselves as atheists or agnostics were indifferent to thoughts from a nonreligious stranger, being willing on average to pay $0.33 for such thoughts, which statistically is indistinguishable from $0. On the other hand, they were averse to prayers from a priest and especially averse to prayers from a Christian stranger. Atheists and agnostics on average were willing to pay $3.54 for a Christian stranger not to pray for them and $1.66 for a priest not to pray for them.
The 482 participants also were asked if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement, “I may sometimes be more helped by others’ prayers for me than their material help.” People who identified themselves as Christians agreed with this statement. People who identified themselves as atheists or agnostics disagreed.
Thunström and Noy concluded their research paper with the following comment, “Our study sheds empirical light on the value of thoughts and prayers.”2 They also recommended follow-up experiments, particularly on people who identify themselves with non-Christian religious groups. They offered no further conclusions or comment on the results of their experiment.
Some implications from Thunström and Noy’s experiment seem sociologically obvious and significant. That atheists and agnostics register such negative reactions to prayers from Christians, even to the extent of being willing to pay to prevent such prayers from being exercised, strongly suggests that the reason they identify themselves as atheists or agnostics has little to do with their belief or nonbelief in God’s existence and much more to do with how they feel about Christians. If they were convinced that God does not exist or is irrelevant, and if they had no negative reactions to Christians, they would be just as indifferent to the prayers expressed on their behalf from Christians as they are to the thoughts expressed on their behalf from nonreligious people.
Thunström and Noy’s experiment affirms what I observed and experienced at the 2008 International Skeptics Society Conference, Origins: the BIG Questions, where I debated the particle physicist Victor Stenger.3 After the debate, I stayed for an extra three hours engaging many of the 700 atheists in attendance. I shared with them that their two-day conference revealed to me another piece of evidence for the existence of the God of the Bible. I noted that every one of the atheist scientists that spoke focused their attention on the God of the Bible, choosing to ignore the gods of the other major religions. I also noted that these speakers were very passionate about the nonexistence of the God of the Bible. I observed the same level of passion from attendees during the Q&A sessions.
I shared with them that if the speakers and the attendees really were convinced that the God of the Bible did not exist, they would be treating him in the same manner as they treat the tooth fairy or the Easter bunny. I explained that the focus and passion I had observed persuaded me that their speakers and they actually believed that God exists but that they did not like him. The response I got from the atheists I was engaging was telling. They declared, “It is not that we hate the God of the Bible. It is that we despise his followers.” One by one these atheists shared with me their stories of how they had been abused, wronged, or offended by someone or several someones who identified themselves as Christian. They all felt that the abuse, wrong, or offense was so egregious as to be unforgivable.
For readers who presently identify themselves as nontheists, I would ask them to consider the irrationality of atheists and agnostics to allow imperfect, sinful humans to get between them and a perfectly good God. For readers who consider themselves to be Christians, I would ask them to consider how important it is for committed followers of Jesus Christ to show compassion toward those who have been abused or wronged by people who claim to be Christians. Rather than engaging in an intellectual argument about the evidence for God’s existence, often Christians would be wise to first compassionately and empathetically listen to non-Christians’ traumatic stories about their past encounters with those claiming to be Christians. Only through helping non-Christians, and for that matter Christians, get healed from such emotional and spiritual wounds can doors be opened for them to fully accept the truths about the Bible and the Christian faith.