Faced with the phrase – delivered with po-faced sincerity by US senators and presidents alike every time there is a mass shooting or a natural disaster – it is reasonable for people offered the “thoughts and prayers” of strangers to wonder what exactly such a gift is worth in, you know, monetary terms.
Now, thanks to research by economists Linda Thunström and Shiri Noy, the answer is at hand. If the person making the prayer or having the thought is a priest and the recipient is a Christian, the value is $7.17.
If, however, the recipient is non-religious, the value quickly slides into the negative. Atheists, the researchers discovered, will happily fork out $1.66 if it means the cleric will keep his thoughts and prayers to himself.
The study, published in the journal PNAS, is the second by Thunström, who is at the University of Wyoming, attempting to quantify the economic function of seeking advice or assistance from God.
In a previous study she asked a mixed group of believers and non-believers to decide how much money – up to a max of $5 – to donate to relief funds for people impacted by a hurricane. In general, atheists and agnostics stumped up the whole lot, while religious folk most often withheld some or all of it, saying that offering thoughts and prayers was a more effective option.
For her latest research, she and Noy again targeted a natural disaster – this time Hurricane Florence which smashed into North Carolina in September 2018. More than 400 residents of the state – around 30% of whom had been directly affected by the disaster – were given a theoretical fiver and asked to estimate how much of it they would pay to receive a prayer or thought from a priest, a lay Christian, or an atheist, all strangers.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Christians were prepared to pay over the limit for a prayer from a priest (such people being, after all, professionals in the field) and only a bit less for the prayers of a lay believer. They saw no value in the kind thoughts of atheists.
Non-believers also saw no value in best wishes from fellow secular folk, but they were prepared to pay to keep the clerics away. They were prepared to hand over even more to avoid the prayers of the laity, an outcome perhaps reflecting previous experiences involving eager proselytisers and long elevator rides.
Thunström and Noy suggest that future studies in the field should include people of other religious faiths, to see if the strange trust in appeals to the supernatural is limited only to Christians.
Barry Keily is a science journalist based in Victoria, Australia.
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