Atheists Are Willing to Pay to Avoid Hearing "Thoughts and Prayers" from Christians

For atheists, the offer of "thoughts and prayers" in the wake of a tragedy may actually be worse than saying nothing at all, according to a new report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

"Thoughts and prayers" has become the go-to condolence after floods, mass shootings and a range of other natural and manmade disasters. Critics claim the phrase is too pat, and "may obstruct structural reforms intended to mitigate catastrophes," according to economist Linda Thunström and sociologist Shiri Noy.

Their study, published Monday, suggests that while for Christians, the remark is welcome—especially if it comes from a member of the clergy—atheists and agnostics were "prayer averse," preferring to avoid religious sentiments in times of tragedy.

Thunström and Noy divided a group of participants into Christians, agnostics and atheists. (No other religious or spiritual groups were considered in the study). About a third of the group were directly affected by Hurricane Florence, which devastated the Carolinas in September 2018, while the rest were asked to base their responses on some other hardship they had experienced.

Each participant was given $5 and asked how much they'd pay for thoughts and prayers from either a Christian or a nonreligious person in response to their hardship.

thoughts and prayers
Researchers found that while Christians were willing to pay for prayers from others—especially priests—atheists and agnostics were "prayer averse." Getty Images

While self-proclaimed Christians were willing to pay for prayers—$7.17 if from a priest, $4.36 from another Christian—most atheists and agnostics were willing to pay priests and Christian strangers not to pray for them. Atheists, in particular, were willing to hand over $1.66 to avoid prayer from a priest, and a whopping $3.54 to avoid prayer from a random believer.

Christians didn't seem to care too much for "thoughts" from fellow Christians, offering to pay only $3.27. (To estimate prices people would pay above the $5 they were given, Thunström and Noy used statistical models.)

"It may reflect the political climate we are in," Thunström told The Guardian. "Some of these people might feel they hear the phrase 'thoughts and prayers' all the time, and perhaps it provokes something in them."

Studies indicate people often find comfort in condolences—especially Christians, who "frequently seek others' prayers during difficult times, believing they may have healing powers," according to the report.

Thunström and Noy say their research suggests, though, that "thoughts and prayers for others should be employed selectively." For the nonreligious, it's preferable not to be prayed for.

"Despite the frequent usage of these gestures on behalf of people experiencing hardship, the value of thoughts and prayers to recipients remains unknown," the researchers wrote. "In the United States, this knowledge vacuum exacerbates public debate about the value of thoughts and prayers."

In August, after a report indicating there were 251 mass shootings in the U.S. so far this year, Robin Lloyd, managing director of the gun-violence group Giffords, claimed "The days when politicians can get away with offering thoughts and prayers are over. The public knows thoughts and prayers won't prevent the next tragedy."