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Press: $3.27 for your thoughts: the prayer price-tag

20 September 2019


JUST how irritating are American Christians? This question has never been so rigorously answered as it was by The Guardian last week. It reported on a paper, published in a reputable journal, in which hurricane survivors were asked how much they would value the thoughts and prayers of strangers.

For the survey, 436 people were given $5 each “in support of their hardship”, and asked how much, if any, they were willing to exchange for thoughts and prayers from strangers.

“When a participant agreed to a price for a gesture, one of the strangers received a note outlining the participant’s struggles and asking them to either pray or have them in their thoughts.

“Prayers from a priest were worth $7.17 to the average Christian in need. Prayers from less exalted Christians were valued at $4.36; while mere thoughts from another Christian were cheaper still at $3.27. The researchers used statistical models to estimate prices people would pay above the $5 they had.”

The price of $3.27 seems to me remarkably high for mere thoughts. On the other hand, you might think that the premium $1.09 is a measure of belief in the power of intercessory prayer. And the jump in value to a priest’s prayers is quite fascinating, suggesting that professionals are believed to have a hotline to God, which is not, I think, entirely orthodox.

Is it what atheists also suspect? The evidence here is ambiguous; for atheists and agnostics also cared about prayer. In fact, they cared enough to pay good money to make it go away. To avoid the prayers of a priest was worth $1.66 to them. To protect them from what the Guardian report calls “a run-of-the-mill Christian”, they would pay $3.54. Is this distinction because Ned Flanders-types are particularly embarrassing, as I would immediately assume? Or does it reflect a residual suspicion that their prayers might have some impact on the world?


THE Archbishop of Canterbury’s tour of India was covered with some subtlety by Michael Binyon in The Times. The prostration in Amritsar was magnificent theatre (News, 13 September).

How messages are delivered makes an immense difference to the way they are received, and, had the Archbishop remained upright at the site of the massacre, not nearly as many would have heard him when he said: “I have no status to apologise on behalf of the UK, its Government, or its history. But I am personally very sorry for this terrible atrocity. It is one of a number of deep stains on British history. . .”

It was one of those rare instances of virtue-signalling when what is signalled is actually a virtue. It certainly had a cost: the comments underneath the Times report were mostly vituperative.

But it also set up the rather harder diplomatic message to emerge from the end of his visit, in what is clearly the result of an off-the-record chat with the Archbishop. “Welby knew that it would be taken badly if he criticised the government of Narendra Modi, or called for greater protection for the Christians — numbering no more than about three per cent of the population, but including big and very ancient communities in the south, especially in the state of Kerala.

“Instead, he underlined the importance of Article 25, guaranteeing freedom of worship, and pointedly expressed hopes that this would be upheld by local authorities. Muslims are fearful that the government, after scrapping the article giving special status to the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir, and recently conducting a census in Assam designed to identify and expel Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, might also scrap this provision.”


THE WASHINGTON POST had a magnificent story on a Roman Catholic bishop in the United States, Michael Bransfield, of Wheeling-Charleston. “Bransfield was barred from public ministry in July after an internal church investigation found he had engaged in financial abuses and sexually harassed young priests, allegations which Bransfield has denied.

“The Post previously obtained the investigative report and revealed its major findings, including that he spent $2.4 million of church funds on travel and gave $350,000 in cash gifts to other clerics.“

There is much astonishing detail in the story, but the kicker is perfect: when the boom finally dropped on him and he was summoned to the nunciature in Washington to explain his expenses, he took a private jet there and back from New Jersey.


THIS was not the only flight of note in the religious news. From Moscow comes news of Russia’s national Day of Sobriety: four Orthodox clergy hired a light aircraft from which to sprinkle the city of Tver with holy water to save its residents from the “demons of alcoholism and casual sex”, The Times reports.

It does not say how much the citizens of Tver would pay to make the rain stop.

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