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US survey elicits the monetary value of intercessory prayer

08 April 2022


AMERICANS who value receiving intercessory prayer from a stranger do so primarily because they believe that it provides emotional support in hardship (financial, health-related, or other), and will be answered by God, a survey from the Public Library of Science (PLOS) suggests.

Conversely, those who do not value prayer believe it to be a waste of time: a negative value found to be particularly large if people are offended by religion. The survey concludes that the degree of hardship affects how much people like or dislike the offer of prayer.

It notes that praying for others in the wake of of a disaster is a common interpersonal and public response to tragedy in the United States, but that this is deeply polarising. While some Americans actively sought out prayers in times of hardship, others believed that prayers were either useless, or potentially even harmful in, perhaps, detracting from material help.

Previous studies had shown religiosity to increase in response to disasters, suggesting that religious engagement, through camaraderie, or rituals such as prayers, were perceived as helpful in hard times. The act of praying might help to mitigate hardship, and the belief that God might directly intervene and affect wealth and health had been found to be particularly salient in Protestant prosperity theology.

The knowledge of being prayed for by others was also found to increase emotional comfort. Additionally, “if people expect the act of praying to bring emotional comfort to the person, they may value the emotional benefit to the sender, suggesting an altruistic motive for valuing prayers from others.”

Prayer aversion was found to be prevalent among non-believers, perhaps regarded as offensive because prayer represented religion as an institution, and also because they believed it to be a useless activity, wasting time and effort that could have been used more productively.

The group designed an experimental survey to elicit the monetary value (willingness to pay) to religious Christians and non-believers of receiving a prayer from a Christian stranger. They recruited 656 survey participants from around the country who received a $5 payment in e-currency that they could spend to solicit or avoid prayers from a Christian stranger.

Sixty-five per cent of the US population are reported to be Christians. To ensure enough power to detect statistically meaningful differences in the Christian group, more Christians (482) were recruited than non-believers (174). Out of the 482, 196 were Roman Catholics, and 286 were Protestants. Of the non-believers, 15 were atheists, and 159 were agnostics.

Participants were asked to describe recent hardship; how difficult it had been to deal with emotionally or practically; and how they would characterise it for themselves or for a loved one. They were told that they would be offered the opportunity to receive a supportive prayer from a Christian stranger who believed in God, aimed at “the positive and peaceful resolution” of the hardship that they had described.

Participants were asked about their general attitudes towards prayers, their level of religiosity, education, political preferences, income, conservatism, marital status, and the number of adults and children in their household.

The 451 Christians were found to value prayers at an average of $2.34, while the 166 non-believers were willing to pay $1.56 not to be prayed for. The survey found those values to be consistent with previous results: those who were relatively young, conservative, of low income, and Christian were more likely to assign a positive value to receiving the prayer.

Eighty-two per cent of the Christians in the study believed that prayer would result in God intervening to ease their emotional pain. Many also valued it because they believed that God would help them materially (36 per cent), or improve their health (55 per cent).

Seventy-eight per cent of the Christians who positively valued prayers believed that prayer from a stranger would be answered by God. There was a higher probability among the more religious (as measured by frequency of church attendance), Republicans, and those on a low income.

Finally, a large majority of both Christians and non-believers valued the prayer positively because they considered sending it to be a meaningful activity for the stranger. Hence, “altruism could be an important part of the prayer’s value, to both Christians and non- believers — the recipient believes the sender of the prayer will benefit from undertaking it.”

The highest positive value for prayer was generated if the recipient expected emotional comfort from it. The type of hardship addressed was also a factor: about 30 per cent of participants reported a health issue — their own or that of a loved one — as the hardship; the same percentage reported a financial issue. For 20 per cent, it was a relationship issue, and, for the remainder, an issue outside these categories.

The most widespread reason for non-believers (66 per cent) to value the prayer negatively is reported as not wanting the stranger to waste his or her time performing it. Further, many non-believers “do not want the stranger to feel good about something that is meaningless”.

It also found that, while many Christians valued prayers, others were concerned with who was sending the prayer. Many who assigned the prayer a negative value noted that they valued prayers, but not from strangers.

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