What is the value of thoughts and prayers?
October 3, 2019 10:41 AM   Subscribe

They had it right in the middle ages - insert coin, receive prayer.
posted by GuyZero at 10:44 AM on October 3, 2019 [6 favorites]

I wish I had known about this sweet “get paid not to pray for people” angle before!
posted by corb at 10:47 AM on October 3, 2019 [24 favorites]

I keep like to one of these handy.
posted by hilberseimer at 10:49 AM on October 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

The funny thing is that thoughts and prayers can be done silently, which is actually the usual method of thought. It's the insistence on saying "thoughts and prayers", regardless of whether or not there is any actual thought or prayer that will follow. (I mean does anyone think when Trump tweets it he'll think or pray?) So the issue seems to be more of social notice and asserting likeness than about praying or thought, which is kinda obvious, but still...

For anyone who believed thoughts and prayers in themselves matter, than announcing the practice wouldn't likely change anything and for those who don't believe in the value of thought or prayer, then doing it silently without telling them isn't going to annoy. Clearly this is as much about social etiquette as godstuff, an attempt to be noticeably responsive in the aftermath of a bad event without necessarily volunteering physical help. Consoling to some, not worth a lot to others.
posted by gusottertrout at 10:58 AM on October 3, 2019 [15 favorites]

As someone said on reddit recently: love the believer, hate the belief.
posted by bonehead at 10:59 AM on October 3, 2019 [25 favorites]

Jesus had some useful advice about prayer, mainly "go pray where nobody can see you" and "keep it simple, stupid"
posted by prize bull octorok at 11:01 AM on October 3, 2019 [34 favorites]

“For a Dancer” best captures my attitude toward prayer these days:

Keep a fire for the human race
And let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down.
Perhaps a better world is drawing near
And just as easy it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found.
Don't let the uncertainty turn you around
Go on and make a joyful sound.

posted by sallybrown at 11:05 AM on October 3, 2019 [9 favorites]

But how do Christians and atheists and agnostics feel about thoughts and prayers from people who aren't Christian or atheist or agnostic?
posted by carrioncomfort at 11:08 AM on October 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

if someone was like "i will inscribe the names of your enemies on this lead sheet curse tablet" i would be pumped.
posted by poffin boffin at 11:11 AM on October 3, 2019 [44 favorites]

The thing is about 'thoughts and prayers' is it's *condescending* and not ultimately helpful. Like, if you have no food in the house and there are bills to pay and someone says they'll keep you in their thoughts and prayers, it's like, sure, thanks, I'm sure thoughts are very nutritious and my landlord definitely takes prayers as rent.
posted by HypotheticalWoman at 11:11 AM on October 3, 2019 [51 favorites]

Was this up for the Ig Noble award for 2019?
posted by mfoight at 11:14 AM on October 3, 2019

I am reminded of a recent episode of Judge John Hodgman, where the husband insisted on saying "bless you" every time his wife sneezed, because "Everyone enjoys the comfort of 'bless you.'"

Yet another case where I wish the judge would have ruled to divorce the motherfucker already, but he is kinder than I am.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 11:19 AM on October 3, 2019 [8 favorites]

As noted above, prayer between a person and their object of prayer is entirely their own business, as it generally takes place internally, or at least in private.

However, I have noticed that when someone tells me they intend to pray on my behalf, the implication is usually not "I will pray for you [to be relieved of your current misfortune]" but instead it is "I will pray for you [to cease being the sort of sinner/heathen/freak who deserves your current misfortune]". The implied insult burns both in and of itself and because it's hidden behind a veil of plausible deniability.

It's the "I'm not touching you..." of performative faith, and is similarly annoying.
posted by Karmakaze at 11:23 AM on October 3, 2019 [60 favorites]

I live in a large city in Canada, surrounded by atheists and people who might believe but never see the inside of a church, and hear the "bless you" thing like clockwork every time someone sneezes. It means absolutely nothing (at least to us).

My wife says it to our kid and the subject of religion just never came up while she was growing up. It wasn't even a thing they talked about, let alone had for themselves. It's a cultural affectation at this point.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 11:25 AM on October 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

"Bless you" or "God bless you" someone sneezes is basically meaningless and is something most people say when they hear a sneeze largely because it's a preprogrammed habit of politeness.

As an atheist, I don't really care if some says either to me, but I do feel good that someone said the culturally polite post-sneeze acknowledgement.

I typically say "Gesundheit," not because it's a secular thing to say after a sneeze, but because my father said it while I was growing up after picking it up in Germany. It stuck, and it's second nature. I have said "Bless you" to people after they sneeze too, sometimes. I don't consider it a prayer, I consider it a preprogrammed bit of politeness, divorced from any religious overtures.
posted by SansPoint at 11:25 AM on October 3, 2019 [10 favorites]

But how do Christians and atheists and agnostics feel about thoughts and prayers from people who aren't Christian or atheist or agnostic?

I had a really, really interesting reaction to this from someone once; in another forum we were discussing the whole "Happy Holidays" vs. "Merry Christmas" thing, and some dude was snarking about that. So I tried the old chestnut "how would you feel if you had a Jewish clerk who wished you a Happy Hannukkah?"

"Oh, I'd prefer that," he said.

"....hang on, what?"

"I'd prefer that." And I asked him to elaborate, and he explained: as far as he was concerned, a Jewish clerk wishing him "Happy Hannukah" would be more meaningful, because for that clerk, "Happy Hannukah" actually meant something. Whereas, a Jewish clerk saying "Happy Holidays" meant nothing because it was a totally generic thing. He also, he said, would have a problem with a Jewish clerk wishing him "Merry Christmas" because "Christmas doesn't mean a darn thing to him, so it's an empty saying. For them to wish me 'Happy Hannukah' would be more meaningful and sincere." He also felt the same about wanting a Muslim clerk to wish him "Happy Eid" or whatever, and the like.

It was a perspective I'd not ever encountered before that was fascinating. I disagreed with it, since I still think that from a social perspective most people prefer to be hailed in their own holiday's greeting and don't always take this fellow's perspective, but at least his position had an internal and impartial logic that made its own sense.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:26 AM on October 3, 2019 [33 favorites]

I think my biggest complaint is with people who confuse "thoughts and prayers" with meaningful action. When we do something nice, or positive, or constructive, most of us get a little kick of endorphins that should help reinforce those sorts of personally and socially beneficial behaviors. The problem is, sharing the "thoughts and prayers" sentiment gives a false sense of accomplishment and the illusion of having helped in some way. It's a similar phenomenon as to why you shouldn't publicly share your goals.
posted by Godspeed.You!Black.Emperor.Penguin at 11:33 AM on October 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

I found it interesting - and not unimportant - that the religious participants, both pray-ers and pray-ees were all Christians (correct me if I misread about the pray-ees). Would they still have wanted the prayers if they came from a Muslim? Would they still value the prayers from a religious leader as highly if the leader was a rabbi?

I mean, I'm a non-Christian religious person and when my son was very sick I was happy to get prayers from anyone who offered. But when a Christian offers out of the blue to pray for me, they're more likely to get side-eye than thanks. And I certainly wouldn't pay for it.

Then again, I wouldn't pay for it regardless -- not sure if that's an theosophical difference, or just a personal feeling that someone who is praying for a fee doesn't actually come from a place of religiosity so what would be the point.
posted by Mchelly at 11:35 AM on October 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

Occasionally someone will tell me that they will pray for me for something -- most recently when a lot of people knew my Dad was dying. I am not a believer, and when I was younger, those offers made me actively angry. Now I accept them for what they are, social pleasantries along the lines of a greeting card that says "I am thinking of you in your time of trouble." They mean the person cares about me or at least doesn't actively dislike me, and while I don't necessarily believe what they believe, I appreciate their care.

It's a totally different thing if the offer for prayer is for something they consider a problem and you do not (e.g., praying for heathens or praying for LGBTQ+ people) -- then it's just condescending bullshit.

I also have a harder time getting past people who thank jesus for providing things that have just been provided to them by a corporeal, living, non-jesus person. My uncle wrote a book in which he thanked god for providing for him in a variety of circumstances in his life, and one of those circumstances was when my mom bought him a car because he really needed a new car. Not that he didn't thank her at the time, but she remains kinda choked that god got the credit when she got the credit card bill.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:35 AM on October 3, 2019 [19 favorites]

"Thoughts and prayers" is just a way of saying "we have a payment on a $60K 'man truck' to make and granite countertops to pay for, otherwise we'd offer to help".
posted by maxwelton at 11:36 AM on October 3, 2019 [6 favorites]

Maybe it's because I've been an atheist my entire life instead of becoming one in college or something after previously having been a theist, but if someone says that they want to pray for me or they will keep me in their prayers or something, I just say "Thanks".

It doesn't do anything for me and keeps them happy. Whatever.

(Before anyone chimes in with "Well, you probably aren't an asshole", rest assured that I am an asshole. Just not about this)
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 11:38 AM on October 3, 2019 [33 favorites]

I'm a contented agnostic. But facing a Big Scary Surgery this summer, I started accepting prayers from everyone because why not? So I got prayers from the mountains of North Carolina from the mother of the woman who sold me my new mattress. I got prayers from the basement of a Baptist church in Tennessee. A favorite technician at my clinic said daily rosaries for me. My muslim doctor promised me a prayer on my surgery date. That sort of thing.

And in the prep room before surgery, a hospital volunteer asked if he could pray with me, and instead of waving him away and avoiding the potential awkwardness of having someone pray right next to me, I said sure. He knew I wasn't religious at all. But the prayer was really lovely -- all about the procedure going well, and the surgeons and their team applying their knowledge and compassion, and being able to recover with the strength I was given. I was deeply moved his earnestness and by the kindness he intended.

And it's a shame that prayers all get lumped in together. "Thoughts and prayers" is so empty when employed for things where action is better suited -- demanding legislation for reasonable gun control, donating to flood victims, demanding basic human rights on behalf of immigrants.

But for personal situations where the person can't take specific action like going into the operating room themselves, I see prayer as just a way for someone to concentrate and communicate good energy in a way that makes sense to the pray-er, and then nonbelievers can just translate that out into good energy if they want.
posted by mochapickle at 11:47 AM on October 3, 2019 [38 favorites]

I am pleased if people say, in a kind way, I will think of you, I will pray for you. My friend is getting treated for cancer - I wrote a spell for her, not necessarily ironically, and send healing light to her. I would not like someone to cast spells or prayers that seek to harm me. But I don't actually believe in any of it. I offer healing light because it is all I can offer to my friend. I participate in the Blue Wave spellcasting because, FFS, these are desperate times, and what can I do? I'm not even sure I wish prayer worked, because, FFS, people pray for horrible shit.

Years ago, I clipped an article from a magazine, a photo essay about prayer. Maybe some notes about prayer by a well-known Jewish writer. Not because I think prayer will cure my friend's cancer; I hope the chemotherapy and radiation will do that. I doubt prayer will make her puke less, but if I could visit her in her state where it is illegal, I would bring her some pot from Maine (where it has taken 2 referendums and years of avoidance for the legislature to write legalization rules). Prayer is good for those who pray. My thoughts and prayers for my friend give me a tiny sense that I can do something about her fucking cancer. My thoughts for my widowed friend help me heal from the loss of my cousin, her husband. Expressing my intent to hold my friend in the light is how I say I care for you, I don't want fucking cancer to eat you up. and I know you miss him every moment of every day, here is a hug.

When I hold my friend in the light, I let go of anger and tension, focus my thoughts and energy and direct my love and hopes to my friend. It's a lot like meditation.

The entire Internet is all about telling everyone they're Doing It Wrong, and I can't disagree with anyone who thinks Thought & Prayers is overused and meaningless, especially when the cynical corrupt assholes offering them up have the ability to take meaningful action and choose not to because their religion is the NRA and Mitch MConnell. Just be gentle when it's offered by people who have not sold their souls.
posted by theora55 at 11:58 AM on October 3, 2019 [27 favorites]

I'm a regular on another board where we found that our backgrounds gave us the involuntary urge to send good wishes, even if we weren't the type to actually pray.

Our compromise, originally done in jest, though it has since become sincere, is to "send Positive Mind Atoms" which we have now shortened to PMAs. We've been doing this 15-ish years now, to the point where it's difficult to remind myself that no one outside of our tiny corner of the interwebs has any clue what the hell PMAs are.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:59 AM on October 3, 2019 [13 favorites]

I'm fairly sure that underlying those results is the assumption that if you're a fellow christian, they'll pray for you to be well, but if you're not, they'll pray for you to stop being a godless heathen... and I'd say that assumption is well earned, even if it's not always true.
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 11:59 AM on October 3, 2019 [6 favorites]

"send Positive Mind Atoms"

In my primary community on Ravelry, we send mojo for much the same reason. I know mojo has theological origins of its own, but the group uses it as a secular form of good wishes.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:05 PM on October 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

I'm persuaded that prayers should be used selectively, but maybe don't encourage people to be too selective in their thoughts? We've got more than enough selective thinking as it is.
posted by belarius at 12:07 PM on October 3, 2019

I'm Christian, and I take all non-Christian offers to pray for me with the kindness they obviously intend. I'm quite pleased that someone thinks well enough of me to include me in something so important to them; that's lovely. I am much more likely to get offended at a Christian fundamentalist praying at me, because they're doing it to be mean.

I also have a lot of neo-pagan friends, including one who totally does curse tablets on my behalf and it's awesome.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:08 PM on October 3, 2019 [6 favorites]

I'm not religious anymore, but I'll take the good vibes in any way I can get them. Whether it's thoughts, prayers, a hug in a difficult time, it's enough for me to know that people care about me.

On the other hand, "thoughts and prayers" that are obviously empty, and given instead of actual help or action by those who have the power and responsibility to help the situation -- like, say, every time that there's a mass shooting, and a politician offers prayers instead of action -- see, now, that offends me.
posted by vitout at 12:08 PM on October 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think, in sincerity, there's a lot of unkindness in this thread being directed at religious folks, in a way that feels very much like punching down, especially as it feels like it is mostly coming from people who live in large metropolises in the United States where atheists are largely better off financially than those who are practicing religion seriously.

I am a practicing Catholic, and I would appreciate all sincere prayers - from Muslims, from Jews, from Hindus, from Catholics, from Protestants, from anyone who has a sincere belief and wants to communicate with whatever god or gods they believe in to try to bring good things or better things to me. It doesn't feel empty, or casual. The reason I wouldn't want prayers from atheists is because it would be insincere, not because I value them less. I value prayers because it is someone committing to give me the most valuable of commodities in the current age - their time and sincere intention. Prayer time is, in fact, a limited and scarce resource and I feel humbled and appreciative whenever anyone is able to give me any. It buoys me up and relieves my stress to know that people are praying for me.

This study is helpful, I think, to explain that there are simply two different value systems going on here, and that it's hard for people to relate to each other with them. But when people use it as a way to be lolzy about prayers that they have no faith connection to, it feels meanspirited and disheartening.
posted by corb at 12:17 PM on October 3, 2019 [7 favorites]

I don't object to people who I like and who I believe like me praying for me. I don't find it particularly meaningful, but I don't find it a negative. I do not want prayers from strangers, and I don't find it meaningful, and I certainly don't want your public prayers and I super certainly don't want your weaponized prayers.
posted by jeather at 12:30 PM on October 3, 2019 [9 favorites]

They had it right in the middle ages

for once, anyway!

posted by supermedusa at 12:43 PM on October 3, 2019

I take it the way it's intended. When it's somebody judging me for my heathenish ways I'm annoyed or baffled; when it's somebody genuinely wishing me well in a different faith framework than the one I use, I appreciate their kindness.

That said, when my friend was dying of cancer, she mentioned to me that she much preferred her church friends who came over to do some laundry or feed her cat to the ones who just prayed for her, no matter how sincerely meant.
posted by joannemerriam at 12:54 PM on October 3, 2019 [7 favorites]

I think, in sincerity, there's a lot of unkindness in this thread being directed at religious folks, in a way that feels very much like punching down, especially as it feels like it is mostly coming from people who live in large metropolises in the United States where atheists are largely better off financially than those who are practicing religion seriously.

There's a lot to unpack in that statement. Whether the people ITT live in the "metropolises" you speak of, and whether atheists are "better off financially" is questionable, and I'm not sure how you determine who's practicing religion seriously vs. unseriously or insincerely. I guess this is an attempt to restack the deck so that non-religous people are lower on the ladder than the religious, but religion--or at least people claiming they're doing things for religious reasons--is so pervasive and destructive in this country it's ridiculous to suggest atheists are above it.

I take exception to the concept of being unkind to religion being "punching down". To be an atheist or agnostic in the U.S. is to be inundated with religion from so many angles it's ridiculous. Having to suffer people seriously telling you they're going to pray for you when you're having a personal tragedy, for example, is just one instance where religiousity is presumed to be the default and you're just supposed to smile and nod and pretend you agree and thank someone for their "thoughts and prayers."

The offer or mention of prayers may come from a good and sincere place (or may not...) but there's also a lot of baggage that goes with it, meant or not. It is a statement of personal values and beliefs, and for a lot of people in the U.S. there's a lot of "punching down" that happens to them in the name of religion.
posted by jzb at 1:31 PM on October 3, 2019 [28 favorites]

I think, in sincerity, there's a lot of unkindness in this thread being directed at religious folks, in a way that feels very much like punching down, especially as it feels like it is mostly coming from people who live in large metropolises in the United States where atheists are largely better off financially than those who are practicing religion seriously.

Some people are expressing pretty mild dislike of having others, particularly Christians, pray for them. Some of those people go on to specify that the prayers they really dislike are the ones that imply they are doing something wrong---e.g., prayers that you will become straight, find Jesus, stop inconveniencing them with your illness, etc. I get that people don't like hearing that prayers aren't always welcome, but it's hardly unkind. Ex-Catholic to Catholic, it's a hell of a lot less unkind than the Church's views about LGBTQ+ people, to say nothing of its international and coordinated campaigns against us and against women's rights, and to say nothing of the laity for whom those things will never be dealbreakers.

But even if they were as strongly worded as the complaint I just made, the idea that complaints about the way religious people treat the non-religious are punching down because atheists have higher median incomes is absurd. Being an atheist isn't like being a person of color, or like being poor, or like being queer, or being undocumented, or like being Muslim, but it's still a deviation from the moralized image of a the "ideal citizen" of the United States. People can deviate from or embody that ideal to different degrees and in different ways and the deviations can carry greater or lesser penalties. The deviations from the ideal often intersect, but they are not interchangeable. That's why it makes sense to talk about white privilege and patriarchy even in the context of poor white men who deviate from class and economic ideals. That doesn't mean that criticisms of poor white men can't ever be punching down---Metafilter isn't that great about avoiding classism in this context---but it's punching down when the punching targets the ways they deviate from the ideal, i.e, their poverty. It's not punching down to complain about whiteness or masculinity because those are the things embodied in the ideal; those are things that move people "up."

I'm emphatically not arguing that being non-religious in America is as difficult as being Muslim, or black, or a woman, or poor. I'm saying it's non-normative while religiosity in general and Christianity in particular is normative, and meaningfully so. (Pew data on Americans' attitudes about atheists/the non-religious) It is a marked identity, albeit one that does not expose the marked person to the same dangers that other marks do. For a Christian to say that this thread counts as punching down in the year of our Lord 2019---sorry, year of some folks' Lord---is an absurd reversal of the language.
posted by This time is different. at 1:32 PM on October 3, 2019 [34 favorites]

I think, in sincerity, there's a lot of unkindness in this thread being directed at religious folks, in a way that feels very much like punching down, especially as it feels like it is mostly coming from people who live in large metropolises in the United States where atheists are largely better off financially than those who are practicing religion seriously.
What I don't find sincere, in general, are theists playing victim to rich big-city liberal heathens. Like, there's a LOT of worldview to unpack in that sentence. Christian thought owns the western hemisphere, and some Christians still want to role play 1st century persecution.

(ETA: Other people just said it better than I did.)
posted by Horkus at 1:33 PM on October 3, 2019 [27 favorites]

Writing naughty fanfic about the prophet would be punching up in Saudi Arabia, but it would very much be punching down here. MetaFilter is not Saudi Arabia, and it's also not insert-your-crappy-evangelical-town-here. Sending good vibes to everybody!
posted by prize bull octorok at 1:39 PM on October 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

I'm an atheist. I've been accosted by a complete stranger who asked me "Can I pray for you?" There's no way for me to interpret that as anything but condescending, and I have to wonder if a person of faith would feel differently.
posted by adamrice at 1:40 PM on October 3, 2019 [10 favorites]

I typically say "Gesundheit," not because it's a secular thing to say after a sneeze, but because my father said it while I was growing up after picking it up in Germany.

Both because it IS a secular thing, and because I picked it up while living in a francophone country, I will now when my partner sneezes tell her "to your loves" (à tes amours - I usually say it in English though). The French also say "to your wishes," and I like both of them better than "bless you" or "Gesundheit."
posted by solotoro at 1:40 PM on October 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

I am reminded of a recent episode of Judge John Hodgman, where the husband insisted on saying "bless you" every time his wife sneezed, because "Everyone enjoys the comfort of 'bless you'"

As nonbelievers my husband and I agreed early on that saying "bless you" to each other after sneezing is 100% unnecessary, but after other surprising bodily sounds is 100% encouraged.
posted by waving at 2:11 PM on October 3, 2019 [7 favorites]

...it feels like it is mostly coming from people who live in large metropolises in the United States where atheists are largely better off financially than those who are practicing religion seriously.

And just to set the facts straight (and to illustrate how ridiculous this line of reasoning is), here's a chart comparing income and religion. Muslims do a fair bit better than Southern Baptists, but surely that doesn't tell us which religious criticisms are punching up or punching down.
posted by This time is different. at 2:16 PM on October 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

I've had someone ask if she could pray for me only once, and I found it touching. The way she wrote it made it seem like she really was asking permission, and that she wouldn't if I said "no." She knew that I wasn't a churchgoing person and that I was going through a tough time.

I told her "might help, can't hurt," and thanked her.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:34 PM on October 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

idk man as a Big Fuckin Gay religion in general feels inherently hostile to me in all the big 3 iterations, and anyone telling me that they want to pray for me, even with the best of intentions, even if that individual person is not a homophobe, is going to feel alienating and othering, and i'm absolutely not interested in hearing some weird fantasy about how that's somehow punching down.
posted by poffin boffin at 2:44 PM on October 3, 2019 [20 favorites]

ESPECIALLY in this godawful country where the primary purpose of public expressions of religion is to use as a cudgel to harm others who think or look or fuck differently than others.
posted by poffin boffin at 2:45 PM on October 3, 2019 [23 favorites]

Complaining about insincere prayers seems like complaining about counterfeit homeopathic products.
posted by JackFlash at 3:29 PM on October 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

Complaining about insincere prayers seems like complaining about counterfeit homeopathic products.

I dunno. A genuine homeopathic product is just gonna be water. A counterfeit homeopathic product might actually have stuff in it.
posted by SansPoint at 3:59 PM on October 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

I have to confess: I'm honestly not sure why people would go around telling others that they're praying for them.

A prayer asking for divine help can be a part of trying to do good, but not without actually doing good and helping others. Going around telling people that you're praying for them is not anywhere in doing good, really, unless they actively want to know?

I'm just continually baffled by this.
posted by Ahniya at 4:12 PM on October 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

"send Positive Mind Atoms

"People in this atomic age civilization ask why God did not reveal himself now as He did in Bible Day's...Jesus was an advanced soul, and his radiant body was developed in larger degree than that of anyone in our race..."

-Fillmore, 'Atom-Smashing Power of Mind ', 1949.
posted by clavdivs at 4:20 PM on October 3, 2019

I wish I had known about this sweet “get paid not to pray for people” angle before!

My favorite of this genre is the website where the proprietor will arrange for an atheist to adopt and care for your pets after The Rapture, since nonbelievers and companion animals alike will be left behind. The customer will, of course, ascend to heaven immediately. The cost of this service, IIRC, is $300 per pet.
posted by carmicha at 5:18 PM on October 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

I typically say "Gesundheit," not because it's a secular thing to say after a sneeze, but because my father said it while I was growing up after picking it up in Germany.

I just assume people are mocking me onomatopoetically.
posted by JackFlash at 5:19 PM on October 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

I don't consider it a prayer, I consider it a preprogrammed bit of politeness, divorced from any religious overtures.
In the same way that very few English speakers who tell you “goodbye” mean “god be with you” any more. That’s how low our world has fallen.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 6:11 PM on October 3, 2019

I think, in sincerity, there's a lot of unkindness in this thread being directed at religious folks, in a way that feels very much like punching down, especially as it feels like it is mostly coming from people who live in large metropolises in the United States where atheists are largely better off financially than those who are practicing religion seriously.

HAHA tell this to all my friends who grew up in the St. Louis metropolitan area in fundie households where a strong community belief system allowed for: their being disowned for their sexuality or gender presentation; their being horrendously abused both physically and emotionally; their being nearly imprisoned in their own homes; or any combination of the above, because their abusers could justify nearly anything by appealing to the disgrace of their victims "turning away from the Lord" in myriad and petty ways. Those abuses aren't caused by religion, but it's up there as one of the most effective social safety nets for predators because of how Christianity in particular is venerated in the American psyche. Get back to me when that stops being the case and we can talk about "punching down."
posted by invitapriore at 6:31 PM on October 3, 2019 [20 favorites]

I'm not one myself, but I spend a good bit of time around a group of practicing Christians who make the same wry remarks atheists make about how unhelpful thoughts and prayers are.

When someone in the group has an unpleasant task to do that no one else wants to help with, the other folks laughingly say "we'll pray for you," very much meaning "you're on your own, buddy," followed by not actually praying for them, or sometimes praying facetiously which would be unsurprising from atheists who were formerly theists, but kind of always blows my mind when current believers do it.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 7:17 PM on October 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

If I see a friend or relative has died on social media, I don't use "thoughts and prayers." That's never been my thing. I just go ahead and type out the RIP prayer. It's short, to the point, and it forces me to actually pray it as I type it.
posted by Fukiyama at 7:35 PM on October 3, 2019

I can completely agree on paying the priest more vs the average guy on the street. I would hope a professional Christian would have a higher prayer satisfaction rating than any old amateur Christian.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:11 PM on October 3, 2019

It kind of blows my mind that this got published in PNAS. Not because there's anything seriously wrong with it, but because it's so trivial. The study is just a single set of survey questions that don't speak to any deeper theory or open any new scientific inquiry. Their big discussion point is "Our results suggest that thoughts and prayers for others should be employed selectively." Which, what? For a high-profile, general-interest journal like PNAS, this is a weirdly small and specific study to publish. I might just be jealous, though; even minor studies in my field take a huge amount of work to complete, and this seems like something you could take from idea to completed manuscript in a couple of weeks.

That said, I'm more annoyed at the context of a study like this getting into a journal like PNAS than I have any actual problem with the study itself. The execution seems mostly fine, and the authors are pretty circumspect in the conclusions they draw, which is nice. The demographics of their survey population are important and don't seem to have been mentioned in the thread here yet. They surveyed North Carolinians following hurricane Florence, with the intention of studying people who have suffered the kind of public tragedy that tends to attract thoughts-and-prayers talk. 30% of respondents reported that they had been directly affected by the hurricane, and the remaining ones were asked to describe another "hardship" from the past year. The data are not directly shown but they say there was no detectable difference between the responses of those affected by the hurricane and those who weren't. North Carolina, of course, is a state with a pretty high level of public religious display, and having lived there for several years I can say from personal experience that outside of a few comparatively secular enclaves, atheists and agnostics are a distinct minority.

As far as method goes, they used a fairly standard approach of presenting a series of choices between a simple cash payoff ($0-$5) versus a different payoff plus an "intercessory gesture" (either thoughts or prayers from either a Christian or a nonreligious person, or prayers from a priest). The idea being that if you implicitly value, e.g., prayers from a Christian at $1, then if offered (A: $3) versus (B: $2.50 and prayers), you'd choose (B); or if offered (A: $4) versus (B: $2.50 and prayers), you'd choose (A); or if offered (A: $5) versus (B: $4 and prayers), you'd choose randomly. So what it means for atheists and agnostics to be "prayer averse," as quoted in the FPP, is that they on average require extra cash to accept the prayers compared to the cash without prayers. I use a similar approach to investigate the subjective preferences of animals, and I also often describe a negative preference like this as being "willing to pay to avoid receiving" something. But really I think it's debatable whether you can really summarize the result in this way; we know for example that people don't psychologically treat a reduced gain in the same way that they treat a loss. I don't think this significantly changes the interpretation of their result, but it's worth thinking about.

The major results are shown in the paper's only figure. I would summarize them as follows:

(1) Both Christians and the nonreligious will give up some opportunity to win money in order to avoid "intercessory gestures" from people of the opposite identification.
(2) Christians will give up money to receive intercessory gestures from other Christians, while the nonreligious are financially indifferent to intercessory gestures from other nonreligious people.
(3) In addition to the effect of (1), nonreligious people have a further aversion to prayer specifically from Christian strangers. However, this aversion is only for (presumably lay) Christian strangers, and is not present for priests.

Of these results, (2) seems obvious enough. (1) is also not that surprising considering the somewhat tense relationship between Christians and the nonreligious in many parts of North Carolina. In my opinion, (3) is the most interesting, and raises the question of how nonreligious people perceive the "thoughts" versus prayers of Christians differently. If it were only that prayers are perceived as a sort of more intense version of thoughts, or as a more strongly Christian-coded version of thoughts, that would explain a greater-magnitude aversion by nonreligious people. But as priests' prayers are seen similarly to other Christians' thoughts, this suggests this isn't the case: for nonreligious people, there is something different and more negative in the intercessory gesture of prayer by Christian lay people that isn't present when done by priests. The study can't directly answer why that might be, but a lot of people in the thread are pointing to what I think may be the reason: many (though not all) nonreligious people perceive intercessory prayer from Christians as insincere and/or judgmental, but perhaps priests receive the benefit of the doubt that their prayers are at least sincere and thus no different from thoughts.

A final important question should be addressed and is somewhat surprisingly overlooked by the authors of the study. What exactly does it really mean that people are willing to forego a few bucks to avoid being the target of the thoughts or prayers of strangers who don't share their beliefs and group identity? Atheists and agnostics presumably don't believe that a stranger's thoughts or prayers have any direct effect on them at all, and it seems unlikely that many Christians believe that the thoughts of an atheist or agnostic could have some sort of negative effect on them. I think that, as is often the case with opinion or survey data, we need to consider that the subjects' responses may be as much about communicating something to the researchers as it is about their actual beliefs and preferences. People responding to questions like these are acutely aware that the answers they give are being collected and used to say something about them, even if only general statements about the group(s) to which they belong rather than them specifically as individuals. At least some Christians want it to be known that they don't like or trust atheists, and likewise some atheists and agnostics want it to be known that they don't like or trust Christians and have a problem with the idea of being prayed for specifically. And on the flip side, some Christians want to show that they piously value the prayers of others. In all of these cases, people are willing to forego a few bucks not from a desire to receive or avoid the intercessory gestures of a stranger, but in order to communicate something important about themselves to the researchers. And indeed, one could even argue that atheists and agnostics are more likely to want to show that they are "rationally" indifferent to the positive thoughts of other non-Christians, even if they do in fact like the idea of someone thinking positive thoughts about them, and try to show their "rationality" by responding accordingly.

One of the things that really frustrates me with papers of this type is the sole focus on looking at averages. It's a super short paper with an extremely simple method and a single summary figure: they could at least have shown us something closer to the true distribution of responses using violin plots or something. It would not at all surprise me if their datasets are strongly bimodal, for example, with the means being driven by the behavior of small subpopulations of more ardent atheists and Christians. Knowing this would be extremely helpful for interpreting the results. In 1969 it was hard to produce complex plots and analyze higher moments of your dataset, but in 2019 it's trivially easy to do these things, and the standards here really should be higher for a journal like PNAS.
posted by biogeo at 9:44 PM on October 3, 2019 [12 favorites]

To those wondering why it's ever a good idea to say that you will pray for someone, for some reason I feel like sharing this very personal example. I am agnostic/nonreligious. I grew up going to church every Sunday and I had a dramatic deconversion in my teens.

About two years ago, when my mother was dying, a very close friend told me that she would pray for her. I felt really loved by hearing my friend say that. I knew that this friend was very deeply religious, so it felt like she was sharing something personal about herself. It told me that she would be thinking about my mother when I wasn't around and that she would be including my mother in her religious practice, something that was very important to her. Although I have no religious beliefs, I also had a vague feeling of "Good-- I can't do that, so I'm glad someone's got it covered."

This friend actually apologized right afterwards for mentioning religion, but I told her there was no need.

I think that statements like "I'll pray for you," just like "I'm thinking of you," or "I'm so sorry to hear that," or "It is what it is," or any other social formula, can be expressed both in a cold tossed-off sort of way and in a deeply sincere kind of way. It's all in the delivery and in the relationship between the two people conversing.
posted by Henrietta Stackpole at 4:48 AM on October 4, 2019 [11 favorites]

As you can probably guess by my username, I'm not actually a religious person, though I come from a religious family. Our views seem to be nearly opposite, which is why I chose this nom de interwebs. Since I was even smaller than I am now, I've given religion and God (mostly of the various Christian varieties) a lot of thought and found it to be ummm, kind of random, a bit silly, and in some specific cases actually bad and harmful. I have had no burning bush moments nor seen any proofs that a sky daddy is watching over us to punish the bad and reward the good. Honestly, do you really think we'd be in this mess if their were?

I digress, like many here, if someone, coming from a place of genuine spiritual belief offers to pray for me, I accept it in the spirit it was offered. If however some judgemental scumbag tells me they're gonna pray for me, I'll also accept it in the spirit it was offered, and tell them, in my most treacly and insincere voice to " Have a nice day!"
posted by evilDoug at 8:02 AM on October 4, 2019

As far as practicing religion seriously, I see a large number of non-Christian religious in my very metro city taking their religion far more seriously than many "Christians" in the Bible belt.
posted by agregoli at 9:51 AM on October 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

I stopped saying "bless you" once I found out it mean that people think your soul is leaving your body when you sneeze. At this point I decided there was no need for it. So far nobody's commented or complained (even my mom), which is why I was so surprised/annoyed at listening to the JJH podcast. Geez, dude.

As for the power of prayer, I actually have a story in which praying for lost things/animals straight up worked. So for little shit, at least some of the time, this has worked. Recently I did finally find my phone chargers...like a week and a half after that prayer went down, but still, they showed up in a bag I'd already checked before!. As for big things, who knows. Maybe it just takes a lot more work to cure cancer than it does to find lost objects.

It doesn't hurt to ask, at least. *shrugs*

But "thoughts and prayers" as a term is kind of insulting these days.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:41 PM on October 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

the nonreligious are “prayer averse”: on average, they are willing to pay $3.54 (SE = 0.81) for a Christian stranger not to pray for them

Where do I sign up?

I'd need to convert I guess, but seems worth it.
posted by yohko at 3:13 PM on October 5, 2019

I have a coworker that sneezes explosively with a strong shrieking component and I ask her if she would prefer a blessing or an exorcism. She has never stopped laughing long enough to answer.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 12:08 AM on October 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Jenfullmoon, I think we're thinking along the same lines? I'm deeply religious, and do believe that prayer works. I've seen it work. But it's not a universally welcome thing, and I wouldn't just say something like that much like I wouldn't start bringing up politics without knowing the person well. It can make people feel hurt or uncomfortable, and I don't want to cause that.
posted by Ahniya at 12:36 AM on October 6, 2019

I stopped saying "bless you" once I found out it mean that people think your soul is leaving your body when you sneeze.

Er, this is what people USED to think, is the case. In, like, 1642. Today it's just a thing people say and no one knows why unless they read some article about "The Fascinating Origins Of Weird Sayings" or whatever.

So you not saying "bless you" doesn't make you an advanced thinker or whatever, it just makes you a teens tiny bit rude.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:47 AM on October 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

This is why I try to say something more neutral in tone, such as "best wishes" or "good luck."

Also, IMO there is a huge difference between thoughts and prayers. Saying "I'll pray for you" has an obvious religious connotation, whereas "you'll be in my thoughts" does not. Thoughts alone are not an explicitly religious action; that's just the territory of prayers and anything prayer-adjacent (e.g. "I'll send one out to God on your behalf" or something similar).
posted by Delia at 6:44 AM on October 6, 2019

Let's All Stop Saying Bless You
"In almost every culture, the polite response is “Thank you.” As in “Thank you for calling attention to my embarrassing bodily function.” As in “Thank you for making me thank you while I’m probably still dealing with how something inside me is now outside me.” As in, “Thank you for alerting me that for the next three months, I’ll be having impromptu two-line conversations with strangers, because my body thinks flowers want to kill it.”

Western culture has spent the last few years coming to an agreement that maybe we could all stand to comment a little less on each other in public, especially on things people can’t control. Really what other rule of etiquette calls for everyone to rush to say something in response to a bodily function?

And what do you do when someone coughs? If you’re polite, nothing. Unless they’re coughing repeatedly, in which case you might discreetly ask if they’re okay.

You probably believe, as I did until three minutes ago, that “Bless you” was originally intended to ward off demons from entering the body. But there’s no reliable evidence for this story, according to the first Google result for history of bless you. There is written record of people saying “Bless you” as early as A.D. 150, when Rome was still feeding Christians to lions. So if the phrase is about gods and demons, it’s about pagan ones.

There’s no reliable evidence for any origin of “Bless you.” We don’t actually know how we started, but we haven’t stopped, centuries after giving up other ancient customs, like ritual sacrifice or witch trials. And I’d really like to stop."
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:25 AM on October 8, 2019

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