After a natural disaster, some people find themselves open to spiritual dialogue. (Getty: Yoshiyoshi Hirokawa )
What would you pay to receive a prayer or a thought from a stranger?
It’s a strange question, because while it’s common for politicians to offer “thoughts and prayers” in the wake of a disaster or tragedy, these gestures don’t typically come with a price tag.
And although they can be comforting to religious people, to others — who would prefer action without prayers — they can seem like empty words.
Linda Thunstrom and Shiri Noy, two researchers at the University of Wyoming, noticed that after every public “thoughts and prayers” declaration by a public figure, criticism flared up.
“There always seems to be this backlash after major disasters of people criticising these gestures and saying that they are meaningless,” Dr Thunstrom says.
She could see that these gestures had a different value for different people, depending on religious observance.
So she decided to measure it, recruiting 482 survivors of Hurricane Florence, which hit North Carolina in 2018, causing catastrophic flooding and killing dozens of people.
Dr Thunstrom tried to measure the value of thoughts and prayers in the wake of disasters. (Supplied: Linda Thunstrom)
“We gave all the subjects $5 in support of recent hardship,” the economics academic says.
Each participant was then given the option to keep the money, give some up in exchange for a prayer from a Christian stranger, or give some up for thoughts from non-religious strangers.
They found that on average, Christian research subjects valued prayers from a Christian stranger at $4.36.
By contrast, non-religious participants were willing to pay $3.54 for a Christian person not to pray for them.
These findings told the researchers that for religious Christians, prayers during hardship were very comforting, while for agnostics and atheists, it was better to not hear those words.
Dr Thunstrom says a solution could be as simple as leaders changing their language.
“You might say, ‘For those of you who believe, I offer you my prayers. And for those who are non-believers, I express my deepest sympathy,'” she says.
When prayer is part of a duty of care
For religious charities like United Sikhs, prayer can be a non-negotiable element of their response to disaster.
In 2017, United Sikhs swung into action to help survivors of Cyclone Debbie in north Queensland, combining prayers and action to fulfil a religious duty of care for all people.
The not-for-profit organisation’s national director, Gurvinder Singh, led a team of 12 volunteers who flew to Queensland.
“We pray every day,” he says, explaining that prayers end with asking the Almighty for “the wellbeing of all humanity, prosperity for everyone and global peace”.
A United Sikhs volunteer removes debris following cyclone Debbie in 2017. (Supplied: United Sikhs)
The primary Sikh religious scripture — Guru Granth Sahib — instructs Sikhs to “develop a peaceful and tranquil environment within ourselves,” says Mr Singh, “to create such a society in the world”.
The group made 2,000 hot meals for survivors from ingredients the volunteers bought themselves.
“We rushed to Airlie Beach,” Mr Singh says, delivering food to people “without a roof and to people who had lost their homes, who were living in shelters”.
People open to ‘spiritual dialogue’ after cyclone
Airlie Beach was hit hard, and a local religious leader says it was a combination of hands-on and emotional support that worked best for the community’s recovery.
In the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, “many people were open to spiritual dialogue”, says Pastor Craig Yeomans, from the Whitsundays Baptist Church.
“People had some sense of there being something beyond themselves that they needed to reach out to,” he says.
Reflecting on Dr Thunstrom’s study, Pastor Yeomans says when politicians offer thoughts and prayers, it needs to be authentic.
“If you don’t actually believe, forget the sentiment, and just say, ‘Look, we’re going to send some practical help, and this is what we’re doing.'”
He says there’s no need to arbitrarily separate practical help — like clearing away debris or providing shelter and meals — from prayer, what he calls “this nebulous, spiritual thing”.
“It’s the partnership of those two things collectively that is actually a powerful tool.”