Confirmation Bias, Privilege, and Prayer (or, How Prayer and Discrimination Can Be Connected)

Recently, I read a powerful essay where the author, a Person of Color, describes their childhood and explains that “God always answered the prayers of White children but never answered our prayers.” 

This statement has been on my mind off and on since I read it. As I prepare to teach my Theology and Civil Rights class in the Fall, I find myself wanting to write more about theology, religion, and society–things I have long given a great deal of study and thought.

While the overall purpose of this article is not so much to directly debate the validity or lack of validity when it comes to praying and Christian theology, it is most worthy of analysis to think about how prayer is used and the related consequences. In this post, I share a few different thoughts. I have others but will save them for another time! This post will cause enough controversy already, I’m sure. 🙂 

(Although, I do find it very interesting that research shows that people who know they have been prayed for after a major health crisis face far more complications than others who were not prayed for.)

Prayers, in sum, are frequently embodied with many different types of privilege and/or discrimination, even if unintentional. 

Take the opening example. Countless People of Color pray for food, shelter, and health–things that are basic necessities. Yet, because of the interlocking nature of classism and racism and the ways in which White people created and constantly re-create the nation, these individuals never receive adequate food, shelter, or health. No amount of praying will result in the sudden appearance of adequate food, shelter, and health. (Physics matters, too!) No amount of praying will result in the sudden disruption of the forces that generate Whiteness and a fear of Blackness. No amount of praying will suddenly convince the Republican Party to support living wages and anti-discrimination laws. In order for the poor and/or non-White and/or non-male to receive any kind of equitable opportunity–that is to have their deepest prayers (if they pray) answered–a major revolution would have to occur – one that would redistribute and recreate everything we know. (History matters, too!)

Factors such as these, studies show, contribute to the sizable number of atheist among poor people and/or People of Color. 

Frequently, people facing hard times are told to “pray” and to “work hard.” The people who say “work harder” don’t realize or ignore how this is a manifestation of the politics of respectability. No one should have to do anything to have basic food, shelter, and health. Not in 2017, especially. And no amount of “hard work” will undo systemic human-generated oppression. Poor people have been told at various times to work hard now and be rewarded in Heaven. Additionally, poor people frequently work two or three or more jobs and do not have an opportunity to join a church–thus they do not have the same opportunities to receive prayer from others–thus we have another example of the intertextuality between prayer and discrimination and privilege. 

Thus, White people not only deliberately make it impossible for non-privileged people to have their prayers answered, White people also deliberately limit the opportunities for them to pray and receive prayer — all the while White people blame them for not being in a better position. 

Frequently, too, White people will say prayers of thanks after their prayers for money or good health, for example, are seemingly answered. Such prayers of requests and thanks ignore that White people make more money, have more access to low interest loans, receive more and better attention from doctors, and have access to preventive care. Such prayers of requests and thanks can also be seen as examples of the psychological notion, “confirmation bias.” Basically, confirmation bias in this example would be, say, praying for down-payment money, receiving a tax refund that covers the necessary amount, and thus “confirming” the effectiveness of prayer. Other arguments aside, the role of race, gender, and sex and the math of tax rates needs to be considered.

I recently spent time analyzing several publicly posted prayer request lists on the website of various churches. It was interesting that a noticeable majority of the people on the list had female names. The various request were also for what, in the language of current Internet jargon, are “First World Problems.” There were not any requests related to starvation (which affects an alarming number of people, especially children, in the United States, not to mention the world), none related to laws that discriminate against Black men, none related to anything that actually affects the majority of people in the United States or in the World. 

All of this speaks to how throughly ideologies related to Social Darwinism and the Protestant Work Ethic still govern Christian theology. 

Rituals of prayer are also regularly found in (supposedly–what happened to separation of Church and State?) secular institutions, such as before a school board meeting. I have heard many of these, and these never voice prayers for the students who are homeless and too afraid to tell anyone, for the students who are moms, for the students who are struggling because the school messed up and hired a bad teacher, for the administrators who need to not lie, etc., etc.

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda 

Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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14 replies

  1. I had no idea that atheists abound among poor people and people of color. Rural areas are heavily populated with so-called “Christians” who use the title as a badge, not a belief or behavior. There have been books written about how little their religion (and therefore Republican Congress) does for them (‘Whatever Happened to Kansas’). I often feel like I must be living in Transylvania, surrounded by people pulling their silver crucifixes out whenever a person approaches them.

    Your ideas about praying and rewards for Whites remind me of something I had heard recently. Someone commented on Charlie Rose that Trump has been a long-time proponent of Norman Vincent Peale’s idea of religion. I remember hearing this latter character on the radio and got my first distaste toward the radio/TV preachers. He told his (mostly wealthy) followers that their good fortune is a sign of God’s blessing them for their wealth-securing activities (more confirmation bias). No wonder Trump despises the poor!

    It is always amazing how privileged people really do not want to face reality. Many a preacher in the rural community has a very thankless task ahead of them. They can raise money but not real help for the poor.

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  2. This post very clearly outlines the concept that while telling someone to work harder, you are putting them down. I haven’t seen anyone clearly state in the way that it is said in this post how no one should have to work for basic human rights or for others to treat them with human decency. I enjoyed reading this post because I genuinely feel like I gained a new understanding of people in those situations and that it helped me to open my mind and be more aware of other people’s situations in life.

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  3. Is it a result of capitalism seeping into religion that Christian ethics regarding compassion and community come second to praying for even more wealth than you already have? Many middle class families are in a material competition with each other while many families still do not have a home after hurricane Harvey. I’m sure this ignorance is accidental but what a shame that even in an era of rapid knowledge dissemination, a city remains disconnected.

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  4. Nice, detailed article here. While I don’t fully condemn the “power of prayer,” I don’t really think it’s solely dependable. I think at some point people have to be honest and realistic about the hardships standing in their way. Prayer can only do so much when you have a political system designed to keep you struggling and at the bottom. I also believe in the power of hard work, but we cannot pretend that our identities don’t give us any type of disadvantage when it comes fulfilling our ideal lifestyle. Oftentimes people will tell you to “work harder” and complain that you want to remain a “victim’ forever, while assuming they know your conditions and life story. Some texts in the bible seemingly promote communist and selfless ideas that don’t aligned with what’s actually going on.

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  5. When prayer is inserted into the circumstances of those on the boarders of life – it is a retreat despite outside forces that are in play. Working harder does not always mean individual success. In many ways working harder only accomplishes the goals of those in power. Wealth is generational … Sadly, I’m no longer in the middle class as defined by the GOP. As it stands middle class is $250,000.00.

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  6. While this is true, prayer is often a last resort for poor folks who cannot do anything individually about the powers that be. As Karl Marx said, “religion is an opiate for the masses”. So we find that the clergy has traditionally been wealthier and more educated than the peasantry and that the crown and cross worked hand in hand as oppressors. The same people who cause the poor to grieve then tell the poor to pray for the alleviation of their grievances. Because a large scale change is out of reach, the poor feel they have no choice but to put their faith in God. As the maxim says…give me the strength to change what I can, the patience to endure what I cant, and the wisdom to know the difference.

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  7. I’ve always felt like people prayed more for therapeutic reasons. Maybe some people pray because they believe somebody is actually listening, but that’s not something I can attest to. At the top of the post is the quote “God always answered the prayers of White children but never answered our prayers.” However, I think poor White children would disagree. I didn’t grow up wealthy, so I know I would. I feel like right now there is a greater divide in our country among the different classes. But this might be because I’ve lived on the west coast for the majority of my life. There seems to be less blatant racism there. Especially if you are a minority who is well off. In our class, we read about the segregation that was present in churches in the South. I have always found this ironic because it was white Christians who went around the world trying to convert everybody. However, once people were converted they did not want them in the same churches as them. At the end of the day, we don’t know whose prayers are being answered, and whose aren’t. For example, maybe that white person who comes across as successful and rich, is actually in poor health and their prayers are for good health; not millions of dollars.

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  8. it is interesting how many people offer prayer as a solution for first world problems. I am sure some pray for larger issues but many tend to focus on themselves or people in their immediate vicinity. The poor and less fortunate are often offered prayer as a form of help instead of actual assistance. Prayer could be considered pity as well.

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  9. I have seen things like this happen firsthand. I come from a poorer place in Mexico and I’ve become fascinated with the worship of the new “saint death”. I do my own research when I visit and its so sad to see how people turn away from their own religion without actually surrendering it completely. Their reasoning for turning to this new saint is that they feel their prayers have gone unanswered and they must now do evil things to better their situation. they know what they’re doing is wrong but must turn to another religion that forgives them for what they must do to survive. They often said that their prayers to death were answered more frequently then they were before, but when I asked what they prayed for it was clear that after they switched who they prayed to their standards also dropped making it much easier for them to feel their prayers had been validated. Their prayers went from hoping to get a better and safer life to simply asking to survive the night.

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  10. While prayer could seem like just a formality for some, it is a deeply personal event for others. It is easy to see the “conformation bias” the post speaks about between who is praying, who is experiencing what, and who is defining the blessing. It is no secret that Whites created the America we live in today at the disadvantage of Blacks. So naturally it would seem as though Whites seem to be blessed more than Blacks because White have traditionally held the position of power. Outside of conformation bias, prayer might not necessarily discriminate others as much as offend them.

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  11. This was a nice detailed read. I agree it is hard to pray when you feel like none of your prayers are being answered. I believe this is a reason why many people have become less religious and are becoming more spiritual and some just dropping religion all together. I like the information the read gives the reader and all the examples used throughout the reading.

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  12. You bring up and interesting theory. I think prayer is a personal matter to some and it helps them cope with the outside world. Some will pray for good health and fortune even when others may need it more than them. Whites are the most fortunate in our society a lot more than the minorities.We can talk about prayer all day long but the most fortunate are never fortunate through prayer, it is because society has let them have the upper hand throughout history. Prayer doesn’t discriminate anyone because its self rejuvenation and a reflection of ones hope.

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  13. This article reflects some ideas I’ve had about prayer in the past, although I understand people use it for therapeutic reasons, but there is no ruling the scientific approach. Divine intervention would make the impossible, possible and from personal experience some just have to be realistic. In reading other comments I agree with Emily in that prayer can be considered pity, yesterday I found myself telling a friend I will keep her in my prayers because she is going trough a tough situation even if it was just a way to conform her.

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