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