Social Science

Livin’ on a Prayer

Study examines how prayer manages negative emotions.

According to legend, it was Ernie Pyle who first said there are no atheists in foxholes, the aphorism meaning that heavy stress causes people to turn to prayer. But for all the repetitions of that phrase, no one has really investigated how it is that prayer helps — setting aside theological issues to explore the psychological benefits. No one, that is, until Shane Sharp PhD’11.

Before coming to the UW as a doctoral candidate, Sharp had earned a bachelor’s in psychology at Alabama and a master’s in religious studies at Vanderbilt. For his PhD research, he looked into ways that victims of domestic abuse use prayer to manage negative emotions.

“Domestic violence victims experience evil and injustice personally,” Sharp says. “Their abusers use physical violence in a pattern of coercion, and I’m interested in how the victims resist this.”

Sharp conducted in-depth interviews with sixty-two current and former domestic violence victims from around the country who represented a wide range of religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. He spoke with them, either in person or over the phone, for between one and six hours each, and found that the victims tended to use prayer as a social interaction to gain “the resources they use to carry out individual emotion-management strategies.”

These strategies include venting anger, building self-esteem, reinterpreting situations to make them feel less threatening, mitigating anger, and what Sharp calls “zoning out” the negative stimuli.

Seeing prayer as a social interaction “requires thinking of prayer as something other than an individual, private, and intrapsychological phenomenon,” Sharp says, but it offers a more nuanced view of the ways people use prayer in times of crisis.

Irrespective of others’ religious views, “when social actors perceive objects and interactions as real,” Sharp says, “they are real in their individual, sociological, and emotional consequences.”

Published in the Summer 2011 issue


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