Steve GATENA: I will throw out the first question to you, Stephen: What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
Stephen DUBNER: Well, if we’re being literal, it’s turning off the alarm.
GATENA: So for me, I pray. And for billions of people around the world — if you asked them that question, billions of people would also respond that they pray too.
That is Steve Gatena.
GATENA: And I am the founder and C.E.O. of Pray.com, the world’s number-one app for daily prayer and faith-based audio content.
For most of his life, Gatena himself wasn’t someone you would consider a person of faith. Back when he played college football, for instance:
GATENA: You might hit people when they’re not looking. You might intentionally try to hurt people physically. Those were some of the qualities that I enjoyed embracing. And I would say off the field, I loved having a lot of fun.
This was at the University of Southern California.
GATENA: At the time, U.S.C. was basically the pro football team in Los Angeles. You’re out in Hollywood, you’re at night clubs ’till five in the morning. I would say that it was definitely not a lifestyle that promotes Christian values.
But years later, Gatena did become more religious. By then he was a successful entrepreneur. And he saw what looked like a market opportunity.
GATENA: Religion is approximately $126 billion in revenue per year.
And the pandemic, with so much activity moving online, presented another opportunity.
GATENA: Over the last 12 months, Pray.com has facilitated over 122 million prayers for nearly a billion minutes in prayer.
Today on Freakonomics Radio: this commingling of religion and commerce is nothing new.
Larry IANNACCONE: Suddenly, it became a way of not just collecting some money, but immense amounts of money.
And what are all those people on Pray.com praying for?
GATENA: Stephen, I can tell you that prayer tends to boil down to two simple things: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” And: “Help me, help me, help me.”
And: when you pray to God online, who else is listening?
Emily BAKER-WHITE: People don’t read their privacy policies exhaustively before they start using an app.
Are your prayers being shared? Dear God, I sure hope not …
* * *
In 2016, venture-capital firms invested around $6 million in faith-based apps, most of them Christian. In the world of venture capital, $6 million is essentially zero. Four years later, they spent $50 million on religious apps. Last year? $175 million. Why such a spike? One reason was a demand for online religion induced by Covid-19 shutdowns.
Jeanet BENTZEN: Yes, very much.
This is Jeanet Bentzen.
BENTZEN: And I’m an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen.
Her specialty is the economics of religion.
BENTZEN: So that means examining why some societies are more religious than others, and how this influences society as a whole.
A lot of the statistics we hear about religiosity come from survey and census questionnaires. That’s how the Pew Research Center assembles their data. And they say that “worldwide, more than eight-in-ten people identify with a religious group.” Nearly a third of the global population, or 2.2 billion people, identify as Christian; there are 1.6 billion Muslims, or 23 percent; 1 billion Hindus, or 15 percent; roughly 500 million Buddhists; 400 million people who practice “folk or traditional religions”; and about 14 million Jews. That said, when someone tells the Pew researchers that they “identify with a religious group,” that doesn’t necessarily tell you much about participation. So how does an economist like Bentzen measure religious activity?
BENTZEN: We can, for example, measure how often people go to church. We can ask them how much they pray. But we can also look at how much they Google religious terms.
And that’s what Bentzen was doing in 2020, right at the start of the pandemic.
BENTZEN: I think it was actually March 10th, and I had been looking at the numbers and at that date there was nothing in the numbers yet. But I checked in a week later. I could see that Google searches for religious terms really started to rise at that point.
The religious terms Bentzen is talking about were searches like “prayers to end Covid” and “prayers to thank essential workers.”
BENTZEN: The first month of the pandemic, it rose more than 30 percent, and stayed higher throughout 2020.
DUBNER: And it stayed high through the period of your research, is that true?
BENTZEN: Yes, it did. Yes. Not as high as in the beginning. But 10 percent higher than usual. And it’s still higher than ever before. It rose — well, 1.3 times the rise in searches for takeaway, which of course rose quite a bit. It rose 12 percent the rise in Netflix searches. And it rose 26 percent the fall in searches for flights, which was all closed down. So it’s huge. It’s all types of countries, rich and poor.
DUBNER: Do you consider yourself a religious person?
DUBNER: Denmark is, as I understand it, overwhelmingly culturally Christian, but when it comes to practice, very low. Is that about right?
BENTZEN: Yes, that’s right.
DUBNER: Do you think it gives you an advantage, a disadvantage, or no impact whatsoever that you are a non-religious person studying the economics of religion?
BENTZEN: I hope it doesn’t matter whatsoever. I think it has given me a passion to try to understand.
DUBNER: Now, there is a lot of research showing that religious belief and participation are associated with a lot of positive things — better health outcomes and so on. Can you tell us anything about how causal those relationships are? Or is that a case of selection?
BENTZEN: So there’s not that many good studies on the impact of religion or prayer on mental health. And, yes, some of them are just correlational. But there’s also been studies doing experiments. For example, a study that had some people say, “I am love,” for example, in their meditation. And the other ones say, “God loves me,” or “I am God,” or something like that. They claimed the spiritual meditation was more beneficial to certain health outcomes.
Historically, one key component of religion is its sociality. Religion is something we do with our families, our communities, our fellow believers — and Covid affected this.
IANNACCONE: It is quite clear that however good Zoom and Facebook and other internet forms of connection are, they’re a far cry from face-to-face. We’ve seen this in education, and I think we’re seeing it in religion.
That’s Larry Iannaccone, another economist who studies religion. He’s at Chapman University, in California.
IANNACCONE: I had a very strong religious upbringing, and I would call myself a person of faith. But I would also hasten to add that the kind of work I do is first and foremost an attempt to understand this profoundly important phenomenon.
To understand religion requires an understanding of cause and effect — what’s causing what. And Iannaccone says the social component of religion is a causal mechanism.
IANNACCONE: We know from countless studies now that faith tends to follow, not precede, involvement. Congregations are sustained, religions are sustained, faiths of all kind are sustained through social interactions. Covid shut this down for a long time.
The U.S., as you likely know, is an unusually religious country — unusual because most wealthy countries tend to be less religious. Jeanet Bentzen again:
BENTZEN: If we just put G.D.P. per capita out one axis and religiosity up the other — well, then we see in general a negative correlation.
Meaning what, exactly?
BENTZEN: Poorer countries are more religious, and richer countries are less religious. But yes, the U.S. is a huge outlier.
But even in the U.S., religiosity has been declining. In 1944, when Gallup first surveyed Americans on whether they believe in God, 96 percent said yes. By 2017, that number was down to 87 percent; by 2022: 81 percent, a record low. Gallup also found that membership in houses of worship has fallen below 50 percent, another record low.
IANNACCONE: When you talk about churchgoing and the strength of institutions of specific denominations, there seems to have been a noticeable decline in the last 20, maybe 30 years or so. Up until then, it seemed much more stable.
And then Covid came along. Most religious institutions had to shut their doors, at least for a time. And this created an opportunity elsewhere — a 24/7 opportunity.
BAKER-WHITE: So Pray.com is an app that has various prayer features, it has prayer content, and it has a sort of social network within it where people can pray together.
That is Emily Baker-White. She’s a staff writer at Forbes; before that, she wrote for Buzzfeed News.
BAKER-WHITE: I would say I write about Big Tech policy, mostly.
She has written about privacy and propaganda issues at TikTok; she’s written about the link between Instagram and eating disorders. Baker-White doesn’t consider herself religious; but she is interested in religious apps.
BAKER-WHITE: Just because religion is for so many people, such an intimate thing and such a private thing. And there was a notable influx of venture capital sort of at the same time that piqued my interest, and frankly the interest of a number of reporters.
Baker-White didn’t set out to be a reporter. As an undergrad she studied music, then went to Harvard Law School, then worked as a public defender in Philadelphia, trying to get inmates off Death Row.
BAKER-WHITE: I at that point had no idea that I would ever want to work in technology, cover technology. I’m not a tech person.
But while she was working on a case involving police brutality, she found that police officers were sharing a lot of information with each other on Facebook — some of it disturbing.
BAKER-WHITE: It seemed to me like a sort of glorification of violence against suspects, criminal suspects.
She got interested in how a site like Facebook was run. She stopped lawyering and wound up working at Facebook, and also Spotify, on internal policy. What she learned there is that a questionable or even damaging policy didn’t get much attention until someone in the media critiqued it.
BAKER-WHITE: And so I think really, watching the effect that journalism had made me want to do journalism.
So, she made another career change. As a reporter, Baker-White is particularly interested in what social-media platforms and apps do with the user data they collect.
BAKER-WHITE: The idea of capturing such intimate information about users is new. And if you are totally cynical, it’s super-valuable. What’s the most valuable, intimate information I can get about people? Well, probably their medical records — and also their prayers, right?
In early 2022, Emily Baker-White wrote a piece for Buzzfeed News called “Nothing Sacred: These Apps Reserve the Right to Sell Your Prayers.” Coming up after the break, we’ll find out what she learned. I’m Stephen Dubner, this is Freakonomics Radio, we’ll be right back.
* * *
You probably know the line, from Ecclesiastes: “there is nothing new under the sun.” The economist Larry Iannaccone says this is true of religion itself, especially when it comes to religion and technology.
IANNACCONE: Again and again and again, we see technological change being embraced, utilized, and producing often quite unexpected results in the religious marketplace.
Two thousand years ago, for instance, new maritime technologies and trade networks helped Christianity spread around the world. Or consider the Protestant Reformation.
IANNACCONE: Everybody knows that printing was key to the Reformation. Everybody knows that that Gutenberg’s Bible was influential, that printing the Bible and religious tracts were crucial to the spread of the Reformation. Most people don’t know that the first thing that Gutenberg printed was actually an indulgence.
In case you don’t remember what an indulgence is:
IANNACCONE: An indulgence was essentially a way of reducing the amount of time that would be spent in Purgatory, having your sins purged.
The Catholic Church raised a lot of money by selling these indulgences. And now, with Gutenberg’s printing press.
IANNACCONE: The printing press made it possible to print out indulgences by not just the hundreds, but the tens or even hundreds of thousands. Suddenly it became a way of not just collecting some money, but immense amounts of money.
And were it not for this new technology, Iannaccone says:
IANNACCONE: Were it not for the printing press, the problem of indulgences — which was so central to Luther’s influence — would not have existed.
“Luther” being Martin Luther, the German priest who was so disturbed by the Church’s indulgence profiteering that he revolted, triggering a Protestant Reformation against the Church.
IANNACCONE: The printing press was an immense push toward the democratization of religion, and it was just one of many things that was moving us away from a unified, monolithic form of Christianity.
Larry Iannaccone says that pretty much every new technology has been embraced by the purveyors of religion.
IANNACCONE: Some of the earliest radio stations were religiously oriented. Some of the earliest multimedia presentations — Charles Russell, who in a sense is the founder of the movement that became the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the late 1800s, used hand-painted slides to produce what they called the photo-drama of creation. And people would flock to see on the screen, this is before the days of movies. There has not been a moment, as far as I know, in American history and probably in world history where entrepreneurs weren’t trying to use new technologies and existing technologies to promote religion, both for profits and prophets with “P H,” these two motives can’t be separated.
That mixing of motives is what got the journalist Emily Baker-White interested in this new flock of religious apps, like Pray and Glorify and Hallow.
BAKER-WHITE: They’re fairly new companies. And so we don’t have tons of information about their finances. Pray, Hallow, and Glorify all operate on a subscription pricing model for now. So that means there’s a free version of the app. There’s also a premium version of the app. The app is constantly trying to upsell users to join premium, which is true of any app with that model.
The vast majority of app users will typically use the free version. So what does the company get out of that? Having worked in Silicon Valley, Baker-White knew the familiar saying: “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”
BAKER-WHITE: So the first thing I did — this is I guess the lawyer inside me — is I read their privacy policies. And what I found was, for the most part, the policies were written in such a way that they want to give the companies the option to do what they wanted with data as they see fit in the future, even if they’re not using that data that way today.
How is the data being used today?
BAKER-WHITE: We did find that Pray.com information was being shared with Facebook. And I say “being shared with” in, you know, passive voice there, because I don’t know whether that is a thing that Facebook did or whether that is a thing that Pray.com did. Obviously, Pray.com ended up allowing Facebook to access some data. A researcher ran an audit and did some testing in the app.
That researcher was Zach Edwards, who calls himself an “adversarial privacy engineer.”
BAKER-WHITE: He went and he listened to a podcast episode about something that had to do with marital religious health and pornography.
This was a podcast on the Pray.com platform.
BAKER-WHITE: Then he looked at the back-end to see what happened, and the specific fact that he had listened to that episode was shared with Facebook.
BAKER-WHITE: One thing that sort of sticks with me is that we are putting super, super, super personal stuff into an app, which means there’s a record of it. It’s a little like health data, but for health data, we have HIPPA. And there is no regulation like HIPPA for content of this type. The law actually recognizes a special privilege for conversations between a parishioner and their religious leader. There is something sort of colloquially called “priest privilege” in legal circles, where if I make a confession to my minister, my pastor, whatever, there’s additional privacy for that confession under law. I don’t think an app would be able to assert that sort of privilege, even if they wanted to — because they’re not a church, they’re a company.
And Baker-White thinks this lack of privacy could lead to a variety of bad outcomes.
BAKER-WHITE: If the data were available on a market, people could use it to prey on specific people’s fears. Misinformation, disinformation campaigns. Foreign governments could try to purchase this information.
These possible bad outcomes are not as troubling to Larry Iannaccone.
IANNACONE: First and foremost, what’s really striking about the American religious marketplace is that it’s been almost from the get-go, a free religious market, a remarkably open, competitive one.
Now keep in mind, Iannaccone is looking at this as an economist.
IANNACCONE: Speaking as an economist and looking through American history especially, but world history, we find that when institutions — economic institutions, educational institutions — when they’re free, they seem to produce better quality, certainly more range of choice, than is otherwise available. And my response to most of these things is that unless they’re marketed in some obviously deceptive way, or unless they’re obviously designed to be predatory, my inclination is to stand back and see what comes of it.
Emily Baker-White argues we’ve already done too much standing back when it comes to big tech and privacy. Despite bipartisan support in Washington for more digital regulation, Congress has passed only two relevant laws in the past 25 years — one that regulates sex-trafficking content, the other concerning children’s privacy. And certainly nothing about online prayer.
BAKER-WHITE: People don’t read their privacy policies exhaustively before they start using an app. Do I read the privacy policies before I start using apps? No. I am a lawyer and a tech reporter, and the answer is no. Random people who want to use a prayer app are probably not going to read the terms and conditions closely before they start using it. They’re just not. That’s just a fact of contemporary society. And so when I did talk to users about what was in those policies, there were some raised eyebrows.
Coming up after the break: what does the C.E.O. of Pray.com say about these privacy concerns?
GATENA: We are not in the business of renting or selling our customers’ data.
So what is Pray.com selling?
GATENA: I’m trying to baptize you, Stephen, let’s go. Let’s do it right here on the show!
Spoiler alert: he doesn’t succeed. We’ll be back in a minute.
* * *
People pray for many reasons, in many ways, to many deities. What is the purpose of all this prayer? We put that question to a variety of New York City clergy members, from a variety of faiths.
Shayna de LOWE: The only thing I want to get out of prayer for myself and also for my congregation is connection.
David NOLAN: Prayer is inviting God into our lives. And what a beautiful notion that is — to stop for a moment, to remind ourselves that we’re connected to God, that God is connected to us.
Lauren GRABELLE-HERRMANN: In our world, in our understanding, prayer means a lot, regardless of whether or not you believe in a traditional God.
Thomas SANDI: Even people who have no faith have this tendency in our culture to say, “Oh, God.” Well, that’s a type of prayer meaning, “I don’t think I can handle this by myself.”
Bridget KELSO-ANTHONY: The purpose of prayer for me personally, it’s gotten better over the years. It used to be a long Christmas list. It felt very transactional. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown closer and become more of a partner with God.
NOLAN: Prayer is not just about a one-to-one connection with God, but prayer is about making our lives a prayer, our relationships, our interactions.
SANDI: Maybe that’s the most important thing to think of prayer: we’re not alone.
And if you really want to be not alone, you could join an online prayer platform like Pray.com. You remember these numbers?
GATENA: Over the last 12 months, Pray.com has facilitated over 122 million prayers for nearly a billion minutes in prayer.
That, again, is Steve Gatena, the C.E.O. of Pray.com. It is one of the biggest religious apps in the world, with funding from venture-capital giants including Greylock Partners, Kleiner Perkins, and Sequoia Capital.
GATENA: We come at it with the scientific mindset of a Silicon Valley tech company and the eternal mindset of a compassionate church. And if you read our App Store testimonies, you can see that we’re helping people make prayer a priority in their life.
Gatena grew up in California.
GATENA: I was born to a single Jewish mom on welfare. My mom is Jewish and my dad is Catholic. And I was raised Catholic by my grandma, dragging me to church every Sunday. I can absolutely guarantee you that I hated every minute of it. It was not my thing. I was into computers and I was into sports.
Gatena started college at the U.S. Air Force Academy but after a health setback, he moved to the University of California, Davis and then to U.S.C. There, he played left tackle on a football team that won a Rose Bowl. As we heard earlier, Gatena was no angel.
GATENA: While I was at U.S.C., I’m pretty sure I would have been the kind of guy that wouldn’t be allowed in a church.
He graduated college in 2010 and became an entrepreneur straightaway. He started a video production company, then a company that produced aerial stock footage, then he ran a firm that specialized in aerial production and surveillance systems. In 2015, there was a tragedy.
GATENA: When my business partner died in a plane crash outside Medellín, Colombia, on September 11, 2015, I had absolutely no idea what to do. I had no crisis- communication plan. I wasn’t sure how to act as the C.E.O. Like, what are the literal words that I’m supposed to say to the company? I didn’t know how to be a friend to my business partner’s family. I didn’t know how to be a husband to my wife. I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel. And my friend shared a podcast from a pastor. And I was like, “pastor”? Are you kidding me? Dude! First of all, I’m Catholic. Second of all, I don’t like being Catholic. Third of all, I’m actually Jewish. So, pastor, podcast, Jesus thing, not for me. Definitely not for me.” And he was like, “Dude, shut up, listen to the podcast.” So I listen to this podcast, some random guy from someplace called Flower Mound, Texas, wherever that is. And this podcast changed my life, Stephen. For the first time, I was able to hear somebody that felt like somebody I would want to listen to — somebody that was strong, somebody that was direct — talk about peace and talk about love, and talk about being comforting. And I thought, “Wow, if I could embrace these qualities, I would probably be a much better person in the world.”
DUBNER: So Steve, your personal story really resonates. But also, even though you’re still a young man, you’re a pretty seasoned entrepreneur by now. So I’m curious, did you think at this point: “Woah, if this pastor could make a guy like me feel this way, just imagine how many other millions or billions of people might have this response.” In other words, this is a phenomenal business opportunity. Was that immediate or did that come later?
GATENA: Stephen, I wish I could tell you I was that smart. I like learning things the hard way. So, unless there’s some catastrophic injury or tragedy, I tend to not learn the lesson.
DUBNER: So was there some kind of conversion or conversion-ish process, as gradual as it may be?
GATENA: It happened slowly for me. I am a Christian and I am a person of faith. But the way it worked was I’m listening to these podcasts every day on the way to work and on the way home. And I was just like, this guy has the stuff that I need. Let me soak it up. And that’s really how it played out. It probably took about seven months.
Gatena launched Pray.com in 2017, with three co-founders.
GATENA: We’re all four millennial Christians of some flavor. And we wanted to be as inviting and as inclusive as possible.
As with many apps like this, most of the content is free.
GATENA: You got it. A freemium model. Ninety-five percent of the content on Pray.com is free. We have about 5,000 pieces of original content that is premium, and people subscribe to that. And as you might expect, when America’s faith was being tested during the pandemic, people turned to Pray for hope. Our internal metrics show that for the year before the pandemic, the average subscriber was using the Pray app 15 times per month for approximately 94 minutes. The year after the pandemic started, the average subscriber was using the Pray app 47 times per month for approximately 5 hours.
DUBNER: Can you just talk about the state of Pray.com from a business perspective, with your funders and with your growth and so on? Can you talk about the total funding and maybe what your valuation is at the moment?
GATENA: Let’s back up and let’s look at the macro categories that Pray.com operates in. So if we think about religion as a whole as a business, according to IBISWorld report, religion is approximately $126 billion in revenue per year.
That $126 billion in revenue represents what’s called “the religious organizations industry” in the U.S. alone — and the latest number is $146 billion.
GATENA: And to give you some comparisons, wireless carriers in the U.S. are about $400 billion per year. And coffee shops in the U.S. are about $40 billion per year. So religion is somewhere between coffee and cell phones. So there’s about 184,000 business locations — that we would call churches. They employ 2 million people. And where does Pray operate within that sphere? Well, we operate at the intersection of let’s call it audio-video software and books and publishing. Now, some of the biggest companies in our space would include Pray.com, venture-backed startup; private equity businesses like Ministry Brands; and publicly traded companies like Pushpay.
Pushpay is a “church-management software” that helps churches raise money.
GATENA: And the valuations of those businesses tend to range from $300 million to $3 billion.
DUBNER: Let’s talk about the data. So Pray.com, it covers a lot of territory. When I’m spending time on the site, I see there’s a discover section, a pray section, sleep, music, podcasts. And then within each of those, there are many, many, many different places to go, many different kinds of voices and so on. So presumably there’s a lot of customer data, both what people are choosing to consume, but also the kind of prayers that people are posting on this site and other sites. The reporter Emily Baker-White, in a BuzzFeed News piece, wrote that user data on Pray.com is maybe not as secure as users might think. She reported that data was being shared with Facebook and that the privacy-policy agreements, which we know no one reads, allow Pray.com a lot of flexibility with how it uses that user data. If I post a prayer on Pray.com, should I expect that the contents of that prayer — maybe it’s about tempering my anger, maybe it’s about working out something with my spouse — should I expect that the specific contents of my prayer even might be somehow up for consumption or for analysis that might eventually serve me ads or might change what I see on the internet?
GATENA: I’m going to explicitly state that Pray.com is in the business of growing faith and cultivating community. We do that by making prayer a priority in your life. We are not in the business of renting or selling our customers’ data to others. We work incredibly hard to keep your prayer time and your prayer community a sacred, communal space. We provide you with all of the controls and preferences that allow you to optimize your own app experience so it can serve your needs. If you want to post public prayers, you can do that. If you want to keep prayers private, you can also do that. We do study our analytics around content consumption so that we can make informed decisions. Some of the top categories include daily prayer, people use that to get inspiration in the morning. Bible teachings, people want to learn the Bible in a year. And usually what we’ll do is we’ll go get a really cool celebrity to do a “Bible in a Year,” so you can download Pray and listen to James Earl Jones read you the Bible.
DUBNER: I listened to some of that and I have to say, it’s really good.
GATENA: It’s pretty cool, right? You’ve got Darth Vader reading the Bible. And then, you know, one thing that we see — and we see continuous growth, really exacerbated from Covid — is the consumption of nightly prayers and bedtime Bible stories.
DUBNER: Can you tell us what people are praying for?
GATENA: We don’t mine people’s data and we don’t read their prayers. What we do do is we look at the prayer plans and daily devotional plans that people go through to see what’s most popular. And what we’ve seen is that devotional plans around fighting anxiety, devotional plans around healing relationships, and devotional plans around gratitude are the most popular. It’s not like TikTok. We don’t have a master algorithm that connects all the data and uses machine learning to force-feed you and optimize the application for you.
DUBNER: As you’ve grown exponentially and as church attendance has really suffered during the pandemic, but it’s also been on a downward trend in the U.S., do you think that you are essentially taking business away from churches now? I know you have a lot of clergy members on your site. I assume this is good for them — and their churches perhaps. But I wonder about for overall church attendance, if you are more of a substitute than a complement.
GATENA: I absolutely believe it is a complement and that we augment and synergize church. The way I think about it is, we are a Sunday-to-Sunday engagement tool, the same way that a Facebook group can help you keep your college alumni class together. It’s not a substitute for reunions, right? But it’s also a great way to stay connected and stay together.
DUBNER: I’ve heard you say that prayer could be “the ultimate form of self-care.” I’m curious how you think earlier generations of religious teachers and followers would assess that description — whether we go back a century or two, or, heck, go back to the early days of Christianity. Jesus was himself a rabbi, after all; do you think Jesus would see prayer as a form of self-care, or do you think that’s a very modern conception?
GATENA: It might be a modern conception. Words change over time and vernacular adjusts, right? I think where the pushback could be on either side of the aisle is by saying, prayer is the ultimate form of self-care. And I guarantee you there is a large population of the world that believes that. And there’s an entire segment of the world that would say “that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.” They think it’s intangible or it’s immeasurable because you can’t see it. You can measure prayer. You can measure the impacts and the outputs of prayer. There’s a number of studies that show what these religious behaviors and traditions and beliefs can do for you and for your health and for your life.
DUBNER: So, many Christians pray, but many Jews pray, many Muslims pray, and many other people who belong to other religious faiths. What is there for them on Pray.com? Is it exclusively Christian, or no?
GATENA: There’s not a lot for them, Stephen. When we launched the app, we launched this community, and we launched the largest mosque in the country, we launched the largest spiritual center in the country, and we also launched the largest churches in the country. And we did that because we wanted to be as inclusive as possible.
DUBNER: So what happened to that huge, virtual mosque?
GATENA: It kind of fizzled out. You know, I’m not in their community. I’m not a part of their community.
DUBNER: I don’t mean to be churlish about this, but if you call it Pray.com, does it feel a little, you know, exclusive? I mean, maybe it should be “ChristianPray.com” or, you know, “JesusChristIsHereForYou.com,” because I’m Jewish, I pray, my Muslim friends pray, but Pray.com is not for me. Is that an issue for you or anybody?
GATENA: Stephen, I believe that it is for you. Because I’m a Christian, so I’m trying to baptize you, Stephen, let’s go. Let’s do it right here on the show. We’re going to migrate you from Book One to Book Two. There’s a sequel, it’s better than the first one.
DUBNER: Just so you know, I actually started out in your camp. I grew up Catholic. My parents were both Jewish, who before they met each other, converted to Catholicism. And then they met and fell in love with each other. They’d both fallen in love with Jesus by that point. So they became very, very, very devout Catholics. And they proceeded to raise a very devout Catholic family, of which I’m eighth and last. So I grew up in a very religious Catholic home in which I was an altar boy from the time I could practically walk, and so on and so on. Long story short, I then began exploring as a writer really, my parents’ Jewish — not just roots, their early lives, and ended up myself migrating back to the Jewish faith and Judaism. So I’m familiar with both sides of the aisle. I have the ultimate respect for both, certainly. I have good relationships with people of many, many, many faiths. But I can tell you that it is not a product with which I am unfamiliar. So I do appreciate the invitation, but I think I’m probably not going to be a customer today.
GATENA: Either way, Stephen, I still think we should hang out.
It’s quite clear that Steve Gatena has an abundance of zeal — and I don’t even mean as a Christian; I’m talking about him as an entrepreneur. But even though the economist Larry Iannaccone told us that religion and commerce have always been intertwined, this feels like something new. And if we’ve learned anything at all from platforms like Facebook and Twitter, digital communication can exert a leverage unlike anything the world has seen before. And that is what has Emily Baker-White concerned.
BAKER-WHITE: There has been a seismic shift in how religion is practiced in the United States. There’s been a slow-rolling but continuous shift for 20, 30 years. The pandemic, though, made that shift accelerate really, really dramatically. And so I think what we have is a really unstable space. And there are people who are trying to commodify stuff that hasn’t been commodified yet. That does seem like when you put the baking soda in the vinegar in the volcano, when you’re in fifth grade. It does feel like a potentially explosive thing.
There’s also this: if, as Larry Iannaccone told us, the benefits that religion has historically provided are strongly tied to its social aspects, will a digital version have the same power?
IANNACCONE: One of the very striking things about the United States that almost all the European visitors who left behind memoirs would write about, De Tocqueville and others, was the extent to which Americans engaged in social action and helped each other and produced goods and services through religious organizations. A lot of those services, whether they were health or burial societies or education, have shifted toward, and truly have been crowded out by, government and commercial institutions.
So are religious apps like Pray.com another means of crowding out those social benefits — or is this just a different way of building community?
IANNACCONE: I will paraphrase something from the New Testament, where the Apostle Paul is confronted by people who are complaining that they’re seeing other people preaching the gospel, the Christian gospel, for the wrong motives. And the gist of it is, “Whatever their motives are, I rejoice that Christ is preached.” The motives that have driven religion and the marketing of religion. Those motives have always been mixed. And economists love to point out how often, and correctly so, the unintended consequences of good motives can be devastating. I think here you either have faith in the marketplace and you just say, we’re going to trust that competition will drive out things that are truly counterproductive or harmful. Or you have faith in your religious universe that somehow God will make things work out.
* * *
Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Zack Lapinski. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Ryan Kelley, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Morgan Levey, Julie Kanfer, Jasmin Klinger, Eleanor Osborne, Jeremy Johnston, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Alina Kulman. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
- Emily Baker-White, technology reporter and senior writer at Forbes.
- Jeanet Bentzen, professor of economics at University of Copenhagen.
- Steve Gatena, founder and C.E.O. of Pray.com.
- Larry Iannaccone, professor economics and director of the Institute for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Society at Chapman University.
- “Nothing Sacred: These Apps Reserve The Right To Sell Your Prayers,” by Emily Baker-White (BuzzFeed News, 2022).
- “As Europe Approves New Tech Laws, the U.S. Falls Further Behind,” by Cecilia Kang (The New York Times, 2022).
- “Religious Organizations in the U.S.,” by IBISWorld (2022).
- “How Many Americans Believe in God?” by Lydia Saad and Zach Hrynowski (Gallup, 2022).
- “In Crisis, We Pray: Religiosity and the COVID-19 Pandemic,” by Jeanet Sinding Bentzen (Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 2021).
- “Faith-Based Apps Attract $175.3 Million As Worshipers Desert Churches,” by Zachary Snowdon Smith (Forbes, 2021).
- “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time,” by Jeffrey M. Jones (Gallup, 2021).
- “St. Paul’s Voyage and Shipwreck: The Ship and Its Wise Captain,” by Mark Gatt (Times of Malta, 2017).
- “The Global Religious Landscape,” by the Pew Research Center (2012).
- “Documents that Changed the World: Gutenberg Indulgence, 1454,” by Peter Kelley (UW News, 2012).
- “Is Spirituality a Critical Ingredient of Meditation? Comparing the Effects of Spiritual Meditation, Secular Meditation, and Relaxation on Spiritual, Psychological, Cardiac, and Pain Outcomes,” by Amy B. Wachholtz and Kenneth I. Pargament (Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 2005).
- “How Much Money was Actually in the Indulgence Chest?” by Reinhold Kiermayr (The Sixteenth Century Journal, 1986).
- “Does Religion Make You Happy?” by Freakonomics Radio (2014).