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UW sociology student explores the power of prayer

A UW-Madison grad student is getting national attention for a paper suggesting that prayer, of all things, can help people get through tough times, like being abused by loved ones.

"How Does Prayer Help Manage Emotions?" by UW sociology student Shane Sharp, was just published in Social Psychology Quarterly, the journal of the American Sociological Association. It's gotten play on the websites of Time magazine, U.S. News and World Report and Fox News, among other outlets.

Sharp conducted interviews with 62 current and former victims of domestic violence, from all over the country. Many of them, he learned, found a sympathetic "listening ear" in their communications with God. This happens in part because God does not hit back.

"If they vented their anger to [the] abusive partner, the result was likely to be more violence," a press release from the association quotes Shane as saying. "But they could be angry at God while praying without fear of reprisal."

During prayer, Sharp continues, "victims came to see themselves as they believed God saw them. Since these perceptions were mostly positive, it helped raise their senses of self-worth that counteracted their abusers' hurtful words."

Sharp tells Isthmus the study "grew out of an overall project about how religion influences the lives and experiences of intimate-partner abuse victims." For a prior paper, he looked at how abuse victims from conservative Christian denominations may stay in abusive relationships because of the biblical restriction on divorce.

"My research acknowledges the positive and negative aspects of religion," he says. His latest paper, for instance, notes that prayer sometimes leads victims to forgive their abusers, keeping them in violent relationships.

Patti Seger, executive director of the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence, says people in her field have long known "that many victims feel a sense of healing and calm and forgiveness through their faith." And while an advocate would never tell a victim to pray as a solution to abuse, the ability to forgive one's abuser is "a key element of healing for some victims," once the abuse is halted.

Sharp's study, Seger says, reinforces the wisdom of building alliances between groups like hers and "the faith community."

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