Posted by: captainfalcon | October 22, 2010

Thought of the Day

From, of all things, a letter by Otto von Bismarck seeking leave to marry Herr. von Puttkamer’s daughter (The Love Letters of Bismarck fills, as they say, a much needed gap in the literature.):

[A time came when] I, not through indifference, but after mature consideration, ceased to pray every evening, as I had been in the habit of doing since childhood; because prayer seemed inconsistent with my view of God’s nature; saying to myself, either God himself, being omnipresent, is the cause of everything even of every thought and volition of mine and so in a sense offers prayers to himself through me, or, if my will is independent of God’s will, it implies arrogance and a doubt as to the inflexibility as well as the perfection of the divine determination to believe that it can be influenced by human appeals.

It’s a prima facie promising line of thought. Plausibly, the ostensible point of praying is to move God to act by calling His attention to injustices in need of correction. But because God is omniscient He already knows of the injustices that are in need of correction, and because He is omnipotent and omnibenevolent He has already moved to correct them. So prayers are not only pointless, but also, insofar as they presuppose that you’ve noticed an injustice God has overlooked, arrogant, as well.

One arguable response is that the point of praying is actually to give God moral permission to intercede on your behalf; absent that permission, His respect for your autonomy would keep Him from giving certain kinds of aid. (Of course, this means that other-directed prayers remain pointless and arrogant, given that you cannot waive others’ moral rights.)

It’s also worth observing that another promising line of thought culminates in justified bafflement at why Bismarck thought it appropriate to include these atheodic meditations in a marriage proposal.

Update: My mother suggested to me, in so many words, that another possible justification for prayer is that it is the religious equivalent of exercising your Due Process right to be heard. Presumably God, much like a State, makes decisions about the architecture of nature. It is thought that when a State makes (certain kinds of) decisions that affect us, we have a right, which we should be encouraged to exercise, to voice our concerns to the State. (We are equally encouraged even if we are concededly in an epistemically, and even morally, inferior position to the state.) Likewise, then, we should voice our concerns to God.

Of course, a corollary to the right to be heard is the right to notice. So, by calling attention to God’s deafening failure to communicate his intentions to us in plain, non-esoteric, prose, Mama’s response arguably functions better as a novel (to my knowledge) variant on the Problem of Evil than an apologia for prayer.



  1. A couple other possible objections that occur offhand:
    1. Perhaps prayer isn’t actually supposed to change the external stimulus that led to praying; it’s merely supposed to provide internal reassurance or guidance – either through reinforcing a comforting superstition (if you ask an atheist) or through opening one’s mind to be soothed by divine benevolence. I believe there are some belief systems in which you are simply supposed to pray for understanding, courage, benevolence, forgiveness, etc… which would be most (non-hypocritically) in line with this purpose, as opposed to a prayer that you survive a plane crash.
    2. It might be that your faith is of great value in itself. In that case, if you pray for something with the expectation that it will be granted and it is not, your faith may be shaken. So by putting your faith on the line over an issue, you oblige God to take it more seriously. The implications of this are somewhat odd – prayer is opprobrious to the exact same extent that it is efficacious, because the best outcome sine prayer is being changed simply to provide you with reassurance that you are being listened to.

  2. (2) is very interesting, but paradoxical if faith in God consists in trusting that God does what’s best for all of us. (That does seem central, at least, to many conceptions of faith; “I put my faith in God” can serve as another way of saying “I only trust it will all work out.”) On this conception, putting your “faith” on the line in order to make God change his plan for your benefit only makes sense on the assumption that God’s plan isn’t already best for you. But that assumption – that God doesn’t do what’s best for you – belies your trust to the contrary: trust that is arguably constitutive of faith.

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