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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K070-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 22, 2024, from

Article Summary

The concept of prayer is now most commonly applied to any sort of communication which is addressed to God. That is, prayer is that activity in which believers take themselves to be speaking to God. One may ask God to do something (petitionary prayer), but that need not be the only sort of content that prayer may have. There are prayers in which one thanks God for something, and others in which one praises God and expresses one’s adoration. A worshipper may also pray to express (or to make) a commitment to God, or to make a vow. Penitents pray to confess their sins, to express their repentance, and to ask for divine mercy and forgiveness. In general, any sort of speech-act which might be addressed by one human being to another could also be addressed to God, and thus be a prayer. Some such acts (such as, perhaps, commanding) might be thought inappropriate when addressed to God, but no doubt there can be inappropriate prayers. And some prayers may even be tentative and unsure about the existence of the addressee, prayers which might be thought of as beginning ‘O God, if there is a God…’.

Some writers, principally from within a tradition of mysticism, also apply the notion of prayer in a somewhat broader sense – in, for example, expressions like ‘prayer of quiet’ and ‘prayer of union’. Here ‘prayer’ seems to mean any intentional state – worship, adoration, enjoyment of the divine presence and love, and so forth – which the worshipper believes to be associated with a genuine contact with the divine, regardless of whether it contains an element of communication addressed to God.

In the sense of a communication addressed to the divine, prayer seems to fit best with the theistic religions, which construe God as a person, or as something like a person. Here the addressee is taken to be someone who is an appropriate recipient of a communicative act. The fit seems rather more awkward in those religions which construe the divine reality in impersonal terms. With reference to prayer in the theistic religions, a principal topic of philosophical interest involves the omniscience and benevolence of God – if he knows all my needs and desires, why inform him of them through prayer? And will he not satisfy all my needs regardless of whether I pray? If divine benevolence is conditional on prayer, it seems less than perfect. A response to the first question is to point out that not all speech-acts need be construed as conveying information; a response to the second is to argue that our having to ask for things on behalf of ourselves and others might make for a better world than if this were not the case. Another issue is the way in which God responds to prayer. Some argue that God responds through miracles; others suggest that God, knowing our future prayers, providentially created a world that would satisfy them – thus prayer causally influences earlier events.

Citing this article:
Mavrodes, George I.. Prayer, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K070-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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