Petitionary Prayer

A Philosophical Investigation

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Scott A. Davison
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     2017.
     208 pages.
     $75.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198757740.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Petitionary Prayer: A Philosophical Investigation addresses the following question: if the God of traditional theism—“the all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good creator of the world who is worshiped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims” (3)—exists, given what we know by means of analytic philosophy about metaphysics, epistemology, and value theory, can we reasonably believe that God answers petitionary prayer? Author Scott A. Davison offers a contrastive reason account of answered petitionary prayer, in which God’s desire to answer a prayer is an essential reason—in a weighted list of reasons—for God to bring about an event. Davison offers a comprehensive survey of the discussion to date, developing new challenges to the belief that God answers petitionary prayer as well as new versions of some defenses. 

The challenges which Davison considers include those derived from the implications of divine freedom—the strong libertarian challenge and the no choice challenge (chapter 3)—and those concerned with the question of whether we can know that God has answered a petitionary prayer—the discrimination challenge and the safety-based challenge (chapter 4). 

In chapter 5, Davison considers epistemological defenses—including those based on empirical studies, religious teachings, and the possibility of divine illumination—and contextualist defenses. In chapter 6, he examines the question of whether God helps those for whom no one prays and discusses a number of responses, including those of W. Paul Franks, Daniel and Frances Howard-Snyder, Eleanore Stump, Michael Murray and Kurt Meyers, Charles Taliaferro, Nicholas Smith, and Andrew Yip. In chapter 7, Davison explores the responsibility-based defenses of Richard Swinburne, the Howard-Snyders, and Isaac Choi. 

In chapters 8 and 9, Davison develops his own response to these challenges. In chapter 8, he offers an autonomy defense of self-directed prayer, a modified version of Stump’s defense which claims that, in order to respect human autonomy, God provides good things which require permission only when requested by the recipient. Since our capacity for rational decision-making is limited, however, God provides some good things without permission, especially when these are important goods which do not require permission. In response to a new luck-based challenge—according to which A’s prayer is answered, but B’s prayer is prevented by luck—Davison considers a middle knowledge-based case-by-case approach derived from the work of Murray, Meyers, and Thomas P. Flint. According to this theory, God decides whether to answer prayer on a case-by-case basis in the light of God’s middle knowledge of what a petitioner would choose in every possible situation, thereby ensuring that important things depend on petitionary prayers only when God knows that those prayers will be offered, and that the goods provided outweigh the goods of unrequested provision. However, Davison offers a case-by-case approach which does not require belief in divine middle knowledge. On this view, there are only two kinds of qualifying case in which petitionary prayer is required—requests for goods for ourselves, which require our permission, and requests for goods for ourselves or others which are more valuable than unrequested goods. 

In chapter 9, Davison considers the wager defense, which claims that when the cost of prayer is low and the possible practical benefits are high, the petitioner loses little, and much might be gained. This, he suggests, collapses into a modified case-by-case approach, in which God requires petitionary prayer in qualifying cases when the petitioner thinks that the probability of an answer is greater than zero, and when it is reasonable to expect someone to pray.  

Davison’s conclusion, then, is that types of petitionary prayer which may be supported by his modified case-by-case approach—incorporating the autonomy and wager defenses—are philosophically defensible. Both the autonomy and wager defenses have significant weaknesses, however. The autonomy defense requires us to accept that, in at least some cases, it is better to receive a requested good than one which was not requested. In our human world, however, a requested gift—Valentine’s Day flowers, for example—is often less appreciated than an unprompted gift. Of course, the giver must take the recipient’s needs into account—flowers may not be appropriate for someone who is allergic to them—but an omniscient God does not need to be informed of our needs and desires. 

The autonomy defense also requires us to accept that, in at least some cases, a requested good is more valuable than unrequested provision. Davison argues that the difficulty of identifying such a good is the main problem for most of the defenses which he has examined, but suggests that the middle knowledge-based case-by-case approach solves this problem by claiming that God requires petitionary prayer only when God knows that the good brought about will outweigh the good of provision without request. Yet, in addition to the difficulty of imagining the nature of such a good, given that Davison has rejected every possible candidate—except, perhaps, autonomy—suggested by the aforementioned defenses, Davison then jettisons the middle knowledge on which the solution appears to depend. If not even God knows that, in some cases, a prayed-for good is more valuable than an unrequested good, then we are left with a defense of negligible value. 

The wager defense, of course, remains, but even here it could be argued that the cost of prayer is not, in fact, insignificant as across the centuries, billions of religious believers have spent billions of hours participating in religious ceremonies in which petitionary prayer forms a substantial component.  

One possible, if rather unsatisfactory, solution might be to suggest that, despite the temporary suffering of a multitude of individuals, an omniscient, omnipotent, and good God must be able to ensure the overall good of humankind; that our prayers sometimes coincide with what God provides; and that, when they do, the sum total of goodness exceeds the goodness which would have been provided without prayer. Davison also acknowledges that there are other, less problematic, forms of prayer such as thanksgiving, adoration, and confession, and that the hope of a divine response is not the only benefit associated with petitionary prayer. It can also generate and establish devotion to God, develop and express values, function as an act of love, and bring the peace of God. 

Nevertheless, despite Davison’s pessimistic anticipation that his conclusion “will satisfy few readers” (6), Petitionary Prayer represents a valuable contribution to debates about the rationality of an activity which, for billions of people, forms a central part of their religious practice.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Elizabeth Burns is Reader and Program Director of Divinity by Distance Learning at the University of London.

Date of Review: 
June 12, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Scott A. Davison is professor of philosophy at Morehead State University. He has written extensively on issues related to divine providence and human freedom, including entries concerning prophecy and petitionary prayer for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and he is the author of On the Intrinsic Value of Everything (Continuum, 2012). He currently serves as Associate Editor for Faith and Philosophy and as the book review editor for the International Journal for Philosophy of Religion. A former research fellow in the Moore Institute at the National University of Ireland in Galway, he also taught Philosophy at Calvin College and Minzu University of China, served on the Executive Committee of the Society of Christian Philosophers, and is past president of the Society for Philosophy of Religion.

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