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George Santayana and the Problem of Petitionary Prayer
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Scholars of the classical American philosophical tradition have not written much about prayer, despite the fact that almost every single one of the major figures of this tradition acknowledged its significance. The gap in the literature is notable in the case of George Santayana, who discusses prayer in several of his major works. And of all the classical American philosophers, Santayana may have the most fully developed treatment of prayer, particularly as it relates to the problem of petitionary prayer. Yet his account of payer has not received much attention.1 This is surprising since, on the one hand, many of Santayana’s other views on religion and spirituality have been widely commented on, and, on the other hand, prayer has been a prominent topic in philosophy of religion in recent decades. And it makes sense for scholars of the classical American tradition nowadays to consider Santayana’s views about prayer, at the least because this tradition concerns itself with the problems of ordinary people, and to most Americans—and even to some atheist Americans2 —prayer seems to matter a great deal.3

Santayana’s treatment of prayer can be organized into two phases. First, he offers a twofold case against the common view that petitionary prayer is materially efficacious—that is, the view that petitionary prayer can do something to affect whether God brings about a desired state of affairs that would not have otherwise obtained had the request for it not been made. Second, as an alternative, Santayana offers a fully naturalized interpretation of prayer that he calls rational prayer. I argue here that Santayana’s case against the material efficacy of petitionary prayer is much weaker than he suggests, and that his retooled interpretation of prayer is less motivated than he would have us think. To set the stage, I begin with a brief explanation of how Santayana’s account of prayer emerges within the context of his general interpretation of religion as a form of poetry (§I), and then I explain why he rejects the view that petitionary prayer is materially efficacious (§II). Next, I outline the view of prayer that Santayana endorses, as well as what he takes to be its chief benefits (§III). In the penultimate sections of the paper, I argue that both of Santayana’s criticisms of the view that petitionary prayer is materially efficacious rely on questionable assumptions about the nature of God (§§IV–V). And ultimately, I argue that his view of rational prayer is insufficiently motivated in light of the available alternatives (§VI), and I respond to an objection to my interpretation of Santayana (§VII).


To see Santayana’s account of prayer in the proper light, it helps to bear in mind his general posture toward religion. He agreed with Francis Bacon’s famous remark that a certain depth in philosophy has a way of bringing a person around to religion, but he also held that Bacon “forgot to add that the God to whom depth in philosophy brings back men’s minds is far from the same from whom a little philosophy estranges them.”4 And in many respects, this comment provides a thumbnail sketch of Santayana’s interpretation of religion. He never downplayed his appreciation for religion (he wrote profusely about it, for example) nor the fact that his own view of it differed widely from those of rank-and-file religious believers. In fact, Santayana regarded religion as the “head and front of everything,” and he identified as a Catholic throughout his life.5 Nonetheless, his religious self-identity was one merely of sentiment and tradition: he admitted, for example, that he was both an atheist and a materialist.6

For Santayana, though, religion is an important way of attaining rational ends through the use of imagination. That is, religion serves as a useful narrative framework through which we can symbolically represent, interpret, and ultimately navigate the moral dimensions of life—religions, he says, are essentially the “great fairy-tales of the conscience.”7 Accordingly, religion rings true in only the way that an artistic or literary rendering of the human condition might: through its imagery, we develop sensibilities, reverence, and insight regarding ourselves...

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