The Difference between Magic and Prayer: A Critique of Saul Smilansky’s Conception

  • Jakub Gomułka Pontifical University of John Paul II, Faculty of Philosophy
  • Zofia Sajdek Pontifical University of John Paul II, Faculty of Philosophy
Keywords: prayer; Wittgensteinian fideism; Saul Smilansky; ethics


Our discussion of Saul Smilansky’s paper “A Problem about the Morality of Some Common Forms of Prayer” consists of two parts. In the first part, we argue for the thesis that the fictitious examples given by the author of the paper either are not commonly acceptable forms of prayer (being unethical), or are interpretable in a way which removes the ethical problem altogether. It is always unethical to wish someone’s death, but in each imaginable situation of deadly danger there is a sense of a prayer for a solution which does not multiply death.

In the second part, we defend the thesis that the attitude towards God depicted in Smilansky’s examples is not religious at all, and the acts desrcibed in them do not deserve to be called “prayers.” When all what really matters to us about God is that He is able to change the course of events in our favor, and His goodness escapes our attention, then by “God” we do not mean the God of religious tradition. At this point we recall the thinkers belonging to the so-called Wittgensteinian fideism, whose critique of petitionary prayer goes maybe too far, but also invites us to rethink the limits of the right attitude towards God.


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