Kant on prayer

Kant has no clue about religion. Writing about prayer:

Praying, conceived as an inner ritual service of God and hence as a means of grace, is a superstitious delusion (a fetish-making); for it only is the declaring of a wish to a being who has no need of any declaration regarding the inner disposition of the wisher, through which nothing is therefore accomplished nor is any of the duties incumbent on us as commands of God discharged; hence God is not really served. (Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, Cambridge UP, 186)

Kant is here taking for granted the most primitive explanation of prayer any religious person could give. Moreover, he is utterly incapable of imagining religion as anything else than a rather shadowy form of duty ethics. Prayer is obviously much more and many other things.

For one, the asking for stuff from God – which is not the only type of prayer, the ingenious Königsberg philosopher notwithstanding – need not necessarily have the purpose it seems to have at first blush: it is perhaps the asking itself (as a perlocutionary act) that does something, say soothes the mind or allows one to move on and stop thinking so much about it.

Also, the very act of prayer: sitting quietly for an extended period of time, might itself be useful, if only to let the body catch its breath. This is certainly the conclusion to which most practitioners of meditation have come.

Kant was of course a man of his times and his philosophy of religion is a rather blatant reminder of this fact. He tries to dismiss religion as superstition and replace it with mere reason. Better would have been not to replace it with reason, but to require reason to clean up religion’s act: to have written a Critique of Religious Practice. He could then have tried to figure out what religion actually does as opposed to what it claims to do, and to critique those practices and goals in order not to destroy them, but to improve them and rationalize them. He could then have realized that the proper type of prayer might well help the odd analytical philosopher to think better yet.


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