Afterword: On Prayer
by James Kiefer
Unfinished dot-matrix printout dated November 21, 1984
[Editor’s notes are in blue.]

Defence of Prayer

One critic of the rough draft of this paper commented as follows:

As nearly as I can determine, your arguments are valid, and theism is true. Nevertheless, I regard the time I have spent on your paper as wasted. Now that I am convinced that God exists, I see no reason to do anything whatever about it. Accordingly, my conversion from atheism to theism has made no practical difference in my life, and the time I have spent learning about God would have been better spent, say, on the knots and splices section of the Boy Scout Manual. You never know when a good bowline will come in handy.

To this sort of objection, I offer three sorts of replies. First, Miss Rand denies that any truth is merely theoretical (find reference).

Another is that if the critic will consider the cases for particular kinds of theism, using, among other things, the hints found in the following sections of this paper, he may encounter rational arguments for some particular variety of theism that will unmistakably commit its adherents to doing something about it.

The other is that the acceptance of basic theism, as outlined in the previous sections of this paper [Objectivism and Theism], implies certain obligations and therefore ought to make a practical difference in the life of the theist, even if he never gets beyond basic theism. In this section, I shall discuss only one such obligation, that of prayer.

Miss Rand has said that anyone who accepts a principle ought to be prepared to defend the most unattractive application of that principle <#>, and at this point, I may be following her advice.

A student of Objectivism who studied the rough draft of this paper and became convinced thereby of the truth of theism tells me that his friends reacted mildly to his announcement that he had come to believe in God, but were utterly horrified at the notion of his acting on the belief. One of the said: “Do you pray? You do? How disgusting!” And this seems so typical a reaction as to assure me that this section will be one of the most unpopular in the paper.

Someone will ask me: “Why do you not simply present the abstract philosophical arguments for theism and let it go at that? Why insert a section that will make many a reader, perhaps on the verge of belief in God, throw the book down, declaring, ‘Now he’ gone too far!’ and dismiss theism completely?”

To such an inquirer, I reply (taking my cue from Miss Rand [The Virtue of Selfishness, “Introduction”]), “I insert the section on prayer for the same reason that makes you afraid of it.”

Just as a man learns what he values, and how much, by seeing what he is prepared to give up for it, so a man learns what he believes by seeing whether he is prepared to act on it. I present the reader with a choice, to pray or not to pray, precisely in order that he may pass from saying, “Theism ... interesting suggestion ... plausible in a way ... cleverly argued ... might be something in it, ” to saying, “It is true.” As for the reader who is frightened off by this, who is perfectly willing to adopt a favorable attitude toward theism as long as he is not asked to render a positive judgement on whether it is true or false, I would be doing him no kindness by encouraging him to evade the question. And inviting him to pray puts the question head-on, since theists prayer and non-theists don’t.

A critic may say: It is obvious enough that non-theists do not pray, but why should theists do so? What difference can prayer make to an all-powerful, all-wise, all-good being? Is he so vain that he cares whether you praise him? Is he so weak-willed that he can be coaxed or nagged into doing what you want rather than what he had intended? What is the point of prayer, anyway?

The reasons for praying follow from considerations of what God is.

In the first place, he is the Uncaused Designer, who, with deliberate purpose and intent, has made the galaxies and all that is in and between them. In doing so, he has done us a favor. Rational beings say, “Thank you!” to their benefactors, not simply to butter them up, or because someone who has been thanked for passing the ketchup this time will be more likely to pass it the next time he is asked, but because the external expression of gratitude is the normal and healthy way to respond to a favor received. Miss Rand has gone out of her way to express her gratitude to Victor Hugo for brightening her life, even though she does not suppose her thanks will have any influence on him.

One aspect of prayer is thanks. Another, closely related is praise. A rational being takes delight in admiring something great, something glorious, and especially admiring a great mind and its achievements. This is true even when the object of his admiration is of no benefit at all to him, except insofar as being given the opportunity of admiration is itself a benefit.

[examples: “abroad” in WTL; the boy on the bicycle in FH; “I want to look up” in WIAR]

[I cannot be sure which of the many references to “abroad” in the novel We the Living James may have had in mind. I offer this one from the end of the novel, after Kira, having been shot while trying to escape the Soviet Union, presses on through the snow in the night: “She had to walk. There, in that world, across the border, a life was awaiting her to which she had been faithful her every living hour, her only banner that had never been lowered, that she had held high and straight, a life she could not betray, she would not betray now by stopping while she was still living, a life she could still serve, by walking, by walking forward a little longer, just a little longer.” See the note below.
MM“The boy on the bicycle” refers to the opening pages of Part IV of The Fountainhead, where a young aspiring composer sees the Monadnock Valley resort. He meets Howard Roark and, learning that he built it, says “thank you” to him. In one of the most beautiful passages Rand wrote, the vignette concludes, as the boy pedals away, by telling the reader that Roark “did not know that he had given someone the courage to face a lifetime.”
MM“I want to look up” comes from the second paragraph of the third essay in Nathaniel and Barbara Branden’s book Who Is Ayn Rand? Rand says, “I decided to become a writer — not in order to save the world, nor to serve my fellow men — but for the simple, personal selfish, egoistical happiness of creating the kind of men and events I could like, respect and admire. I can bear to look around me levelly. I cannot bear to look down. I wanted to look up.” In a related passage (in the title essay), Barbara Branden tells us, “During her college days in Russia, [Ayn] had seen photographs of American skyscrapers; she had thought that some day she would write about those symbols of man’s achievement and pay them the tribute which they deserved. When, standing on the Hudson River pier, she had looked at the buildings of New York for the first time, that thought had become a firm decision.”]

Rational beings respond to the magnificent with appreciation. And their appreciation naturally seeks verbal expression. What reader of Atlas Shrugged, if he had the chance to speak to Ayn Rand, would not feel the urge to express his admiration for the work, even though shyness or a fear of sounding trite might prevent him from doing so? And what fan of an actor or a singer or athlete would not want to praise his hero, whether by speaking face to face (I suspect that almost all of those who ask for autographs do so, not because they value the signature but because, “Mr. Astaire, may I please have your autograph?” is less awkward than, “Mr. Astaire, I just wanted to tell you how well you dance”) or by applauding from the crowd, or simply by getting together with other fans so that they can tell one another how great their hero is? For it is not essential to praise that its object should hear it. A man in love will want to tell his lady, “Darling, you are marvelous!” But he will also whisper it when she is out of hearing, and sing her praises to all who will listen. Some years ago, when the racing of miniature electric cars was a popular fad, a boy of about ten years came skipping out of a race track arcade, presumably on his way home after squandering his allowance, and upon seeing me, an utter stranger walking past, he proceeded to tell me for about two minutes what a wonderful sport miniature car racing was and how much he loved it. I stood and listened and nodded, made happy by his happiness. Praise, as one writer has put it, is inner health made audible.(#) [James is probably thinking of C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms. page 97.]

And if we respond this way to great human minds, how much more so to the mind that invented all other minds.

Thus rational beings find it natural to address both praise and thanksgiving to God, with the two distinguishable but also running into one another, as in the old hymn Gloria in Excelsis, which contains the line, “We give thanks to thee for thy great glory!” in which the singer thanks God, not for benefits bestowed, but simply for being wonderful.

As noted above, praise and thanksgiving are appropriate responses even when the person to whom they are addressed is unaware of them. But the ideal situation is one in which the person hears and does care. Since God is omniscient, he does hear our prayers. Since prayer is appropriate to our nature as rational being, and since he designed us as rational being and intends that we should function as such, he does care whether we pray.

On forgiveness.

Another component of prayer (sometimes) is penitence. When you have done something wrong, whether intentional or through honest error, it is the right thing to apologize. It is right even if there is no chance that the injured party will accept the apology [Cherryl to Dagny]. Given that the apology will not let you off from any unpleasant consequences of your misdeed, or repair any broken friendships, it is still something that has to be done because justice demands it. Now, when we do something wrong, we always owe God an apology As we have seen, God is necessarily omniscient, so that “X is true” and “God believes that X is true” are equivalent statements. As a special case of this, “X is morally right” and “God approves of X” are equivalent statements. Therefore when we do something wrong, it is not merely the case (as all students of Objectivism already know) that we are on a collision course with impersonal objective, reality. It is also the case that we are on a collision course with the highly personal being by whom we are designed, created, and maintained in existence, who has a claim on our gratitude for benefits received, whose displeasure is potentially formidable, who has given us rational minds and moral faculties, who has designed us to be able to tell true from false and good from bad, and desires and intends that we should do so, and who does not like it when we don’t do so.

[Forgiveness, definition of, Henry and his mother] [See below.]

[Personal contact, see Visibility Principle] [The visibility principle was developed by Nathaniel Branden in essays in The Objectivist and restated in his book The Psychology of Self-Esteem (New York: Bantam Books, 1971). It is the experience of self-awareness reflected in a response from another conscious being. The more accurately the self-awareness is reflected, the greater the experience of visibility.]

[Petition, see oats or barley] [See below.]

Simply because justice demands it, when we have acted wrongly, we ought to apologize to God, as well as to those men, if any, whom the wrong was directed against, whether they were injured by it or not (Dagny was not injured by Cherryl’s remark at their first meeting, but an apology was in order nonetheless]. The apology is in order quite independently of any question of forgiveness. But the next question is, whether, in addition to apologizing to God, we ought to ask his forgiveness, and is it rational to suppose that God is the sort of being who does forgive, and if so, under what circumstances, and above all, what does forgiveness mean, anyway? Is it equivalent to letting off from punishment, and if it is, and if punishment is an instance of justice at work, then is forgiveness incompatible with justice?

Many students of Objectivism maintain that the Objectivist philosophy precludes forgiveness. They quote from Hank Rearden’s last meeting with his family [Atlas Shrugged, 900–906, paperback edition; omissions not marked]:

MM“Henry, we’ve sinned against you and we confess it. Will you find it in your heart to forgive us?”
MM“What is it you want me to do?”
MM“You’re generous and strong. Will you cancel the past, Henry? Will you forgive us?”
MM“Very well, what would it mean, my forgiveness? Will it change the past? Do you wish me to pretend that the past has not existed?”
MM“What she’s trying to say is that we’re sorry. We’re terribly sorry that we’ve hurt you. You think we’re not paying for it, but we are. We’re suffering remorse.”
MMThe pain in Philip’s face was real.
MM“We’re sorry, Henry. We know we’ve harmed you. We wish we could atone for it. But what can we do? The past is past. We can’t undo it.”
MM“Neither can I.”
MM“You can accept our repentance.”
MMThey did not know — that the justice which would forgive miles of innocent errors of knowledge, would not forgive a single step taken in conscious evil.
MM“If you abandon us, we’re lost. If you give up and vanish ...”
MM“So that’s what you’re afraid of.”
MMHe was hearing a voice that had said to him, quietly, here in this room: “It is against the sin of forgiveness that I wanted to warn you.” You who had to know it then, he thought ... but he did not finish the sentence in his mind, he let it end in the bitter twist of his smile, because he knew what he had been about to think: You who had known it then — forgive me.
MM“If you still want me to explain it, Mother,” he said very quietly, “if you’re still hoping that I won’t be cruel enough to name what you’re pretending not to know, then here’s what’s wrong with your idea of forgiveness: You regret that you’ve hurt me, and as your atonement for it, you ask that I offer myself to total immolation.”
MM“Are you really incapable of forgiveness?”
MM“No, Mother,” he answered, “I’m not. I would have forgiven the past — if today, you had urged me to quit and disappear.”

Atlas Shrugged, 900kk-nn, ss-tt, 901 l, q, s, mm-pp, tt-xx, 902 l, q-s, pp-qq, vv, 903 k-p, ee-ii, 906 j-l.

Most of this passage seems to support the idea that rational men do not forgive — that forgiveness is an irrational act, and consists of evading the fact that a wrong has been committed. But the last speech is evidence on the other side. With the whole passage as a basis, I conclude as follows:

(1) It is possible for someone who has consciously and voluntarily been wicked to repent, mend his ways, and be a moral, rational being.

(2) If he does so, then our proper attitude toward him as he now is, is identical with our proper attitude toward any other rational, moral being.

(3) Insofar has he has injured others while in his former, immoral state, he owes them compensation. This debt is not cancelled by his reformation, and if his reformation is sincere, he will wish to pay it.

(4) If your neighbor (a) broke your best vase in a fit of temper or as an act of deliberate spitefulness, but is now a reformed and upright character, or (b) dropped it in a moment of carelessness, or (c) dropped it as a result of a sneeze that could not have been foreseen or prevented, or (d) borrowed it with your consent and was burglarized, he owes you one vase, and the nature of the debt is independent of which of the above is true. If he cannot pay, you have a right to strip him of everything he has except a loincloth, but it is probably in your self-interest to work out a schedule of repayments that leaves him enough to live on so that he can continue to work and make payments. If there is no possibility of payment (the vase was a family heirloom, unique and irreplaceable), then [The text for this section ends here.]

On petition.

The kind of prayer most frequently denounced as irrational is petitionary prayer. One atheist professor of philosophy regards it as a “supremely embarrassing” difficulty for theists, and in itself a sufficient refutation of theism. He begins by arguing that religion arose historically (or rather, prehistorically) out of primitive man’s conviction that “reality can be changed by talking to it.”

Wallace I. Matson, reviewing Atheism: The Case against God, by George H. Smith, in Reason, November 1975, p. 46:

Contrary to received opinion, all religions do share a common defining property: they are verbal activities designed to bring the unseen Powers That Be to our aid in distress.... The core of all religion is prayer, and prayer is the attempt to change the world by talking to it. If it is to work, the Powers must be able to hear and understand, which means that they must be persons — so we have gods. They must be very powerful, to help us when nothing else can; very knowing, to be aware of us, our situation, and the remedy; and very good, to be on our side. Finally, lest they thwart one another, they coalesce into one supremely powerful, wise, and good superperson....
MMComes now the theologian, [who deduces that God must be omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly benevolent. But this presents a difficulty which] is supremely embarrassing. If God is all-powerful, He made the world; and in the best way possible, if He is all-wise and all-good. Hence any request to have the world changed must be foolish. Hence God could not conceivably answer any prayer. But prayer-answering is His raison d'être. So He — we are speaking now of the God of the philosophers — is not only inconceivable; from a religious point of view He is useless.

Professor Matson's argument is straightforward. He offers us a modus tollens argument in the form of two premises and a conclusion: [Probably a typographical error. The following argument-form is modus ponens.]
MM (1) All religious belief entails belief in the efficacy of petitionary prayer.
MM (2) Belief in the efficacy of petitionary prayer is irrational.
MM (3) Therefore, all religious belief is irrational.

Now I challenge both his premises. As to the first, it is obviously possible to present an argument for theism that makes no reference to petitionary prayer. This paper, with the present section omitted, is an example. For other examples, see the works of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Spinoza, and others. Perhaps Professor Watson would reply that a religion cannot attract adherents unless it tells them that God will grant their petitions. But Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, explicitly taught that petitionary prayer is irrational, using an argument very like that of Professor Watson. The professor may object to Christian Science on several grounds, but he can scarcely deny that it is a religion and that it has adherents. If he maintains that theism first arose in connection with a belief in petitionary prayer, I reply that the historical (or prehistorical) origins of the belief (supposing for the sake of argument that we have this kind of access to the mental process of our remote ancestors) are irrelevant to the truth of theism. Belief in atoms first got a foothold in Western thought as the result of arguments that are no longer acceptable, but that has nothing to do with whether there are in fact atoms.

But that is a side issue. What chiefly concerns me is the second premise, that petitionary prayer, addressed to an all-powerful, all-wise, and all-good entity, is irrational. Let us consider the professor’s argument for this position.

Suppose that Farmer Brown prayers for rain for his wheat crop. His neighbor, having read Professor Matson, says to him:

“Why are you praying for rain? Surely God know what is best. If, taking into account the total effect on everyone and everything in the universe of causing rain to fall on your fields, he sees that rain is better than non-rain, then he will cause it to rain, whether you pray or not. If, on the other hand, he sees that it is not better, then he will not cause it to rain, whether you pray or not. Your prayers cannot possibly make a difference. They imply either that God needs to be prodded into doing what is best or that he can be nagged into doing what is not best. Either supposition is contrary to what we are told about the attributes of God.”

Now another neighbor comes by and says to Farmer Brown:

“Your prayers for rain on your wheat fields were not your first theological mistake where that field was concerned. You went astray when you decided to plant wheat at all. God knows whether it is better for that field to produce wheat or (say) barley. If he sees that it is best for the field to produce wheat, then he will cause it to produce wheat, whether you have planted wheat or not. Likewise, if he sees that it would be better for the field to produce barley, or weeds, or nothing, rather than wheat, then he will see to it that no wheat grows there, regardless of what you have planted. How could you be so irreligious as to suppose that your planting wheat could have any effect on the sort of crop the field would produce, or indeed to suppose that any action of yours could ever have any effect on anything?”

Farmer Brown replies first to the second neighbor. He says:

“In deciding what is best, God takes all facts into account. But what, if anything, I have planted in this field is one of those facts. My expectation is that God will decide that what is best is that the field shall grow wheat if I plant wheat, barley if I plant barley, and neither if I plant neither. Now, you ask, why do I consider that a reasonable decision, one that God might very well make? For the same reason that I consider it reasonable of myself to give my son an allowance, and let him spend it as he pleases, even though he sometimes makes purchases that an astute financial advisor would have warned him away from. I would rather that he occasionally wasted a dollar than that I made all his decisions for him, even though I am confident of the superiority of my judgement. When he chooses Toy A over Toy B, and I know from prior observation that Toy A will cease to be interesting in at most 48 hours, where Toy B will be worth keeping and playing with for years, I do not overrule his choice. But, you say, it would be better for him to have Toy B. I reply that what is best for him is to have the freedom to decide, to have a father who respects his judgement and preferences even when disagreeing with them, to have the dignity that comes with being aware that his choices make a difference. In just the same way, it does not strike me as the least bit improbable that God would say, not ‘It is best that this field shall produce wheat,’ or, ‘It is best that this field shall not produce wheat,’ but, ‘It is best that Farmer Brown shall have free will, and that the choices he makes should have consequences, and that in particular his choice about what to plant in this field this spring shall determine what the field looks like next fall.’ Since my dear friends Nathaniel Branden and James Kiefer have already made it clear to me that belief in God and the belief in free will are both true, I am not particularly surprised to find them compatible.”

Next, Farmer Brown turns to his first neighbor and says: [The manuscript ends here.]

[Editor’s Note: Ayn Rand wrote in “‘The Inexplicable Personal Alchemy,’” about the meaning of the concept “abroad”:

MMThe meaning of that word for a Soviet citizen is incommunicable to anyone who has not lived in that country; if you project what you would feel for a combination of Atlantis, the Promised Land and the most glorious civilization on another planet, as imagined by a benevolent kind of science fiction, you will have a pale approximation. “Abroad,” to a Soviet Russian, is a distant, shining and unattainable as these; yet to any Russian who lifts his head for a moment from the Soviet muck, the concept “abroad” is a psychological necessity, a lifeline and soul preserver.
MMThat concept is made of brilliant bits sneaked, smuggled or floating in through the dense gray fog of the country’s physical and spiritual barbed-wire walls: in foreign movies, magazines, radio broadcasts, or even the clothing and the confident posture of foreign visitors. These bits are so un-Soviet and so alive that they blend in one’s mind into a vision of freedom, abundance, unimaginable technological efficacy, inconceivable achievements and, above all, a sense of joyous, fearless, benevolent gaiety. And if European countries, in this vision, are shining planets, America is the sun.
MMIt is not that one hopes for material help or liberation to come from “abroad”; it is that such a place exists. The mere knowledge that a nobler way of life is possible somewhere, redeems the human race in one’s mind. And when, in moments of despair or final extremity, one cries out in protest, that cry is not consciously addressed to anyone, only to whatever justice might exist in the universe at large; but, subconsciously, the universe at large is “abroad.” (Ayn Rand, The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, [New York: New American Library, 1971]; expanded by Peter Schwartz, ed., and retitled Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution.)]

HomeNNNNKiefer main pageNNNNNotes Table of Contents

E-mail Thornwalker at

Copyright © 2001–2016 Ronald N. Neff, d/b/a is hosted by pair Networks.