I saw something on the net the other day that puzzled me. It was a request to pray for someone, and it went something like this:
Please pray for my father. He's in the hospital, he's stopped eating and drinking, a couple of his major organs are failing, and he may not make it through the weekend. His name is ... please pray for him.
I've paraphrased a bit, but you get my point, and we've all seen things like this before. "My father's about to die. Please pray for him." I've always been puzzled by this... what exactly are you praying for? What are you asking your god to do?
Are you asking your god to let him live? He's in a world o'hurt, and prolonging his life doesn't seem like a very good idea-- you'd basically be asking your god to prolong dad's suffering. On the other hand, praying for him to die doesn't exactly seem cool. Presumably dad's already either earned himself a ticket on the northbound or the southbound train when he goes, so praying for him to get into heaven doesn't seem effective. If that trick worked, then people could economize by only having one believer in the family and letting that person pray for everyone-- a designated prayer.
Maybe the idea is just "hey god, don't forget about this guy." Even if that were the case, an all-powerful all-knowing deity would seem to have sufficient tracking and accounting skills to know that dad's about done, and he wouldn't really need reminding. He might not even appreciate being nagged about it.
So when you ask people to pray for someone, what exactly are you asking them to ask for? And do you really, deep in your heart of hearts, believe that a dozen strangers asking for whateveritis will change your deity's mind?
My theory, and I know I'm not breaking new ground here, is that prayer gives people something to do, a way to feel like they're helping, when there's nothing else they can do. Being powerless over a situation is frustrating and nerve-wracking, so they turn to prayer as a way to feel like they're working on the problem. I doubt that true believers see it that way, but it's easy to see how prayer would provide an emotional outlet when all else has failed.