[quote]How is prayer going to do anything? Does God only protect his "flock" if others pray for him to do so? Is prayer an indication that he's not a good enough God to see that bad things down on earth are happening? He needs to be made aware of it by intervening humans?
Former Evangelical Christian here. I'm also a religion scholar. And gay, and one of those people who might say they're "spiritual but not religious."
Your questions are ones that religious people struggle with when they think long and hard about the issue, but tend to ignore most of the time.
Many people, especially if they don't examine the issue too closely, see God as being concerned and loving but a little distant, willing to let people blunder into whatever crises and illnesses they wish without interference, but always available to intervene and turn the situation around if people ask Him to. And, they think, the more people who are praying for the same thing, the more likely for God to turn it into a positive outcome.
They don't usually think, "God listens only to really holy people or a whole lot of regular people who pray really hard," but that is, of course, what's at the bottom of it. Either that, or they think prayer is a powerful healing energy in and of itself, able to be directed toward the situation or person in need if everyone joins together to help focus and direct that healing power. In this, it's pretty much what a lot of pagans believe, except that religious people prefer to dress it in more orthodox clothing.
[quote]If we really do have free will, then what's the point of praying anyway?
Religious folk would say that when people pray, they are exercising their free will to entreat the God's intervention. Some would even say that's the meaning of free will, that God won't intervene unless people pray.
[quote]If prayer is just a way to make someone feel like they're doing something to contribute when really they can't, fine. But can't we just say that's what it is?
I think there are two types of people who say they'll pray for you: those who say they'll pray, then maybe say a prayer on Sunday if they happen to remember it; and those who go home, start praying immediately, call up friends and have them start praying, and really do a big job of it. Both may be doing little more than helping themselves feel better, or trying to comfort you with their expression of concern, but one at least THINKS they're doing something real to help.
[quote]I really want to understand religious people, but constructs like the efficacy of "prayer" absolutely baffle me.
There really are a lot of different approaches to prayer. Some believe it's energy that can be amassed and directed; this is more akin to magic in the neo-pagan sense of the word. Some believe it's the loving, paternal figure in the sky, taking time out of his busy day to shower down a few blessings on someone in need. And some believe that the act of praying puts both the person praying and the person being prayed for in a more receptive spiritual state, through which the body can more effectively heal itself.