Regardless of the religious beliefs of an individual, it's rationally impossible to prove in a testable, repeatable (and by those two adjectives I mean "scientific) manner that prayer really does help people. Why Won't God Heal Amputees is a website based on that idea, and essentially debunks the idea that prayer actually helps people.
By all means, if people have faith and feel better via prayer, they ought to pray. After all, one has a duty to oneself as well as to others. If prayer (or secular meditation, whatever) centers a person and makes him/her feel calmer and better, then it has a benefit. To claim that it helps those about whom the supplicant might be praying, however, can lead to a sense of dangerous complacency.
Perfect example: the recent wildfires. A relief fund that is accessible on-line has been set up, so people can help with monetary donations at their convenience. Various companies offered discounts and even waived fees to help the then-evacuees, now survivors who are trying to pick up the pieces.
Additionally, I have read and heard many, many stories of people who packed up their cars with the types of supplies needed and drove over to help the victims of the fire. Personally, I helped clean up the house of my boyfriend's business partner's family. The type of breather needed to prevent inhalation of dangerous fumes and particles was hard to come by even in Orange County, but I called every hardware store in the area until I found some. I took them south with me. It was the first time I had directly participated in such an endeavor, and I hope that it is the last (footage of the house and Dan's business partner's reaction can be found here).
Whilst people were mobilizing to help others in a solid way, others were content to merely sit and pray, or send out Myspace bulletins urging people to pray. My response was a bulletin of my own:
re praying for the California wildfire victims:
Don't just pray, do something. If you feel like prayer is good thing, then by all means do so, just don't try to convince anyone that you're actually contributing anything. Everyone prays for any number of causes, but there is no statistical reason to believe that asking your god of choice for help will help in this dire situation.
People who pray and then tell others to do so as well as if it's some grand gesture are lulling themselves and others into a false sense of complacency.
A friend of mine responded:
Maybe people should do both?
I'll tell you now, If I've been helping people evacuate and put shit out, and it comes a time where I can't do anything, I'm gonna pray. When someone tells another person to pray for victoms, it's not like they're saying "fuck doing anything else."
Not trying to step on you here. Just saying.
(He raps, check him out.)
I realized that I hadn't really defined what I was trying to say, so I'll say it here. The idea that prayer actually, directly, and significantly helps those who are the subjects of the prayer preys on the tendency of the average person to not get truly involved with helping others. No one but the supplicant actually benefits from the prayer; that feeling of having done something good in their own eyes is enough for most people, which is the reason I call BS on the Myspace bulletins (aka "bullshitins"), emails, and websites urging people to pray instead of showing them how to take action to help. Saying a quick prayer in a moment of despair or praying when there's nothing else you can do is one thing, feeling self-righteous and satisfied because you said some words for someone to a deity in which that person may not even believe is what is wrong.
the safety gear that was my small contribution