Who hears #PrayersForOklahoma?
May 21st, 2013
04:45 PM ET

Who hears #PrayersForOklahoma?

By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
[twitter-follow screen_name='BurkeCNN']

(CNN) - God may not notice the thousands of prayers tweeted for victims of Oklahoma’s devastating tornado - but Ricky Gervais sure has. And he is not pleased.

As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 75,000 people have used the hashtag #PrayForOklahoma, including pop starlets, pastors and politicians, according to Topsy.com, a trend-monitoring site.

For example, the White House tweeted,

But the hashtag and the sentiments it promotes prompted a fierce backlash on social media, led by Gervais, a British comedian, and other prominent nonbelievers.

And while one Oklahoma City pastor says he appreciates the Twitter prayers, some religious scholars say devout petitions require more than moving your hands across a keyboard.

"A prayer is supposed to have a consequence for you," said Elizabeth Drescher, a lecturer at Santa Clara University in California. "It's not an act of magic."

Gervais, an ardent foe of organized religion, was more caustic.

After MTV tweeted that pop stars Beyonce, Rihanna and Katy Perry are sending their prayers to Oklahoma, Gervais responded, “I feel like an idiot now … I only sent money.”

Gervais and other atheists also kick-started a counter-trend, using the hashtag #ActuallyDoSomethingForOklahoma.

“If all people are doing is praying, it is worthless,” Hemant Mehta, an Illinois math teacher who writes the blog “Friendly Atheist,” told CNN. “If they are praying and donating to the Red Cross, that’s more like it.”

Mehta is promoting a group called Foundation Beyond Belief that aims to provide a humanist response to crises like the Oklahoma tornado.

The prayer debate spilled into other social media sites as well, with commenters on CNN’s Facebook page sparring over God’s role in Monday’s destructive whirlwind.

According to Oklahoma officials, 24 people have died, many more are injured, and once-orderly streets look likes foretastes of the apocalypse.

In response to a woman who said she was praying for the victims, Facebook commenter Peter Tongue replied, “If prayer works, there wouldn’t be a disaster like this in the first place .... so please keep your religion to yourself.”

But believers had their say as well.

“God is still in control!” said Wilbur Dugger, a commenter on CNN’s Facebook page. “Everything (God) does is to get our attention. … My sympathy and prayers go out to those who get caught up in his demonstrations of (God) ruling the world.”

The social-media sparring over prayer and God’s will reflect a culture in which traditional notions of religion - and the places where people talk about faith - are changing faster than a Twitter feed, said Drescher, the Santa Clara lecturer.

“We’re watching people re-articulate what it means to be spiritual and religious,” she said.

Just a few years ago, for example, no one knew what a hashtag was. Now the “#PrayFor...” meme appears after almost every national and international tragedy.

But what exactly does it mean? Is the tweeting multitude really folding its hands in prayer, or is it a fleeting expression of existential angst? Or maybe just a trendy thing to say?

“It seems to express hope and anxiety, and maybe even helplessness,” Drescher said.

“At the same time, it evokes this strong response from people who see it as a cop-out, a way of claiming some kind of spiritual space that doesn’t actually have any meaning to the people who are posting the meme or the community they are addressing.”

Traditionally, prayer has required something of the pray-er: an orientation toward reverence, a readiness to act, Drescher continued. “You are meant to do something - and that something may not be an easy thing.”

Slapping a hashtag at the end of a tweet doesn’t meet that standard, the scholar said.

The Rev. David Johnson of St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City said the prayerful tweets mean something to him - even if he’s been too busy to read them.

Since Monday, St. Andrew’s has become a Red Cross command post and reunion site for families to find loved ones caught in the tornado’s path. The tragedy has also touched the congregation itself, with homes, and some lives, lost on Tuesday, Johnson said.

Told of the Twitter prayers, Johnson said, “that’s awesome.”

“People feel helpless - like God called them to do something but they don’t know what. That’s where prayer comes in.”

Johnson said his church appreciates the many material donations coming its way: the generator sent by a lady from Arkansas, the food and water sent from neighboring towns. But they also solicit, and are happy to receive, the many prayers recited - or tweeted - on their behalf, he said.

“We’ve seen quite a lot of trauma in the last day,” Johnson said. “Obviously, people are going to ask why God allows tornadoes to happen. That’s just part of this world. God doesn’t promise us that bad things won’t happen, he promises to help us get through it. That’s what prayer helps us do.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • United States

soundoff (3,515 Responses)
  1. Bob Levittan

    So let me get this straight – according to the religious folks god created the storm to begin with, and now we're supposed to pray...for what? That he doesn't send another storm? That sounds an awful lot like a protection racket to me. What, is god gonna make us an offer we can't refuse?

    May 22, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
    • Sherri

      I agree. If they believe that god is 'in control' then they must also have to believe that he/she sent this storm on purpose. In control means in control. So what was the purpose of killing these 24 people? To get our attention? To threaten us? It's a bunch of hogwash and I'm glad I'm out of that mindset. They say god is all knowing. Well then god knew that those people did not have time to get to shelter. Did not have shelter. And knew they would die. All knowing means all knowing. Oh but it's all god's will. Yeah right.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
    • Dan Jones

      You have very little understanding of God or the Bible. The Bible tells that God made the world and all that is in it along with the sun, moon, and stars. The Bible says that he gave dominion over the earth to man and that through the fall of man the world too fell into a state of bondage or you could say death. Now through to redemption of man through Jesus we have access to God and a place for relationship and communication "prayer". As such the storms are man's fault, intervention, help, and healing are still available from God.

      The real issue isn't whether or not prayer is useful, it is more a case of who is praying. The Bible says, "the prayers of a righteous man availeth much". Those who live their lives as enemies of God should realize that their prayers are no more than sentimental drivel.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
  2. jonathan

    "A prayer is supposed to have a consequence for you," said Elizabeth Drescher, a lecturer at Santa Clara University in California. "It's not an act of magic."


    May 22, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
  3. dragonfire0477

    "You can tell me all you want that you rely on faith to get you through the day, but when it comes to crossing the street, I know you look both ways" – House

    May 22, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
  4. Believer

    Seriously? I have never heard such a rediculous thing to get so worked up about. If people believe that prayer helps, let them pray. I have been praying since I have heard. It makes me feel like I am helping in some small way. If people would rather give money, let them. But I would never ever attack someone for NOT praying, so why should those who would like to pray and extend their faith get attacked. #prayforOklahoma

    May 22, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
    • jonathan

      While it might make you "feel" like you're doing something..... I'm sorry but in reality you really aren't doing anything at all. You're just talking to yourself with your hands together. Or however it is that you "pray." Ridiculous. I mean, pray all you want. But why delude yourself EVEN further with thinking you're actually helping or making a difference? Very childish mind set.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      But the problem is that some people who pray believe that they have done enough to help, when the fact of the matter is that someone sitting in their room mumbling to an imaginary being does absolutely nothing for the victims. Do something useful: donate money, organize a car wash or bake sale, drive out there and volunteer if you have special skills to offer.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
    • Son of God

      What makes me feel like I am helping in some small way, is actually helping in some small way. Muttering nonsense to yourself as you stare at the sky is worse than doing nothing, It makes you feel like a caring person when you're actually not. It's fine not to really care enough to help, just be honest about it.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
    • Which God?

      So, believer, you "feel good" without really doing anything to really help those in need. Prayer is nothing more than talking to yourself, so you can feel good about yourself, while accomplishing nothing but how good YOU feel. You are a Chump.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
  5. jca24

    Does anyone really believe that god has a twitter account?

    May 22, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
    • Which God?

      Chad, Heavensent, Austin, et al probably think so. They shortcut it though, by praying directly to it, whatever "it" is, their sky-jerk/fairy

      May 22, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
  6. CdnJim

    Atheists, I know you feel compelled to point out the foolishness of believers, but it doesn't work. They will continue believing in their sky god, condemning others who don't, blowing themselves and others up to please it. It's wasted energy. They can't learn because their fear prevents them from even accepting the possibility that their god may not exist, without the possibility of dissonance they'll never even be open for real learning and debate. Just pity them in their simplicity and move on.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
    • dragonfire0477

      Religious belief is processed in the same part of the brain that processes fact. That is why religious fervor is so hard to overcome. That's also why otherwise intelligent and rational people can throw logic, reason and intelligence out the window when they enter a church building.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
    • Lou

      First let me say as an atheist I am probably better versed on scriptures than you are and this is a common trait with most atheists. Here is one example the bible is riddled with contradictions

      Who Did the Visitors Tell of Jesus’ Empty Tomb?

      Matthew 28:8: So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. "Greetings," he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."
      The visitors were overjoyed, and they ran to tell the disciples

      Mark 16:8: Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
      They were afraid, and told no one.

      Luke 24:9: When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others.
      They told the eleven and others.

      John 20:10: Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
      Mary informed Simon and the other disciple about the empty tomb, then she remained at the tomb crying.

      Having a moral compass does not require the believe in any god, every year there are millions of atheist worldwide who donate their time and money to help a fellow human being.

      Remember every single person ever born on this planet was born an atheist.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
  7. Mari

    Everyone knows it's Christians that give the most amount of money. Proverbs 19:17, James 2:16, 1 John 3:17, calls on every Christian to give because faith without works is dead. Athiests would not know that being that they don't know the scripture. We send our prayers but our faith is activated when we open up our wallets. We show the love of God by giving to others who are in need. Our reward is from above.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care

      You saying that you give more than Bill Gates (atheist) or Warren Buffet (atheist)?

      May 22, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
    • jonathan

      Whatever you want to believe. That doesn't make it true though. You think atheist haven't read scripture? That's freaking hilarious. That's the reason the majority of atheists ARE atheists. Because they have actually read the scripture unlike most Christians and find that it's full of contradictions, fairy tales and morals that aren't very moral. Though it does have a few rather glaringly obvious morals like don't kill, steal, cheat. But those morals don't require some divine being to pass them down to me for me to know they are right.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Care to back that with facts??? It is not true that christians give the most. Quoting the buybull to prove your point is pointless. The Red Cross is secular and they are always one of the first in to any disaster, so you might want to educate yourself before giving credit to your imaginary friend.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Honey Badger: for the win! Nice point.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
    • grama

      James 2:14-17=My brothers and sisters, what good does it do if someone claims to have faith but doesn't do any good things? Can this kind of faith save him? 15Suppose a believer, whether a man or a woman, needs clothes or food 16and one of you tells that person, "God be with you! Stay warm, and make sure you eat enough." If you don't provide for that person's physical needs, what good does it do? 17In the same way, faith by itself is dead if it doesn't cause you to do any good things.

      Bad things happen to everyone, no matter how good or evil they are. That's life. Faithful Christians respond by generously meeting the needs of others, thus fulfilling the law of love. Good wishes and prayer alone, is too easy; God demands more.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
  8. MagicPanties

    My invisible pink unicorn is praying that ya'll get a clue.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care


      May 22, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
  9. Truth Prevails :-)

    HeavenStink has her buybull ready again today...gotta wonder if the staff at the home knows he has squirmed out of her cage and is using their computer again.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
  10. M.E.

    If you want to pray, that's fine, but it needs to be combined with action. You can't fix objects with reality. You can't think food or water into existence. Reciting your favorite prayer won't give a victim a pair of work gloves. Your money will. Even if it's only a single dollar, that single dollar will at least give someone a bottle of water.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
  11. are122

    Ricky Gervais is not pleased? Who cares!

    May 22, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Why do you criticize someone who is actually doing something practical? Talking to an invisible sky-fairy is just a waste of time.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
  12. Scott

    Psalm 116 says it all concerning our relationship through prayer with the LORD of Glory.

    May 22, 2013 at 11:59 am |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care

      I like Ezekiel 23:19-21 better:

      19 Yet she became more and more promiscuous as she recalled the days of her youth, when she was a prost itute in Egypt. 20 There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses. 21 So you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when in Egypt your bosom was caressed and your young breasts fondled.
      (NIV 1984)

      May 22, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      What is your point? Not everyone believes that crap!

      May 22, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Is that the Lord of Glory Holes?

      May 22, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
  13. Jimmy

    So if I don't have money I can send and I'm half way across the country, it's up to Slick Ricky to tell me whether or not I can pray for people that just lost their children. I'm sorry, let me leave my job, pay to fly down with money I don't have and lift the town up on my back and rebuild it. I'm sorry, but if you're so naive that you think money or a lot of people walking saying they're sorry will repair a parents heart that just lost their child you are the one that is lost. Slick Ricky could send a billion dollars to one of those parents and their heart wouldn't be healed. They wouldn't say, "well, since I have a bunch of money now everything is okay, thanks!" Funny how all you liberals and atheists think anyone should be able to be or do or believe anything they want, unless of course you are Christian, then shut up right? Hypocrisy at it's best. I will pray to God, because I'm humble enough to believe in something bigger than myself.

    May 22, 2013 at 11:59 am |
    • In Santa we trust

      Ultimately Jimmy, the town will be rebuilt with labor and material for which money will be required. Prayer has never been proven to work, just ask Gov Perry in Texas praying for rain that never came in time. You or me sitting at home thinking about Moore will have no impact on Moore.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
    • M.E.

      Money may not repair hearts, but it sure does repair homes. It clears lots, puts up new walls, and sticks blankets in closets. It may not heal the loss of a child, but it gives the parents less to worry about in the rest of their lives. It's like bringing food to a reception after a funeral, you're making the bereaveds life easier by taking care of a day-to-day need for them.
      I have no problem with you believing whatever you like, it has no affect on me. What does make me sad is your unwillingness to go slightly out of your way, suffer just a little bit, to make it easier for those who are truly suffering. Your Jesus choose to bear the burdens of others by dying for their sins, yet his followers seem to dislike following his example because it is not easy. So tonight, perhaps take a blanket off your bed, or if you're really adventurous, sleep on the floor. Discover what it's like to sleep as people in Moore are sleeping tonight, feel the cold on your skin and the floor digging into your hip bones. Perhaps then you'll be more willing to help alleviate their burden with more than your words.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      Didnt see anywhere the suggestion was 'shut up'
      And if you read the article you will see that Gervais said it 'After MTV tweeted that pop stars Beyonce, Rihanna and Katy Perry are sending their prayers to Oklahoma', and I kind of think they do have money so you can relax, he wasnt talking about you.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
    • jefflazrn

      Dear angry Jimmy. You need to send them money because in this day and age I doubt that God will drop Manna from the sky for them to eat or that shelters for the victims to stay in will magically appear because of your prayers. They need money for emergency food and water to survive and to rebuild. How arrogant of you to think that only you, a, so called, christian conservative, have the ability to empathize with parents who have lost a child. Just you spouting that idea talls me YOU are no Christian.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
    • Gingeet

      You can pray but it is nothing other than being an empty gesture. Don't have money? Send clothes that you do not use or anything someone out there could use. I'll let you figure out other options...
      How does being liberal have anything to do with this? How does being republican have anything to do with this? That's a useless statement.
      Being humble thinking that there is a greater being than you without any evidence to prove it? That's delusional. The only "being" greater than you metaphorically is our combined society. Everyone working together to solve a problem will accomplish more in a day than all of the prayers combined together over the centuries.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
    • phorse

      I don't think RG would presume to tell you not to pray, only that its silly and a useless waste of time. But if it makes you feel better, so be it. Did you ever hear George Carlin's routine, where he describes an experiment he conducted in which for one year he prayed to God and then for another year prayed to Joe Pesci? Long story short, each recipient of his prayers answered them with the same frequency.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
    • Stephanie

      Whether or not you can give anyone a dime, your "prayer" for them does nothing. That the lazy way to act as if you are really doing something when you are really not. If your god was so fair and just, perhaps he would have never allowed this to happen in the first place, huh?

      May 22, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
  14. Peter Mondello

    Read the Book of James in the New Testament: James 2:14 "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead."

    May 22, 2013 at 11:57 am |
    • Mark

      Well said. There comes a point when you have to face reality and I think that was Gervais' point, a hash tag on a Tweet just doesn't do it.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
    • ECassious2

      That verse is so true, but it obviously is not a suggestion that prayer is not relevant. (i don't think you meant it that way)James also tells us that the prayers of a rightous man are powerful and effective. Prayer is a cornerstone "discipline" for believers and an action of faith.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
  15. murry

    @ShawnDH - you try again

    May 22, 2013 at 11:57 am |
  16. sly

    I pray daily that Superman will come from Metropolis and save our country. Only Kryptonite can stop Him, so I pray.

    The power of prayer is very effective – yesterday Superman came and cleaned up my room and did some weeding in the garden. It was a very powerful moment.

    Thank you Superman. Thank you prayer.

    May 22, 2013 at 11:56 am |
  17. CommonSense

    “Obviously, people are going to ask why God allows tornadoes to happen. That’s just part of this world. God doesn’t promise us that bad things won’t happen, he promises to help us get through it. That’s what prayer helps us do.”

    Hahaha!!!!!!!!! This statement is empty and meaningless and irresponsible and ignorant.
    Yeah Obviously! And some people are going to actually LEARN how a tornado happens and why they strike in the same places often. That's called science.
    What a dimwit!!!!!!!!!

    May 22, 2013 at 11:56 am |
    • Luis F

      No..its called weather. Science is the study of a certain subject..such as nature or certain aspects of it. Dimwit.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
    • ClassicChick

      CommonSense you ARE the intolerent jerk that Dan Jones is speaking of....why can't atheists live and let live as most christians do....would MUCH rather read comments by people of faith then the ones that have none & spew venom constantly...oh and by the way Peter Tongue praying people DO DONATE along with prayers!

      May 22, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
  18. Alex

    I don't think there is anything wrong if people want to express their supportive statements or good wishes if they are sincerely felt. However, I feel that many people are just trying to connect themselves to a tragedy and participate a little in the drama by creating multiple tweets and facebooks posts over it.

    May 22, 2013 at 11:55 am |
  19. Charlie

    People of faith believe that there is something more than just here. We pray because there is a connect between the Kingdom of God where He resides, and the Kingdom of God as it exists on earth. It is true that some "prayers" can be viewed simply as sentiment, but how do we know the person of sentiment is simply expressing that they care. I don't think that's wrong or foolish. It is definitely important to give financially and physically to the people of Oklahoma at this time. I don't know how God will answer the prayers of all of these people that pray. But I do believe that the prayers are wrapped up in an understanding that if we care here, no matter how we express here, then we will care there (in the Kingdon where he resides and where people who care will reside.

    May 22, 2013 at 11:54 am |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care

      Two hands working can do more than a thousand clasped in prayer.

      May 22, 2013 at 11:57 am |
    • Lisa

      This is in response to Honey Badger Don't Care... wonderful comment. Thank you for it. It's as the old saying goes, "Actions speak louder than words."
      I know that the bible says that works alone don't "save" one, but notice that works are necessary, so it isn't all prayer and words. Doing something is necessary too.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
  20. tbrttn

    I don't have money to give, I'm barley making it myself. I can pray. There's power in prayer, and God hears the heart!

    May 22, 2013 at 11:52 am |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care

      Prayer has been shown in many different studies to be completely inneffective.

      May 22, 2013 at 11:55 am |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care

      Inefficacy of prayer: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16569567

      May 22, 2013 at 11:56 am |
    • Michael

      Thousands of people were praying that a tornado wouldn't happen when they realized the storm was taking a turn for the worse, and look what happened. So much for that "power in prayer" schtick the sheep are always trying to sell people.

      May 22, 2013 at 11:58 am |
    • M.E.

      Your prayer will not magically glue a plate in Oklahoma back together, nor will it replace the plate. What is needed is real action, not fluffy thoughts.

      May 22, 2013 at 11:59 am |
    • Believer

      Thank you for praying! there is strength in numbers!

      May 22, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      your prayer will only make you feel better, it wont change anything there.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
    • moi

      I bet you've been praing that things would get easier for you. How's that working out?

      May 22, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.