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

Who hears #PrayersForOklahoma?

By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
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(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. hammer

    I would like to donate money to these people to go to the Middle East to protest.And your family can use the money to bring your body back after they cut your head off.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
    • Marky Merlot

      That comment is not helpful!

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

      Marky please tell me how this story helps with the victims of the storm.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
  2. wrap2tyt

    While I struggle myself with believing or not... I think Gervais and other people all upset about "praying" need to give it a rest. People will do what makes them feel good, some people do pray... I guess Gervais like to complain because people don't see things the way he does, and that's really too bad.

    And to all of you posting out here trying to get a laugh or a like about people who pray or prayer in general... why does that bother YOU so much? Think about it... you want people to take you seriously for you beliefs, but you beat them down for believing what they do... believe my beliefs or I will make jokes about you... such cowards.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      Gervais was commenting on those that simply pray, and do nothing else.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
    • Beth

      Gervais's point, and the point that 95% of atheists try to make, is that prayer alone isn't really helping anyone, other than the prayer who maybe now feels like they helped in some way. Gervais said "I feel silly, I only sent money." to point this out. Many atheists, this one included, feel that if you want to pray, that's fine. If religion gives you strength (and for some encourages them to live better), all well and good. But actually DOing something, that's the ticket to making the world a better place.

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

      So Ricky Gervais should 'give it a rest' and yet here you are telling someone who you disagree with to shut up. I don't see any difference between you and him.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      If an entire group of adults believed that the Easter Bunny was real, and had magical powers, and created the Universe, and everything in it, and they lived their lives in accordance with a book the Easter Bunny had supposedly magically gave to people, and they were raising their children from birth to be indoctrinated in their beliefs about the Easter Bunny, and whenever the teachings of the Easter bunny book conflicted with recognized science they taught their children to ignore science and follow the Easter Bunny's teachings, and they tried to have the laws changed to accord with the teachings of the Easter Bunny, would you be saying the same thing, or would you be saying to them, "excuse me, but you are all completely nuts and by raising your children in such a fashion you are mentally abusing them".

      Because EVERYONE knows that the Easter Bunny isn't real.

      Because EVERYONE knows that the Easter Bunny didn't create the universe.

      Because EVERYONE knows that the Easter Bunny didn't write a book to guide the believers of the Easter bunny.

      Everyone knows that.

      Now, substi-tute God – whichever god you happen to believe in – for the Easter Bunny in the above example. And perhaps you can understand, just a little bit, about why atheists sometimes show what appears to be disregard or even contempt to ward religious beliefs.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
    • wrap2tyt

      So... his answer to people who want to send prayer, is to bash them publicly... maybe there are people who feel their prayers are helping, maybe that's all they can do, so please... don't try to plead his case. My point is that Gervais really did not even have to say ANYTHING to add that was helpful... why rag on someone else if you're offering nothing helpful... and if he does plan to help in some way, why should it matter to him what somebody else does?

      Gervais is a jerk and all he wants is the attention brought to himself... and I guess that worked out for him.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
    • wrap2tyt

      The whole point to this question that we're arguing is that Gervais and many of you do not believe in a god... NOBODY CARES... but why get your panties all in a bunch over people who do?

      May 22, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Gervais sent money. Are you saying that is not helpful? That he did nothing?

      May 22, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
    • sam

      It wasn't bashing. The only person with their panties in a bunch here appears to be you.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
    • wrap2tyt

      Ricky Gervais... the "gay atheist"... how odd is that? I man who want to be accepted as a gay person, but is also atheist who has no problem letting the world know what his views about "god"... HYPOCRITE

      May 22, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
    • wrap2tyt

      So, because he's sending money that automatically gives him the right to talk about somebody else?

      May 22, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Ah! There we go! The true Christian is now coming out in you – commenting that he is gay. Of what possible significance or relevance is his se-xual orientation?

      May 22, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      'Ricky Gervais... the "gay atheist"... how odd is that? I man who want to be accepted as a gay person'

      why do you think he is gay?

      May 22, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
    • wrap2tyt

      Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear... I never said that I was a Christian. I only pointed out how he wants to be accepted in one way but how he's so very intolerant himself toward other people... you don't think that's fair?

      May 22, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
  3. Lance Bowser

    Sending good thoughts across the Universe is what lots of folks are doing now.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
  4. Vicky

    We should be the hands and feet of Jesus...that means praying and also helping where we can. I'm praying for all of the families in Oklahoma who were affect by this horrific event and for those who don't believe in praying for others. Christians do have a clue. I will also donate to one of the charities to help in this great time of need. I agree with alot of comments, we all need to help as well, but do not agree that prayer is just fluffy thoughts. It is much more than that...

    May 22, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Do you have a proven example of prayer working?

      May 22, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
  5. Jessica

    with all the #prayfor memes, my mind has flashes of "Bruce Almighty" and the stream of incoming email prayers. I pity them. it's just clogging up the air waves

    May 22, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
  6. Kevin

    If there were hard evidence of the existence of God, we would become slaves to God. I think, if God exists, he would want us to use our intellect and hearts to choose him, rather than follow him out of fear. People that wait for hard evidence are being childish. The possibility of God can't rationally be doubted. There is too much unknown.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      according to believers we are already slaves to god. you either worship him, and when you die spend eternity worshipping, or you burn.

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

      Actually, if god is real, and all-powerful, and all-knowing, then by definition he cannot "want" anything. Whatever he wants, poof there it is. And he already knows whether you are going to "choose" him, because he is all-knowing and he created you to be and do exactly as he wanted. There cannot be freewill in a universe that has an omnipotent creator.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
    • Kevin

      @other kevin...you have a third-grader's take on theology. But if staying immature about the subject makes you feel comforted by the idea that you shouldn't have to do anything but mock, then cool.

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

      Not true Cedar. Sounds like you studied Theology at the University of CNN Message Boards.

      There are some that pervert religion into what you claim, but the vast majority of religions are devoted to happiness here with the idea of heaven being not the reward, but possibly 'the next'. Heaven/hell are typically the focus of narcissists who are just worried about what's going to happen to them. They throw up their hands and claim "Unfair!" and think they can avoid contemplating any relationship with something greater than themselves.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      @ Kevin: Of course, logically the POSSIBILITY of there being a god cannot be doubted. Just as the POSSIBILITY that the universe was created by the Giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man from the Ghostbusters cannot be doubted. So what?

      You seem to not appreciate the difference between POSSIBILITY and PROBABILITY. That there is a God, and that this God created the universe is possible. However, based on the all of the evidence of such a god – in essence, NO evidence – the PROBABILITY that the universe was created by God is vanishing remote.

      This is what very many atheists say: It's possible that there is a god, but until you produce sufficient evidence, I'm not going to believe in such a god.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      'Kevin – @other kevin...you have a third-grader's take on theology.'

      in what way was he wrong?

      May 22, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  7. Rightster

    So are prayer flags real, and candles burning are real. But, the only scientfic study of the matter proved that prayer did nothing for people who were ill.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
  8. Talking to yourself

    Instead of wasting time talking to yourselves, try doing something that will actually help. God didn't do this. He couldn't have. He doesn't exist except in the deluded minds of indoctrinated simpletons.

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

      Too ignorant for a reply.. but I'll give one anyway...

      How many scientific theories are named after you? Surely since you have a superior mind to the weak-minded Bacon, Kepler, Descartes, Pascal, Newton, Boyle, Faraday, Mendal and Kelvin (to name only a few scientific theists).

      May 22, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
    • Thatsfunny

      "Instead of wasting time talking to yourselves, try doing something that will actually help. "
      Said the person who is typing to people he can't see, hear, smell, or touch.

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

      @Thatsfunny – I doubt he sees the irony.

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

      For your sake you have to be right. But for all of us "religious nuts" or "Jesus freaks" or any other name you wish to call us, if we're wrong we've lost nothing. IMO, it takes more faith to believe nothing created everything vs. God creating the heavens and earth.

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

      Just shows that even smart people can be deluded.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
    • kevin

      @WTodd – But where did god come from? A bigger god? I don't know, and neither do you.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      WTodd, Pascal's Wager is severely flawed – look it up. Why does it take more faith to not know what created the universe than to attribute it to an invisible sky-fairy for which there is no evidence?

      May 22, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
  9. SDCinNS

    If evolution really was true, every so often, wouldn't these tornadoes randomly "improve" a neighbourhood – or at least one house – by adding on a perfectly
    constructed garage or second story or family room? The "random colliding"
    of things only seems to ever cause chaos and destruction. It causes disorder – not increasingly ordered and complex things. Just a thought.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      'If evolution really was true, every so often, wouldn't these tornadoes randomly "improve" a neighbourhood'

      er no. you 'thought' was an ignorant one.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      The thing about parody is you need to understand what you're talking about; your ignorance is astounding.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
    • SDCinNS

      If you believe randomly colliding things caused life out of non-living material – with all the genetic coding to reproduce built in... why not?

      May 22, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      As you posted elsewhere – Too ignorant for a reply.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
    • Jesus

      Actually, evolution is causing the opposite. The tornadoes are getting bigger because they are adjusting to life on earth as we have it now, compared to as it was 400 years ago. Tornadoes don't have the ability to build a house as they don't have a brain, but they can adjust to our temperatures and chemicals in the air to decrease or increase. These have been increasing.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
  10. Chip Shirley

    CNN is stupid for insinuating God doesn't hear our prayers and Gervais makes atheists look like hateful jerks.
    http://ChipShirley.Com/

    May 22, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      dont hate now, thats expressly forbidden dont forget.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
  11. watchfuliiiii

    Praying does nothing except make the person who prayed feel better. Makes them feel like they have done something. Actions speak louder than prayers. Kevin durrant did more than pray get it. Of course if you cant afford to send money you should not feel guilty. We do what we can. Call your local representative to make sure they know you want a disaster relief bill for Moore, OK. Thats doing something. I wont even get into the God debate but I will say this I have more faith in people who dont blame or ask God for anything.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
  12. Joe

    Seriously, Honey Badger!! The Bible, God's word, and His truth and NOT understood by non-believers... Your cynical, critical remarks only demonstrate the fact that your belief is that ignorance is a virtue. I personally have had countless prayers answered. Thanks for adding to the turmoil and frustration that is already in the world...

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

      Yeah, commenting on a blog really makes the situation worse.

      Grow up.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
    • Marky Merlot

      Then, how about praying, that future tornadoes will NOT kill people!

      May 22, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      he answers your prayers but didnt answer the prayers of scared kids right before they were killed?

      May 22, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
  13. The LORD OF ALL

    I hear your prayers... and I don't care. I made the tornado. What are you going to do about it?

    May 22, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
  14. L

    Funny Gervais says he feels like an idiot since he actually is an idiot!

    May 22, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
    • wrap2tyt

      ... now I will agree with that assessment.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
    • Pole dancing for Jesus

      L for loser.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
    • yumanbeing

      An Idiot Abroad!!

      May 22, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
  15. Yep

    lol @ people thinking prayer works.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
  16. Redoran

    In the first place, God created this tornado to kill people. What say you Evangelicals now?

    May 22, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
    • SDCinNS

      Of course he did.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
  17. Charlie

    Prayers are not necessarily intended by the person praying to stop a tornado or to glue a plate back together.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      So what use are they then?

      May 22, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
    • Dingleberry Jackson

      They make people feel like they actually did something.... without actually doing anything.

      The lazy man's way of helping. Might as well kick the survivors in the sack if all you are doing is praying.

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

      There is not an earthly use; there is a spiritual use. Often the spirit breaks through into our existence however in a way that we don't expect.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
  18. Lexagon

    "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."

    Looks like he broke his promise to 20+ people, then.

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

      The promise of getting through may also be sending us to heaven, which is much better than living on temporary earth. God always keeps his promise I don't care what any mortal man says. God is faithful! Just read about Jesus and find your peace today.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
  19. The Deist

    All of these athiests and Christians fighting over something so trivial. Just admit that you don't know and that everything that is, is.

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

      It's important that we Atheists fight back because our society is overrun with religious rip off artists, politicians who quote the bible to defend their most ignorant policies and self delusion that prayer is better than action.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
  20. ceg10

    Prayer is real, and there are scientic studies that prove the benefits of those who do pray. God blesses those who seek him in the time of peace and the time of trouble. If you don't have a relationship with God then how do you expect Him to answer you when you call? This is common sense which for some people its not so common.... The Bible says the prayer of the righteous person is powerful and effective. James 5:16 (NIV) Also I perfer the King Jame Version which was translated from Latin to English by William Shakespeare for King James. The effectual fervant prayer of a righteous man availeth much.
    James 5:16 (KJV)
    Get your Bible education from a good Bible teacher don't try to figure it out on your own otherwise you'll fall short of the greater understanding.

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

      Name a study that proves prayer works.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
    • Marky Merlot

      Shakespeare did NOT translate the King James Bible

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

      If this God was an all "loving" God, it would not willfully create tornadoes to kill people. Methinks your God is Evil to the enth degree!

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

      Self delusion is never helpful. While it may make you feel better, it doesn't solve your problems.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
    • C'mon...

      It was translated from Greek (New Testament) and Hebrew (Old Testament) for King Henry VIII.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
    • kevin

      Sure, prayer is real ,it's just not real useful, except for some placeboic psychological benefits.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:39 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.