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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
[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. mason

    Harvard Medical School study proved no prayer is better than prayer....http://web.med.harvard.edu/sites/RELEASES/html/3_31STEP.html
    be real....Donate

    May 22, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
  2. Chris

    "Now get on your knees and worship his glorious being if you don't want to be next."

    Wanting to be worshipped is a very human craving. Too many humans want to create God in their own image.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • SDFrankie

      No. We just want to show how ridiculous your fairy-tale is.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
  3. Ann

    Why are atheists so threatened by others' prayers? If you don't believe in prayers or in the love of God, then what do you care how believers pray? I don't work out, but I'm not threatened by people who do. People do what they can in times of crisis, and if prayer is all they have to offer, what business is it of yours to criticize?

    May 22, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • God Illusion

      Quite simply because it is a useless feel-good measure that often makes people feel they have done something positive when they have, in fact, contributed nothing. Religion itself is poisonous enough in this world without having people make vapid proclamations in place of actually donating money or doing something that is actually useful.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
    • sam stone

      i got no issue with how people pray

      May 22, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
    • sam

      I don't see anyone feeling threatened. Are you projecting?

      May 22, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
    • CosmicC

      @God Illusion – I would argue that "useless feel-good" is an oxymoron. Anyone with a shred of empathy needs something to help them feel good in this situation. Some drink, some meditate, some pray. All serve the same purpose and, except of drinking, have the same affect on others (nothing). Doesn't hurt me if you pray, just don't pray for me. I don't believe and I don't want you to force your views on me in any way.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
  4. Kafir

    Have to agree with Mr. Gervais here. Donate money (or your personal time in helping out) to this tragedy. Prayer probably won't change anything, adults.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • lolol

      So if you are broke yourself or have no means of going there, then prayer is meaningless? I am not able to rush out to help with every disaster and would be broke if I dontated to each in addition to raising my 4 children. I pray for the people in the disasters, because that is what I can do. I hoenstly pray. Pray that they get the help they need, the compassion they need, the love they need, whatever they are in need of. Just because it isn't me bringing the help doesn't mean I shouldn't ask God to.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
    • Kafir

      Then maybe I should ask Santa to bring them presents this year, yes?

      May 22, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
  5. aucoinbrent

    http://www.albertmohler.com/2013/05/21/the-goodness-of-god-and-the-reality-of-evil-4/

    May 22, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
  6. Danielle

    I am a Christian. I love God. I believe that God sent his only son Jesus Christ to die for my sins so that I can have eternal life. Choosing to have faith in this belief is the best decision I ever made and I encourage others to give it a try. John 3:16. That being said, I know that any number of bad things can happen to me and to my family and I don't expect or demand that God keep me safe from these things. Sure, I pray for safety and health; but being a Christian means accepting that God is in control. His will; not mine. I choose to place my faith in God knowing that He does not promise to keep me safe but only that He will be there with me through it all. I will pray for Oklahoma because if I lived in Oklahoma I would want people to pray for me.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
    • SDFrankie

      So you believe that your petty little transgressions on this earth so deserve eternal suffering that the only thing that can assuage the wrath of a loving God is a human sacrifice? That doesn't seem just a tad crazy to you?

      May 22, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
    • SDFrankie

      You also believe that when tragedy strikes God will be there through it all...doing nothing. Lovely.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
    • sam stone

      do you seriously desire ETERNAL life?

      May 22, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
    • Kafir

      If someone can keep you from harm, but doesn't, they don't actually love you.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
    • sam

      IDK, but just saying someone else is in control seems like kind of a cop out. Like saying "I'd do something about this...but I'm not in control. Oh well."

      May 22, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
    • Danielle

      I don't believe God wants us to just stand by and say "You are in control and therefore I'll do nothing and take no action." I take action all the time to provide for mine and my family's safety. I install fire alarms, buy safe cars, I don't run the dryer at night. However, many in Oklahoma couldn't afford basements or shelters – the schools where the children were killed did not install safe rooms because it was not "feasable". Now let's mix our politics and our religion...should the government step in and mandate safe rooms? If so, should they subsidize it?

      May 22, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
  7. crazy

    >Everything (God) does is to get our attention. …

    what an unbelievable, inflammatory and overwhelmingly arrogant thing to even think privately. God murdered children, families, dogs, what have you just to "get the attention" of someone like that. How can you even say that, any other context and he would look like a psycho tripping on his ego, but within the confines of religion that kind of sentiment is celebrated and widely agreed with. disgusting

    May 22, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
    • Kafir

      Indeed. The people who kill others just to get our attention is what we call terrorists.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
  8. SDFrankie

    You whack jobs believe:
    1. God could have stopped the tornado but didn't
    2. Intentionally sent the tornado

    and you still pray to him for help. Crazy.

    I believe:
    1. There's no god. Get in the way of a tornado and you're on your own.

    Sanity.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
    • mcwreiole

      Yours is exactly the mindset that is ruining this nation. I do not belong to any organized religion but just who are you to name call someone who does? This is the right of any person in this country to practice their religion and especially when it might just bring comfort to someone who needs it! You are a selfish, self-centered, ignorant human being who has no useful role to play in a civilized society. Your heart is filled with hate for people who think differently than you. You are a sad excuse for a person.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
    • sam

      Yeah! By excersizing your first amendment rights, you are RUINING THIS NATION!!!

      lol

      May 22, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
    • SDFrankie

      @mcwreiole
      Well, at least you didn't engage in name calling.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      'Well, at least you didn't engage in name calling.'

      or show any form of hate for those that think differently.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • CosmicC

      @SDFrankie – I agree with your view on religion, but you have to admit that using the term "wack job" is name calling.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
  9. Batroc

    “God is still in control!” said Wilbur Dugger, a commenter on CNN’s Facebook page. “Everything (God) does is to get our attention. "

    God sure does kill a lot of children or let a lot of children die, just to get our attention. A note would suffice.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
    • Heather

      I'm sure a note would work. "A note. It must be from God. I believe now! Not just anyone can write a note!"

      May 22, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
    • SDFrankie

      God likes to dot his I's and cross his T's with dead people.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
    • adamflyer

      God did send a note. Actually a collection of notes. Its called the Bible. Apparently a note does not suffice because so many fail to read it.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
    • CosmicC

      I've read it – the whole old testament (much of the Torah in Hebrew), a good deal of the new testament and chunks of the koran. Notes from god? Nope, just the works of men.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
  10. ghostlight

    Honestly, the real issue isn't even about religion. It's about sincerity.

    I can't stand this constant "thoughts and prayers" business. It's just a trendy thing to say. And people post it so often, the phrase has lost all meaning. It's like a Pavlovian response: People read about a tragedy, big or small, and they mindlessly, automatically type a "sending my thoughts and prayers" post. They aren't actually going to THINK or PRAY about the people involved–why would they? They don't know the people. They weren't there. They don't understand the situation. They're just doing what everybody else does: sending "thoughts and prayers." Before they move on to the latest Kardashian kerfluffle.

    I agree with the theological experts in this article who maintain that prayer REQUIRES SOMETHING OF THE PERSON PRAYING. Otherwise, your message is as useless as typing LOL for the thousandth time today.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
    • Heather

      Or it's something when you have no time or money to contribute anything else. I think it's a nice sentiment. It shows that even when you can't really give anything, you care, and want to.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • CosmicC

      I do know people who will say it and mean it. They will think about and/or pray for those affected by a tragedy. It helps them get through feeling helpless. A little self-delusion is not a bad thing. I firmly believe if I drink a diet coke it will cancel out the candy bar.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
  11. Nick

    Lol at that lost quote- "God doesn’t promise us that bad things won’t happen, he promises to help us get through it." Mhm, and did he help those dead kids get through it?

    May 22, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
  12. Voice of Reason

    Remember that infinite amount of time before you were born? Me neither. Welcome to death.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
  13. Inontario

    “If all people are doing is praying, it is worthless,” Hemant Mehta, an Illinois math teacher who writes the blog “Friendly Atheist,” told CNN.
    Hemant quoted scripture: James 2: 20
    Why is it assumed that people who pray aren't doing physically practical actions as well?

    May 22, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
    • Religion

      “If they are praying and donating to the Red Cross, that’s more like it.”

      The answer is in the next sentence. Learn to read.

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

      “If they are praying and donating to the Red Cross, that’s more like it.”

      The answer is in the next sentence. Learn to read.

      "that's more like if" is in James 2:20 as well. more or less. You didn't read it did you? 🙂

      May 22, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
  14. ScratPhd

    Who cares what some entertainer says? They are jsut talking heads, noit relevant at all.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
  15. yulia

    I love Gervais and do think actually doing something is important. That being said, the most deeply conservative state in the union, one with a lot of believers, may well appreciate the prayers as well.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
    • MJ

      Your comment is too peaceful for this blog. Come back when you've taken a side to one of the extremes and then attack the other side. Only then will people respond.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
  16. Russ

    Whatever gets you through the night....it's alright, it's alright......Not religious, but some folks need religious myths to help them cope.That's fine by me. .Ashlee is correct.....sent some money, and hope it helps.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
    • mason

      prayer doesn't help a thing, it just wastes precious time, energy, effort that could go into doing something real....I've lived both ways...prayer is just a cruel clergy trick on the sheep...

      May 22, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
  17. JIm

    Only C.N..N does this stuff. You can go to any other media site and there isn't anything mentioned about God or prayer. Nope just here because this media outlet likes to stir the pot and have other posters spew anti religion rant for them. This media outlet is anti religion. It's always on their site.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      This is a belief blog...did you expect articles about something other than belief???

      May 22, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
    • DrivenB4U

      CNN reports on relevant issues. The God debate is big in America – especially now that the religious foothold is no longer taken for granted. It's totally legit for them to bring it up. And good news reporting does tend to stir the pot.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • CosmicC

      @DrivenB4U – I was with you right up until you said "good reporting". Not on CNN.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
  18. HZeus

    You religious people are truly out of your minds. You continue to think and reason like medieval peasants, believing in invisible men in the sky to explain the unexplainable. My dog has as much influence as some magical dude in the sky. Prayer does NOTHING except perhaps give solace to the person praying. GROW UP .....GROW a BRAIN and stop believing stupid stories from 2000 years ago.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
    • dunzel

      Another ignorant fool. Incredible.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
    • Robert

      I couldn't care less what you believe so why do you care what I believe?

      May 22, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      dunzel: Facts scare you?

      May 22, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
    • Jorge

      please do your home work before you make comments like this, in medical terms people who pray are more likely to recover better, they also live longer, they are happier, they are more generous, among thousands of volunteers around the world, a large percent of them are religious people, so before you start going off, please do your home work,

      Prayer does make a different, you should pray more

      May 22, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
    • ladysloss

      HZeus..... We think he doesn't exist because we choose to put our faith in other things. The problem is we think it is stupid to believe in something that we cannot see...but truly it shows courage and strength. "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."
      Hebrews 11:1-3 I hope one day you can have an open mind and truly search for God...not through religion...but through his word. I assure you, he does exist, and I pray you find that out someday soon. 🙂

      May 22, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      jorge, that makes it a placebo effect on the person praying but has no effect on what is prayed for.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • CosmicC

      Are you denying the need for solace at a time like this? I get mine from chocolate and meditation. Other's need a physical hug (hugs ARE good), but many need the assurance they get from a belief in the supernatural. I won't deny them that. I just can't go there myself.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
  19. blahblahblah

    “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.”

    So, this "being" is the great and powerful God...created the universe, omnipotent, omniscient...how petty to think this being has to "get our attention"...seriously? Of the unknown billions of planets, in unknown galaxies, of all life in this universe, this being needs a puny human to bow down and say "yeah, you're great"?

    May 22, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
  20. dunzel

    "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."

    Typically stated from someone who doesn't understand what prayer is all about. I'm tired of these "lecturers" from Universities who have now idea what they're talking about. It's true, prayers are not magic, but it's also true they're not a call to action on the part of the one making the prayer. Prayers are acts of supplication directed at our Creator who is able and willing to handle the things in life we simply cannot. Most sincere prayers in cases like this ask for more than the repair of buildings, or the restoration of services – prayers ask for the intangible. People should mobilize to help, but that is very often a separate issue. To assume you are "meant to do something" is often not the case, as we are ill-equipped to do many things. You should understand what prayer is really about, before you proceed to lecture those who pray.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
    • Jiminy Cricket

      Wishing on a star is just as effective.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
    • rkulla

      What you're saying sounds like a cop out for not mobilizing to provide TANGIBLE help. It's fine if you want to pray but make sure that it's only a supplement to actual helping or donating.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      When there is evidence to prove that prayer works, we will stop talking about it. You assume that only christians understand the purpose of prayer but yet fail to understand that most of us speaking of it probably have a better grasp than you do, due to the fact that we were christians and then we grew up, left our imaginary friends behind with out childhood and have actually researched prayer..see we like to know that what we believe is based on fact and not one simple 2000 year old that doesn't hold much accuracy.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      'Elizabeth Drescher, PhD is a scholar, researcher, and writer. She is a faculty member in religious studies and pastoral ministries at Santa Clara University. She holds a PhD in Christian Spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union and an MA in Systematic Theology from Duquesne University.'

      I am tired of these people that want to claim that just because they dont agree with a 'lecturer' its because they are not educated and know what they are talking about.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
    • CosmicC

      @ cedar rapids – In this case I think the problem is that one person holds a position about a subjective matter that other do not agree with. The arbitrary and subjective nature of a belief in prayer and a definition of prayer makes Dr. Drescher's opinion only valid for those who share her particular theology.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:44 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.