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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. adss

    Atheism is it's own religion.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      Yeah, just like bald is a hair color and "off" is a TV channel.

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

      Huh?

      A religion requires a belief in a deity.

      You are confusing religion with ANY other system of thoughts or beliefs.

      No God = no religion.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Yes, it is, and my favorite hobby is not collecting stamps. It's fun!

      May 22, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
    • Uncouth Swain

      My own opinion on atheism. There are two basic types: passive and active.

      Passive atheism is what a baby is. It knows nothing about religion or spirituality. It does not believe in anything of religion or has the knowledge to reject such things. This type has no comparissons to religion.

      Active Athiesm is having the knowledge of a (or many) belief systems and rejecting them. This type can have comparissons to religion because in many cases it replaces spiritual faith with that of faith in logic, science or reason.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
  2. Vader

    While not particularly religious myself (ok, I don't buy in to the whole "invisible friend in the sky" thing at all and consider religion, in general, to be a primary source of strife in the world), I also do not begrudge whatever comfort prayer, or the offering of prayer by others, may offer to those who do not share that view. And while the existence of God is certainly fodder for discussion, there is a more appropriate time and place for that debate than now. I would ask Mr Gervais and others to simply table their objections to a time when the raw impact of this tragedy has subsided.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
  3. Anna

    When I hear that others are praying for someone else, I know that the person praying feels compassion and empathy. The volume of people praying for those who are suffering in Oklahoma shows the volume of people with compassion and empathy. In a world in which so many horrible things happen at the hands of other and people question humanity, that's an incredibly hopeful thing.
    Also, there is no reason to try to take away the faith of those who may have little else. That's just cruel. Atheists try to rationalize that one can have morals and values and ethics without religion. Well, atheists, when you display such cruelty and condescension toward others who are simply trying to cling to what little they have or who are revealing the size of their hearts, you are doing a very poor job of proving your point.
    Finally, I have a definite feeling that the majority of those shouting that people should be giving instead of praying have given nothing themselves.
    I am heartened by the amount of people who can actually feel something for their fellow man as demonstrated by the sheer numbers of prayers for those in Moore. I am disheartened by those who mock such feeling.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
    • Kafir

      There's nothing wrong with being upset about seeing all these calls for prayer, when what is really needed is money or resources to helping those in need, especially when some of those people (celebs) are in a perfect position to help or donate. It's easy to wish someone well. One can do it without even getting up off the couch.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
    • Anna

      It's really funny hearing all these people being "upset" about people's prayers instead of "getting off the couch" when they themselves are typing out their "distress" form the comfort of their own homes. Why so much anguish? What I have seen from these "God-fearing" and "backwards" places where tornadoes hit, like various places in Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Alabama, is that everyone comes together quickly, they organize search and rescue and relief efforts with incredible rapidity and skill, they take care of one another and they rebuild incredibly fast. So your "anguish" about all these idiots praying and doing nothing is ridiculous. People from all over the bible belt are flying for miles and accompanying their prayers with actual physical relief like search know how, construction know how and food, clothing and supplies. I am always heartened to see how organized and compassionate these people are at times like this. And how much they give. What are you doing except expressing how "upset" you are that people dare to pray?
      And listen, I am FAR from a bible thumper. I am disgusted by people who use religion to discriminate against others or to tell others how to live. But you are doing the very same thing Christians and other religious people are accused of doing: Telling people how to live, interestingly, while sitting on your own darn couch.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      'Atheists try to rationalize that one can have morals and values and ethics without religion. Well, atheists, when you display such cruelty and condescension toward others who are simply trying to cling to what little they have or who are revealing the size of their hearts, you are doing a very poor job of proving your point.'

      what about those believers that do the same and claim they have morals and ethics because they believe?

      May 22, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
    • Kafir

      I wouldn't confuse 'anguish' with 'annoyance' or facepalming.

      Also, the issue here people who pray and do nothing, not those who actually go out and help.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
  4. ldavid69

    The biggest religious jerk's are those that give Jesus pamphlets in lieu of tips at restaurants.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
  5. RichG

    I'm a believer in God but I don't believe things happen for a reason or God did this to get our attention. If you say God did this to get our attention then you're saying he intended for Sandy Hook to happen or the Boston marathon bombing to happen. Bottom line is that shi+ happens no matter who you are, how much you pray, christian or atheist, young or old. So people need to stop making sense of things like this, it's just a part of life. Things like this will happen again and again and again. GOD HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH IT!

    May 22, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • Oscar

      Of course god has nothing to do with it.. and neither has santa claus, the easter bunny, the tooth fairy or any other creature that only lives in deluded people's minds.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
  6. Norm

    Is it more annoying to hear a prayer from some kind sole wishing well for the victims or some angry hate filled rhetoric from someone who makes so called jokes for a living?
    These are the same people that have a fit when someone else wants to tell them how to live or what to think.
    The hypocrisy is just so characteristic of those who fear their own death.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
  7. bryan

    Yes, pray for the victims of tragedy around the world... it's the least you can do... literally. Snarky as that (and Gervais') comment may be, there's a point where everyone needs to put their money where their mouth is. America is an amazing place in the face of disaster – we tend to rally together, to donate time and effort and skills and money to help total strangers. And I have no doubt there will be ample numbers of folks who travel to OK to donate whatever they have to offer. Many more who will support them with monetary and material donations. The point is simply this – prayer isn't a bad start, but there's a lot more you personally can do.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
  8. adss

    God is love, justice, grace. Atheists? Not so much. (at least this particular one).

    May 22, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      God is fiction. Atheists, not so much.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
    • Bells B.

      Right Richard, because as any scientist will tell you 'that which we cannot prove to certainty is fiction and does not exist'.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
    • waterman

      Then why does He like to send tornados to kill kids?

      May 22, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
    • Bells B.

      @waterman: He didn't send a tornado. Just like he didn't send you to this message board to make an atrocious comment.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
  9. Choconet

    How is the heathen Ricky Gervais or anyone have the right to tell people or assume because they’re praying they're not paying? Just because you are A God hater doesn't give you the right to falsely assume people aren't giving money. Then you have people upset at the victims of this catastrophe because they are referencing "prayer and God". You don't get to tell people how they are to handle a disaster!!! How they get through it is their business. I just say while you’re not praying don't pray that the same fate befall you. Oh how I wish it would so that the world can see just how you handle such devastation! As for Ricky Gervais TAKE YOUR GOD HATING BUT BACK TO GREAT BRITIAN. GB AND OTHER COUTNRIES YOU HAVE YOUR OWN LANDFILLS STOP DUMPING YOUR TRASH IN OUR YARD!!!

    May 22, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • ThereIsNoGod

      There's that famous christian love for you...

      May 22, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
    • Vader

      Nice example of Christian charity.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
    • Bennadad

      Thanks Choconet – That was a really loving response. You are no doubt a loving, caring Christian.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
    • Dave

      Ahhh, what a nice christian thing to say! You set such a good example spewing your hatred of him and others that don't follow your beliefs. "I hope it happens to you"....spread the word of love and peace to all!

      May 22, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      you know revilers, or haters, are expressly forbidden from heaven right? not my rules you understand but thought you should know.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
  10. Karla

    Karla
    Prayer means communicating with God, it is a matter of faith. For those who believe it is a powerful tool but it has to be paired up with action. The Bible says that faith without works is dead ( James 2:14-26) I don't understand why so much anger over the expression of faith. History shows that the true Christian church has always donated to the less fortunate no matter if they are nonbelievers. Prayer is paired up with action to fill in the gap of the impossible. Lets focus on helping out not on human shortcomings and imperfections which only bring strife and waste precious time.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Report abuse | Reply

    May 22, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
  11. Tracy

    Really, you all are just stupid. It is your right to not pray just as much as it is thier right to pray. Since when did one become more important than the other. Stop being venomous to each other and support each other – no matter what the beliefs are!!! Pray for them, support them, send money if you can afford too, go help if you are able – whatever! Just show some solidarity instead of divisiveness!!!

    May 22, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • Norm

      I guess being from another country, Ricky can never understand the concept of freedom of religion.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
    • JROD

      @ Norm: It's not like the United States has a perfect track record on freedom of religion either.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
    • rock woman

      Well said, Tracy! Thank you!

      May 22, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
  12. Bob Lewis

    "Prayer" is such a wonderful fantasy excuse for you cheapskates that won't part with a dime to do some actual good.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • Tully

      @Bob Loser. Have you seen the news today of the Truckloads of goods, supplies, food, clothing and support from Religious Organizations? My Wife and got online and donated immediately. So just shut up you ignorant toad.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
    • Anna

      Thanks, Tully. I have been so impressed with the immediate relief efforts on the part of the people surrounding or even in hard hit areas. Everyone immediately helps one another. So they are accompanying their prayers with something tangible while those who criticize and mock them from their security of their beds or couches or whatever, are unlikely to life one darn finger or spend one thin dime to help.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
  13. RichardSRussell

    "Really, when you come right down to it, there are only four basic prayers: Gimme! Thanks! Oops! and Wow!"
    —Rabbi Gellman

    They're all a complete waste of time, of course, but usually the "oops" and "wow" have some redeeming social value.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
    • adss

      How about what Jesus prayed? ... not my will but the will of my Father. That doesn't seem to fit in any of your 4 categories.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • adss

      And giving Thanks to our creator is a bad thing???

      May 22, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
    • Bells B.

      Richard, you have wasted so much of your time on this message board telling people that they are wasting their time. I'm gonna go out on a limb and say 'their time' is probably more valuable than 'your time'.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
  14. Tea Party Patriot

    This tornado is but the finger of God, thrust in our midst to punish gays and illegals. My research indicates an unusually high percentage of both in Moore, OK.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
    • Norm

      Knowing the internet like I do, I'm willing to bet that you aren't affiliated in any way with the Tea Party.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
    • Kafir

      Is that you, Pat Robertson?

      May 22, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
  15. C

    I can't believe this is even an article...people can post whatever they want!

    May 22, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
  16. brad

    Ricky Who??? is he EVEN relevant.. he's just looking for some publicity due to his next show, tv special coming out.. that's all this is.. like all famous people.. looking for an angle to get attention!

    May 22, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
  17. anthony

    http://cdn.memegenerator.net/instances/400x/15744743.jpg

    May 22, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
  18. Erik

    I've never met an atheist that wasn't a vapid bigot.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      We've met different atheists, then. I've known a few christians/beleivers who weren't vapid bigots, but not many. Most are full of pride and arrogance.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Wow, I am only bigoted towards religion and I fully admit that and it's all religion, not just your precious little group. Christians on the other hand are usually bigoted against anyone and anything that doesn't agree with them.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      You probably know a slew of people whom you like just fine and aren't AWARE that they're atheists.
      Unlike other minorities, we don't come with overt physical signifiers.
      And we tend not to be pushy. A lifetime of dealing with Christians put us off pushiness in general.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      Never met a christian that wasnt a hypocrit, and that includes you Erik. I am going to asusme you claim to be a believer, and we all know that hating is a no-no.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
  19. bridgethollister

    That's the thing... Prayer is BIG here in Oklahoma. Many people are comfortable with their faith. (In fact, it is really the majority.) Telling someone from Oklahoma that you are praying for them is seen as a sign of comfort. A lot of people who haven't experienced the unique culture here wouldn't understand. (And for the record, I'm not even a Christian and I still "get" the culture of the area I live in.)

    May 22, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
    • Tracy

      Thank you! it is more just to know that you are not alone - not necessarily thinking that it will magically change things. Jeez...

      May 22, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • Jason

      Thank you for posting this. I'm not sure why people are so eager to stomp all over something that provides a source of comfort to people in turmoil. So maybe you don't believe in anything, and maybe you think prayer is ridiculous, but to millions of people the idea of prayer helps them survive the darkest moments in their lives and anybody who would try to take that away from them is revolting.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
    • bryan

      I'm sure anyone facing that kind of loss and devastation would appreciate a heartfelt outpouring of support to bring a warm sense of connection and sympathy. Ironically, it is that sense of being part of something larger than oneself (be it community or, on the larger scale, nationality) that brings comfort, both psychologically and materially.The understanding that you are truly not alone in this world. In a sense, the charity and goodwill of others IS the physical manifestation of God. The religious will say that it is the divine spirit working through mankind. Others, like myself, feel the same effect and affect is simply the best of human nature revealed.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
    • bridgethollister

      Really, it is all about perception. While some feel opening their wallets is the most practical (and tangible) way to provide comfort, others find sharing what matters most in their lives (i.e. religion through prayer) is the best way they can help someone in turmoil. That's the beauty of it... neither is right or wrong.

      Most parents will understand this analogy... I liken it to a three year old with a cookie, standing next to a friend who just skinned their knee. Most pre-schoolers I know will try to share that cookie to help their friend feel better. That cookie is their favorite prized possession (of the moment 😉 and they think that sharing it would certainly make themselves feel better, so it should help their friend. With some adults, the "cookie" of their lives is money/physically doing things. For others, it is their religion or belief system.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
  20. Mustang

    For those who do not believe in God, I'll be glad to take all of that worthless green paper out of your wallet and the coins out of your pocket since they still say "In God We Trust"...

    May 22, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
    • Marcus

      You do realize that money is also the root of all evil. Im not an atheist but it just dawned on me how ignorant you're being.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • JROD

      How Christian of you, Mustang.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      You do realize that your Constitution was in place for well over 100 years by the time that was put on the money...right??? Eventually it will be gone. Now you'd probably have more money in your pocket and probably wouldn't need to come here to beg if you'd stop giving to the church and used that money for an education in science for yourself and wife.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
    • tom LI

      What does that have to do with anything? Is your God backing up the monetary system? Is that why the dollar s all over the place? He can't keep it strong?

      Just another silly comment made by a Xtian who thinks (albeit poorly) that its deep. Its not and its blasphemous that God is even mentioned on money!

      May 22, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
    • TC

      Um, a person pringing something on MONEY means that God exists?

      Really?

      May 22, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
    • Sipsik4

      "In god we trust" shouldn't even be on our money in the first place.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
    • bryan

      Yes – I'm an atheist, and even I find it offensive that God would be associated with Money, especially after the whole trashing of the temple money-lenders thing that Jesus did, on account of defiling the divine. It makes sense for this consumerist materialist culture we live in, though, since money is the all-powerful ruler of everything. In banking terms, the word "Trust" has an entirely different connotation. A "Trust" is an agent for the transfer of assets. So in that sense, we are asking God to be our money-manager. Seriously though, you know "In God We Trust" was only added to the currency in the early 50's right? Out of fear, and to distinguish us capitalists from "godless commies." Everybody knows, Jesus is a staunch supported of variable interest rates.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:09 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.