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. jason

    The OKan's supported a war of murder, shafted the poor and elected a leader like coldheart, were against helping victims of sandy. They should actually thank god that the reward for their sins was only a smaller hurricane

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

      yes, thank god for not being more of a monster, for not killing more people. good point.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      So everyone, including 9 innocent children deserve to suffer for the mistakes of a few???

      May 22, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
    • Bells B.

      Jason, I'm sure you'd say the same to the average Oklahoman to their face. So proud of you.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
  2. Under God, Indivisible

    Why is it that we willing accept the blame for the theory/consequences of global warming....but when a weather-related disaster occurs, people blame God. We have free will. In this country we also have freedom. Those being critical of prayers being offered for families who have suffered great devastation have no right to do so. If the Muslim, Hindu, or Wiccan communities were to offer their condolensces to the Oklahoma victims publically.....would there be this outcry from the atheists? I think not.
    If you were a tornado victim and an atheist and you excercise your free will to defer these offers of prayer for your recovery...fine. The local churches will still provide food, water, and shelter to you regardless. But must you really verbally accost others for offering those prayers to those who welcome it and appreciate it.
    God bless America and what's left of Moore, Oklahoma

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

      "people blame God"
      if he were real, we could blame him. but it's like blaming the tooth fairy. atheists just point out that if your god were all loving and all powerful - he wouldn't have let a tornado kill children.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
  3. I M Probulos

    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.”

    Most should know this is not accurate. Some people simply, whether they pray or not. Some have nervous breakdowns. Some kill themselves. Unless you are blaming the victim which I found heinous, it is unfortunate but God may promise in the Bible, but in real life, we are promised nothing and that is what the data indicates. To blame the victim for not praying enough or not having enough faith is cruel and harmful.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
  4. pjr

    Folks, it is not about religion, it is about a personal relationship with His Son, Jesus Christ. Relgions kills, but a relationship gives life, life now and life hereafter. The Bible speaks about faith being dead without works. There has to be some evidence behind your belief; some tangible proof. It never ceases to amaze me how quick people are to blame God for tragedy, including the one in OK. If you read 2 Chronicles 7:14, you will get an idea of what God requires from us. Bottom line is; "if you are not a part of the solution, YOU ARE part of the problem." We need to stop clinging to every wind of doctrine and turn (repent) to Jesus, the ONLY way to heaven or God. It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of an angry God. For you athiest out there, one day you WILL bow and confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God. I suggest you come to your senses and confess and bow now. Later, will be too late. In that place (hell), there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. So, wake up America and stop blaming God for everything. Let us look at ourselves in the mirror.

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

      What nonsense. There isn't any "god"...it's a FAIRY TALE invented by humans.

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

      The removed hell from the teachings. Just ask the Pope. No bs. Hell no longer is real. Not that it ever was. But they will tell you that now.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
  5. roe


    Thank you CNN for opening to eyes. I am now enlightened that crazy atheists want to sell every tragedy. Why dont you use your time effectively follow every monkey while it becomes a "human"? Gues who is stupid here: People who believe on historically factual & accurate stories that are 2000 years old & unchanging

    All i can say is wow.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      If you're going to call us out you might want to make sure you can form a comprehensible thought and be able to put it down properly first.
      What was your babble supposed to mean exactly??

      May 22, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      roe: my apologies...I read that wrong but my point does stand in regards to what SJ said

      May 22, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
  6. Kurt

    “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"

    Truth is, If all people are doing is donating to the Red Cross, it is worthless. If they are donating to the Red Cross and praying, that’s more like it. It just goes to show how far we've fallen when we consider prayer an "if all" activity. It's not an "if all" but He is the All in All.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
  7. Mohammad D.

    Prayer isn't about getting results... Its about us asking for guidance from God. We are tested by many things in our life. Illness, Disaster, War, Society issues and more... Our job is to react and accomplish unity and help each other in times of need and display our humanity in Gods image... We are the reason the Angels bowed down to us and are always be the supreme being that demonstrates unity, Respect and power no matter what hits us or comes our way. Yes we aren't strong enough to battle nature but we are smart enough to over come its obstacles...

    I pray as well for all those people who lost their homes and loved ones to recover soon...


    May 22, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
  8. Amanda

    Well... too bad they don't know that much about us Christains..... Their opinions mean nothing to my faith except that now I will be praying for them too...... along with not wasting any of my hard earned money to watch their movies etc.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
  9. Michael J.

    Ricky Gervais is a moron and not funny.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
    • Thoth

      Perhaps he's not funny to some....but his point is valid. Praying for people and actually doing something to help them are two different things.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
  10. Bootyfunk

    actions cause change; prayer is a waste of valuable time.

    unclasp your hands. get up off your knees. think for yourself. now go outside and put those hands to actual use by helping your brothers and sisters.

    congratulations, you're now a better person.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  11. chris rowland

    Shame on Ricky G. for using a tragedy as an opportunity to trumpet his disbelief in God and criticize people.. What a callous thing to do. Give your money, and keep your mouth shut, unless you have something encouraging to say. I think those people who lost their kids- many of them Christians- don't want to have to deal with someone who gives them money on one hand and criticizes their religion with the other. Ricky is just a poser, and apparently not a very nice guy.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  12. live4grace

    Ricky Gervais and nonbelievers: You don't want to pray, fine, don't. The faith of people in God is completely unaffected by your lack of it.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Another persecuted christian.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  13. I Am God

    I agree with him. Instead of praying all day go out there and start helping like I usually do. If it weren't for gas prices right now I would be driving down to help out, but the only thing I can do for right now is send money to the Red Cross to help those in need. Help now, pray later.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  14. yoyo

    I'd rather be calling on God then FEMA right now

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

      fema, god... both completely ineffective.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Isn't FEMA actually attempting to do something, unlike god?

      May 22, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
  15. Human

    My father was dying of lung cancer, barely able to breathe. I asked him as he lay in his hospital bed if he he still belives in God. He said, "No. God wouldn't do this to me." He was a devout catholic his entire life. I guess god enjoys torturing people.

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

      Good thing that your dad who was a member of a false christian religion said that. It must be true.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
  16. adss

    Funny how those who blame God for bad things happening never seem to praise him for all the good things in this world.
    I don't think you have the right to blame God if you're not also willing to acknowledge all the good things he provides.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
  17. Gary

    "God doesn’t promise us that bad things won’t happen, he promises to help us get through it." – bwahahaha....except for those 24 people that were killed, but I am sure the next response is "it was there time as god called them home"....pfffffftt....

    the faithful are morons

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

      Learn grammar and how to spell. The context of your sentence requires that you use "their" and not "there". As in "There you go dumbkoff. Spouting your anger at their belief".

      May 22, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
    • Gary

      if your only retort is to complain about grammar, then you really have nothing of value to add

      May 22, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  18. Jorge

    truth prevails please do better research, the facts are there open your mind and look. prayer works, its make a different to does that do, and for your information about the 2000 year old thing, please tell me who are you talking about Jesus, please give break they so much evidence of Him, you will need to just look, no scholars of greatest learning will tell you that Jesus did not live, so faith is not blind is base on truth, so people who pray, live longer, recover better from sickness, are happier, they also are more generous, they volunteer more, and they are compassionate, they is so much, that we can tell you, still more that 85% world will tell you that when people say that we are praying for you it lets them know that you care, so get on with facts

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

      prove it

      May 22, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
    • JPO

      Apparently not enough people were praying for Moore, OK not to get hit by a tornado. Christians should get organized and be proactive with preventative prayer.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
  19. JGN

    We're not 'nonbelievers'; we believe something different than you, that's all. I have no trouble labeling you christians if such you are. Call us atheists.

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

      I don't think that's a proper characterization. I am a non-believer. I don't believe religious BS. My philosophy is grounded in facts. I have no need to believe in any kind of fairy tale.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  20. Pastor Randolph

    So Gervais thinks money is the ultimate solution; perhaps he is right to call himself what he did in his comment. Sir, will you be taking your money with you WHEN you die! Money will not heal the hurt! Money will fix building and things, but will not fix people. Prayers will. It is unfortunate that Gervais feels it's cool to PRETEND that God does not exist, but he does not need to be outraged at those who do. You have the right to CHOOSE not to believe, not worship, and live in disobedience to God while others have the right to follow God.

    I am so sorry for you Mr. Gervais, but you WILL someday come face to face with the God you PRETEND does not exist; at that time, there will be no wiping your tears away! It will be better to have never been born!

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

      Poor you with your misplaced anger. We don't have to pretend.

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

      leave it to father randy to speak of fallacy as if it is provable fact

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

      Wow, what an idiotic diatribe. You are assuming a lot more than was written in Mr. Gervais' simple tweet, Pastor, but I guess that is what Pastors are best at.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
    • Church22

      Do you believe in Allah? Do you believe in Buddha? No you don't because you feel that you are right. I don't believe in any of them including your supposed ONE god

      May 22, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
    • ThereIsNoGod

      Stop being a moron. If you were instantly homeless, cold, and hungry, would you rather the meaningless blathering of mind controlled sheep, or someone to give you money to get shelter and food?

      You christ-tards always talk about how everything happens according to gods plan... if this is his plan then why pray? You think he's going to change all his plans just for you? It was the plan all along to kill those innocent children. Why pray to give people comfort? It's not going to make a lick of difference.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Fear and threats – the last refuge of the religious! Sorry, Pastor, invoking the Boogey Man doesn't work any more. Time for a new racket.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
    • JPO

      You should be proactive and look into the power of preventative prayer to stop these disasters from happening. Unfortunately prayer doesn't trump physics. The only value your prayers have is if the person you are praying for knows about it. It's all in the mind.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • Dham

      You say we "pretend" god does not exist.
      I say you "pretend" that he does.
      Show me even 1 piece of proof and I will gladly listen
      Until then maybe you should start praying up some food, flashlights, clothes and shelters for all those people who your god decided where worthy enough to survive

      May 22, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      'Money will fix building and things, but will not fix people. Prayers will. '

      Actually money can go towards hospital bills, counseling, provide comforts and stability, etc. It will do far more than prayers will do when it comes to 'fixing' people.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:13 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.