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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. Scott

    For all you atheist out their, God still loves you. I will pray for the Athesit's and the storm victims. Hopefully the Atheist will find God love nad repent.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      And I will pray that you learn to spell and use proper grammar.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
    • ME II

      Thanks, Scott. The Atheists will do "nothing" for you too. Quid pro quo.

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

      Scott. To tell an atheist that God still loves you is like telling an adult that Santa Claus is watching .... same thing

      May 22, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • Daniel

      Thanks Scott, you pray for me, I'll think for you.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
  2. swami545

    James " How many prayers do you think were said by the holocost jews that were not answered. at last count over six million.
    o'mon people wake up" He sent Christians to end the holocaust, while the atheists stood by vowing not to get involved.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • .

      lol

      you're an idiot. Thanks for trying to rewrite history

      May 22, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
    • Thoth

      "sent Christians to end the holocaust".....umm Nazi Christians were the ones doing the killing. Hitler made that clear in a speech. The SS had 'God is with us" stamped on their belt buckles.

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

      Amen, brother! (or sister)

      May 22, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • Michael

      Was replying to swami545, btw.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • Daniel

      So Christians were pushing Jews into the ovens because they claimed the Jews had given up their chosen position with God when they killed his son Jesus, and were deserving of the punishment, God then sent other Christians to stop them from doing something so evil.

      "21 And you shall not let any of your descendants pass through the fire to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God: I am the Lord." Lev 18:21

      It's good to know God hates sending people through fire... but i'm sure all those Nazi's are burning in heII, right?

      May 22, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
  3. Red Man

    The scripture says "the love of money is the root of all evil", not money is the root of all evil. Read before you quote.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • ME II

      but I thought it was listening to talking snakes

      May 22, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
  4. Francisco

    I think this kind of events are a good showcase of how believers and non-believers think, express their thoughts and act. I agree completely with Ricky Gervais. Praying is doing nothing while thinking you are helping, but millions do not actually pray, they just tweet or retweet a hashtag so followers regard them as compassionate people. I used to be a believer and one time I told a friend of mine whose brother just died " My Thoughts and Prayers are with you and your family" after a while reading over and over that line I realised it was just a bunch of BS, prayers are thougts and thoughts do not help anyone... some times we are unable to acceptthe fact that we can not help or are not really willing to help. We need more #help and less #pray

    May 22, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
  5. pg13

    Existential angst. Pretty much sums it up prayer. An expression of hope and anxiety, and perhaps hopelessness.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
  6. palintwit

    With any luck that tornado wiped out a few Chick-fil-A's. One can only hope.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Never been to chik fil'a have you? Part of the reason that the protest lost was that when compared to the rest, they are just that good.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
    • ME II

      @Mark from Middle River,

      ... and the fact that 70+% of the US claims to be Christian.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  7. Ashlee

    If you don't live in Oklahoma and these people aren't your neighbors family and friends, don't tell us how to cope. Don't police how we cope whether we believe or not. Just shut up.

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

    Who is Ricky Gervais? And why does anyone care what he says?

    May 22, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
    • Thoth

      Who he is does not matter. His point is accurate. Praying for people on twitter does nothing to actually help them. Just lip (or tweet) service to feel better about themselves. At least Gervais is sending $$.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      hilarious comedian. and you should care, because he's right - there's no invisible sky fairy.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Although I know who he is I agree with you .. who cares what he thinks. I'd prefer to hear from the millions who know prayer does nothing for those being prayed for, it only serves to make the pray-er feel they did "something".

      May 22, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
    • swami545

      Bootyfunk, until scientists can grow a human being from a fish egg in a petri dish, I'd avoid burning my bridges if I were you.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
    • Francisco

      You should find out who he is. He is smart, he is funny and above all he is not afraid to say what he thinks in order to be politically correct. The US is full of religious people, and a lot of people think beleivers are deluded but keep their mouth shut just to avoid being unpopular with the mayority. He doesn´t care and niether do I

      May 22, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
  9. swami545

    You hear about the atheist who watched a man beating a woman in the street? He dropped money beside her and left.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
    • Chris

      If only they'd even do that. Mostly, though, they only offer gratuitous opinions and very little in terms of cash. How many atheist charities have you heard of?

      May 22, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
    • ME II

      @swami545,
      huh?

      So is the woman-beater a believer then?

      This makes no sense.

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

      I'm pretty sure it was the priest and holy men that walked on by and took a foreign Samaritan to lend a hand.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • Caro34

      The atheist would actually intervene while the religious folk would pray for god to intervene.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      and the believer watched and prayed? At least the money will be useful if she survives.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
    • ME II

      So in your scenario, the believer would "pray" and then leave, is that it?

      May 22, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  10. Tim

    That's okay Ricky. We'll pray for you.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      .. and it won't make any difference. The only thing it will do is satisfy your psychological need to punish him for not agreeing with you. If it makes you feel better .. knock yourself out!

      May 22, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
    • ME II

      And Ricky will do "nothing" for you too. Quid pro quo.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
  11. James

    How many prayers do you think were said by the holocost jews that were not answered. at last count over six million.

    o'mon people wake up

    May 22, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
    • Oneforall777

      What do you mean not answered? You mean not answered the way YOU would like. Actually the Jews' prayers were answered, many got the opportunity to live in their promised land. Today there are over 6 million jews living in Israel. I would say God knew exactly how to answer the prayers of those people. Now the one you do need to ask questions about is Satan, not God. Do you think Hitler was driven by God or Satan? Many people who are not of faith want to blame God for everything. He does have an Adversary you know and guess what? God gave us all free will, we get to choose who we will obey.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • Pilot Forever

      Yeah, somebody answered them- My Uncle, and many others like him. You should know him:
      Stephen R. Mendrey
      Technician Fifth Class, U.S. Army
      Service # 13053561
      10th Infantry Battalion, 4th Armored Division
      Entered the Service from: Pennsylvania
      Died: 2-Oct-44
      Buried at: Plot C Row 24 Grave 95
      Lorraine American Cemetery
      St. Avold, France
      Awards: Purple Heart

      May 22, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      'Do you think Hitler was driven by God or Satan?'
      He claimed god.

      'God gave us all free will'
      why is it only the 'cirminals' get to exercise freewill? why dont the victims ever have the freewill to avoid being victims?

      May 22, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
  12. Chris

    "I,as a boastful atheist,will now donate $20(Canadian),to the secular organization-the Red Cross for tornado relief"

    How generous of you. I'm not terribly proud of my fellow Christians – or their collective idiocy in the form of Teapublicans – but whenever I've been building schools or digging wells for the needy in Central America, there strangely are almost always other Christians at my side. I don't ever recall any atheists donating their time, energy, and expense to those causes. And now I know why: they're too busy earning their lavish gifts of $20 (Canadian) or making pointless posts on internet forums about their great generosity.

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

      I'm an atheist but it's not something I really mention to people. The flip side of what you are saying that I am often assumed to be Christian. I've been called a "good Christian" more since being an atheist then I ever was as a Christian.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
    • drinker75

      Maybe that's because you are with religious organizations. I'm sure if you looked into it, you'd find many non-religious people that do the same thing.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
    • Nobody

      Hmmmm.......maybe the atheists are right beside you and you don't even know it. Sometimes people neither admit nor deny their religious beliefs to avoid all of the controversy that surrounds each one. I know several atheists who are VERY giving in both their time and money to help causes near and dear to them. Just because one doesn't believe in "GOD" doesn't mean one doesn't believe in helping others in a time of need. Regardless of what we believe we are all in this world together and should do the right thing for our fellow man.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  13. Chivalya

    There are many studies about giving aid that indicate that People who believe in God and prayer give more $ than any other group. I pray for Oklahoma and give to the relief efforts as I also do for those who just want to spew the hate. God loves you. #prayforthe world

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

      So it made you feel better to come on a brag about the faithful? And whose god, exactly?

      Those many studies showing that comes from...religious groups, so no dice.

      In reality, kiddo, guess what? Non believers just do stuff without needing to show off about it.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Like those big believers Bill Gates and Warren Buffet – donating hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars so far, to charity. Two men – both atheists.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
    • ME II

      If you consider supporting your church "giving" then sure.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
  14. Ashley

    I am barely making it myself but somehow I managed to donate diapers, wipes and formula to the families that were affected. Action is required.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
  15. John

    Gervais needs to STFU and respect the beliefs of others. Many feel this way.

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

      You're disrespectful, just now. Many agree.

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

      *kicks Sam in the balls* No one cares what you think!!

      May 22, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Many also hate you and me .... could be our color, race, se'xual orientation..... if we are Yankees or Red Socks fan .... list goes on and on.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      No – you're ent-itled to have your right to believe whatever you want respected. There is no guarantee that the CONTENT of your belief must be respected. Do you respect the beliefs of fundamental Muslims who believe that if a woman is ra-ped it is moral to kill her because she has brought dishonour on her family?

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

      The only thing that automatically gets respect is the freedom to have those beliefs. But respecting your belief that there's a god? Nope.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • ME II

      @John,
      "Gervais needs to STFU and respect the beliefs of others. "

      So... in other words, be better than you?

      May 22, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
  16. Jameson

    Any hashtag, whether is uses prayer or not, is complete nonsense anyway. Nobody goes on Twitter trying to help, they go on there to show their friends that they care. I dont immediately go on Twitter and say "So sorry for the lives lost in Oklahoma/Boston/Newtown." It doesnt mean, Im not sorry, it means I dont care if people know that I am or not. A hashtag has never helped anyone, not even the #STOPKONY crap that every teenaged girl was so passionate about for 36 hours that one time.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
    • sam

      Well, yeah. 'Look, I am super caring, and I want everyone who follows me to see it.'

      If they meant the gesture, they would just do it and not wave it around.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
  17. chris

    God created the tornado. The tornado killed many people including 9 children. Ban God.........

    May 22, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
    • EricG

      God may have allowed the tornado to form, but God allows devastation to happen to give us the chance to serve others.

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

      They have banned God. He is left with getting our attention and getting back in schools by any means neccessary. Why does it bother anyone if I want to pray for anything? I think it makes non believers nervous. They aren't really as sure of their non-belief as they would have others believe.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
  18. tom LI

    The real point of the backlash is the emptiness of the gestures. Like all the Support the Troops bumper-stickers every other car was plastered with early in the Iraq debacle. Americans love to toss off blessings like so much excrement.

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

      I agree. The point is that it's become some sort of knee jerk reaction, the same response to every disaster, and it can seem pretty hollow. "Well, I've done my part! I prayed."

      May 22, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
  19. SteveB

    If your power is out, you want to know what's being done to fix the problem, no how many people tweet/prayed for you. If you don't have water, you want water, not to read about tweets/prayers for you. If your loved one is in the hospital, you want to know how the docs are helping them, not how many people are tweeting/praying for him/her. Let's get real, people.

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

      Not so, comfort is found in groups. The more people you know are supporting the more comfort you have. If this were not the case, funerals would be empty. You could say it is shallow to show up at a funeral, if you know how to read minds and tell what peoples motives are, but the more people at a funeral you have, the more comfort. I speak from experience.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
  20. Kevin

    How many people sending these tweets actually got on their knees and actually prayed? Yeah, that's what I thought, "prayer" has been gen-x-ized

    For the record, I'm atheist so I think the whole thing is rdiculous

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

      You seem doubtful that people have actually gotten down on their knees and prayed for victims. I think you are WRONG.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
    • Kevin

      No, EricG, I'm sure that MANY people have gotten on their knees and prayed, but I'm willing to bet that the MAJORITY of people sending these tweets have not, and probably think that "god" will consider their tweet to be their prayer, so no more is needed

      May 22, 2013 at 1:30 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.