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. Dave

    The people who claim some divine intervention that saved their loved one are the people who make me sick. It's as though they feel they have a greater right to life than those who perished. Pathetic.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
  2. SV

    The most idiotic thing a person can say is "Prayers going up".

    May 22, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
  3. jim H

    What I don't get, is why atheists even care. So some other people believe in God and you don't, who cares. Some people believe in aliens, but I certainly don't get upset when they bring it up.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
    • Thoth

      You missed the point. Ricky and others were simply noting that jumping on twitter and claiming to be praying for people does absolutely nothing to actually help people. At least he is contributing $$ to actually help them.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • SDFrankie

      Because faith is irrational and it's not that great living in a shrinking world filled with irrational people. They don't trust reason. They don't trust science. But they vote on important issues just the same. It's a little uncomfortable to think that you might need to convince someone of something of critical importance and you can't use logic, evidence or reason. That's why.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      @ Jim – do people who believe in aliens try to put their beliefs into law? Do they get tax-free status? Do they get to say things like, the aliens told me that being gay is an abomination? Do people who believe in aliens fly hijacked jets into buildings because their alien belief system encourages martyrdom?

      Religion is a disease. Our job is to eradicate it.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • Berzerk

      People who believed in Aliens perform mass suicides in hopes of 'going to the mother ship'.
      Atheists believed in a master race of Germans
      Atheists murder millions of children every year in the name of choice and survival of the fittest.
      A massive 2 mile wide tornado kills 24 people and its God fault, but we killed millions of each other in the name of 'power' and 'superiority', and its just 'strengthening the species'.
      God, is not the evil or dangerous. Immoral people hating God are the evil ones.

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

    For all the Atheist out there, God loves love. I will pray that you find his loving arms,I also will say a prayer for the people in Oaklahoma.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
    • AnotherView

      You don't get out much do you?

      Lacking an education? Take a look at your spelling. It just goes to show how little intelligence "believers" have. Maybe that's why they are so easily brainwashed in fairy tales.

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

      On Tuesday he loved twenty-four people to death.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  5. JoshO

    I'm not sure who's more annoying: preachy Jesus freaks or outspoken atheists? Personally, I don't care what any of you believe. Just shut up about it and let people do their own thing.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      What if that "thing" they are doing is patently harmful? if you knew about the plot by the 9/11 hijackers beforehand, would you have done nothing because it was in accordance with their religious beliefs – just let them do "their thing"?

      May 22, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
  6. Colin

    Dear Christians:

    God here.

    No, I don't hear your tweets. In fact, I don't hear any prayers because, you see, I do not exist. The concept of a 13,700,00,000 year old being, capable of creating the entire Universe and its billions of galaxies, monitoring simultaneously the actions and thoughts of the 7 billion human beings on this planet is utterly ludicrous.

    Secondly, if I did exist, I would have left you a book a little more consistent, timeless and independently verifiable than the collection of Greco-Roman Middle Eastern mythology you call the Bible. Hell, I bet you cannot tell me one thing about any of its authors or how and why it was compiled with certain writings included and others excluded, nor how it has been edited over the centuries, yet you cite it for the most extraordinary of supernatural claims.

    Thirdly, when I sent my “son” (whatever that means, given that I am god and do not mate) to Earth, he would have visited the Chinese, Ja.panese, Europeans, Russians, sub-Saharan Africans, Australian Aboriginals, Mongolians, Polynesians, Micronesians, Indonesians and native Americans, not just a few Jews. He would also have exhibited a knowledge of something outside of the Iron Age Middle East.

    Fourthly, I would not spend my time hiding, refusing to give any tangible evidence of my existence, and then punish those who are smart enough to draw the natural conclusion that I do not exist by burning them forever. That would make no sense to me, given that I am the one who elected to withhold all evidence of my existence in the first place.

    Fifthly, in the same vein, I would not make about 5% of the human population gay, then punish them for being that way. In fact, I wouldn’t care about how humans have $ex at all, given that I created all of the millions of millions of species on the planet, all of whom are furiously reproducing all the time. Human $ex would be of no interest to me, given that I can create Universes. Has it ever occurred to you that your obsession with making rules around human $ex is an entirely human affair?

    Sixth, I would have smitten all you Christian activists, and all evangelicals and fundamentalists long before this. You people drive me nuts. You are so small minded and speak with such false authority. Many of you still believe in the talking snake nonsense from Genesis. I would kill all of you for that alone and burn you for an afternoon (burning forever is way too barbaric even for a sick, sadistic bast.ard like me to contemplate).

    Seventh, the whole idea of members of one species on one planet surviving their own physical deaths to “be with me” is utter, mind-numbing nonsense. Grow up. You will die. Get over it. I did. Hell, at least you had a life. I never even existed in the first place.

    Eighth, I do not read your minds, or “hear your prayers” as you euphemistically call it. There are 7 billion of you. Even if only 10% prayed once a day, that is 700,000,000 prayers. This works out at 8,000 prayers a second – every second of every day. Meanwhile I have to process the 100,000 of you who die every day between heaven and hell. Dwell on the sheer absurdity of that for a moment.

    Finally, the only reason you even consider believing in me is because of where you were born. Had you been born in India, you would likely believe in the Hindu gods, if born in Tibet, you would be a Buddhist. Every culture that has ever existed has had its own god(s) and they always seem to favor that particular culture, its hopes, dreams and prejudices. What, do you think we all exist? If not, why only yours?

    Look, let’s be honest with ourselves. There is no god. Believing in me was fine when you cringed in fear during the Dark Ages and thought the World was young, flat and simple. Now we know how enormous, old and complex the Universe is.

    Move on – get over me. I did.


    May 22, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
    • JoshO

      Oh, Colin, you're so witty! Too bad you wasted an hour writing a page of garbage that nobody is going to read. 100% of people will read the first line and move on. Kudos.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • jim H

      Not sure if it was meant to be funny or meant to be witty, but either way, FAIL>

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

      I am sorry for you and I will pray you and all non believers because on the judgement day it will be too late

      May 22, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • Cameron

      Dear God. Thank God for finally being honest! Didn't realize you had such a witty sense of humor until now because the Bible sure is a snoozer.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • Dave

      Brilliantly written. The bible was compiled by people who thought the world was flat. Enough said.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • GMR

      I feel sorry for you and will pray for you as well. You can't help your ignorance. I guess one small speck appeared out of no where and BANG–the big bang! So, genius, tell us how the universe "just appeared" and whatever beginning you claim that "began" - explain where that came from and then----–so on and so on.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • Lovin' It

      That's awesome...

      May 22, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • Ang

      +1 Thanks Colin,
      Eloquently stated.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • DH

      Wow. All I can say is wow. Didn't realize such ludicrous thoughts and twisted "logic" could come from one person. Your eyes will be opened when Christ does return but by your thought process and feelings it will be too late for you.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • Scott


      May 22, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
    • chuckb

      Guess I have to stop believing in you now because you said so.....wait....what?

      May 22, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      "Your eyes will be opened when Christ does return "

      And there we go with the childish threats again. Your jesus was supposed to return many a time but yet has failed to, what the hell makes you so certain it ever will??? The last I recalled NO-ONE returns from the dead or did you fail science??

      May 22, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
  7. jj

    Prayer is something more than moving your fingers across a keyboard or saying that your prayers are with someone. But real prayer is actually an act of magic and it has been proven that it sometimes does work. I am not religious by the way. In catastrophe of course, prayer must be accompanied by donations of money and time to make things better.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
    • SDFrankie

      "it has been proven that it sometimes works". That's a lie. Actually it's been proven that it works all the time at the exact same rate as doing nothing. Pray for a sick friend. Sometimes they get better. Sometimes they die. Don't pray for a sick friend. Sometimes they get better. Sometimes they die. Pray/Don't pray. It's the same.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
  8. Logic

    God is in control eh? So was he in control of the tornado? If I thought that, I'd be pretty upset with God if my house got flattened. I don't think I would be asking him for help now. He might just send an earthquake for good measure.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
  9. Joe

    God answers your prayers. Sometimes the answer doesn't come automatically because God sees the whole universe: not just your little world. Sometimes the answer is no. Believe me, I've been in a lot of situations where I've prayed and God gave me strength.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
  10. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    Templeton Foundation Prayer Study .. Short version:
    Prayer had no effect.
    But those knowing they were receiving prayer had a HIGHER incidence of complications (59%).

    May 22, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
  11. truth truth truth 2013

    GOD hears and sees everything. Pray for all the non believers for they no not what they do or say. I pray GOD will have mercey on them and they will repent before it is to late

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

      WHICH God(s) was that again?! Current, past, future ... there have been thousands!

      May 22, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
    • agath

      And you "know" not the difference between no and know.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • sick of christian phonies

      Compare the amount of misspellings in the believers' vs. the atheists' posts. That will indicate the intelligence levels of the posters. Less intelligence/schooling: more apt to be a person of faith. Look at the uneducated fundamentalists (Muslim, as the case may be) in Afghanistan, Sudan, etc., or christians in the southern states like Mississippi, West Virginia, Alabama, etc.
      Faith feeds on ignorance.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • jim H

      Sick, your post isn't even close to reality. The President is a Christian.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
  12. Kari

    Wait a darn minute...the point is not who believes in what, it's about helping all people affected whether it's emotional or physical. People prayed that the tornado wouldn't hit where they were, but it did. So I guess one could say that prayer did not work for them. Right now, victims need resources like shelter, food, clothing, toiletries, etc and all of those things cost money to provide.

    This whole thing isn't about religion or believers vs. atheists. It's about people who lost everything from an EF5 tornado! I have two family members who were in the general path of the tornado. My cousin's house was not completely destroyed from this tornado, but is significantly damaged. My sister's house was barely missed by the tornado and thankfully only suffered minor damage, whereas the houses just across the street suffered quite a bit more damage. I wish everyone would keep in mind that you have your opinion, so let others have their opinion, even if it is not in agreement with yours.

    Instead of trying to prove someone wrong, why don't we go out and do what's right to help these victims?

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

      Right on, Kari! I'm an atheist but think that people tweeting "prayers" is a lot like me emailing my friends and saying "my heart and thoughts are with you". it's a way for religious people to let their fellow religious people know that they are being thought about, and if it helps even one person in OK who is living through this tragedy feel better for even one minute than I say tweet away folks! Now I hope that the same people that tweet prayers also send money because that's where the actual need is. But can we get back to focusing on what really matters? Let's get to sending them money and aid. Who flippin' cares what people tweet. Good grief.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
  13. Natch

    Ricky WHO?? Maybe this clown is just mad that God has a bigger following?? Some people whine about the stupidest things, don't they??

    May 22, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
    • Nissim Levy

      Ricky actually has a good point.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  14. Needle

    And I care what Ricky Gervais thinks because.......

    May 22, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
    • Nissim Levy

      because it makes sense

      May 22, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  15. MEME

    The whole idea that prayer "influences" an omnipresent, omniscient, compassionate GOD is absolutely ridiculous!

    May 22, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
  16. Susan StoHelit

    “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.”


    What a sick and twisted perspective!! This person thinks God murders infants and children to prove he's in charge. That belief has a bully, a mass murderer, a vicious god – and many people believe in that god – and somehow follow it? Why would you follow and obey a bully?

    May 22, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
    • free man


      May 22, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
  17. Chris

    Wow! God did this to get your attention. Too bad, the sinners of Moore now has God's attention.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
  18. gwave65

    Got to Hell, Gervais...literally. Nobody cares what you think. Try doing something positive with your life instead of tearing down people offering love and hope.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
    • Daniel in Denver

      He DID do something positive. Actually sent some funds to help the situation, rather than tweeting. What did YOU do, other than whine about him?

      May 22, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
    • brian

      But how about tangible things that are proactively helping? Food, clothing, shelter, giving blood, showers, machinery to pick up the wreckage etc. Love and hope are great but they need stuff they can put their hands on.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • Nissim Levy

      Your prayers mean nothing. Actually help these people.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • Lovin' It

      He can't go to hell...doesn't believe in it...

      May 22, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
  19. Fox News is the Only News for TRUTH

    If prayer didn't work than people around the world would be suffering right now.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
    • free man

      so they're not?

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

      tell that to all the children starving

      May 22, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
  20. drinker75

    I don't believe in god or prayer but the thoughts are well-intentioned no matter how inane. leave it alone. The people who say god has a purpose out of this do make me want to vomit though.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47
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.