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. adw

    The churches have been jumping in to help as usual, and prayer is just part of what Christians do. Agreed some do just that, but that may be all they can do, but others are praying and giving (financial and other) and going and working. The churches by using the group contributions are able to do lots both physical and mentally supporting people. God is real, but we are free people to make our choices. He is not a dictator forcing our actions and as a result bad things happen.

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

    I have to disagree with those who are saying that sending Tweets do not accomplish anything, towards the result of their intention and for the Tweeter. I only sent my very first tweet ever this week so I am not an expert on this particular form of social media. However, at the core, the tweets reflect people's wish and insight for at least a moment. That brief second still counts as goodwill and good energy. And I think that is important at the core of any meditation or prayer.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
  3. Tim

    I understand what he is saying, but he could have approached it a different way. If he would have said "Hey I understand people who believe in God like to pray, but don't forget to send money and supplies as well." That would be a respectable way to say the same thing. We have to learn to respect each other no matter what our beliefs are. Only then will we begin to change the world we live in. This seems to me like a ploy to get attention.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
  4. WhoIsGervais

    Who cares what Gervais thinks? I've never even heard of the moron.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • HeroesAre Rare

      He's a fat abusive narcissistic, so-called comedian from UK. Apart from "The office" which started as mediocre and went down from there, he did nothing except embarrass the British public with his rudeness and childish behaviour!
      We Brits were relieved to see the back of him --please, PLEASE don't send him back!

      He's low enough intelligence though to even use a tragedy to knock religion to get attention for HIMSELF.......... NEVER worry about the victims.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
  5. YouMissedThePoint

    "We built chip city...We built chip city on all your dough! We built chip city!"

    Anyone who knows where thats from knows the meaning of life...

    May 22, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • AC

      Weird Al

      May 22, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
  6. Reverend

    hey Gervais and the rest of you atheists, why don't you set up a special fund for the victims instead of telling people to make the people that run red cross more money. The money donated should go to the victims, all of it!

    May 22, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • oouchan

      They have actually. Foundation Beyond Belief has raised $28k (and rising) so far to help those in need.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
    • AC

      Research before you spout nonsense as you just have.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
  7. Bill Johnson

    Yes, action is required along with prayers, but remember that Christian conservatives donate significantly more to people in need than bleeding heart liberals. Liberals all talk a good game and they enjoy spending other people's money, but they seldom give of their own. Look at VP Biden, who donates less than 2% of his significant income to charity. Every liberal should be ashamed of this man, and they should all take a hard look in the mirror before criticizing others. Christians have opened more universities, hospitals, and other agencies to help the poor and needy than loud mouthed liberals will ever even dream about, unless of course they use the government to take our money to do it.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
  8. This is science .. seriously?


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

    Whether you believe or not, put your money where your mouth is...prayer only works now and then and money ALWAYS helps...

    May 22, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Prayer NEVER works .. it's just coincidence or self fulfilling prophecy at best.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
    • smokedupdroid

      Prayer never works. If something you prayed for actually came to fruition then it is because YOU or another HUMAN did something to make that happen. The imaginary sky fairy didn't do anything. We control our lives. If you sit at home in the dark with no food, and pray for power and food, guess what? You are going to die. Unless, you get up off your behind and go work for it. No amount of prayer will ever accomplish what YOU yourself can do. Believe in yourself, not some invisible god who refuses to show his face if he actually exists.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
  10. Deborah J Clarke

    Oh Ricky....it's ok if you don't believe in God. He believes in you. Look what he did with you. He used you to help the people in Oklahoma financially. God is real Ricky. He loves you. He didn't ask you to love Him back. How sad that you don't know Him or believe in Him right now. You will eventually. God Bless you. And thank you for allowing God to work through you.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
    • silly fantasies

      I bet you got gored by a unicorn as a youngster

      May 22, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • Phil NYC

      So everything everyone does is meaningless because God is doing it for them.

      Great. Your worldview is probably the most depressing thing I've read today.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
    • smokedupdroid

      God did nothing through the author. The author saw REAL physical devastation and was moved to help in the best way he knew how. God did not make him do that. Believe it or not but it is possible to still care about others without belief in a god. It is still possible to value life without being religious. In fact, that was his point, that he as an atheist was doing more to help those in need by donating money than the believers who were tweet-praying. Do you really think a tweet-prayer is actually going to give someone there home back? Or dig someone out of rubble?

      May 22, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
    • AC

      So, if I read this correctly you are saying that this man didn't give money to those in need, but it was God doing it through him?!?!?! Doesn't that just sound stupid, Deborah J Clarke? This man donated his money himself. No God 'worked trough him'. I'm sorry but the things I do isn't some God working through me...it is ME doing those things (I am speaking in general terms, not specifically about me).

      May 22, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
    • AC

      smokedupdroid - I have to agree with you completely on this one. This lady is delirious.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
  11. Susan

    Boasting again Ricky....wow how cool of you to give money and let the rest of us know, now we can do that too

    May 22, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      While everyone is POSTING & TWEETING that they are praying ... letting people know you're praying is boasting just the same! How cool of you all to let us know you're getting brownie points for God(s)!

      May 22, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
  12. idontknow

    Regardless of what anyone believes none of us KNOW anything about God (by whichever name), prayer etc....in fact most of us don't know much of anything. How certain would you be about anything if you were in the middle of this situation and lost your home? your relative or friend? or anything that meant something to you? Would you still find it necessary to belittle other peoples beliefs? Compassion seems to come in many forms. Why can't we leave it at that? Whatever happened to class and tact?

    May 22, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • Susan

      well said!! this is not a time to mock any form of compassion. But hey the top universities have "tested" prayer and it worked....it changed the plants in the room....sooo keep praying

      May 22, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
  13. Dennis

    Make sure you check with this British actor before forming any spiritual beliefs. He starred in The Office UK so he really knows!

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

      Well I'd say that's as good as reading a 2000+ year old book written by people who had no idea that the earth is round.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
  14. Ron

    Ricky Gervais = self centered, hateful, mean spirited human being who makes millions mocking others – do we really care what Ricky thinks..??????? ugh

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

      He donated. Did you?

      May 22, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
  15. JC

    Social media problems.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
  16. PeterD

    This is happening in America under the Leadership of Presdient Obama because they are more interested in Gays & Lesbians Rights, Illegal Americans Rights, Criminals Healthcare Rights instead of safety of millions of working class families rights.

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

      Are you naturally this stupid, or do you have to work at it?

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

      ...so your god's solution is to k i l l innocent childern in Moore, Oklahoma? Oklahoma being home to ORU, and rather on the religious side...... seems odd. You'd think if your god really wanted to make a point he'd at least target somewhere like San Francisco, or that evil hollywood.....

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

      Let's see, and you're just going to ignore the priorities of the representatives from these "dumb" states?

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

      Jon, I'm thinking it must be genetic...no one gets that stupid in one generation.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
    • Jing-a-lala

      “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.”
      Its even much better if you send it to my account and I will figure what I will do with the money.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
    • skeptic

      So Obama caused the tornado? Or is it Obama's fault that the average person would rather contribute to "slacktivism" instead of actually helping? I'm confused...

      May 22, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
    • logan5

      Please, I beg of you! Do not have kids!

      May 22, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
  17. Just Some Guy

    Gotta love the person who said that "Everything God does is to get our attention." By that logic, God killed 24 people – some of them children – just so that he could get some frickin' attention. That's pretty messed up. With the amount of devoutly religious people out there, you'd think that God gets plenty of attention already.

    Yeah, I'm with Ricky Gervais on this one. I'm sending money and supplies to Oklahoma. Those poor people – I hope that they can find some way to heal.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • swimmer9

      I agree with Ricky also, I laugh at the god wanted our attention comment. If he wants our attention why doesn't he flash a sign a thousand feet high and scroll it around the world saying exactly what he wants to say. I think that would get everyones attention.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
  18. Lilith

    Prayer is a form of blasphemy. God(s) has a plan and praying is simply telling God(s) you don't like it and want it changed .. how arrogant.

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

      Umm... Oh nevermind. Carry on.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
  19. ole1474

    So people believe in prayer, and people don't believe in prayer. Big deal. Let those who pray, pray. If you don't pray, that's fine, no one is forcing you. Either way, can't we show others respect, and respect their beliefs? I respect atheists, I disagree with them, but I still respect them.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Same. There are just 700 Club Atheist and moderate Atheist. Just like any Religion.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • Bells B.

      Great post.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • Still Christian

      Well said Mark.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
  20. AnotherView

    "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."

    Oh really? I read every line and thought it was great. Kudos Colin.

    Keep up the good work.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:32 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.