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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. Oklahoman

    Praying to the Lord and asking him to strengthen the hearts and minds of those who endured the tornadoes is just as worthy as giving money. Yes, food and water and clothes and shelter is needed. However, relief from fear and sadness is needed too and when it comes down to it, in those quiet moments when people have to reflect and deal with what has happened to them they look to God. This is Oklahoma folks and even if you don't go to church regular when the poop hits the fan you know who to turn to. We to to God first then each other. Just watch the news and clearly you see the character of our people.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • tony

      Actually, it just beats listening to your conscience.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • ...

      Right, so you could feel better about yourself and sleep at night while telling yourself you did "something."

      May 22, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
  2. Nathan

    A pair of hands in use will always achieve more than a thousand folded in prayer.

    Yeah, pray for the people in Oklahoma, fine, but also send ACTUAL support in terms of money, supplies, blood donations, etc. because words are words and physical assistance is what will save lives on the ground.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
    • yoyo

      So I guess you're in route to help??

      May 22, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
  3. IT IS ALL GOOD AND GOD IS AT THE END

    A little faith will bring your soul to heaven but a lot of faith will bring heaven to your soul. If you don't have God, you will not understand.
    We who believe do not have all the answers but we do have peace from knowing one day there will be no tears.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • tony

      That's because you won't ask the really difficult to answer questions.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • uos_spo6

      The peace you speak of is the jaded effect. Ignorance is bliss. Tell yourself a happy story and bury your head in the sand where the inconvenient truth of mortality cannot reach your delicate ears.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • ...

      That's the dopamine talking.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
  4. SDFrankie

    God loves us all. But sometimes he kills some of us. Because he has a plan and sometimes his plan involves a lot of deaths, but it's a great plan and we shouldn't question it. But if we do question it we need to have a lot of us involved i the questioning and we can ail pray and ask him to change his perfect plan and if there are enough of us he will sometimes change his plan. It's just a plan. Plans change.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • RamituptheChurch

      take your meds

      May 22, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoMagic

      Really???? His plan involves a lot of deaths??!?!?
      I think I would pick a better leader if my leader's plan involved a lot of deaths.
      But wait a minute, if death is the ultimate reward, shouldn't real Christians be celebrating the deaths? Should we pray to the victims because they were spared and were not fortunate to die and meet God? Isn't it the rest of the world that lived that should receive the prayers in hope of a quick death soon? Why is it that your religion doesn't have the least bit of logic to it?

      May 22, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • ...

      Sounds oddly amusing. Like if the ants we smash suddenly got on their knees and begged you not to smash them. And you do it anyways. Derp.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
    • SDFrankie

      I love ants. My ant-love surpasses all understanding.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
  5. Praying4OK

    Ricky Gervais? Never heard of him.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
    • Steve

      BC you get your news from this website and posting on news forums

      May 22, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
    • Praying4OK

      HA! You mean like you, Steve. (II'm sorry. I'm sure you thought you were being clever.)

      May 22, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
    • .

      Thanks for commenting to indicate your lack of knowledge. That was helpful.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
    • trilly3807

      It doesn't matter if you've heard of him or not. He makes a very valid point.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
    • Praying4OK

      Hello ...(DOT), It was a joke. I'm sure it was over your head. We can tell by your lack of "Name" that you are not very creative and don't like thing that take a lot of thought, or any thought, for that matter. Have a nice day. 🙂

      May 22, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
  6. Bill

    While people are busy praying over this act, please add one more prayer. Please ask that God stop sending tornadoes. If that is too much, how about sending them only over unoccupied water? Hurricanes, too. I am serious.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
    • yoyo

      But I thought it was the republicans who didn't listen to Al Gore regarding global warming that caused this.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
  7. Moriam

    What gets me: I read one of the survivors, and others, saying: It was the LORD who saved us! The LORD protected us from this storm!....so, with that logic, then it was the LORD who killed those who didn't survive, right? He created all life – which not only includes puppy dogs, humans and daisies, but cancer and HIV, too. He created the heavens and earth, so too earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes. So basically, it seems that He's our great protector only when He decides to take other people's lives instead of ours. Yes, I am thankful for everything I have...but it's a thankfulness like when you were young and you and 4 kids were walking home from the bus, and the bully on the block decided to beat the hell out of one of the OTHER kids, NOT you. You were thankful it wasn't you on the ground getting whaled on, thankful you could run into your house, slam the door, and hope that you could make it home safely the next day.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
    • yoyo

      Satan thanks you all for his support

      May 22, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • Steve

      Satan does not exist...but if we are going there...The Tooth Fairy thanks you

      May 22, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • WASP

      @yoyo: read your bible cover to cover and show me where god created the devil? he shows up out of nowhere in genesis then you don't hear about him until jesus went for his "spiritual retreat" and again in revelations.

      popquiz:
      1)what passage shows creation of angels?
      2) if evil didn't exsist until after lucifer fell, how did he know evil?
      3) why is it your god failed to protect the creation he loved so much from lucifer interference seeing adam/eve were as children and ignorant?

      May 22, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
    • yoyo

      Satan doesn't exist? Then where is all this hatred coming from?

      May 22, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
  8. Steve

    Prayer is simply therapy for the person thinking those thoughts. No one hears them, but an individual feels better after the introspection this so called "therapy" has caused them to encounter. Read Colins post religious people. The bible was written by men and the fact that you people cite it as if it was not is ignorant and sad.

    THE BIBLE WAS WRITTEN BY MEN!

    THE BIBLE WAS WRITTEN BY MEN!

    DID YOU PEOPLE KNOW THAT?

    THEY WERE NOT SPECIAL...JUST HERE FIRST. THEY THEREFORE HAD THE FIRST OPPORTUNITY TO MAKE #%^& UP. WE DON'T HAVE THAT LUXURY BC WE WERE NOT HERE FIRST.

    thanks

    May 22, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • hop

      heck, if thinking that gets you thru the night, go for it....

      May 22, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • Steve

      So you are saying men didn't write it? You are privy to facts the rest of the world does not have yet. Please elaborate...

      May 22, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
    • Christian Men United

      Yes, it was written by men, but it was written by men who God used. 2 Timothy 3:16 states the following: All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
  9. Suzanne

    Nobody told Gervais that he had to pray. It's not rocket science...if you don't believe in God...then don't pray. If you do, then pray. I don't see what the fuss is about.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • Mopery

      My religion requires animal sacrifice, now I'm not suggesting that you have to follow suit or anything, but my one true God feasts on the blood of the living, and He demands many sacrifices or else he will send more destruction. If you don't want to sacrifice a goat, then don't. I don't see what all the fuss is about. #AnimalSacrificeForOklahoma

      May 22, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
  10. Landon

    I'm a proud Oklahoma nonbeliever and will volunteer my time for the cleanup. A coworker of mine lost her home and it's certainly a tragedy.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
  11. William Mannion

    There is nothing to suggest that those who post #PrayersforOklahoma only post a hashtag and do nothing else. The hashtag is merely an indication that ONE of the things that someone is doing is prayer, they may be doing many other things as well. Also, the hashtag is not the prayer but rather a sign of prayer which is occurring.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
  12. Gary S

    At best Religions are misguided people believing in Fairy Tales; at Worst the are ALL CULTS. Nothing in between.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
    • yeah..right

      At best, Atheists are overbearing jerks. At worst, they're murderers without a conscience.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • God

      Well, *I* certainly didn't tell you that.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
    • TOP

      At best Jesus is who He says He is, you accept that He died for your sins and rose again from the dead. Believe this and have eternal salvation. At worst you choose not to believe in Jesus and you spend eternity in hell. Jesus desires for you to live but gives everyone the choice to believe or not believe.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
    • Sean

      Well that didn't take long for someone to trot out the "atheists are immoral murderers" card. If your belief in an invisible skyfairy and a fear of eternal punishment after you die is the only thing keeping you from committing atrocities, you should really consider checking yourself into a mental care facility.

      The truth is, atrocities are committed by believers and non-believers alike. Pretending that believers are innocent of wrong-doing is delusional, and demonstrably false.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
  13. Tell the TRUTH

    You need God when disaster happens and you shut God out of your daily life.
    You want a God who hears your prayers but not the holy and righteous God who punishes sin.
    Same time you want criminals to be punished by the law system and when it come to you yourself as a criminal before God, you want forgiveness.
    Heb 9:27 And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment,
    Everyone will die one day, but where will we spend our eternity?

    May 22, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
    • Gary S

      You will be in the GROUND genius, or creamated; plain and simple. Instead of reading a FAIRY tale, read some SCIENCE and LEARN how the earth was formed, how long ago, and how it is IMPOSSIBLE for God to exist. Time to grow up people and put down the Santa Claus, Easter Bunny and Invisible God stories and MAN UP!

      May 22, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • Mopery

      Tell me, what sins did those children commit which were so grievous that your God sent a tornado to kill them? They lived for a short time and now will be judged for less than a dozen years of life to an eternal sentence of either paradise or torture. What a loving God you worship...

      May 22, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoMagic

      "I" don't need a God at anytime.
      "i" don't want a God to hear my prayers.

      Please speak for yourself.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
    • blahblahblah

      Heaven? Eternity? Grow up. You are an animal, and when you die, like all other animals, you die. Religion and gods and all other nonsense is man's feeble attempt to hide from the TRUTH, that you do not get to live forever.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
    • george

      eternity??????????????? pleaseeeeeeee accept the world of NOTHINGNESS

      May 22, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • ...

      You WANT to believe there is a god. You WANT to believe there is an eternity after death. So you keep telling yourself it's true, even when your logic and reasoning skills tell you it's not. So what you're claiming is that the families that have been devastated were not "religious" enough and the children had it coming?

      May 22, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
    • Angela

      Mopery, if you could see what was on the other side of death, you would see that death to good people is not a punishment nor is it a sign that God didn't have His hand in a disaster. Death is not random...especially to children. If God takes a child or any loved one, there is a very good reason and we shouldn't blame God or be upset just because we are ignorant and don't understand why. There is a lot more to our existence than what we see with our mere mortal eyes. Interestingly, I have never seen a debate between a believer and a non-believer convince the other. Contention is useless. If you want to know and understand the mind and will of God, ask Him. Chances are certain that if you are sincere, you will get an answer. 🙂

      May 22, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
    • Sean

      @Angela If you talk to god, that is spirituality. If god talks back, that is delusional.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
  14. george

    I believe that a world with people believing in "God" is better than a world of non-believers.....because of the helplessness of human kind, because of the brutality potential of humans and because the many areas of uncertainty.....but I do not believe in God himself......that is part of the manipulative power of man,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

    May 22, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
  15. ceg10

    He's not limited to tornado areas, he can turn your life into a tornado area and check this out only you will be affected. Don't get it twisted.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
  16. Seriously?

    My question to Ricky Gervais and those in his camp is, why does praying and donating have to be mutually exclusive in your view? Can't one pray and donate? If you are a religious comic can't you both pray and be funny? Perhaps Gervais should pray to be more funny. People use the phrase, "You are in my thoughts and prayers" when there is a tragic or sad event especially with someone dying. You can't bring the person back, you can't undo the tornado damage but you are showing your care and respect for those people and what they are going through. Yes, sending money helps too, I suppose, but money doesn't automatically translate to care and those who may not have money to send can still show care by saying they are in their prayers without the need to feel bad by religious haters like Gervais. Let's also not forget Ricky you are in the minority as an atheist. Would you like people to criticize you for sending money but not praying, or not opening each comedy bit with a prayer or criticize you for not believing? No, you wouldn't like that at all and would surely site your freedom to believe or not, so why not give that same freedom to those who do believe? Does it personally injure you knowing that people may be praying to their God even if you don't believe in God's existence but in doing so it makes people feel better about the world, better able to cope with that bad things that happen? I respect a persons choice to be Christian, Jew, Islamic, Hindu, Hari Chrishna, Atheist, etc., and you should too because if the needle of society moves every so slightly in one direction or another it could be you facing the verbal firing squad or worse lose your freedom to believe as you do.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoMagic

      But don't forget, it is the religious fanatics in the United States who are pushing to make the country a theocracy. It is the religious right who actually would make it a crime to criticize the church. They would outlaw other religions and certainly outlaw atheism. They would also curtail scientific research, would force the teaching of creationism in schools, force school prayer, force every meeting, public event and so forth to begin with a prayer.
      Ricky has the right to criticize anyone he sees fit. As do you.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
  17. ...

    For the most part, telling someone they have your sympathies, condolences, or prayers, helps the speaker feel better about themselves than anything else. The victim may feel better for a minute, but then the reality of their loss and burdens of recovery hit, and they'll be looking to the Red Cross and relief efforts to feel better for the years to come in their lives. Point is, the critical thing to do is to donate money, otherwise you're essentially "praying" that someone else donates theirs in your place.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
    • mplh89

      Speaking from personal experience, sometimes that was all I wanted from people – to be told that I was in their thoughts and prayers. To this day, I am comforted by the emotional support of family, friends, and strangers during difficult times.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
  18. Mopery

    #AnimalSacrificeForOklahoma

    May 22, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
  19. Renee

    ok I do not believe in religion & why I don't believe "God" intervenes in people's lives Gervais needs to stop criticizing. People are free to pray, meditate, or whatever they choose to whomever or whatever they choose. I get sick and tired of both sides, religious and non-religious, attacking the other. Of course sending in money helps, so does volunteering, and whatever else. Prayer or mediation is a personal thing to do & even if you don't agree some people are comforted by praying & by being prayed for. To each his own but no need to make fun or attack people's beliefs.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
  20. #LOOKKATTMMEEE

    I dont believe that this debate should be between atheists and non believers. I am a Catholic and these statuses still bother me for two different reasons. First off these messages are not an actual prayer for most of these people, the hashtags are just, as the article mentions, a trendy thing to post, a way for these people to show they care without actually caring. Nobody escept the person posting benefits from this hashtag. And second off it is simply an effort for these people to take a terrible situation and use it to get them attention. #pray for should be changed to #LOOKATME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    May 22, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoMagic

      Well you won't see any atheists using the #pray and posts anytime soon.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
    • sam

      I agree.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • Incredible

      It's impressive that you know what's in the heart of everyone who uses the hashtag #prayfor. What's even more impressive is that you know how God will respond to prayers, tweets and facebook posts.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • sam

      Everyone knows god reads facebook.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:22 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.