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. #aPrayerForTheOkies

    John 14:27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.

    May 21, 2013 at 6:59 pm |
  2. mikaman3000

    The amount of hate found on this comment board so shortly after a natural disaster like this is absolutely disgusting. It's almost as if you are just waiting for the next tragedy to strike, just so you can unleash your hate on the masses(comment boards). I mean, the level of animosity coming from some of these posters is mind-numbing, and I hope(not pray,because I'm not religious) that none of you have had kids yet, and are are not thinking of doing so in the future. We have enough hate in this world and we would all be better off if you just kept your hate to yourself and did not pro-create. thanks for playing

    May 21, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
    • sam

      Who's being hateful?

      May 21, 2013 at 7:21 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Yes, it would be nice if the christians wouldn't start with the some god is unhappy routine. . .

      May 21, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
  3. #aPrayerForTheOkies

    Psalm 55:22 Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.

    May 21, 2013 at 6:57 pm |
    • Science

      #Comedy Gold...................or just about any speed read..........the one with the list is one of the BEST!




      May 21, 2013 at 7:05 pm |
  4. getoveryourselfGervais

    What does this shmuck think they are doing? Only praying?

    Trust me, the same ppl that are asking to pray for Oklahoma are probably doing the exact same amount that those putting dosomething tweet.

    May 21, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
    • Marsha in Michigan


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

    Psalm 55:22 Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.

    May 21, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      2 Peter 1:4

      Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.


      May 21, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
  6. Glenn

    People who pray are the same people that give and go help.

    May 21, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
    • G to the T

      That may be true for some certainly, but I'm pretty sure the majority of the people using that hashtag are "fire and forget" christians...

      May 22, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
  7. Mary WIlliams

    What a POS! I don't comment on these things that often, but how can anyone make such a comment, at such a time. People need more than money and material things. Their entire world is gone. They are emotionally devastated. And it's always the Atheist who decide they have to take up a debate about God. With anything. Nobody is making them say a prayer for those in Oklahoma. If it helps some people to say that we are praying for someone, awesome. If they are an atheist and they don't want to believe, no problem. Nobody is making them take part in a prayer. I'm not even a religious person, but this is just ridiculous. Someone needs to knock the ego of atheiest down to the level of the rest of us. Sometimes I don't know who's worse. Westboro Baptist Church or Atheist. Get a life!

    May 21, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
    • Dippy

      It's spelled "atheist". And it is not capitalized. And the plural (more than one) is "atheists". You should have learned all this in grade school, Mary. Did you attend?

      May 21, 2013 at 6:59 pm |
    • sam

      Hmm, let me see, who IS worse??

      Westboro: God hates fags.

      One atheist comedian on Twitter: “I feel like an idiot now … I only sent money.”

      You're right, that is a really tough call.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
  8. Chris

    I actually agree with Gervais. If all you're doing is praying and you consider that as an act of giving and being proactive, you my friend are delusional, lazy, selfish, and a bit cruel. That said, if you are also (or only) giving to charities or helping to get people out from under the debris or opening your home up to displaced victims, than you my friend are helping to make the world a better place and I salute you for that.

    May 21, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
  9. Paddy

    Two hands in action can do more than 1,000 clasped in prayer.

    May 21, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
    • getoveryourselfGervais

      I don't know, your two hands typed out that inane comment but I doubt it got anything more done than those who pray.

      May 21, 2013 at 6:57 pm |
  10. #aPrayerForTheOkies

    Psalms 30:5 …Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.

    May 21, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
  11. His panic

    I've heard statements in the Media describing the situation as a "war zone" and in "shock and awe". Now, what in the world is that? It sounds awfully familiar! It brings memories of the GOPer Bush Jr.

    Is never a good idea and a good thing to go around attacking people and countries that have done nothing to you. What goes around comes around and God is watching.

    May 21, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
    • sam

      Yes, yes. God did it. Is he done with his tantrum, now, or did he want to take a second crack at the kids who are left?

      May 21, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
    • G to the T


      May 22, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
  12. #aPrayerForTheOkies

    Psalms 46:1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

    May 21, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
  13. HeavenSent

    My oh my how the atheists hate that Christians follow the Word of our Lord and not the lies of satan. They won't be happy until their small toes are burning in hot cool-aid. Itching is all my camel-toe has done since the break-in. What part of Jesus is the Lord and read the Bible do you not understand?


    May 21, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Fake post from the phony heavensent who is a BAITER just like the Real Tom.

      May 21, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
    • Chris

      If all they are doing is praying it is worthless. I don't mean to offend your naive sensibilities, but its the truth. And since when is promoting real positive action during natural disasters over simply praying "satan's work"? Those people who are donating and lending a hand, their home, or whatever else are doing more good than any amount of praying could ever do.

      But if religion wants to praise laziness over actual action and deem it saintly and real positive action the devil's work, then by all means go for it. It just makes you look silly.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:00 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Tommy is using the dummy handle of Chris to back her babble when stealing my handle. Tom, you and all your post, no matter what handle you use are pathetic.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:08 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Pathetic BAITERS. You will get yours. Chris, you are a master BAITER.


      May 21, 2013 at 7:25 pm |
  14. dleleux1

    "God doesn’t promise us that bad things won’t happen, he promises to help us through it. That’s what prayer helps us do." This is an outrageous statement. You're telling me that "god" says, "I'm not promising you I won't kill a few children, but I promise to help you through it if you pray to me." All people of good conscience ought to feel outrage at this this flagrant belittling of the deaths of little children as well as others. Why would anyone worship such a monster? If "god" didn't do it, there are really only two alternatives, either he doesn't exist or he exists and can't do anything about.

    May 21, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
  15. Wryshu

    Public Prayer: (definition) patting yourself on the back when you could be helping out.

    May 21, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
  16. #aPrayerForTheOkies

    Psalm 145:18
    The LORD is near to all who call upon Him, To all who call upon Him in truth.

    May 21, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
  17. #aPrayerForTheOkies

    1 Timothy 2:1-2 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people

    May 21, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
    • Colin

      I love it when Christians quote forged scripture. Shows how lettle many of them know of their own book.

      May 21, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
  18. kimberlyfriddle

    While it will be many months before buildings – and lives – can be rebuilt, no matter how many donations and eager hands are offered, people need comfort today. Heck yeah, they need your help, they need your donations, they need clean water and a generator, and I applaud every person who provides those things. But in a tragedy like this, the needs are more than just physical. For me, that's where God comes in.

    Philippians 4:6-7 (New Life Version)
    6 Do not worry. Learn to pray about everything. Give thanks to God as you ask Him for what you need. 7 The peace of God is much greater than the human mind can understand. This peace will keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

    Which I post only for those it might help... Obviously not to sway the non-believer. 🙂

    May 21, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
    • deston

      Send them some good drugs like weed and alcohol – that will comfort them without having to pretend it all makes sense

      May 21, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Didn't do much good for the dead.

      May 21, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
  19. Ndubuisi

    Reflection on Feast of St. Rita, the saint of Impossible Cases:22nd May
    Today, the Church celebrates the feast of one her daugthers, the Saint of the Impossible cases – St. Rita of Cascia. Rita was born in 1381 in a little village of Roccaporena, near Casica, Italy. As expressed in her prayer: ‘You know my trials, for you yourself were many time burdened in this life.’ Rita suffered not only the death of her husband but that of her two sons. She never sought to avenge the death her husband, Paolo; rather like our Lord Jesus Christ, he loved her enemies and prayed for those killed his husband.

    After the death of her sons, Rita turned her whole life to loving and contemplating the redemptive passion of Jesus Christ. For the next ‘forty years she gave herself wholeheartedly to prayer and works of charity, caring for the sick and needy and working especially to preserve peace and harmony among the citizens of Cascia.’ As Apostel Paul says in Colossians 1:24: ‘I shall fill up in my body what is lacking from the sufferings of Christ’. For the last 15 years of earthly life, Rita shared in the sufferings of Christ by bearing the external sign of stigmatization. She breathed her last on May 22, 1457 in Cascia. St. Rita was canonized by Pope Leo XIII on May 24, 1900. Apart from being the saint of the Impossible, St. Rita is also the patroness for abused wives and mourning women.

    Furthermore, Wisdom stands at the centre of today’s first reading taken from the book of Sirach. Wisdom is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Wisdom exalts those who seek her. Seeking wisdom requires: Responsibility, Initiative, Trust and Availability (RITA).

    RESPONSIBILITY disposes us to knowing the place of God in our lives and our service to our neighbours. St. Rita placed God at the centre of her life and gave her life for the worship of God and service to humanity.

    INITIATIVE: relationship is not a one-way street. Even in our relationship with God. Seeking wisdom entails taking initiatives, in other words, opening our hearts and minds and allowing the Spirit of Truth to move us in the right direction. St. Rita allowed herself to be moved by the love of God.

    TRUST, without which no relationship can function. Seeking Wisdom involves placing our whole being without reserve into God’s hand. It is entails abandoning ourselves to the care of God. Allowing Him to do His works in us; and firmly believing that He is God who does not deceive. St. Rita put all her trust in God; She trusted and loved her Saviour to her very last breath. And the psalmist says, ‘those who trust in the LORD are as secure as Mount Zion; they will not be defeated but will endure forever.’ (Ps 125: 1)

    AVAILABILITY, many a time we are so occupied with our daily routines or activities that we hardly have time for ourselves, for the people around us and even for God. Seeking Wisdom means being available for God and our neigbours. Seeking Wisdom is saying to God, ‘Here I am Lord, I have come to do your Will (Heb 10: 5, 7; Psalm 40). That was what St. Rita of Cascia did, as a mother she was there for her family; she was there for the people; and above all, she was available for God.

    May we ask St. Rita today to intercede for us before the throne of God almighty, so that we may become TRUE SEEKERS of Wisdom. May she intercede for all the pregnant women, all the abused women and widows. May she interecede for us all especially those encountering difficult family/relationship situations. May we pray for Oklahoma. Amen

    I also invite to join in this Prayer:

    Prayer to Saint Rita in Impossible Cases

    O powerful Saint Rita,
    You are called the Saint of the Impossible.
    In this time of need I come to you with confidence.
    You know my trials, for you yourself were many times burdened in this life.
    Come to my help, pray with me, intercede on my behalf before the Father.
    I know that God has a most generous heart and that He is the most loving Father.
    Join your prayer to mine and obtain for me the grace I desire:
    Here mention your request
    I promise to use this favour, when granted to better my life
    To proclaim God’s mercy and to make you widely known and loved.
    Amen. St. Rita of Cascia, Pray for us.

    May 21, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
    • Marsha in Michigan

      You are definitely the King/Queen of Cut-n-Paste! Well done! I imagine it will bring so much comfort to those in Oklahoma!

      May 22, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
  20. Colin

    I suggest that we not only making prayer permissible in government schools, but make it mandatory.

    We do it in the following manner. Upon entry into high school, each child “adopts” a wounded veteran or other person who has a visible and incurable condition, such as a lost leg, arm or eye. Each day the children pray to God that the person recover their lost appendage. Those children who have other beliefs can bow, chant, jiggle an amulet, stare into a crystal or do whatever they wish to “pray” for their chosen ailing person.

    Five years later, at their graduation, prayer can put up or shut up. We parade the injured people through the graduation ceremony so the children can see the results of their 5 solid years of constant prayer.

    Just how many limbs, eyes or ears do you think will have re-grown? And why are you so sure of that? Does God hate amputees? Why does he always have to hide his medical miracles inside the body of the sick, where things are less medically certain?

    The doubtless, consistent and universal failure of their prayers all across the USA will help the students understand:

    (i) that there is no god listening and that praying is a futile exercise when the results can REALLY be tested;

    (ii) the frailties of their religious leaders as they scurry for excuses –“god won’t be tested”, “god moves in mysterious ways,” “perhaps the people have been healed spiritually”, etc; and

    (iii) the weakness of human nature (and a basic lesson in politics) as the religious right moves to shut the experiments down.

    May 21, 2013 at 6:48 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.