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. Steve

    Whether or not you believe in God or prayer, writing a message on Twitter is pointless. I don't know if prayer does any good or not, but do I know that empty verbage on trendy social media sites certainly won't. Twittering is simply self-promotion – it's not about anyone else or anyone else's problems, it's just narcissism. "Twitter" begins with "Twit", and I think that pretty much says it all. If you want to do something then pray or give money or whatever, but don't just post on Twitter and then think that it means something to anyone – it doesn't.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Apparently it does mean something to others – you're not forced to follow someone on Twitter.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
  2. agnar150

    Worst would be if no one cared to even send a prayer.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
    • Richard Jones

      Prayer isn't required to empathize with people.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
  3. Frank

    Say what you will about the efficacy of prayer (although I think we can all agree that typing #PrayForOklahoma doesn't count as a prayer), but simply showing solidarity with people can help them personally. Having support is good for people. Money is good too, but if you really got none to spare (in which case, all you need to give is $10 you damn cheapskate), solidarity is better than nothing.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
    • Istennno

      yes, i agree. perhaps, in this sense, the prayers aren't for god, but for the people. perhaps people are simply couching their support in a way that they feel is more helpful or powerful than simply saying "i'm thinking of you."

      May 22, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
  4. pat thompson

    Atheists, once again showing their selfishness and making this tragedy about them. Who gives a crap if Ricky Gervais is offended? If atheists want to put up a billboard that says "Donate to Oklahoma", that's great. But as usual, you have nothing positive to offer, just criticism of others. Get over yourselves!

    May 22, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      pot meet kettle ... kettle meet pot

      May 22, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
    • Mar

      Once again? Please - how many times do theists thrust their beliefs into others lives? Go ahead, say that God was with the people who didn't die - just remember that same God turned the other cheek and let others die. Prayer does not help. It gives you the fuzzy warm feeling that you are doing something helpful when you are not. If you donate your time/money and pray, then great. Don't think that you are changing the world by praying.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
    • Richard Jones

      I offered money. I'd say that's rather positive.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
  5. Scott

    I am a Christian, and in my opinion prayer is the single most important response I can have to a tragedy. However out of that prayer life action should be driven, giving in the way that you have been blessed whether it be in money, time, craft, etc. The book of James would support that idea strongly, ie paraphrasing you say you have faith, I have action, faith without action is dead faith, I will show you my faith through my actions. So if action does not come from faith then it is the genuine nature of the faith that should be questioned. Christ completely demonstrated his love by almost always meeting the physical need before approaching the spiritual nature.
    I would also question that Christian are more giving than non-Christians. I know that my nephew was an Easter Seals embassador and my sister always commented that the dive bars were always the best givers. Which is saying something, as otherwise my sister would never be found in a bar.
    The problem is that so many of us Christians, and to often myself included, come no where near to living out what we say we believe. We are sort of like the NY Jets of faith, we say we are playing football but it is mostly just "butt-fumbles" (for non-sports fans that is a long story.)

    May 22, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
  6. Annette

    Some people aren't in a position to donate money so prayers are our way of feeling we contribute in some small way.
    Past experiences tell me God does listen to all prayers spoken sincerely. Won't the non believers be surprised one day?
    Keep on praying!

    May 22, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
    • Brice

      Publicly announcing that you're praying is only seeking reinforcement for your childhood indoctrination.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
    • kpotter7

      Then why didn't god listen to the prayers of those who died or were injured or lost everything in the storm? Were their prayers insincere?

      May 22, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • Richard Jones

      I guess nobody in Africa prays sincerely for food and health. I guess those girls locked up in Ohio weren't sincerely praying either. Same with the people in Boston, that guy swallowed up in that sinkhole in Florida, the people working in that plant in Texas, all the children within the church who were molested, everyone in the World Trade Center....but apparently Osama Bin Laden prayed quite well for 10 years.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
  7. scorpionsglare

    I do believe that alot of people just stroke the keyboard with a hashtag and call it a day. By doing this it causes many people to doubt what they are seeing, another is it makes people feel more secure and comforted.

    I also agree that people should not only pray but also go into action if they can. It is to each their own whether they believe in God or not however, I don't believe people should be criticized by following their belief and praying. I don't like alot of things I see on facebook or twitter I also don't go out lashing at others for their beliefs either.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
  8. Seyedibar

    Praying to alien gods is only a way to assuage your own ego. If you want to help, then try doing something that is actually useful instead of having a tea-party with your imaginary friends.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
    • Bob Bales

      Why should anyone who believes in God be swayed by your opinion that He doesn't exist?

      May 22, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
    • vivian

      Southern Baptist have relief teams, they are always helping...i don't believe anyone who is not a Christian has refuse their help. Why is praying for them so offensive?

      May 22, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
  9. Beautiful Mind

    To all the athiests: If you were in the path of that horrible tornado, I guarantee, you'll be praying to God to save you...

    May 22, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
    • waterman

      But why does god send tornados to kill children?

      May 22, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
    • Twister Sister

      And if I didn't pray, what would you give me in return for your guarantee? I don't want a Ford Pinto or an Oakridge Boys record.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
    • Seyedibar

      So you're admitting that belief in God is predicated upon fears of mortality?
      You're kind of proving their point for them.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
    • john H

      no, i would not.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
    • Brice

      If prayers worked, no one would ever die.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      I call and raise you one... If I was in the path of that tornado I would have sought shelter and doubt prayer would have come to mind... but that is disingenuous of me, for I'm not dumb enough to live in a place called Tornado Alley, so the question is moot.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
    • Richard Jones

      I guarantee you're wrong.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
    • Mar

      Mmmm no. I'd be focusing on getting out of the way or helping others leave. You won't catch me on my knees in front of a tornado hoping God will save me - seems kind of selfish when others are dying all around me, no?

      May 22, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
    • Beautiful Mind

      Who brings those children into the world? God does! All of us are born and all of us will die – that's a fact that no one can deny. God gives life at the time appointed by Him and God takes it at the time appointed by Him. This life is given to us by God as a test to see who does best deeds. So when the time for the test is up for a human being there's no reason for God to keep him alive for one second longer. Death comes but we'll see something that will seem to cause it – a heart attack, brain tumor, accidents, or even natural disasters like tornadoes etc., etc.. What we should learn from this tragedy is that God is not happy with us. He is sending these disasters to warn us, so we can mend our ways and turn back to him. God is not unjust but people are. God does not tell us to get drunk, for example, and get behind the wheel and cause crashes that kill innocent people, women and children among them. Our job is to help the people affected by this tragedy and also pray to God because no matter how hard we try we'll always fall short. But as a believer in the Almighty (the one and only God) I felt as a duty upon my self to defend Almighty God, my lord, and try to help guide those among the misguided who may want to understand. Peace!

      May 22, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
    • Richard Jones

      So God wasn't happy with those children at that school, but he's totally delighted with the Westboro Baptist Church. Those are comforting words for the parents of those children. "I'm sorry, but your child failed the test. You or your child is doing something wrong, so God had to kill your child in 200mph winds. Sorry. But I'll pray for you."

      May 22, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
  10. WorldBelow

    I talked to god every night, until one night he finally talked back. he told me to kill.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
    • dl

      Funny how all Gods say that

      May 22, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
  11. Sarah

    My take on things: if people want to pray and believe in God like myself why should anyone else care. If I pray and contribute that is my right. If you don't believe in God that's fine for you not for me. Freedom of religion! Don't bash if your a believer and don't bash if you don't. But no matter what those people need help. I personally believe praying helps but donations do too. Why should anyone disagree with prayer. Good grief people get a grip and worry about what you do and not what everyone else does! Praise Jesus! Just had to throw that in there. 🙂

    May 22, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
    • Twister Sister

      Praise atheism! I just had to throw that in there.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
    • Julie

      Nobody cares who or what you worship. Just keep it too yourself and you'll never hear from an atheist.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
    • Seyedibar

      We should disagree with prayer for the same reason you would chide an adult for believing in Santa Claus: because it speaks volumes about their intelligence and ability to see the reality of the world around them.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
    • pat thompson

      Atheists are selfish people who have nothing positive to offer to society. They whine and complain about other's beliefs- that's basically it.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
    • Ty

      Tell that to the church and everyone else that uses Christianity to influence the laws of this country. The gay marriage "debate" is a perfect example. There's nothing wrong with gay marriage unless you're of a religious faith, and yet we had to create laws to allow a union between two consenting adults. There's no such thing as religious freedom in America unless you're Christian.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
    • Bob Bales

      Seyedibar: What you refer to as "the reality of the world around them" is, in reality, only your belief. You can give no evidence that it is, in fact, reality.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
    • Bob Bales

      Ty: Everyone who tries to influence the laws does so based on their belief system. And they are perfectly free to so, whatever their belief system is. You may not discriminate against those who belief system is Christianity.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
  12. Kenny

    Always funny to watch Christians and Atheist argue over something neither can know.

    If it will help someone with their pain I will pray for them. If it causes them pain I won't.

    Its the Human thing to do.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
    • michaelwg

      Cosmology is the study of the origins and eventual fate of the universe. But sure, we can't know anything. Very deep.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
  13. Ulysses Thunderhawk

    Hahahahahaha... Pathetic celebrities, Gervais included, all trying to outdo one another in the media to prove who cares more... Can a celebrity help with their involvement, whatever shape that involvement may take? Absolutely... just don't be fooled that they are doing this simply out of the goodness of their hearts... particularly if they are all over media making proclamations about what they are doing. Likeability is a MAJOR career boosting (or reducing) commodity among celebs and don't think for a minute that they, or their agents, aren't well aware of that fact.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
  14. bob

    I thought this was a act of god??????

    May 22, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Is this "god" to whom you refer a member of ACTRA? If not, is he allowed to act?

      May 22, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
  15. lurainpenny

    Prayer is directed energy. Quantum Physics indicates the observer affects the experiment. In other words, we have the power to influence our reality through our thoughts. One does not need to believe in a Source to send healing to others. Without sharing there is no caring.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • Jackie Slims

      Please shut up with your pseudoscience. The next person to use quantum physics (actual science) as a way to validate religion (actual nonsense) is going to make my head explode. Thanks!

      May 22, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
    • Seyedibar

      1. The Observer Effect was disproven years ago. The observer and his measurements has zero effect on reality.
      2. You may be confusing Observer Effect with the Uncertainty Principle which would only apply to wave function, such as photons, not molecules.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      This could be fun! All right lurainpenny stand in front of me. Now prepare yourself... I will fire a 9mm round at your face... now direct your quantam mechanic prayer thought to stop the bullet. I'm going to get a coffee... let me know when I get back how that experiment works out for you...

      May 22, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
  16. Theola Ward

    know as Christians we are to "turn the other cheek" , many non-christians dont understand thats why we sometimes are silent about the war against us. I gave my opinion because it was asked , I hope you will STand up for Jesus Christ & the Oklahoma victims " Do they Blacklash other religions ? Other Organizations? This is Hate against a group of people & their beliefs .. I cant imagine if this was buddhist or Muslim religion they were terrorizing & bullying. This same people ask for tolerance when them theirselves have none nor are they doing anything to help with the Oklahoma victims but belittle a religion for trying to help, those are what you call Bigots & please look up the word (ps this is the meaning of Bigot- intolerant, prejudiced person
    person who pretends, is deceitful
    Athiest please redicted your concerns to the victims & dont worry about people you hate , this is not a moment of hate but for all of us to band together and help one another.
    It is OUR religion, that we believe Prayer actaully helps! It is OUR religion, that we believe Prayer actaully helps! It is OUR religion, that we believe Prayer actaully helps! It is OUR religion, that we believe Prayer actaully helps! Thats why we PRAY!!!!! for those of you who dont understand , wanted to make it clear why we pray for people 🙂

    May 22, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • sam

      Uh...guess what? There's no 'war'.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
    • dl

      My religion says yours is a gutter & evil religion

      May 22, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
    • SteveG

      But the kids are still dead? How did it help?

      May 22, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
    • GBinSC

      It is not my place to criticize or to chastise. If you don't believe I will pray for you, if you are in need I will pray and send support via money or whatever. In the end we will all know the truth.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
  17. bridgette briggs

    this is a joke right! i can't believe some of these comments. god is the creator of all things he's in control of the winds and the seas, however everybody is not god children as we can see and when judgement day come god is going to say you workers of iniquity i never knew you and the lake will be your portion. he also say deny me in front of your friends i will deny you in front of my father. you brood of vipers!

    May 22, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • .

      holy shit the local looney bin must have handed out day passes.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
    • dl

      I prayed really really hard & God told me you're full of it

      May 22, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
    • Twister Sister

      Perhaps one day you can join the real world of the 21st Century

      May 22, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
    • Jackie Slims

      Yes! Praise God, he who sends people to be tortured for eternity because they didn't stroke his ego hard enough! Or you could, you know, stop believing in fairy tales, that's what I always do.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
  18. Reality

    Taking god (and prayers) down a notch helps:

    In Church: The Human Story of God, Schillebeeckx says, "Therefore the historical future is not known even to God; otherwise we and our history would be merely a puppet show in which God holds the strings. For God, too, history is an adventure, an open history for and of men and women."

    Bottom line: One of God's greatest gifts to us is that of the Future.

    Schillebeeckx was responding to the Dutch citizens who were blaming God for the North Sea storms that destroyed a significant number of levees resulting in a significant loss of life and severe storm damage. Sound familiar??

    On the other hand keep the following in mind:


    The Ten Worst Things GOD'S CREATURES Have Done to Each Other:

    M. White, http://necrometrics.com/warstatz.htm#u (required reading)

    The Muslim Conquest of India

    "The likely death toll is somewhere between 2 million and 80 million. The geometric mean of those two limits is 12.7 million. "

    Rank …..Death Toll ..Cause …..Centuries……..(Religions/Groups involved)*

    1. 63 million Second World War 20C (Christians et al and Communists/atheists vs. Christians et al, Nazi-Pagan and "Shintoists")

    2. 40 million Mao Zedong (mostly famine) 20C (Communism)

    3. 40 million Genghis Khan 13C (Shamanism or Tengriism)

    4. 27 million British India (mostly famine) 19C (Anglican)

    5. 25 million Fall of the Ming Dynasty 17C (Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Chinese folk religion)

    6. 20 million Taiping Rebellion 19C ( Confucianism, Buddhism and Chinese folk religion vs. a form of Christianity)

    7. 20 million Joseph Stalin 20C (Communism)

    8. 19 million Mideast Slave Trade 7C-19C (Islam)

    9. 17 million Timur Lenk 14C-15C

    10. 16 million Atlantic Slave Trade 15C-19C (Christianity)

    May 22, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
    • Uncouth Swain


      May 22, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
    • Theola Ward

      God didnt do those things, he gives us free will......... People Did those things, take responsiblity for our own actions, have faith, sometimes faith is all you have , Faith is all the Jews had during the Holocust, Faith is all any Slave ever had .. Ask those people who survived those horrific events , who got them through????? It was not a group of Athiest.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
    • Richard Jones

      Theola, they got themselves through, or a real person stepped in and helped.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoMagic

      Theola says: "Faith is all the Jews had during the Holocust, Faith is all any Slave ever had .. Ask those people who survived those horrific events , who got them through????? It was not a group of Athiest."

      Interesting, Faith got the survivors through but what didn't get the 9 million dead through? And Hitler never renounced his Catholic faith. In fact, read history and find that the Catholic church backed Hitler and helped him get elected in 1933.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
  19. Dan B

    The sailor does not pray for wind, he learns to sail.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
  20. Gary

    Even if you don't believe, it's a simple courtesy and a bit of comfort for those who do too offer prayers. Yes, logically, it's kind of silly to pray to a supposed omnipotent being to be merciful with the tornado he's created, but aftermath is a time to console, not debate. Tell people what they need to hear.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
    • Dan B

      That's a silly reason. It's like telling someone that you will do nothing for them.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:51 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.