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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
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(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. ann

    This was a horrible article. I wish that CNN would just stick to what its good at: actualy news. Sadly, there isn't anyone in here who is able to actually articulate intelligent theology in this article. The problem of evil in this world has been long debated, but as Christians we trust in the Sovereignty of God. The book of Job also deals with this issue, but Job had to look to the Creator and say, "Yeah even though He slay me, yet will I trust Him." In the end everyone will mee their Creator and find that religion wasn't an aimless empty prayer or a crutch, but rather devotion to a Holy God works all things to his Holy purposes. And in the end His judgment of all mankind will be just and true. I cannot possibly understand His ways – they are beyond searching out.

    May 22, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
    • Julie

      You have all the answers right? People who are brainwashed from childbirth usually think they do.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
    • Ron

      Job was an idiot and atheists are trying to encourage people not to follow in his footsteps.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
    • Jim Hahn

      Let me get this straight. You say that some imaginary deity in the sky caused this mess and then expects his mindless followers to pray to him to get the mess cleaned up? Did the deity decide that these children were no longer needed on earth? If he or it is so powerful and all knowing, wouldn't that have been figured out before they were born?

      I guess that makes sense, except to people who think.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
    • sam

      What?? CNN was never good at news!

      May 22, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
  2. Anne Cunningham

    My prayers are for those devastated in Oklahoma, not Ricky Gervais.

    May 22, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
    • phil

      How about words of thanks for the first responders and not prayers to some imaginary god. What a lame society that does not spend 90% of their words of praise on the people fighting to save lives.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
  3. bridgette briggs

    listen people i wanna apologize for flying of the handle here but it get's me a little upset when i read foolish post about gods being. this is what i probably will never understand, how can so many people believe in everything that's so wicked and ungodly but have doubts about god the creator and his power? just know this god know everybody heart down to every strand of hair on your head to every thought come to mind so when we pray and send it thru the feed it has to be thought of first before it's written that's how he can hear all these prayers and believe this he does answer prayers. god bless you!

    May 22, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      Which one of the thousands of gods men created do you mean?

      May 22, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
  4. Linda

    How arrogant of Gervais and the athiest to ASSUME that those texting or tweeting prayers are not doing anything more. How do they know who writes a check, sends a money order, or donates regularly to organizations? Talk about pompous! Arrogant! Uppity! Shut up and sit down and let the rest of us pray all we can for those suffering. And many of us pray with our hearts and give with our check books. How dare you assume we DON"T!

    May 22, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
    • Ron

      Linda, he's addressing those who ONLY pray and don't do anything else. Your reading comprehension skills are that of a typical Christian....far behind everyone else.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      You seem to have a problem with people making a$$umptions, yet you a$$ume there is a god, never actually seeing any evidence....what's up with that?

      May 22, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
  5. Bixy Keen

    We are more likely than not to see what we want to see if it is what we are expecting.

    May 22, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
  6. yeeeees

    I've gone through a tornado where several of my family members got killed as well as some of my community members, it as a horrible thing. But prayer was what got me through, what gave me strength to keep on going not only for myself but to help one another. If you dont believe in God, then you can't really pray for anything because you don't have the will to do it. You just rather think God doesn't exist and criticize others that do. In this case you'll just spend your time saying words, blah blah and criticizing people that do believe in the power of prayer. Don't worry about it, prayers work for the people that believe regardless of what you non believers say 🙂

    May 22, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
    • pjr

      well said, yeeeees. If you have experienced the protective and caring hand of God, then you know that prayer works.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
  7. Diane Diaz

    Everyone has a right to their own beliefs.
    Being from Wichita, Ks. I was praying my head off the other night when the storm passed over my house.
    Christians have a right to express their sympathy in their own way just the same as everyone else.
    And BTW, we DO send money. Churches all over the country will be taking up collections for the OK victims.
    This is a democratic country where EVERYONE has freedom of speech. Not just the left side.
    We are here, we are Christians, get over it.

    May 22, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
  8. some girl

    Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
    Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing?
    Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able, and willing?
    Then whence cometh evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing?
    Then why call him God.
    – Epicurus

    May 22, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • pjr

      some girl, you have it all wrong. Evil entered the world when Satan tempted Eve and she and Adam ate of the forbidden fruit. If we as a nation would turn from sin and turn to God, then He promises to forgive our sin and heal our land. And He keeps all of His promises. Why don't we as a people accept responsibilty instead of trying to blame God for everything.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
    • sam

      Evil entered the world when god created satan. Uncool!

      May 22, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  9. sumday

    Atheist make me laugh- I don’t believe in G-d but I’m offended that you do believe in something I don’t. For an atheist it is ok to believe in anything other than a creator- universe been around for 14 billion yrs, statistically there is a great chance that there is other life in this universe- which would give rise to the concept that we were created by a higher intelligence, but for an atheist humans are the only intelligent life out there that just magically self arose without any thought, design, or intelligence being involved. If atheist want to think of themselves as a random accident let them. Anything beyond the comprehension or understanding of 3.5lb mass either does not exist in their mind or they are offend by that thought. They claim they want proof of everything- well 10yrs ago I swam in the ocean- can you prove I did that? And if you can’t prove with evidence I swam in the ocean does that mean I didn’t do it? To me atheist are like a computer program denying that anyone created a computer or wrote the programs.

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

      Atheists believe in one less god than you do. Please tell me which one of the thousands of gods ever thought of is the one.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
    • tony h

      not really getting the 'do something real' rather than just sit an mumble some words or say them in your head difference eh? praying or wishing or hoping or dreaming are not doing, therefore not helping those in need. Gervais was correct in his sarcasm. donate money, food, clothes something. don't just sit there and mumble some words and feel better. try to really help or change the situation. of course religion isn't all bad. many churches act as charities and don't just have worthless prayer sessions when people are in need.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
  10. This girl

    Praying for these peeps to find the true meaning of tolerance. Do I need to send money for their enlightenment for it to count? LIVE AND LET LIVE.

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

      YES, money helps, prayer doesn't.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:26 pm |
  11. Grumpster

    It is still incredible to see people think prayer does any amount of good whatsoever. It is simply the act of doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING and pretending like you did so you can feel somehow like you benefited humanity...when in reality you're a sleazeball for not getting off your fat rear end and contributing, or otherwise really lifting a finger to do something constructive that makes a real difference. Do you think those dead kids hear your prayers?

    May 22, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • DJ

      yes well maybe without prayer..maybe no one wouldve survived...yes bc u dont see it doesnt mean it didnt help.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
    • Julie

      Ditto

      May 22, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • pjr

      Grumpster, you don't believe in it because either you have never done it, or you have only to believe that it doesn't work. You must have a personal relationship with God through His one and only Son, for Him to hear your prayers. You see, your sinful nature keeps your prayers from getting through. That is why you need Jesus. Jesus took yours and my sin to the cross of Calvary so that chasm can be bridged through Jesus. Just ask Jesus into your life and then, your prayers will get through. Grace and Peach, my brother.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
    • tony h

      agree. these lazy people who 'pray' and think it does something are obviously missing a few more IQ points than average. I love this statistic. if the USA deported all atheists it would lose over 93% of the National Academy of Science but less than 1% of the violent convicts in the USA. Interesting huh?

      May 22, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
  12. reddragon

    I love Ricky!

    May 22, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
  13. Nathan Prophet

    The Primal Source has nothing to do with our Universe, Earth or living things. We are on our own. If it makes a person feel better to pray, then they should pray. If it gives comfort to a hurting person for you to say "I'm praying for you," then by all means say it, and do it. The so-called "Free Will" argument for the justification of evil, suffering and death is immoral. In point of fact, free will is an illusion. A large portion of our species needs the belief that there is a personal God that will take care of them. They overlook the times "he" doesn't take care of them and others, and cling to the hope that he will give them strength to make it through their situation. That's fine with me. I think prayer does much more good than harm even if you're praying to a brick wall.

    May 22, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • Grumpster

      Fine Nathan...pray if you want, but don't sit there all high and mighty like it made a difference to anyone...it didn't.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
  14. Tom Paine

    God hears the prayers. Prayers sometimes result in the miraculous. We live in a point in history where non-believers feel at ease verbalizing their non-belief. They have the perfect right to do so. But for believers, keep praying. It is transformative.

    May 22, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
    • Grumpster

      Prayers result in nothing ever in the history of humankind.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
      • Tom Paine

        Grumpster, most human beings differ. Most human beings pray and you should ask yourself why they are doing so if nothing ever resulted in it. And despite what you may think, people who have prayed for decades of their life are not doing so because they are scared. They find it fulfilling and it does change things.

        May 24, 2013 at 10:57 pm |
    • tony h

      you are correct. I prayed for big tornadoes when I was in Dallas last week and it worked! I prayed again this week for big tornadoes in Oklahoma. Worked again! Wow I must have a direct line to God. Of course I also know statistically when tornadoes occur, but God must have listened to me and made them happen to kill people who believe in him in the Bible belt!

      May 22, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
      • Tom Paine

        Tony, sorry I suppose that is supposed to be humorous. But your humor takes nothing away from the reality that so many experience in our world. If prayer does nothing for you, I'm sorry. But it does make a difference and maybe just maybe the majority of humanity (not only current but historically) are not the rubes you think they are.

        May 24, 2013 at 10:55 pm |
  15. lol??

    The A&A's have gods, don't let anybody kid ya. Look what they always do with gubmints, giving them god-like powers with usurpation.

    May 22, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
  16. Connie

    I believe in God and I believe in prayer. I am an Oklahoman and we are a state of praying people. If you don't believe, if you don't pray, if you don't live here.... that is choices you make. Don't make some kind of stand because you don't believe. Leave our Christianity alone or pray with us. This is a time for all of us to pull together, not a debate. If you don't believe, again that is your choice..... don't cause problems for us. We are hurting.
    By the way, I am not prejudice..... I pray for all God's children. #PrayforOklahoma

    May 22, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
    • Grumpster

      Praying doesn't hurt? Churches are a waste, contribute nothing to the tax base and mis-inform otherwise reasonable people into false hope.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • Wild1

      Very well emphasized Connie! People get so wrapped up in a debate only to forget the reason why the debate started in the beginning. Just because you (people) pray doesn't mean you're lazy or any such nonsense. It means your faith in a higher power (God) will take care of His people and provide in ways no one on this planet can fathom. Just be a human being and provide support to your fellow human beings the best way you know how, whether it be prayer, monetary value, or actual physical support.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
    • tony h

      I prayed for big tornadoes to hit Oklahoma in May. It worked! I'm going to keep doing it!

      May 22, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
  17. elmo

    Gervais is not even an American citizen and nobody says you have to pray for Oklahoma!

    May 22, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
    • Angela's left foot

      You better prove you are American before you post.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
    • ME II

      @elmo,
      Sorry, but what does being a citizen have to do with anything?

      May 22, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
    • ME III

      What's an American Citizen? Just curious.....

      May 22, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
  18. pomass

    When I say I'm praying for someone, it actually means that I have concern for their condition and that I will do all I can to help. Lifting them up in prayer is always the first step in that process for a believer. It was not meant that it was all that we do. We fill the collection plates for many charitable reasons. It's foolishness to think that we would not be there for them in this hour of need. But for those of us who have no money to give, or not the good health to help, they may only have their prayers to offer. Shame on you all who would diminish that heart felt offering!

    May 22, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
    • Grumpster

      Lifting them up? That's ridiculous. The winds did more to lift things up than your worthless prayers. Get out there and move boards and bricks. That's something far more worthwhile than a deluded person putting their hands together in a futile gesture.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
  19. boocat

    It's okay for Gervais to be an atheist BUT HE IS NOT FUNNY – EVER – AT ANYTIME. At least George Carlin was a funny atheist.

    May 22, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
    • Ricky

      Everyone's a critic...

      May 22, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
  20. Connie

    I believe in God and I believe in prayer. I am an Oklahoman and we are a state of praying people. If you don't believe, if you don't pray, if you don't live here.... that is choices you make. Don't make some kind of stand because you don't believe. Leave our Christianity alone or pray with us. This is a time for all of us to pull together, not a debate. If you don't believe, again that is your choice..... don't cause problems for us. We are hurting.
    By the way, I am not prejudice..... I pray for all God's children.

    May 22, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
    • sam stone

      "I believe in God and I believe in prayer. I am an Oklahoman and we are a state of praying people"

      Must be praying to the wrong god, and this is the punishment

      May 22, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
    • Angela's left foot

      Great, now no one but believers are allowed to live in OK. Thanks Connie.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
    • sam stone

      "Leave our Christianity alone"

      When Christians (particularly the red state variety) stop trying to fvck with others civil rights, let us know

      May 22, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • sam stone

      "I pray for all God's children."

      Yet we have some bloviating forum christians who say that non christians are not only not god's children, they are god's enemy....

      May 22, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
    • Grumpster

      Your God is a worthless P.O.S. who doesn't deserve the time of day if he has to show people he rules the world by killing little kids.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:20 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.