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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. Dan

    “I feel like an idiot now … I only sent money.”

    That is a great one.

    May 21, 2013 at 7:19 pm |
  2. Dan

    It is pretty crazy to believe that some invisible guy in the sky is granting your wishes. Grow up people.

    May 21, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
  3. lheilman2012

    Come on, Folks; lighten up. Sending prayers is what we do in our society when we can't do anything else. For many of us, it's a way of saying "I'm sorry you're hurt and sad and I care." It's a use of symbolic language at a time when literal language is just not up to the enormity of the tragedy facing us. As a Buddhist, I suppose I am technically an atheist, but Oklahoma, my prayers are with all being who suffer there. Aren't yours?

    May 21, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
    • sam

      I'd say that's fair.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
    • G to the T

      "I'm sorry you're hurt and sad and I care." – I agree with the sentiment, but why not just say what you mean then? Say that you're sorry and that you care. If it means the same thing you can relay the same sentiment without possibly creating a misunderstanding between the 2. While I try to not get upset when someone says they'll pray for me, it really does make me feel like they are assuming we share the same belief and I see that "assume all are christians" mentality all the time so I guess I'm a bit sensitive.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
  4. Chris

    Ask those displaced Oklahoma residents what they would prefer a small donation to help them rebuild or for all the people of the world to pray for their wellbeing 12 hours a day, everyday and I'm willing to bet most if not all of those affected would rather the small donation.

    Same goes for a child who is near death and in dire need of surgery. What would benefit the child more, a well respected surgeon flying in to personally partake in the child's surgery or for the entire world's populous to all pray for the child to get better until the child indeed gets better.

    What scares me is that there are probably quite a lot of you who actually think that prayer of the magnitude I am describing would make for of a positive impact than actual action and charity. And that scares me.

    May 21, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Chris (cough) Tommy Tom,

      Jesus warned,

      And I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him! (Luke 12:4-5)

      Amen.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:32 pm |
    • Divdar

      Unfortunately, you think that is all anyone is doing – prayer. That is far from the truth. Who do you think it is that helping now? Who is housing those without homes? Who is taking a week off to go over there and help? Not the atheist. They just give money.

      Faith without works is dead.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
    • craig

      The response to prayer is for people on the ground with helping hands, along with money and a comforting word. We are commanded to pray about all things. We dont get because we don't ask. God wants to hear from us.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:41 pm |
    • G to the T

      Craig – that's fine really. But even you have to agree that "praying" by Twitter post seems like a pretty empty sentiment.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  5. Science

    Bob

    I don't think Christians should be hated more than any other religious group. I think all religious groups deserve the same amount of disdain and rejection. They all equally poison the minds of the public.

    May 21, 2013 at 6:00 pm | Report abuse | Reply

    Science

    Same with a funky phone call(s)..............

    Science books........videos.............trumps the 666.................beast.................or red horn-y thingy....does it

    NOT ........peachy ?

    May 21, 2013 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |

    http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/19/proofs-of-heaven-popular-but-not-with-the-church/comment-page-48/#comments

    May 21, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |)

    May 21, 2013 at 6:21 pm | Report abuse |

    Science

    Bob.................#................below ?..

    http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/21/who-hears-prayersforoklahoma/comment-page-2/#comment-2356638

    http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/05/when-christians-become-a-hated-minority/?replytocom=2356570#respond

    May 21, 2013 at 6:28 pm | Report abuse |

    Science

    #Comedy Gold......http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/21/vatican-pope-didnt-perform-exorcism/comment-page-1/#comments

    May 21, 2013 at 6:40 pm | Report abuse |

    http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/05/when-christians-become-a-hated-minority/

    please donate ...........$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$............to storm victims...............thanks.........or richarddawkins.net

    May 21, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
  6. TheRationale

    Oh look, the problem of evil. Again. If you pray to a God who could have stopped this but found a reason not to, your morality is sickeningly out of whack.

    May 21, 2013 at 7:15 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      We all die. The big question that an atheist refuses to ask is, what side of the gulf goes the unbelievers?

      May 21, 2013 at 7:36 pm |
    • Divdar

      You shouldn't judge people based on YOUR definition of morality. You should reserve that for yourself.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:42 pm |
    • G to the T

      Divdar – sorry but that makes NO sense. By what other morality could we possibly judge people except our own? ALL any of us have are our own...

      May 22, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
  7. jimmy

    prayer is not a magical incantation. it does not undo what has been done, nor does it prevent anything similar in the future. and god certainly does not need to be told what to do. what prayer does is humble and sensitize our own souls so that we can better reflect god's love in the face of tragedy. so do meditation and other forms of spiritual contemplation. anyone can mock the simplistic straw-man that the atheists raise up and label "religion." those atheists might instead want to spend more time contemplating some of the deeper questions that they have no answers for...such as why they themselves might feel so horrified about Oklahoma in the first place, if humans are nothing more than wiggling protoplasm.

    May 21, 2013 at 7:14 pm |
    • Chris

      You continue to sensitize your own soul so that you can better understand god's love and I'll actually be proactive by donating blood and $20 to this tragedy and then remind me again how your way is morally equal to mine?

      May 21, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Talk is cheap Tommy, especially while posting under a fake handle.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
    • SDFrankie

      For God so loved the world that he sent a tornado to kill 9 children. Nah, not really. He's not that sort of jerk. He's the sort of jerk that could have stopped it...but didn't. JERK.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:39 pm |
    • G to the T

      "what prayer does is humble and sensitize our own souls so that we can better reflect god's love in the face of tragedy."
      Closest I've seen to the the question. The only acceptable prayer (according to JC) is "thy will be done".

      At least your consistent...

      May 22, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
  8. #aPrayerForTheOkies

    Psalms 9:9 The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.

    May 21, 2013 at 7:14 pm |
  9. lheilman2012

    Come on. folks. Lighten up. "I'm praying for you" is our culture's way of saying "I'm sorry you're sad and I wish you the best." t's what we say when what happened is too enormous for any effort of language to convey what we truly feel. So, even though technically, Buddhist are often thought of as atheists, my prayers go to the suffering beings in Oklahoma. Don't yours? 🙂

    May 21, 2013 at 7:13 pm |
    • Ungodly Discipline

      No, prayers are stupid.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:14 pm |
    • G to the T

      No – it's the christians way to say they feel sorry, not our "culture's" or else all non-theists would say it too. Certainly cursing god when you hit your thumb with a hammer is, but I don't think "ill pray for you" has the same universaltality.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
  10. Michael

    Who decides how much someone needs to give or how much they need to pray to give it value ? Money can show clearer results than prayer so does that make it more valuable and for whom? I sometimes wonder if praying and giving mainly benefit the heart and soul of the person giving the prayer or money.

    May 21, 2013 at 7:12 pm |
  11. ISLAM FOUNDATION OF AMERICAN CONSTI TUTION

    Get rid of hindu fabrication Evolution, foundation of hinduism racism, product of hindu atheism, criminal self center ism of hindu swami's, for peace, Islam among humanity.Meet origin of evolution, hindu, ignorant belief of hinduism, denial of truth absolute GOD, foundation of American consti tution, imposed on schools of America by hindu secular s, crook self centered.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSNpHFuJ9M0&feature=endscreen&NR=1

    May 21, 2013 at 7:08 pm |
  12. #SendWeed2Help

    Everyone should donate what cannabis they can or give money to be used to buy weed for the victims.
    They need comfort and a buzz is comfort. Let's get them stoned if they want help in getting a buzz.
    Weed helps you cope with disasters. One day it will be considered a vital part of any recovery effort.
    😎

    May 21, 2013 at 7:07 pm |
  13. SDFrankie

    What is the thinking of those who pray about this? Do they think there's an all-powerful being who can be swayed by their prayers? I'm guessing there were plenty of prayers being said by the tornado victims right before they were killed. Was God too busy at that point? There weren't enough people for Him to be bothered? He was perfectly ok with 9 kids being killed but now he'd like to comfort the grieving? Seriously, how does this stuff fit in a sane mind?

    May 21, 2013 at 7:06 pm |
    • Patricksday

      People who are "Christian" Judge everyone and close doors too keep people out that are different, not bad just different. Now they are no better than anyone else. God Help them to see the LIGHT, and Heal.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:13 pm |
    • Hunter

      You need to read the bible... And then comment.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • Divdar

      Good questions. You should talk to someone personally about these questions. Coming to message board for answers is foolish.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:44 pm |
  14. Consider...

    When a human being tears through a school, indiscriminately killing innocent children, Americans of all faiths are quick to correctly diagnose the perpetrator as a psychopathic maniac who is unfit to exist anywhere near other humans.

    When an all-powerful, all knowing, all loving god tears through a school, indiscriminately killing innocent children, Americans of all faiths rally around the psychopathic maniac offering him their unconditional love and support.

    May 21, 2013 at 7:05 pm |
    • Athy

      Well, nobody said religious people are logical.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:06 pm |
    • Consider...

      Our brains are hardwired in a way that makes it hard for most of us to accept new beliefs easily. I've personally abandoned attempts to reason with believers. I am simply thankful that I have the intellectual freedom to live my life beyond belief and I hope that a positive example speaks louder than a well-artiuclated argument.

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

    Philippians 4:6-7 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
    And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

    May 21, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
    • G to the T

      "Don't worry. Be happy" – Bobby McFarlane

      May 22, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
  16. HeavenSent

    Real fake, fake HeavenSent is trying to spew the fake true lies of satan by not stealing my handle to post the not real fake Truth of Jesus.

    Amen.

    May 21, 2013 at 7:02 pm |
    • Dippy

      What is a "true lie"?

      May 21, 2013 at 7:03 pm |
    • Athy

      What is a "fake true lie"?

      May 21, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Phony fake real HeavenSent will do anything to cast doubt on Jesus' Truth, but spewing forth will only get you a shoebox full of dirt and medicine.

      Amen.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:12 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Dippy Tom is the proper handle for you Tommy Tom.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:15 pm |
    • sam

      [applauds]

      May 21, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Athy, is also a dummy handle for you Tom. You enjoy spreading your toxicity around.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
  17. God

    I'm not listening.

    May 21, 2013 at 7:02 pm |
    • StompOnGod

      Shut the fuck up, you stupid fucking worthless piece of imaginary trash!

      May 21, 2013 at 7:10 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Stomp, thanks for proving why we are in the beginning of sorrows due to your unbelief.

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

    Matthew 5:4 Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.

    May 21, 2013 at 7:02 pm |
    • Evolve

      "don't be afraid, you'll die when I want you to"

      May 21, 2013 at 7:13 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Atheists believe the lies of evolution because they know they'll never evolve.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
  19. Robin

    I do not understand how at a time of such great tragedy that people are so petty that they attack another for their religious beliefs. I will never understand the athiests, but I won't attack them either !! The people of Oklahoma are a very devout group in general and they will definately appreciate the prayers sent for them. I do pray for the athiests also and know God hears our prayers.

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

      Robin, you might want to at least spell atheist correctly.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
    • midwest rail

      And what is your reaction to "Christian" comments like the below ?
      " All sinful towns will get their turn. "

      May 21, 2013 at 7:02 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Pat Robertson said "... it’s not really necessary to pray for the victims who were affected by the devastating tornado, since they didn’t pray in the first place."

      May 21, 2013 at 7:05 pm |
    • SDFrankie

      God's a big jerk if he heard the prayers of those 9 dead kids and didn't spare them.

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

      They were not devout enough. They did not do enough to keep God from being angry. They did not strike down the gays like the bible says.

      All we can do now is help them rebuild, so they'll be ready the next time a storm wipes out their town.

      They need 2 Chik-Fil-A restaurants instead of one, this time, it may delay the inevitable.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:20 pm |
    • Name*dave

      With all due respect, get your head out of your you know what.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
    • crossbreed

      John 15-18,19 if the world hate you you know that it hated me before it hated you.. If you were of the world the world would love his own but because you are not of the world but I have chosen you out of the world therefore the world hates you..
      Psalms 14-1 The Fool has said in his heart, there is no God...
      1 corinthians 1-18 for the preaching of the Cross is to them that perish foolishness ,but unto us which are saved it is the power of God..

      May 21, 2013 at 7:42 pm |
  20. Jerlwayne

    As an atheist, I am a bit shocked and turned off by these reactions to religious expression via Tweet. They simply represent a call to the believers to remember in their prayers those affected by this tragedy. It seems petulant, and not very enlightened, to react in this manner. If you don't believe in deities, then go forth in the intellectual comfort your reason and logic provide. If you are tired of the ways in which religious people attempt to apply their faith to your life – or even worse, if you are oppressed by religious people – then by all means fight the good fight and stamp out relgiious bigotry and oppression wherever you find it. Stand firm in the battle against the comingling of religion and government, and against religious extremism. But if you are fighting against religious people because, in a moment of national tragedy, they choose to turn – even publicly – to their relgiious beliefs to find comfort, then you need to grow the F up. This is no more offensive than being told "Bless you" when you sneeze. Gervais and other self-righteous atheists need to shut their holes as they demean actual grievances that atheists should be addressing.

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

      "[Calls/tweets to prayer] simply represent a call to the believers to remember in their prayers those affected by this tragedy."

      That is not what a call to prayer is at all. A call to prayer is asking people to pray to a mythical god in hopes that It will be so ingratiated with the adulation that It will override the laws of physics in favour of someone or some group of people.

      You may identify as atheist but you have something in common with religious people: you whitewash select religious beliefs and words of their meaning to give them a softer, gentler, less-absurd edge.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:19 pm |
    • ..and for the good news;there is no Satan either !

      Good point,but I think Gervais was just encouraging the faithful to donate more than empty prayers,which have been proven to have no effect other than making the prayer giver feel better.His approach may seem awkward and/or rude,but I'm sure people will get the idea...and enabling people to base a REALITY with no evidence,and pretending to know what they do NOT know- is wrong.

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

      Andrew, your post represents a level of arrogance that hinders atheist ideals. You prevent doubters, fence-sitters, etc. from taking a serious look at atheist thought...because your response lacks a level of empathy necessary to draw someone to your argument. I identify as atheist because I don't believe in deities or supernatural beings. I don't have to answer to that...it is simply how I believe. But that does not mean I have to belittle religious belief, or that my thoughts are insufficient because I don't squeal about how stupid or illogical religious thought may be. I may have those personal beliefs, I may not...but what currency do I realize by behaving that way? Maybe I make other atheists feel better. I suspect right wing conservatives feel better about themselves when they listen to Fox News pundits demean and belittle liberals. But is that dialogue? What do I gain or other atheists gain by behaving like you do? We all look rather simple-minded and arrogant when bathed in the light of your so-called argument. If you want to define absurd, look at the manner in which you paint an enormous group of people with one brush. That is absurd. You too need to grow up.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:53 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.