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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. Marvin

    Who is forcing Ricky to pray? if he doesn't wanna pray, let him not pray. Leave the others alone!!!!

    May 22, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoMagic

      Who is forcing you to read what Ricky said? If others want to read what he said, let them read what he said.

      May 22, 2013 at 6:23 pm |
  2. Michigan Gal

    Just because you say a prayer for the people in OK it doesn't mean you aren't ALSO helping by sending money. I did both, and I'm sure lots of others have as well.

    May 22, 2013 at 5:44 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoMagic

      And, if you read the meaning of the article, you therefore did what Ricky said people should do. BTW, I put a smile face sticker on the board for you today.

      May 22, 2013 at 6:25 pm |
  3. knaples

    Ricky gervais can throw his money at Oklahoma but he doesnt know anything about Oklahomans!
    I live in a town that was hit by a tornado the previous day. As soon as the Local news media could reach victims and ask what they needed the same response came over and over. " just pray for us", or " I thank God My family is ok., Pray for those who lost someone" . As for DOING something? Before the sun had set that day, the local churches that were not destroyed were setting up shelters. one had become a gathering place for school children whos parents had not been located. In the days since they have provided meals and water out in the neighborhoods now that the families can come back not to mention work supplies, baby needs, toiletries, manual labor and of course prayer! these church groups have come from all over .There of course there are other civic groups helping as well but that wasnt the complaint. Most people in Oklahoma praying are also sending money, dropping off donations, volunteering. yes i am too. Ive been in there shoes

    May 22, 2013 at 5:44 pm |
    • gorp

      He knows Oklahomans need funds to support relief efforts. The food and shelter you mention (even the ones from church groups) come from people donating money, not praying.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:46 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Did you read the article?

      May 22, 2013 at 5:47 pm |
  4. Anon. in San Diego

    Prayer might have some psychological personal benefit, but is still ultimately futile because we know that intercessory prayer has no measurable impact from rigorous scientific investigation (the most recent study is out of Harvard no less). People of a religious persuasion who want answers to such events may be better off consulting with a meteorologist or climatologist–ascribing such events to a supernatural omnipotent and omnipresent agent (who by definition is also therefore callous–if not callous then not omnipotent and omnipresent). Some of us find no comfort in ignorance.

    May 22, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
    • Peter

      Derrrrrrrp

      May 22, 2013 at 5:44 pm |
    • Duggerdog

      Very well said. Thanks

      May 22, 2013 at 5:47 pm |
  5. Julie

    Listen! The majority of you religious fanatics were indoctrinated from birth by the people you love and trust the most, your parents. They also were brainwashed by their parents with religious dogma. Ever heard of the Stockholm syndrome? NONE of you have ever seen or spoken too any god. If you say you have, you're either a liar or psychotic. The fastest growing religious type group in the States are referred to as the "unaffiliated" at 17% of the adult population. Every day less and less parents are subjecting their children to this ridiculous nonsense. Mathematician have calculated at this rate, religion as we know it will be almost non existent in the next 100 years. Try to open you mind. You don't have to live in ignorance your entire life.

    May 22, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
    • dina

      It's human nature. Always has been, always will be people believing in an invisible "force", either because they've been indoctrinated, or it gives them comfort, or it helps them with the whole death issue. It's been bad for humanity, but who knows how many people it's given comfort and inspiration to. I wouldn't get your panties in a bunch over it... it'll always be there, as long as we're human.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:51 pm |
    • Anon. in San Diego

      Pew notes a 20 point drop in religiosity in the millennial demographic* (studied every 25 years). This is the largest move away from religiosity ever observed in the United States, so despite 46% of Americans being creationists (and scientifically illiterate) there is hope for this country yet.

      * Off topic but significantly less also identify as Republicans. Curious that the GOP still bang the faith drum given the rapid demographic changes.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:51 pm |
  6. Dawn Benko

    People need to get off their high horses. You don't believe in religion? Bully for you. A lot of people do, and they appreciate the sentiment that someone is praying for them. That aside, if prayers were all that were ever offered by people of faith during a crisis, how do you explain the hundreds of millions of dollars raised by charities EACH and EVERY time. How do you explain all the volunteers? How do you explain all the private food, clothing and supply donations? It doesn't all come from atheists, I assure you.

    If money is all you're able and willing to offer, than offer money and shut the hell up about what others do.

    May 22, 2013 at 5:39 pm |
    • gorp

      The only assertion that's been made is that the people praying and not donating are functionally the same as people not doing anything at all. I doubt very much anyone cares whether people who are donating pray or not.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      People donate because they have evolved morals over millennia living together in groups. People do these things because they are inherently good, not because they do or don't believe in some deity.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:44 pm |
  7. Ken

    Shut up CNN you know nothing about God.

    May 22, 2013 at 5:39 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoMagic

      Shut up Ken, you know nothing about the real universe.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
    • CommonSensed

      It seems neither do you.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
    • Heretic

      And neither do you!

      May 22, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoMagic

      CommonSensed: Or more likely lack thereof. I'll take your universal knowledge challenge any day of the week. What does common sense have to do with believing a fairy story anyway? You show how uncommon common sense really is.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:58 pm |
  8. Patines

    I was talking to god and he asked to tell you to "stop blaming him for everything that goes wrong. He is not in a good mood anymore and basically he doesn't care at all". He was kind of upset. especially with jesus, who has developed a drinking problem and looks like he is doing crack cocaine. And because of age there are many things that he cannot handle anymore and again jesus is not cooperating with him and he said: "until I put my house in order, you are on your own, so stop calling me or praying, and I don't tweet or facebook".

    May 22, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
    • Bells B.
      May 22, 2013 at 5:39 pm |
    • sam

      Best post Bells has made all day.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
  9. Francisco

    This is the power of praying:
    http://news.yahoo.com/faith-healers-charged-murder-2nd-death-195403830.html

    May 22, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
  10. Jill Farley

    Pray for Gervais

    May 22, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Fart for Farley

      May 22, 2013 at 5:38 pm |
    • Heretic

      He will think for you.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:47 pm |
  11. believer

    I think we might do well to understand that all compassionate people are giving what they can...time or money...Christian or Atheist. And for those who wonder why God allowed this...the world has turned their back on Him and He is letting us have our way in that. He will not force us to believe, that is where free will comes into place. As for Christians who believe, they are in Heaven with Jesus. My heart goes out to the families and friends, though. And children under the age of consent do go to Heaven. The bible says that there will be trials and suffering in life, even for Christians. There will also be great joy. He also allows these things to bring us back to Him. Many people pray in times of sorrow, but not so much in times that are going along well.

    May 22, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
    • Peteyroo

      You're so full of poop, you stink.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      You know this how? The world has turned their back on god? Which god? Ra? Thor? Zeus? Manitou? Allah? Vishnu?

      People have come up with thousands of gods. The Christian Abrahamic god is just one more in a long line of human inventions.

      Tornadoes don't happen because some cosmic deity has thrown a hissy fit because people don't believe in it any more. That's ludicrous. Earthquakes don't happen because God is PMSing.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
    • Duggerdog

      The Bible also says to stone us non-believers, non-virgins, the list goes on. Read the whole Bible Mr. Believer, not just the nice parts. So. where do you want to meet so you can stone me? Oh yea, at the edge of the city. See you there!

      May 22, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
  12. bob

    often people forgot that prayers are also meant to shape our hearts and thinking. it is through prayers that we seek to know God's good & perfect will and align ourselves to it.

    bottomline, people suffers and needs help – any helps, whether materials, time, action, encouragement, or prayers will do.
    i hope those who are not offering prayers are helping in some other forms, because for some, the only thing they can offer is prayer.

    May 22, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
    • Herb

      Except that your god gives ZERO guidance and gives ZERO communications.
      All you are is an airhead pretending to speak for your god without any input from him or any other god.
      There is nothing you list as real-world action that a non-believer couldn't do.
      Your god is worthless as a guide or companion or whatever silly fantasy you have in your head.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:38 pm |
    • Rick

      If some people are offering prayer, then it is great! There is nothing more powerful than a prayer on behalf of someone offered earnestly.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Rick,
      Prayer might have some psychological personal benefit to the person praying; rigorous scientific investigation has shown that prayer has no measurable impact.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      @ Rick "There is nothing more powerful than a prayer on behalf of someone offered earnestly."

      Okay, which would you prefer, if there is a terrible car accident, and the car is on top of your child. You can only choose one of the two options.

      Do you prefer 10 extremely earnest people praying that god lifts the car off of your child, or do you prefer 10 very strong people to physically lift the car off of your child. And no – you don't get to cop out by saying that the 10 strong people showing up is because of someone praying that they show up.

      Please answer honestly.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:57 pm |
  13. No, Really

    Hey, Seriously, God created a perfect world where all of the things you blame him for would never happen. Then, humanity consistently demanded to do things their way and leave him out and then blame him when it rains...By the way, normally I think Gervais does his best acting with hismouth shut but in this case he is demanding that faith be put into action. He is right.

    May 22, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Are you saying that an omniscient and omnipotent god didn't know and was powerless to stop. Yeah right!

      May 22, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
  14. simplyput

    It's called *intercession.* Get a bible and read.

    May 22, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
    • gorp

      Alternately, get your information from more than one book.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:38 pm |
    • Herb

      Muslims would say they only need their one religious book, too.
      Can we get you an explosive vest or anything? I'm going to the store.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
    • Peteyroo

      DumblyPut, intercession is nonsense.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
    • sam

      Get a book with actual knowledge in it, and read.

      May 22, 2013 at 6:07 pm |
  15. ChillGervais

    Rev. David Johnson's comments at the end of this article illustrate why prayer is important to some (if not all) of the victims. I am not religious, but I am in no way offended by prayer. Prayers don't hurt anyone, they can accompany (and don't exclude) donations of money, time, and materials, and clearly some victims take comfort in knowing they are on the minds and in the hearts of so many all over the world.

    May 22, 2013 at 5:31 pm |
    • believer

      CG...I think that is a very thoughtful post. Thank you for being able to see both sides. No matter what side of the fence you are on, we all do what we can.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:39 pm |
    • gorp

      Nowhere in the tweet did Gervais take offense at prayer.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
    • Notsomuch

      Very well said.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:50 pm |
  16. Mom

    I think people say "I am praying for you" but you really have to pray to God for comfort for these people or its just empyt words. When you listen to how God answers then you can move in the direction he leads you , be it money, helping them rebuild or what ever. but unless you do to what you are saying , praying , then don't say anthing at all.

    May 22, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
    • Peteyroo

      Absolute nonsense, Mommy. There is no God.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
  17. Pav

    I pray and I contribute as well. Faith without action is dead.

    May 22, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
    • O Hones

      This is true. Good statement.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
  18. jesse

    Because stars like to think they are important, that's why, pretty simple. Props to Ricky for calling them out on the pathetic attempts to act like they are doing something to actually help.

    May 22, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
  19. a b

    what a stupid article. it's just an excuse to pit believers against non-believers. in the wake of a horrible tragedy, this is just tasteless

    May 22, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
    • gorp

      Is there some reason you think the topic is unworthy of discussion?

      May 22, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
    • Bells B.

      CNN gets wood with pitting the two against each other.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
  20. Lotus Rummler

    I Do Something for those around me, and I pray.
    I pray for many reasons... I pray for people who might feel comforted....
    I give money and service to help them with their needs (hunger, temporal needs of shelter, clothing, food, etc)
    I Pray that their needs of the spirit and heart may find comfort, peace, a little healing, some kind of gentle change inside when their worlds have been ripped apart by storms, tragedies, sorrows....
    There are other needs we all have that we can not meet for each other...
    How many of us have felt alone, even in the midst of others? How many of us feel sorrow, cut off, isolated, lonely, even though we have many relationships? Haven't we all had times when even close friends and family can not comfort us or reach our internal sorrow? This is where prayer can reach. This is where the gentle, inexplicable balm of faith can soothe, heal, comfort, give the hope to carry on....
    I am not going to let anyone rip my faith from me, from my heart and lips.
    I will ever pray. And I will get up and ACT.
    But do not shred people who pray. Many praying people give.... but we know that it takes more than a hot meal and a blanket to bring comfort to a wounded soul and destroyed life. That is the work of God and faith.
    I will pray for Oklahoma. And I will DO for them too. But not because a celebrity told me to.... Because my conscience tells me to and because I love my brothers and sisters in Oklahoma. Bad times happen to us all, you will get through this OK! And we are here for you.

    May 22, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
    • seriously

      If there is a god, I hope he as an excuse for being such an a-s-s-h-o-l-e

      May 22, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
    • seriously

      Don't you think that if there was a god.... we wouldn't have things that can kill us like poison, cliffs, tornados, etc....

      Religion is a complete waste of time and energy. Way to many deaths in the world come from religion. It's nothing but a joke.

      Top Ten Signs You're a Christian in Name Only
      10 – You vigorously deny the existence of thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies the existence of yours.
      9 – You feel insulted and "dehumanized" when scientists say that people evolved from other life forms, but you have no problem with the Biblical claim that we were created from dirt.
      8 – You laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Triune God.
      7 – Your face turns purple when you hear of the "atrocities" attributed to Al lah, but you don't even flinch when hearing about how God/Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in "Exodus" and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in "Joshua" including women, children, and trees!
      6 – You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans, and Greek claims about gods sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who then gave birth to a man-god who got killed, came back to life and then ascended into the sky.
      5 – You are willing to spend your life looking for little loopholes in the scientifically established age of Earth (few billion years), but you find nothing wrong with believing dates recorded by Bronze Age tribesmen sitting in their tents and guessing that Earth is a few generations old.
      4 – You believe that the entire population of this planet with the exception of those who share your beliefs – though excluding those in all rival sects – will spend Eternity in an infinite Hell of Suffering. And yet consider your religion the most "tolerant" and "loving."
      3 – While modern science, history, geology, biology, and physics have failed to convince you otherwise, some id iot rolling around on the floor speaking in "tongues" may be all the evidence you need to "prove" Christian
      2 – You define 0.01% as a "high success rate" when it comes to answered prayers. You consider that to be evidence that prayer works. And you think that the remaining 99.99% FAILURE was simply the will of God.
      1 – You actually know a lot less than many atheists and agnostics do about the Bible, catholicism and church history – but still call yourself a Christian

      May 22, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
    • Jinm P.

      One pair of hands doing things can accomplish more than a million pairs of hands praying for things.

      When a house falls on you, do you want a preacher or a rescue team to show up? Which one would you call first?

      "Reverend, my dad is on the floor having a heart attack and has turned blue, would you mind saying a few prayers for him? I'll call 911 when we're done, There's no hurry, God is in control."

      May 22, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
    • Peter

      @seriously Yawn.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoMagic

      @ Peter: Well thought out and executed reply. Kudos. Thanks for your contribution. We need more deep thinkers like you and Jack Handy.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:46 pm |
    • Chance

      @seriously
      "if there was a god.... we wouldn't have things that can kill us"

      Your logic is foolish, you should just say "if there is a god why can we die?" or better yet "why isn't life a eternal paradise"

      But yet we can see this life and universe was not intended to last forever, it has beginning and a end. So in short we can't base our judgement on God in the difficulties of life or the obvious finite life span of humans and the universe. Obviously if there is a God this life nor universe was not intended to last forever or to be trouble free. Suffering and death in a temporal life don't prove God is not real.

      May 22, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
    • believer

      Beautiful Lotus. Bless you...

      May 22, 2013 at 6:04 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.