What Good is #PrayForOklahoma Without Action to Back It Up?

Daniel Burke of CNN reports that the #PrayForOklahoma hashtag was used 75,000 times as of Tuesday afternoon — and I think it’s safe to assume most of those times weren’t snarky. But does it help? Of course not. Prayer might make the people tweeting it feel better — though, are they even getting on their knees? — but it does nothing to help the people struggling in Oklahoma right now.

At least Ricky Gervais had the right idea:

Gervais has also used the hashtag #ActuallyDoSomethingForOklahoma :)

The CNN piece also quotes me talking about how prayers aren’t needed after a tragedy:

“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.

To clarify, I think most Christians would agree that prayer is meaningless unless it’s backed up by action. All I’m saying is you can skip the first step altogether. And atheist groups have done just that.

Prayer plus action = action. Given the choice between receiving someone’s prayers and receiving food/shelter/water, I’m going with the latter every time.

Meanwhile, commenters on CNN are flipping out that anyone would even dare to question the well-meaning-but-ultimately-useless gestures of religious people.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Gus Snarp

    Saw that tweet. One of Ricky’s best.

  • kielc

    This “pray for X” thing deserves an evolving meme: Like a photos of people in dire straits, with the caption “Gee, thanks for the prayers, but how about X?” (where X = sandwich, house, cure, money, research funding, etc., etc.).

  • C Peterson

    I’d suggest that prayer in cases like this isn’t just uselessly neutral, but is a negative. It makes people feel better, and that makes them less likely to follow through with some sort of actual action that could result in positive results.

    Prayer is damaging to society.

  • Birdie1986

    My news feed on FB was full of “Praying for OK” posts, which was driving me nuts. After making a donation, I shared the link to the Foundation Beyond Belief donation page on FB and almost said “Pray if you want to, but also do something.” But, I do have some very nice Christian friends, and I didn’t want to be too snarky because I want people to see that atheists care about people and don’t have to always be snarky. I do LOVE Ricky’s post, though.

  • Devil’s advocate

    Prayer does actually make people feel better. As a tool for rebuilding houses it’s useless, I agree, but as a tool for managing your own emotions and finding a sense of calm after tragedy, it works for some people. It can also be a way to say to ther people ‘I care about you’. People need money, yes, but they also need reassurance. We’re social animals, so being told that someone out there is thinking of them and cares about them might make them feel a little better. And if they’ve just lost their house or their child then anything that helps them is okay by me. For that reason I find Mr. Gervais’ tweet mean-spirited. Now is not the time for petty tribalism. Sure, atheists don’t pray, but we do say things like ‘I’m thinking of you’ which carry basically the same idea.

  • http://twitter.com/WoodwindsRock Emma

    It makes me feel terrible somewhere deep down for thinking this, but the whole #PrayForOklahoma thing really disgusts me. The reason I feel terrible is that I know that people who are using it have only good intentions, it’s just everything else about this that disgusts me.

    BTW, I live in Oklahoma, although I suppose that’s pretty irrelevant, as I was no where near this tornado (thank goodness).

    But I mean, not only is there no real action taken behind the tag and praying, it also just flat out confuses me. It’s a show of how much this concept of an intervening God twists peoples’ minds. I mean, what is this prayer for? The God that they’re praying to is said to be all-knowing and all-powerful, plus he is said to have a ‘plan’ and control over everything. No matter which way you slice this, God knew about this tornado. He might have even done it himself, depending on which way a believer believes. Regardless, despite knowing about it and having the power to do anything with it, he let it go through a densely populated area, he let it go through two elementary schools and kill eight children.

    Yet no matter what, believers are praising him. Praising him for the survivors, praising him that the tornado didn’t hit them, and then praying to him. As if praying would matter to such a being. Do these people really believe that none of the victims (child and otherwise) prayed to this God to make it through the tornado?

    Even if such an intervening God did exist, I could not imagine praising him or making a slogan to pray. Because… God already let the disaster happen.

  • Art_Vandelay

    though, are they even getting on their knees?

    Of course not. Maybe a thousand of those 75,000 are actually even talking to God, let alone getting on their knees. This is one of the most fascinating things I’ve witnessed with social media. All you have to do is type the word “prayers” and people will give you some type of moral affirmation as if you just did something positive. At the end of the day, it’s just lazy and irresponsible. If you genuinely wanted God to hear your prayers and respond accordingly, you wouldn’t need to announce it Twitter of Facebook. That’s just using a tragedy to try to make other God-fearing people think you’re a decent human being.

  • http://twitter.com/FelyxLeiter Felyx Leiter

    “Prayer plus action = action.”

  • Bdole

    As you said, action + prayer still equals action. This post strikes me as judgmental. We don’t know what these praying-people are doing or not doing. Unless we have EVIDENCE that praying discourages actual helping, what difference does it make if they pray?

  • Mairianna

    Country singer Toby Keith is apparently a native of Moore, OK. He tweeted prayers for his “hometown”, and immediately all I could think of was; “That’s all you have for your hometown???? Prayers???? You selfish b*st*rd!”

  • Beutelratti

    I think the meaning of “I’m thinking of you” or “You’re in my thoughts” is very different from “I pray for you”. We do not assume that our thoughts will achieve anything but making the person who is in our thoughts feel a little less alone.

    Praying is meant to appease, but it is also meant to move an almighty deity to intervene. We know exactly that mere thoughts and mere prayers will not achieve anything but reassuring someone. That is a good thing, yes. What is really bothering most of us is that those that pray do see prayer as a form of action. They do mean to move their deity to intervene. So yes, I get where people come from when they get angry about people constantly claiming to pray for victims or just throw a random “Prayers” in. If it’s meaningful for them to pray, alright. That should not take any time or attention away from real help.

  • Artor

    Saying, “I pray for the victims of the OK tornado,” doesn’t make anyone feel better except the hypocrite who says it. It’s a public display to show everyone how godly they are. It’s not directed toward the actual victims, but toward any fellow Xtians that might hear it. Every instance of prayer on Twitter or FB should be countered with a reference to Matt 6:5.

  • Rez™

    I’m another atheist who lives in Moore, Oklahoma. I wrote this blog post on May 20th – it deals with the subject of prayer in the shadow of devastating loss, but the subject of platitudes as well.


  • CowgirlCaroline

    I live in Granbury, TX and we had a nasty EF4 come through here last week. One of my friends with 5 kids lost everything. I set up a gofundme page and linked it to Facebook. What a disappointment! Got lots of “how sad” and “praying for you” but only 9 people out of the 1K plus who received this request for help actually donated. It’s not like I was asking strangers for money – the people I posted to either know me or know the person who was sharing it. Hate to be crass but money takes and BS walks. Put your money where your mouth is…..

  • Beutelratti

    Thank you, that was beautifully written.

  • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

    Re: “People need money, yes, but they also need reassurance.”

    What they “need” is money to rebuild. “Reassurance” is a luxury … nice to have, to be sure, but hardly anything close to a “need.”

    Gervais’s tweet is not out of line. It’s a call for action. Theists can either take up the call, and donate and/or work to help Moore rebuild … or they can waste their energy praying and whining that they were offended by Gervais. I suggest the former of those choices is the mature response, and the latter the childish one.

  • stop2wonder

    It’s true that we have no evidence whether or not this particular batch of prayers are working, but the power of prayer has been tested before and that power has come up lacking each time.

    Believing in something when there is no good reason to believe is, at best, a bad way to interpret reality, and at worse, very dangerous to yourself and others.

  • Bdole


  • compl3x

    I can see that. If people think prayer actually has some effect on a situation they might believe that their prayer is help enough. They might think the actual help being offered by others is the result of their prayer.

  • Rez™

    Thank you.