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Holy Trollers: How to argue about religion online
They are the same cast of characters that surface during every online debate about religion. Do you know a "Holy Troller?"
October 5th, 2013
08:00 AM ET

Holy Trollers: How to argue about religion online

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) –"Yo mama..."

Whenever I heard those two words while growing up in inner-city Baltimore, I knew something bad was about to happen. Trading insults was a childhood ritual. But everyone understood that one subject was off-limits. You didn’t talk about anybody’s momma unless you were prepared to start swinging.

Now that I’m all grown-up, I’ve discovered a new arena for combat: The reader’s comments section for stories about religion.

When I first started writing about religion for an online news site, I eagerly turned to the comment section for my articles, fishing for compliments and wondering if I had provoked any thoughtful discussions about faith.

I don’t wonder anymore.

When I look at the comment section now, I see a whole lot of “yo mamas” being tossed about. Readers exchange juvenile insults, condescending lectures and veer off into tangents that have nothing to do with the article they just read.

For years, I’ve listened to these “holy trollers” in silence. Now I’m calling them out. I’ve learned that the same types of people take over online discussions about faith and transform them into the verbal equivalent of a food fight. You may recognize some of these characters.

You might even recognize yourself.

The Street Corner Prophet

When the Belief Blog ran a recent article on a television host who declared that atheists “don’t have to live here,” a commenter identified as “Karie” got into a heated exchange with someone who called themselves “Bible Clown.”

Karie called Bible Clown a “disgusting, deviant perverted virus,” and a “Bozo,” before ending with this prediction:

Hell is coming for you love. Special dungeon just for u and u won’t be able to die. LOL.LOL.”

The street corner prophets often act as if they’re deeply concerned about the fate of souls they disagree with, but you can tell that they relish the prospect of eternal torment for their online enemies.

Some don’t even try to hide their true motives:

“I hope you like worms because you will have your own personal worm to feed off your fat drippings in hell for all eternity…”

That’s what a commenter called “HeavenSent” said to another following an article on evangelical Pastor Rick Warren. HeavenSent ended his malediction with one word: “Amen.”

Okay, so that’s the wrong way to argue about religion online if you’re a street corner prophet. Now, here’s the right way:

Not everyone who disagrees with you deserves eternal torment. People rarely listen to someone who is in perpetual attack mode.

“We change no one’s mind by attacking,” said Charles Camosy, an ethics professor at Fordham University in New York City.

Camosy has made a career out of bridging religious differences. He’s part of a “Contending Modernites” group, which finds common ground between Christians and Muslims. He’s also the co-founder of a website devoted to dialing down the heat in religious arguments entitled, “Catholic Moral Theology.”

Camosy says that online discussions about religion are difficult because they are not in person. Tone and nuance gets lost online.

“You can’t look them in the face,” he said. “You can’t shake their hand or give a hug. You find it very difficult to have that sort of embodied trust.”

The Provoker

There isn’t any notion of “embodied trust” with the next online character: The provoker.

The provoker doesn’t even pretend to care about the final destination for someone’s soul. They come out punching, and they love to say things that they probably wouldn’t say to someone in person.

In the recent article on Warren, a reader who went by the surname of “Just the Facts Ma’am,” tells another:

“Thanks for once again confirming how vulgar, uneducated and delusional you are Meredith.”

In an article about millennials leaving the church, a reader who identified herself as “Jenna,” tells another: “Jesus never said any of that mess. You are a false prophet if I’ve ever seen one.”

How to argue about religion if you’re a provoker:

No one will listen to you if they don’t like you, said Joe Carter, an evangelical blogger and author of “How to Argue like Jesus,” a book that explores how Jesus verbally tangled with his enemies and persuaded his friends.

Carter said Jesus was such an excellent communicator because he told stories that provoked emotions, took surprising twists and forced people to draw their own conclusions. But he also connected with people because of a simple reason: he cared about them.

“When people know that you care about them, they’re more likely to be persuaded by you,” Carter said. “We tend to be persuaded by people we like and trust. Jesus had that in spades.”

The Atheist

One of my best friends was an atheist. Whenever we ran into one other, we’d launch into these long, philosophical discussions about religion.  I loved it. Like many atheists I subsequently met, I discovered that he knew more about the Bible than most people who claimed to be religious.

It’s too bad that many of the exchanges between atheists and people of faith in our comments section don’t follow the same script. In fact, they have some of the nastiest religious arguments I’ve witnessed online.

A sample:

In a recent Belief Blog article about atheism, a reader identifying himself as “Sam Stone” says to another: “Free people do not need a savior, Kate. Only slaves need saviors.”

Another reader who identifies himself as “CamDEn1” tells a Christian, “You are an uneducated fool. Ever you heard of Richard Dawkins? Sam Harris? Atheists have more respected scholars than Christianity…”

I get the source of frustration for some atheists. They have longed been caricatured by people of faith as moral degenerates who don’t care about morality. Some of them, in turn, have caricatured people of faith as weak-minded hypocrites who believe in fairy tales.

Here’s how to argue over religion if you’re an atheist:

Get beyond the stereotypes and actually spend time with a person of faith. And if you’re a person of faith, do the same with an atheist. You might be surprised.

That’s what happened when Camosy, the Fordham University ethics professor, embarked on a speaking tour with the renowned atheist and philosopher, Peter Singer, who is seen by many as the founder of the animal rights movement.

Camosy said the speaking tour forced him to read and pay attention to Singer’s arguments. He discovered that they share concerns over global poverty. He saw Singer as a person of good will.

“That created the space for us to have an honest, open and fruitful exchange with one another rather than exchanging barbs,” Camosy said.

It also created the space for personal transformation.

“Actually reading him converted me to being a vegetarian,” Camosy said. “But it was only being open to his arguments that made me see.”

The Scholar

I have a friend who is smart – scary smart.  He’s a genial, funny guy who happens to be a theology professor. I try to hang with him when we talk religion, but there’s always a point in the conversation when he loses me. I compare that moment to watching the starship Enterprise go into warp drive. He just goes into hyperspace and my brain just isn’t big enough to follow.

There a lot of big brains in our blog’s comment sections. I call these readers “the scholars.”

Some of them are self-appointed biblical experts. They talk as if they have God’s cell phone number: God has revealed great mysteries to them. They know the divine plan.

In a recent article I wrote about contemporary Christians feeling as if they were persecuted, a reader identified as “Tom Skylark” let me know what all this persecution was really about.

 Skylark said:

“Christians will face continued persecution then 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 will happen right before the 7 year tribulation when Israel burns Russia’s weapons for 7 years. (Ezekiel 39:9). Those who are not taken in the rapture will have the opportunity to receive Christ during the 7 year tribulation but will be beheaded for their testimony. (Revelation 20:4). How far is Russia towards its prophetic position which means the rapture (! Thessalonians 4:16-17) is even closer?

Actually, I did not know that, and I’m still not sure what it means.

Sometimes the scholar is someone who believes all religion is hopelessly derivative: it’s all based on something that came before.

A reader by the name of “Seyedibar” responded to my article on Christian persecution with this:

“A little study of history and comparative religion goes a long way. Abraham is based on an Egyptian figure. His god was Ptah, not El, and his vision was of Memphis, not Israel. Jesus was likely based on a Merkabah mystic, one of a hairdresser and carpenter. .. And if you back a little further, Uguritic archaeology shows us that the book of Genesis is based on the ancestor kings of the Canaanites. Most Christians and Jews aren’t aware that the creator of the Garden of Eden, El, is recorded to have died of a wild boar attack.”

 Like I said, hyperspace. I just can’t go where “Seyedibar” has gone before. I love the scholar’s passion for religion, but some of them lose me when they try to deploy all their knowledge of history and religion in any effort to change someone else’ beliefs.

How to argue about religion if you’re a scholar:

Accept that there is a limit to knowledge. I’ve never seen anyone say in response to a religious argument: “You are right. Your argument is irrefutable. I’m going to jettison a lifetime of beliefs on the spot right now because I obviously have no coherent reply.”

It just doesn’t happen.

Gordon Newby, a professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies at Emory University, said most people change religious beliefs “not because of one argument” but only after long conversations and intimate exposure to another faith.

“Logical arguments are nice but they're not going to change someone’s life,” Newby said. “We’re way too complicated for that. We’re not programmed machines. We have this whole limbic system of emotions and appetites and everything else.”

The Peacemaker

There are some readers who give me hope when I go to the comment section. They are the “peacemakers,” and they surely bless me with their attitudes.

Peacemakers try to keep arguments from getting personal. They are the online referees.  They turn the other cheek.

An exchange between someone called “Bootyfunk” and “KatieRose” shows a peacemaker in action.

“Bootyfunk”  gets upset with “KatieRose” because she says  “we must respect all ideas in the world, no matter how crazy.”

Bootyfunk says people don’t have to respect all ideas, and tells Katie Rose she shouldn't tell people not to debate religion on a blog about religion.

What does KatieRose say in response? She doesn’t go to war. She makes the peace:

“Okay! That works for me,” KatieRose said. “I’m sorry if it sounded like I was ordering people not to talk about an issue: I just disagreed with the focus of the discussion.”

“Bootyfunk” ends the discussion with a smiley-face symbol and a “smooches, Katie.”

How to argue about religion if you’re a peacemaker:

Keep on doing what you’re doing.

If only the rest of the comment section had more peacemakers. I actually e-mailed readers like “Bootyfunk” and “KatieRose” to get their perspective, but all I got was silence. Not one commenter wanted to talk on the record for this story. Only one person – an atheist – responded to my invitations to chat, and he didn’t want his name used.

But I have a feeling I’ll hear again from these holy trollers when I scan the comment section of Belief Blog. So will you, even if you don’t read that much about religion. These holy trollers show up in our lives and our workplaces. Many of them will sit next to us at the dinner table when families and friends get together for the upcoming holidays.

When the conversation turns to religion, you may meet your holy troller, and you will have to make a choice.

Do I make the peace, or do I go the war?

What kind of holy troller will you be?

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Ethics • Internet • News media • Nones

soundoff (3,856 Responses)
  1. tutuvabene

    Faith is something that can't argued since there is no logic to it, simply belief. All are God's children, including the trolls, so all have a right to say as they want.

    October 5, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
    • Zeus

      Only some of you are my children. The rest I care less than a flying lightning bolt about. That is why there are so many millions of sick and starving but otherwise innocent kids.

      Try lining that up against the slimy Christian god. At least I'm honest about who I like...

      October 5, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
  2. Lionly Lamb

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oh_IbZo7_VI&w=640&h=360]

    October 5, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
  3. David

    I will give anyone a million dollars if they can bring this God.

    October 5, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
    • Jesus Christ Son of God

      I can bring you a million fools who believe in god. Does that count?

      October 5, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
      • Zeus

        Just don't go all ad populum on us. That can get very messy.

        October 5, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
        • denver

          What happened with that whole Greek Pantheon anyway, Zeus? You guys had a great thing going there and then subscribership took a dive and, well...

          October 5, 2013 at 5:28 pm |
    • Tim

      In the beginning there was nothing...and then IT exploded.

      October 5, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
      • Higgs Boson

        I can't seem to find out what happened to all the anti-matter, where did it all go? If the universe bumps into all that missing anti-matter will the universe just disappear in a big flash of energy? Why is there gravity? Why not say we just don't know? Why say it is miracles and magic? Are we not intelligent enough by now to say none of the very many gods mankind created did it? Is the human mind so afraid of death that we need that crutch? Why support all the fat cats that live high on the hog from the frightened hoards that have not figured out that it is all, religions, a very old scam?

        October 5, 2013 at 5:11 pm |
    • David Davey

      I will give anyone in the world 1 million dollars if they can prove that there is a God Floating around in the sky.. any takers? And I really do have more than 1 million.

      October 5, 2013 at 5:00 pm |
  4. JML

    I don't discuss politics or religion. I learned long ago that these two topics open you up to getting stabbed in the brain by a bunch of nitwit logic that will turn you into the kind you hate if you hang around it long enough. What is the author's excuse for not catching on? A slow learner? I bet the author even has a college degree. Whatever for?

    October 5, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
  5. in god we trust

    the lord does not force you to believe but he exhorts it, because whether you believe it or not he created life, without him you wouldn't be breathing, there is even unexplained crosses in the human DNA that scientist themselves cant explain. to find god you must look within yourself, and that's what he actually wants, he wants his creations to care. has anyone even picked up a bible and read at least genesis? see for yourself, but then again you must believe, or he wont answer.

    October 5, 2013 at 4:54 pm |
    • David Davey

      you mean Santa Claus? or do you mean the easter bunny? oh your talking about lil fairy man in the sky... God what joke...

      October 5, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
    •  I've been able to reproduce your method of reason and validation

      It goes something like this:

      [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YIj4rLYo0c&w=640&h=360]

      October 5, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
    • The Deist

      The Bible isn't a good enough reason to believe.

      October 5, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
    • denver

      Of all the pronouncement I've ever heard from religion, I"m most confused by the suggestion that you have to believe a religion is true before the truth of the religion can be revealed to you.

      October 5, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
      • well

        for 10% of your income per month we can put you on the fast-track...

        October 5, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
        • denver

          ...the track to where, exactly?

          October 5, 2013 at 5:07 pm |
        • well

          excuse me – we're on a different schedule now – it's each week

          October 5, 2013 at 5:07 pm |
        • well

          to that full revelation of course. you can even get a deep, deep understanding for about 15%.

          October 5, 2013 at 5:09 pm |
        • denver

          I need to buy my way into a religion that accepts air miles...

          October 5, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
    • nd

      In response to the claim that there is a cross in dna that scientists can't explain... do so more research. The lamina protein, which is not a part of dna but is in living cells, including humans, is T shaped because of its molecular structure. Scientist know exactly what this protein is, what it does, and why it has its shape.

      October 5, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
    • nd

      now in response to the challenge to read genesis. Genesis contains two creation stories that in several parts contradict each other. The stories in genesis closely parallel older texts such as the epic of Gilgamesh. The stories of genesis contain factual errors as has been discovered by archeology. The stories of genesis contain scientific errors such as the creation of the "filament" around the earth; which is also borrowed from older Caananite sources. The stories in genesis are not, contrary to bible school teachings, monotheistic.

      I'm going to cut it short here but I recommend taking the free old testament class offered by yale open courseware.

      October 5, 2013 at 5:22 pm |
  6. Jesus Christ Son of God

    The picture at the top starts with a caption 'God must love stupid'. Should have been 'Stupid believes in God'.

    October 5, 2013 at 4:53 pm |
    • Oh please

      Or maybe "stupid" thinks only one side of a philosophy debate is absolutely correct. Or better yet "stupid" uses the word "stupid"

      October 6, 2013 at 6:26 am |
  7. SouthernCelt

    Whether or not Man created religion more or less depends on your view of creation.

    October 5, 2013 at 4:53 pm |
  8. David

    I just want to say this to every fanatical religious believers There is no God. God is something created by Man's belief in the unknown. The Bible is just a book of stories that's all it is. To this day no ones ever proven that God exists.

    October 5, 2013 at 4:52 pm |
    • David Davey

      And then on the seventh day I rolled a blunt and celebrated...

      October 5, 2013 at 4:53 pm |
      • Atheist Activism

        Amen

        October 5, 2013 at 4:59 pm |
    • jeansees

      Not to you it has not been proven. I know for a fact he exists. Miracles happen everyday. Maybe one day you will see too.

      October 5, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
  9. crownedinoil

    Praying for you Mr Blake.. That one day God will change your heart.. But if not.... Jesus said " Not all will enter in "

    October 5, 2013 at 4:51 pm |
    • David Davey

      your a retard

      October 5, 2013 at 4:54 pm |
      • Atheist Activism

        you're

        October 5, 2013 at 4:59 pm |
      • J R Brown

        ;lurn ta spel gooder

        October 5, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
  10. Robert A. Hamilton

    I have a better idea. As a theology major I find it best to recognize the company you are in and look at the conversation objectively. I usually hang around quite a few agnostic, atheists, and otherwise friends. I have been in religious discussions with all of them—some of which condemn Christianity to a figurative Hell lol—and I have yet to be in a hostile argument with any of them because I am respectful and discuss things instead of try and beat them with my Bible. Actually, I get along with non-Christians more than Christians, isn't that odd? Sometimes it is best to just leave well enough alone. Perhaps that is true more often than not. Also remember that many tones and such aren't visible online. The person you are calling names is somebody you may very well get along with in person. Don't take everything so seriously 😉

    October 5, 2013 at 4:51 pm |
  11. NotBillGates

    This is a subset of problems with comment sections in general. They turn in to verbal food fights very quickly, with very little thoughtful conversation of the subject at hand.

    October 5, 2013 at 4:50 pm |
    • David Davey

      thats the point here.. brother no wonder there are still idiots believing in a GOD

      October 5, 2013 at 4:52 pm |
    • Pfft

      Yet, here you are. Leaving a comment anyway.

      October 5, 2013 at 4:59 pm |
  12. Lionly Lamb

    God is the Creator of Intelligently Designed Fractals of Cosmologic Orderliness...

    October 5, 2013 at 4:50 pm |
  13. Roger

    If it was possible to have a reasonable discussion with religious people, there wouldn't be any religion.

    October 5, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
    • Sissy

      or war...

      October 5, 2013 at 4:51 pm |
  14. David Davey

    As with any other human conceived fairytale, there will come a day when you grow up and realize that santa Claus is just that. A Fairytale. So why do religious people, "most which have some sort of education", still believe the fantasy story of a little man floating around in the sky, listening to every word we say?

    October 5, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
  15. Joey Isotta-Fraschini, D.D. ©™

    Atheists can be expected to argue with Christians the same way an elephant chooses where he will sit in your parlour, because atheists are tired of being told that they are going to "Hell" because of a book of fairy tales.

    October 5, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
    • Ambrose

      A book of fairy tails. Huh? Do you know your history. Every prophet is in history. Even atheists are in the bible,but some were later changed like Paul. People who say you are going to hell. Don't pay them any mind. They know nothing if they are crusing you like that.I only ask that you don't take it out one the deity you think is not real. He has do ne nothing to you. Just life right and let the chips fall as they may.

      October 5, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
  16. haime52

    Did ANY of you read the article?

    October 5, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
  17. Dicazi

    When I first got on-line, I thought it would lead to better, more polite dialogue. I thought if people could actually see in black and white what they were saying, they'd be "nicer" than if simply face-to-face. Man, was I wrong.
    And I love that term "holy troller". I'll have to remember that.

    October 5, 2013 at 4:46 pm |
  18. in god we trust

    fear the lord, he may be coming... and the proof is in the book of isiah.

    October 5, 2013 at 4:44 pm |
    • ScottCA

      Yes an ancient book written by ancient simpletons who had not the slightest inkling of knowledge about the natural world.

      We better be afraid of The Gorgons as well, since its in the Iliad.

      You do realise your utterly out of your mind.

      October 5, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
    • David Davey

      Bet ya a million bucks your wrong!

      October 5, 2013 at 4:50 pm |
    • Pfft

      Yes, grovel before your Lord who has all the characteristics of a megalomaniac. Fear! FEAR!

      No thanks. I don't worship Gods who treat me like a bad puppy.

      October 5, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
  19. Realist

    $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

    ............

    The Judeo-Christian-Islamic ...

    ........ http://www.GODisIMAGINARY.com ..........

    ... and thank goodness because he emanates from the ...

    ....... http://www.EVILbible.com

    .............

    October 5, 2013 at 4:44 pm |
  20. Realist

    -----–
    ............

    The Judeo-Christian-Islamic ...

    ........ http://www.GODisIMAGINARY.com ..........

    ... and thank goodness because he emanates from the ...

    ....... http://www.EVILbible.com

    .............

    October 5, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
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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.