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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. pxsymbol

    "John Doe Versus Death" - read it if you want to know the truths (not those truths)

    October 26, 2013 at 11:28 pm |
  2. Bubba

    This is awesome. The Truth of God passes the test of scrutiny. So bring it, and if your God Truth fails when tested, then maybe your interpretation is not God's, but rather an interpretation of your own ego.

    October 22, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
  3. Pentheus

    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.

    http://goo.gl/YuwfuX

    October 16, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
  4. Trey Medley

    At the risk of being completely drowned out by the (no doubt fully self-referentially aware) din of holy-trollers. I found it interesting that the author refers to the examples he offers as "scholars." To be sure there are some scholars, but the author, in what I imagine to be a sly attempt to flatter these types into complying, groups what I would label "crackpots" with "scholars." Just because you read it on the internet or saw it a propaganda film (Zeitgeist anyone?) does not make it true. Real scholars actually ground their arguments and statements in rigorous research, not half-baked internet searches performed while drunk.

    October 14, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
    • A wise old atheist once said

      Microanalysis of fiction is still micro analysis of fiction.

      October 15, 2013 at 9:01 pm |
  5. ploj

    What spoiled brats and stupid idiots and not one sticks it to the serpent

    October 14, 2013 at 8:41 am |
    • Max

      Speaking of ploj's garbage:

      Karie (ploj) 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.”

      Her various troll names:
      ploj
      pas
      dodo murdock
      lulu
      bootyfunk (stolen)
      slappy
      love
      tt
      point being
      louie
      cherrie
      prophet
      Dr E
      kati
      sam tone
      blessed
      Meredith S. (Stolen from a 9/11 widow!!
      doodoo
      bingo
      wary
      alaqeada
      sam stone (stolen)
      al
      observer (stolen)
      sammy
      karie
      bethany
      barry
      blake
      faith
      hharri
      charlie
      terry
      mary
      yudhisthira mahabharata jr
      eddie
      tex
      dewie
      Pharisee DM
      DODO

      Such a good Christian minister. Liar, thief. Ploj.

      October 14, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
  6. Shavonne

    I really enjoyed this article. It made me see things in a different perspective. Plus it is so true!!! We must have wisdom in all that we do.

    October 14, 2013 at 7:24 am |
  7. DODO

    condemn your sister, that serpent, and i'll help u out

    October 14, 2013 at 2:34 am |
    • dorianmattar

      Condemn my sister?

      WOW you really need help.

      Doesn't something seem wrong with your way of thinking?

      Perhaps it seems a bit strange?

      Go get help.

      October 14, 2013 at 3:19 am |
      • ploj

        Something's wrong all right. U. And ur disgusting coven for never rebuking that devil.

        October 14, 2013 at 10:55 am |
        • dorianmattar

          We don't believe in the devil, so why would we even bother?

          Are epileptic seizures a decease or the devil?

          October 14, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
        • Yes

          How dare you not debunk that devil

          October 14, 2013 at 6:59 pm |
  8. DODO

    dorianmattar
    What are you talking about?
    Who proved it? Show me the evidence.
    Show me the controlled experiments where your god is shown as real.
    Talk is certainly cheap.
    u get nothin. sides, old bitty, u want proof, get ur fat but in gear and search with all u got.

    u should no
    of course there is 0 evidence. that's y i freely refuse to engage in pleasures most would do anything to enjoy. morons

    October 14, 2013 at 2:05 am |
    • Maddy

      You're retarded, aren't you?

      October 16, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
      • dorianmattar

        He's past that.

        He's down to a 50 IQ and sinking.

        Why don't they go get help?

        October 16, 2013 at 7:57 pm |
    • frank stark

      read my comment and there is as close as anyone has gotten in our lifetime and possibly ever.

      November 1, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
  9. Phelix Unger

    All he is saying is behave with some decorum, for all you really really slow people, have some class. He is discussing current communication, as it relates to the rebellious blogs.

    You know where is the intelligent and thought provoking ideas, art, science, history, where are we going to be in 20 years.

    Too funny

    October 13, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
  10. St. Ain

    How can you not troll here? It's too much fun.

    October 13, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
    • Atheists are wrong about Jesus and ancient religion

      Consider what that says about you as a human being.

      October 14, 2013 at 7:57 am |
      • St. Ain

        I troll atheists and religious alike. Peas be with you.

        October 15, 2013 at 9:04 pm |
  11. dm lane

    Considering that belief is determined through individual perceptions...is it any wonder why there is such a broad diversity of opinions...?

    October 13, 2013 at 10:34 am |
    • observer

      discovering god is simple. over thousands of years, the path to god has been tried, tested and proven 100 percent reliable.

      October 13, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
      • dorianmattar

        What are you talking about?

        Who proved it? Show me the evidence.

        Show me the controlled experiments where your god is shown as real.

        Talk is certainly cheap.

        October 13, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
        • DODO

          nah
          go find it for yourself.
          if u really want to see the evidence cited,
          u will find it.
          ur problem?
          u don't and u won't, guarenteed

          October 14, 2013 at 1:54 am |
        • dorianmattar

          What do you mean go find it. You just stated that you had the evidence!

          In science, anyone anywhere on the planet can reproduce REAL evidence!

          What I'm I supposed to find this evidence? Go on a treasure hunt? Push my brain to imagine things? Talk to the air until my brain starts hearing voices?

          What the hell is wrong with you people?

          It's like I'm talking to children here!

          You should first learn what the word EVIDENCE means BEFORE speaking about a subject you apparently don't understand.

          October 14, 2013 at 2:03 am |
  12. Reality # 2

    Christians or other god believers have a way out if they are willing to take their god down a notch.

    To wit:

    As per the famous contemporary theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx, God is not omniscient. Please read, pause and contemplate the following by Schillebeeckx:

    Church: The Human Story of God,
    Crossroad, 1993, p.91 (softcover)

    "Christians (et al) must give up a perverse, unhealthy and inhuman doctrine of predestination without in so doing making God the great scapegoat of history."

    "Nothing is determined in advance: in nature there is chance and determinism; in the world of human activity there is possibility of free choices.

    Therefore the historical future is not known even to God, otherwise we and our history would be merely a puppet show in which God holds the strings.

    For God, too, history is an adventure, an open history for and of men and women."

    October 13, 2013 at 8:44 am |
  13. H. E. Baber

    I'm actually kinda interested on what offends people about religion:

    (1) Metaphysics–i.e. belief in supernatural beings or states of affairs, which doesn't entail any empirical claims.

    (2) Empirical claims, e.g. Biblical literalism, anti-scientific doctrines including rejection of evolution, climate-change denial, etc.

    (3) Ethics/politics: puritanism, social conservatism, conservative politics, etc.

    (4) Symbols and ceremonies

    (5) Meta-doctrine, i.e. if you don't buy (1) – (4) you are wicked, stupid, damned, not a good American or whatever.

    Some will certainly say "all of the above," but would everyone? Like most "mainline Protestants" I just buy (1) and (4)–but don't think buying the metaphysics or engaging in the ceremonies is of any importance. Could there be a detoxified religion that would be more widely acceptable?

    October 12, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
    • dorianmattar

      Yes, as long as they keep it to the church, I don't really care at all.

      So yes, put me in for 2, 3, 5 and maybe 1 as well.

      October 12, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
    • Hot pink heels

      3 and 5 offend me, but I actually like 1 the way a kid likes candy.

      October 12, 2013 at 4:46 pm |
    • Sara

      I wouldn't use the word "offend", but for a subset of religions 2 ans 3 I find the most troubling. It's really the clash with scientific evidence, at the level of physics, biology, achaelogy, anthropology, astronomy, psychology and sociology. Religions differ in the areas of science with which they clash.

      October 12, 2013 at 11:59 pm |
    • Wow

      I am offended by 5, deeply worried about 2, somewhat concerned about 3 and would not be able to care less about 1 and 4, were it not for 5.

      October 13, 2013 at 9:37 am |
  14. A holy troller

    It's got nothing to do with religious conviction, biblical knowledge or belief in a deity. If you are smug and you post stupid things you attract the bored and sarcastic. It's like chumming for sharks.

    October 11, 2013 at 10:42 pm |
    • sam stone

      you must remember that all of the pious christian posters speak DIRECTLY for god. even if they disagree, they all speak for god. at least in their little sycophant minds, they do.

      October 12, 2013 at 9:44 am |
      • ploj

        Yours is coming, pedophile. O, its a coming girlfriend. U will beg god to I'll u

        October 12, 2013 at 11:34 am |
      • tallulah13

        Boring troll is boring.

        October 12, 2013 at 11:37 am |
      • Sanity

        read some G.K. Chesterton and challenge yourself beyond your seemingly prideful and or misguided thinking. http://www.chesterton.org http://www.catholic.com God loves you better than we do

        October 12, 2013 at 11:55 am |
        • sam stone

          why don't you challenge our own misquided thinking?

          here is a simple question for you.

          how can an omniscient god and freewill co-exist?

          October 12, 2013 at 6:31 pm |
        • sam stone

          sanity:

          you have not shown my thinking to be prideful or misguided

          in fact, if you want to speak to the prideful, talk to robert brown or gopher. they both purport to speak for god, and think theselves to be unable to be incorrect as to the existence or the nature of "god"

          when you do that, come back and talk to me

          October 12, 2013 at 6:38 pm |
        • sam stone

          our = your

          come on, sanity...can you do it, or you another post and run christian coward (it is redundant, you know)

          October 12, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
      • M. McKenna

        Omniscience is not omnicausality.

        November 1, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
    • Sanity

      read Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, it may refute the big non sequiturs and remind you that there is Truth, when we see it and don't see it

      October 12, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
      • sam stone

        Beware of those who capitalize the word "truth", because it is not truth they seek, but THEIR "truth"

        October 13, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
  15. The Return of the Son of the Demon-Possessed Toaster

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

    October 11, 2013 at 2:12 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.