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. DFDFG345345











    October 5, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
  2. DFDFG












    October 5, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
  3. Craig

    You talk to invisible people.

    Argument over.

    October 5, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
  4. markbowen66

    CNN Religion blogger tells those who disagree with him to stop the name calling while at the same time calling them trolls. That says it all.

    October 5, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
  5. Mr. Kero

    I believe in a God just how one can believe that there is a God. It does not make any of us a bad person. What make us a person is killing or forcing people to believe or not believe, and there are plenty examples of both. The answer is choice. mkay

    October 5, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
    • Larry

      Have you ever participated in the indoctrination of people? Told anyone that doubt can lead to hellfire?

      October 5, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      "Forcing people not to believe." Ummm... How is that done, normally? When you see it taking place, what specific actions are usually being carried out? Thanks.

      October 5, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
  6. Where is your God now?

    You are at a German “sparkle party”. You are wearing your party pants. You are ready to dancy dance. It is a hard-core German sparkle party and you are wearing your rubber boots. The music is pulsating and it feels good to dance. You notice a familiar face standing at the bar. You dance over to her as fancy as you please in your polished rubber boots. You bend low to smell her perfume and say hello. It is your father.

    October 5, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
  7. proud2bsecular

    It's a bit obvious, identifying these roles we all take on, for these topics on faith and morality. What's more interesting to me, if WHY we tune in and add to the discussions with such vigor. I doubt a majority of people's goal is a civil, thought-provoking discussion. For me, this is much more interesting, but not dissimilar to Superbowl. My happy-meter hits a HIGH when my team (provoking atheists with small dabs of succinct scholarly) TROUNCES street corner prophets. I arm pump and do victory dances when I read a "nailed it" comment from my folks. I shake my head and feel so "not surprised" by predictable comments by rabid, shrieking bible pounders. It's true, these kinds of missiles only polarize us all, but honestly, as an atheist, I'm never going to receive a you've-got-a-point-there from a you've-got-to-believe-what-I-believe person. Instead, I am going to have an enormous amount of enjoyment reading the prophets' poorly constructed, predictable diatribes and feel my chest swell with pride when one of my own swoop in with a brilliance, logic and fact.

    October 5, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
    • Cam

      And there are cheerleaders on the other side of things who AMEN religious posts, or even random Bible quotes, as though they actually make some kind of point.

      October 5, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
  8. AhhhhhZombies!

    "When it comes to bull**** , big-time, major league bull****, you have to stand in awe of the all-time champion of false promises and exaggerated claims, religion. No contest. No contest. Religion. Religion easily has the greatest bull**** story ever told. Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there's an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever 'til the end of time.....But He loves you" – George Carlin

    this just makes sense. id rather not believe in a god that loves you like your abusive drunk step father loves you.

    October 5, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
    • smartaz

      That is nothing compared to presidential campaign promises.

      October 5, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
      • tony

        Yes. But votes are counted. Prayers apparently not.

        October 5, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
      • Pfft

        "They call it the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it." – Carlin

        October 5, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
  9. Charles Darwin

    I was going to leave a comment but my talking snake just called me and I have to leave to walk on the water over the pond to rescue him from that infernal burning bush he keeps getting trapped in. After that, I have to feed the rattle snakes and bring them to the preacher for Sunday's revival meeting. I must remember to bring along some tarps to lay on the floor so the rollers don't get dirty.
    They just don't get it fellow Atheists.....they just keep leading with their chin and It's out job to hit it.

    October 5, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
  10. bostontola

    Thousands of years ago there was no science and man's knowledge was focused on survival. When we started living in larger groups, the ones with better organizational approaches dominated others. Without science, faith in a superior being worked very well.

    What is amazing is that it worked so well that it still dominates even though scientific and societal moral, ethical, and legal advancements are now filling the space occupied by faith. It's hard to unseat a strong incu mbent and it takes a long time. I believe it will happen though.

    October 5, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
  11. kimeschroeder

    Yeah, I'm in there to one degree or another. If I may be allowed to cut myself short for once and self deprecate myself to the point, "Maybe I just need to get a life." I'm not an atheist and i read the bible now and then. However, my God concept is not based on Rush Limbaugh and i don't believe the Bible is the inspired edition of Fox News. No wonder Christians don't want anything to do with me. I'm beyond redemption. Time to call it quits. "So long and thanks for all the fish!"

    I'm not exactly sure why I'm still engaging Christians anymore. I could say something brilliant like, "She/He started it!" Which is true sometimes,, but not all the time. I could say "I'm standing up against hate." Which is true some times too. I mean there are only so many times i can listen to outright lies even when most of the time Christians don't know they are lies. I don't accept that the bible was inspired in any way more so than any other writing. I don't accept that Jesus was/is God. I mean someone named Jesus could be or could have been incarnate deity, but there is no way he's the person described in Christian culture. That person is like a car with more after market Add ons.
    I'm in a perpetual state of chagrin over LGBT Evangelical supporters who insist the bible does not call all things LGBT sin. At the very least it's literary dishonesty in the same way as saying the bible condemns slavery of any kind. I believe they are correct in saying it is not wrong to be gay and that slavery is wrong.
    Maybe I should focus on something worth saving. Yeah, I should get a life.

    October 5, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
  12. Lionly Lamb

    Religion is more a personal ideology then a social declaration...

    October 5, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
    • bostontola

      If only that were true.

      October 5, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
      • Lionly Lamb


        October 5, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
        • One should

          lookup so see what Stipe wrote about the meaning of this song. It's not what you may think.

          October 5, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
    • Ben

      However, there is also something very tribal about certain branches of Christianity. Pretty much like a secret society, with passwords like "Have you been saved?"

      October 5, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
  13. OldMo

    I like the overall message of this article. If you're a true Christian, you should contend for the faith without being nasty. That's just common sense and of course it's backed up by what's instructed in the Bible. We are called to spread the gospel not laugh at the thought of someone eternally separated from God. Ezekiel 18:23 tells us God does not delight in the death of the wicked, He prefers them to turn from their wicked ways. I've enjoyed having back and forths with people because its forced me to do more to back up my beliefs. All that said, there's a lot of people out there who identify themselves as Christians but they really aren't. You should have a heart to see people saved.

    October 5, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
    • tony

      Why would a real god need a bunch of humans and a couupla thousand years to spread "his" gospel?

      October 5, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
      • Ben

        And why would he start in such a backwater as Judea?

        October 5, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
  14. Ramon F Herrera

    How come in most Conservatives they leave out THE MOST important part?


    October 5, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
    • Probably

      because they realize that more debatable than just about anything else.

      October 5, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
  15. Francisco Decastro

    God Bless eveyone here. Pray to God for health and wealth, and ask Him for forgiveness for your sins. The Lord Almighty is just and loves us all. Take care everyone. Happy Sabbath. Jesus died fr our sins, so let's not take His death for granted! Let's spread His love and His teachings to the world.

    October 5, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
    • backbik

      Too much unnecessary capitalization.. too boring.. too much BS.. but not too long!

      October 5, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
  16. tony

    A pregnant atheist woman and a religious man sit down to debate.

    Lets compromise our beliefs and agree that you are only half pregnant says the man.

    October 5, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • JimAW

      You posted this twice. You must want attention.

      October 5, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
      • tony

        Yup. In your case that may be as near to an answer as we might get.

        October 5, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      I both enjoy and understand the point, and I missed it the first time.

      October 5, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
  17. Pete

    We're all just one species of great ape that exists for about 70 years on average. If your imaginary friend makes you happy, good for you.

    October 5, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
    • Francisco Decastro

      And if, you believing that you really came from monkeys makes you happy, good for you as well! 🙂

      October 5, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
      • Trollinator

        monkeys?? Your stupidity is showing.

        October 5, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
      • Pfft

        Right or wrong, humans and chimps share 98.2% of genetic code. How do you rationalize that? God made some monkeys and then said, "hmmm, I think I'll make my humans a better version of these chimpanzees"??


        October 5, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  18. Jun

    The best religion is just stay away from it.

    October 5, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
  19. GAW

    So how does one do away with religion?

    October 5, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
  20. Apple Bush

    One tiny hole that is; zero
    Large porous spaces
    Grass and critters. Critters crawling by; Crawling
    Tiny little holes; giant tiny holes
    One narrative of all perception; the position doesn’t change
    You are right there

    October 5, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Apple Bush *cough* tommy tom, you love to steal my handle and spew your lies. I have been through the same thing with my bosses. My camel-toe has a vacancy. Keep telling your lies and see where you end up.


      October 5, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
    • GAW

      Lay off the drugs or at least share them.

      October 5, 2013 at 12:52 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.