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. Dave Harris

    Religion seems to bring out the worst in people. Nothing personal, but I just prefer to avoid them.

    October 5, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  2. Apple Bush

    You, child
    Crossing the line without knowing
    Just for being who you are
    What confusion was hard wired?
    A developing brain, healthy and ready
    Sabotaged as a child
    Savage religion.

    October 5, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  3. isolate

    "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."

    I fall into the scholar camp, and I don't recognize that description at all. Religious scholars, amateur or academic, atheist or adherent, have deep knowledge of their subject. The people you describe rarely have any depth to their arguments. They are the people the beloved newspaper character Mr Dooley (Finley Peter Dunne) described this way: "A fanatic is a man that does what he thinks the Lord would do if He knew the facts of the case." They use Bible quotations ad nauseam to prove the truth of the Bible, never having heard of a circular argument. Your “Tom Skylark” is a classic example of the levels of incoherence they can achieve in the defense of their chosen belief.

    A conversation with a religious scholar can be informative and enlightening; an attempt at conversation with a religious fanatic is anything but.

    October 5, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  4. isolate

    "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."

    I fall into the scholar camp, and I don't recognize that description at all. Religious scholars, amateur or academic, atheist or adherent, have deep knowledge of their subject. The people you describe rarely have any depth to their arguments. They are the people the beloved newspaper character Mr Dooley (Finley Peter Dunne) described this way: "A fanatic is a man that does what he thinks the Lord would do if He knew the facts of the case." They use Bible quotations ad nauseam to prove the truth of the Bible, having never heard of a circular argument. Your “Tom Skylark” is a classic example of the levels of incoherence they can achieve in the defense of their chosen belief.

    A conversation with a religious scholar can be informative and enlightening; an attempt at conversation with a religious fanatic is anything but.

    October 5, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • James Bell

      Agreed. No matter one's beliefs, if one is open-minded and wishes to gain knowledge and understanding of another culture, whether the culture be micro or macro in size and scope, sitting down for conversation with a religious scholar of the culture is not only a great way to expand one's own scope of the world, but is also a great and often rare privilege for most.

      October 5, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
  5. suzie669

    People will find religion somehow, somewhere and at the right time. No one can tell which one, when, how or what he finds. Don't define religion for him. Let him choose his own way and find his own peace and learn his own lesson. God is great and merciful. No one can see him and we are so tiny and insignificant. Each of us find God in his or her own unique way.

    October 5, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
  6. iaucourant

    Most of the "Christianity" that makes the news these days does not represent Jesus. People claim that if you break one of the big "10" you go to hell. That is not true. Who was the last person Jesus spoke to before he died? The thief on the cross next to him. That man was condemned to a very painful death for his crimes. But when he asked Jesus to remember him when he arrived in his Kingdom (showing he believed Jesus was who He said He was), what did Jesus say to him? "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." He didn't tell him no, you screwed up – you're going to hell now. He said he would join him in paradise that day! What did he say about judging others? "Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor." Matthew 7 Bible version: The Message. These people who claim to represent Christianity need to go back to their Bibles, open their eyes, and understand that Jesus gave us two rules: Love God and Love one another.

    October 5, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
    • James Bell

      Well said.

      October 5, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
  7. Isaiah 9:6

    Virgin Birth of Adam and Eve – get a website http://www.Revelation124.org

    October 5, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
  8. Jeremy

    I think this post missed an important character who participates (albeit passively) in these types of online discussions.

    The Quiet Cynic

    This person doesn't know what to think. We're probably agnostic. We read the responses because we don't accept the position of the author straight off without reading how it's received. Maybe there's a huge logical flaw in their argument? So we go to read some of the comments to see what maybe we, and maybe even the author, missed. Here we find the invariable vitriol and, whatever the topic of the post itself, arrive at the one conclusion that we can actually (even as agnostics) -know- for certain: Statistically, online commentors on religion topics, whether they are disposed to being believers or nonbelievers, are jerks. We sigh and click to the next page thinking the entire conversation is a waste of time.

    October 5, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      You are better than me.

      October 5, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • James Bell

      I'm inclined to agree with you. Please read my two posts to the community on this page and a couple pages back.



      October 5, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
    • Zena


      October 5, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
    • LikeToBeAnOakTree

      Right there with you, Jeremy. Agnostics make the most sense of all: you can't prove there is a god but you can't prove there is not, either.

      October 5, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
  9. JB

    It is hard to have an intelligent conversation with someone about something that can not be proved one way or the other. I am a humanist and need only believe in things that are verifiable. Anything else is wasting time and effort. what is so sad is that so many of our laws are based on biblical suppositions that have no basis in a free secular society. Engaging in debate about matters of faith go no where. Engaging with someone who thinks they are a christian is often like pouring hot sauce on the anus of a bull. it just makes them jump around and snort and huff and puff but signifies nothing in the end.

    October 5, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      Nothing is verifiable beyond the self.

      October 5, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
      • JB

        And thus I need only sing a song of myself (apologies to W.W.)

        October 5, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
  10. Mohamiss Shafique-Kaddir

    While the Chrisitans argue amongst themselves , us Muslims KNOW that we are the only true religeon . Islam is the perfect way of life , a complete system of faith , politics and lifestyle . Islam is the future of the west , and Obama is doing a great job of promoting it in the USA . The Muslim Brotherhood already has more influence in America then even Egypt right now . Soon , the Islamist Flag of Peace , ( yes the black one) , will be over the White House and Capitol Hill , and you can that Imam Barack Hussain Obama . Islam , its simply perfect .

    October 5, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Do you take pride in your tactics?

      October 5, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • JB

      hmmmm...hows that suni shia thing working out for you? something tells me by your post that you are not Muslim but a right wing anti Obama nut

      October 5, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • King

      Yes, such a perfect religion. Muslims make up of about of 99% of the worlds suicide bombing. I see you Muslims killing each other all the time. In fact, it is legal to kill other people, to abuse their wives, and to lie to unbelievers to make Muslims seem less evil.

      October 5, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
  11. Harold Heie

    Thank you John for your helpful posting about the worst and the best of the ways in which religious people engage one another online. As a complement to your referring to the attempt to "bridge religious differences" on the web site "Catholic Moral Theology," I would like to refer your readers to the web site http://www.respectfulconversation.net, which seeks to model "respectful conversation" among persons who disagree about important contemporary issues.. In particular, readers may be interested in reading the "Alternative Political Conversation" section (eCircle) in which six "evangelical" Christians who situate themselves at various points on the political spectrum present deep disagreements about some contentious public policy issues (e.g., the Federal Budget Deficit, Poverty, Syria & Iran, Abortion, Marriage, Gun Control) while modeling deep respect for one another (no name calling, demonization or nasty rhetoric). I close with a personal reflection as a Christian who aspires to be a peacemaking "follower of Jesus." Jesus commanded his followers to "love others". A deep expression of what it means to love another person is to give him/her a "welcoming space" to disagree with you about a given issue, and then to engage in respectful conversation about your differing beliefs.

    October 5, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
  12. AB Fresh

    Religion is a crime
    I preach that mess all the time
    The churches just keep on prayin’ and sayin’
    I ain’t hatin’
    Just demonstratin’
    Atheists stand up fool and show your face
    Ain’t no disgrace
    Gotta be that way player
    Do us all that favor

    October 5, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
  13. Jason

    Wow, it's like no one read the article. Not enough Peacemakers in this forum.

    October 5, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • James Bell

      I read the article. Sadly, not everyone comes to these boards to make peace; on the contrary, they come to try to validate their anger and hatred.

      October 5, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • R.M. Goodswell

      You can sit in a coffee shop and have a cup of joe with a friend and debate religion, and at the end get up and go your separate ways and look forward to the next meeting – that is cool, that is great...it puts a nice shiny coating on the whole subject...if you can do that fine.

      But for many others the subject is much more real – Try having a coffee shop style debate with anyone actually touched by the horrors of religion- the ones that lost someone to the bombs, the terror acts, the wars....you ll find they have a much more polarized view.

      October 5, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
  14. R.M. Goodswell

    True believers get heated in the argument because after a while, they realize in the back of their minds that they aren't just arguing with another person, but with reality itself – It is very hard to hear that we are wrong sometimes. – out come the insults due to anger and frustration.

    Atheists get heated when they ve locked horns with the 'other' believer – the one that has something at stake- a paycheck, power and/or prestige – should religion fall and is using disinformation and in many cases outright lies to prop up their side of the argument.- out come the insults due to anger and frustration.

    We are talking about a subject that has literally shaped human development though out its entire history. It has been used to subjugate and control vast segments of humanity. The egotistical and domineering people who always end up in the halls of power have found religion to be quite useful in bending the masses to their will, and really hate to see it go. It's no
    wonder that the discussion turns hot at times.

    October 5, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
  15. James Bell

    People come to this board for various reasons. I came here today to see what the author was referring to. I thought he made some good points, and I wanted to see if people took notice and what they think about the article. I had no preconceived notion I wanted to see validated.

    However, it appears clear to me that many commentators on this board are indeed seeking validation. In fact, it is almost a common denominator among them. Whether the opinions be of understanding or prejudice, acceptance or rejection, love or hate,... it is all motivated by the same need, the need to find validation in how they feel right now at the present moment.

    Some come here having had a recent bad experience with something or someone, and at the moment are bent on validating their anger and hurt. Others come here having had a recent good experience, and like the others are seeking validation of their good feeling and present optimism. But if validation is the common denominator between the angry and the peaceful, there can be no reaching of an accord between the two groups, no matter how well-constructed or informed your argument. In fact, you are just spinning your wheels if you try to convince the other group, for to convince them of an opposing view is to invalidate their own.

    In short, if you have come here to try to convince the other side one way or the other, expect disappointment. If you have come for validation, respond to those whose comments reflect how you feel at this moment, and you will have found what you're looking for.

    October 5, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
  16. Apple Bush

    Sleep your eternal sleep for even the particles you leave behind will be present for the end as all matter will reunite for the glorious creation of a new reality.

    October 5, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
  17. DFDFG345345456456












    October 5, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  18. pconwell

    Best place to discuss religion online: reddit.com/r/debatereligion

    October 5, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  19. DFDFG345345456456












    October 5, 2013 at 1:17 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.