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. Haha

    You forgot the bomber. The person that gets so mad they say "if this were real life I'd get a bomb and blow yo a s s up."

    October 5, 2013 at 11:28 am |
  2. PaulC

    When people talk about their religion I remember the quote "They all can't be right but they can all be wrong".
    In a nutshell, religions were created by man with rules created by men the primary goals of control and power.

    October 5, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • what?

      Not a single word of this article sank in did it?

      October 5, 2013 at 11:34 am |
    • tony

      The article says ignore facts and be nice to each other- those who believe the facts and those who don't.

      That's like thinking negotiating being half pregnant is a possibility.

      October 5, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
  3. Isme

    If people don't want others to make fun of their religion, they should not believe in funny nonsense. Worst evils and all that is immoral in the world is from religion, especially three monotheistic ones.

    October 5, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • Jake

      This is true. The best defense against having one's beliefs ridiculed is to refrain from believing ridiculous things.

      October 5, 2013 at 11:44 am |
      • Caterpillar

        Define ridiculous. If knowledge or experience outside your grasp or mine is ridiculous, then our world is very small indeed.

        October 5, 2013 at 11:58 am |
        • tony


          October 5, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
        • Caterpillar

          Why? Because the tools we have to measure where we came from say so? Surely they tell us what they were designed to do (half life is half life) but life is really complicated and I suspect the true story is bigger. We find this out everyday. My argument is not for creationism, but against a spirit that is convinced we've figured it out. We can be right as we stand, but be prepared to change. Even creationism has value.

          October 5, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
  4. Extremophil

    Name-calling is useless in any argument. If you can't disagree without some rational thought behind it, then no one will take your viewpoint seriously.

    October 5, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • GAW

      Both extremes seem to be guilty of that on news comment sections. Commenters can seem like seem like drunks bantering back and forth in a bar.

      October 5, 2013 at 11:30 am |
  5. tony

    Another article that says ignore facts. Let's sit down and bury them with warm fuzzies instead, so we both feel good.

    October 5, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • Caterpillar

      @tony, things I was convinced were true yesterday may not be today. Science, enlightenment, and experience all change what I personally, or we as a species think are facts. Truth is outside of us, regardless of our point of view.

      October 5, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
  6. PS

    Great article... too bad the old "You can lead a horse to water" analogy will probably apply to most who read it. Sigh.

    October 5, 2013 at 11:26 am |
  7. kali

    it's called the First Amendment... deal with it.... if you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen....

    October 5, 2013 at 11:26 am |
  8. Dillon Lights

    Is it me, or are the comments by "street corner prophets" much worse than those of any other groups in Blake's article? I mean, it's not nice to call someone a fool or lecture them, but, man, laughing about someone being trapped in hell or feeding worms with their "fat drippings" is downright cruel. If a person said those things in any context aside from religion, they'd be compared to monsters in horror movies or deranged serial killers. I understand that most Christians believe non-believers will end up in Hell, but I don't think they're supposed to relish that, no matter how obnoxious the non-believer may be. I'm also not saying all, or even most Christians would post things like that – I just think it looks worse when they do, because of what they're supposed to stand for.

    October 5, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • PS

      Agreed – am I am a Christian. I'm more or less reaching the conclusion, however, that it's not up to me to tell someone where they'll end up when they die, because it's NOT my decision.

      I admit I have been on the giving and the receiving end of spiritual abuse (which is essentially what you're describing, using faith to verbally/emotionally abuse, manipulate, and shame others in an attempt to control) from people of all walks of life – believers and non-believers. Being on the receiving end by my in-laws (fundamentalists who think Catholics like lil' ol' me are in a cult run by the devil) prompted me to take a long, hard look at how I approach others, why I felt the need to be mean myself...

      I can't say why it's that way for others, but for me, the answer was I was insecure about my own faith. I'm now more comfortable with it, and the more I seek answers and use my head, the stronger it is, and the more I can let go of the need to control what others believe, and the more my comfort level is not about what others believe.

      I always hope that being civil in religious discussions/debates and pointing out that nobody ever got converted to a different belief through a lack of kindness or a single discussion will have some positive influence. Sometimes it does, sometimes not so much, but I also know I have the option to wish the other person a good life and exit the conversation if they continue to be nasty.

      Resorting to abusive tactics would only reflect on my personal flaws and the deficits in my soul, not another person's standing with God, not their level of intellect, not anything else about them, period. It would only out me as a jerk, and rightfully so.

      October 5, 2013 at 11:38 am |
    • Mike Bwk

      I agree. Unfortunately, his example of compassion for all is not practiced by some who claim Him as their Lord.

      October 5, 2013 at 11:40 am |
    • mariposa

      I agree!

      October 5, 2013 at 11:54 am |
  9. Bob

    The author makes a good point. If I understand it right, he makes the point that it is not about who is right or wrong, it is about the quality (or lack there of) in the discourse. He hopes for high level, respectful and constructive debates, rather than petty name calling, over simplifications and generalizations that we so often see. The one thing I will say is that the issues we see in the CNN comments forums are symptomatic of our current political condition. We behave in the same way as we see our politicians ("leaders") behaving. So, calling out the commenters is fine, but I would go a step further and point out that this is a symptom of a larger cultural problem.

    October 5, 2013 at 11:25 am |
  10. James Rustle

    Better get out your trench coats, MLP shirts, cargo shorts, and fedoras. Here come the atheists!

    October 5, 2013 at 11:25 am |
  11. Darwin was right

    That famous skeptic, HL Mencken, explained how to respect other's religion: "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart."

    October 5, 2013 at 11:25 am |
    • LivinginVA

      Right, and how many folks would tell a co-worker who shows you a picture of his wife and says "isn't she beautiful?" would argue with them about it? You don't have to believe what they say, but you don't have to challenge them on it, either.

      October 5, 2013 at 11:27 am |
      • Darwin was right

        Dear VA: but you forget that THOUSANDS OF PREACHERS every Sunday insult Atheists and people of other religions by claiming that if they don't worship a 2000 year old dead carpenter with long hair, they will GO TO HELL for all eternity. How's THAT for being "polite"?

        October 5, 2013 at 11:30 am |
        • LivinginVA

          Right. In my mind, that's not what they ought to be doing.

          October 5, 2013 at 11:41 am |
      • Jake

        The difference is – there isn't a large group of people in this country doing all sorts of immoral mischief based on their belief that the coworker's wife is beautiful. In your example, it is easy to ignore the coworker, because doing so makes him happy and has no negative consequences. Most atheists would not care what religious people believed at all – and would not challenge them about it – in the absence of detrimental harms to themselves, their loved ones, or society as a whole. We don't disagree and challenge because we are mean. We disagree and challenge to stop the madness – to convince people that there is no good reason whatsoever to believe the things that are motivating them.

        October 5, 2013 at 11:51 am |
  12. MennoKnight

    One of my "favorite" things people do here is LEAVE THE CAPS LOCK ON AND USE LOTS OF !!!!!! POINTS.

    It feels that they are always shouting (maybe they are).
    As a Canadian I hate shouting except at hockey games.

    October 5, 2013 at 11:23 am |
  13. Rick

    These internet posting boards have all the intellectual debate as a truck stop bathroom wall. I am a Christian, but I haven't been one all my life. When I was a non-Christian I used to think the Christians had no intellectual arguments at all, that they had no scholarship... until I read the works of:
    Ravi Zacharias, Douglas Wilson, Greg Bahnsen, Tim Keller, William Lane Craig, C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, and Norman Geisler.

    October 5, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • Darwin was right

      Moldy truck stop walls are the favorite place for the VIRGIN MARY TO APPEAR!

      October 5, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • G to the T

      Intelligent people are not immune to odd beliefs, they are just better at coming up with rationalizations for them.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
  14. ms jackson

    how about, "Stop prostelityzing your grand illusion/excuse for everything and I wont get you fired"

    October 5, 2013 at 11:21 am |
  15. HeavenSent

    John Blake is just another smug atheist who must love worms because he will have his own personal worm feeding off his fat drippings for all of eternity. My camel-toe won the pie eating contest. It is time to walk with Jesus.


    October 5, 2013 at 11:21 am |
    • SAM

      One Christian to (apparently) another. You're words are not helpful or loving. Why post like this?

      October 5, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • bam

      smack is whack

      October 5, 2013 at 11:24 am |
    • Keith

      Just look in a mirror to see what SMUGGNESS looks like, just go take a walk with the Tooth Fairy or whatever fantasy occupies your universe today.
      I can guarantee you one thing, you will never romp with JC because he has never existed no matter how much your yearn for him, he will never be your companion in your lunacy.
      Have a nice day.

      October 6, 2013 at 11:43 am |
  16. Free Man in the Republic of Texas


    "Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth."
    John 17:17

    Jesus *said to him, “I am the way, and the truth,
    and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.
    John 14:6

    He who believes in the Son has eternal life;
    he who does not obey the Son
    will not see life,
    but the wrath of God abides on him.

    October 5, 2013 at 11:21 am |
    • UncleM

      The definition of truth is not made-up stories and myths.

      October 5, 2013 at 11:25 am |
      • Caterpillar

        Every myth is based on experience. Are you suggesting that your reality is superior to theirs? Your reality now will be someone else's myth in the future. (Remember when people actually believed that ... Was true just because it was the only way that made sense to them). Open up!

        October 5, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
    • Ira Radnick

      I guess all that bible-speak quotation malarky would works if the audience has bought into the same fables you have. Count me out. I am able and willing to think for myself, devoid of being led around by others who know less than me.

      October 5, 2013 at 11:34 am |
    • mykroft

      Yeah, right. The Bible is true because the Bible says it's true. The same can be said for the Koran, the Mormon bible,....

      October 5, 2013 at 11:42 am |
    • Keith

      This guy is VERY confused, he calls himself a free man in TX, that's a joke for a start. Then he describes the prison in which his mind is trapped, he trots out the same old, tired, meaningless claptrap from the bible, written by Stone Age men from fairy tales passed down from generation to generation. It is amazing how blind people like him are not realizing how trapped they are, with no hope of escape. But sadly it seems to be common that those who are hopelessly beyond help have NO ability to think FREELY for them selves and have to rely on the ravings of demented men as written in a thoroughly discredited rag like the bible.
      Are all Texans like this or just the people who follow Ted Lose and god forbid Rick Perry.

      October 6, 2013 at 11:57 am |
  17. loudestenemy

    So, you want to control the manner in which people express their opinions in a public forum now?
    Maybe going on and on about the history of religion ISN'T for the person in the conversation but for everyone else.

    October 5, 2013 at 11:21 am |
    • SAM


      October 5, 2013 at 11:21 am |
  18. SAM

    So many people have missed the point of this article, based on some of the comments here. Did ya'll even actually read it?

    October 5, 2013 at 11:20 am |
    • G to the T

      Yes – just many of us don't agree with its premise or conclusions.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
  19. Peter Bishop

    Too bad people have such a hard time separating "God" from "religion".

    October 5, 2013 at 11:20 am |
    • Isme

      Really, separating god from religion? Can there be god without religion, or religion without god or gods in many cases?

      October 5, 2013 at 11:25 am |
      • Maxwell's Demon

        Animist religions, while they have supernatural beings in the form of spirits, generally don't have gods.

        October 5, 2013 at 5:47 pm |
    • G to the T

      You can separate "god" from religion, but "God" (which traditionally refers to the xtian god) cannot be separated from the religion(s) that created/were created by it.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
  20. mac101

    This could be applied to any online topic that people feel passionate about; the more passionate folks feel about a topic, the faster the blog degenerates into a series of "yo mama," and "the other side suucks."

    Ever read a parenting blog? Gun control blog? Political blog?"

    Rule of thumb: if you are arguing with a five-yr old, you have already lost.

    October 5, 2013 at 11:20 am |
    • Nick

      Ha....if you are arguing with a five year old, you have already lost. True.

      This is the first time I have ever posted a comment to an article...and will likely be the last. I enjoyed the article. In my view, folks who argue online about a topic as broad and faith-based as religion are most likely just insecure in their own beliefs, and so try to push them on others as a way of feeling better about themselves. The same goes for political forums. No one gets their mind changed through online chats.....if you want to argue with five-year old intellects, then argue on an online forum.

      October 5, 2013 at 11:30 am |
      • mariposa

        Great rule of thumb and aptly spoken.I never win when I argue with my five year old......

        October 5, 2013 at 11:49 am |
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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.