Online troll or therapist? Atheist evangelists see their work as a calling

By Kimberly Winston

Two years ago, “Max” was a devout Catholic who loved his faith so much he would sometimes cry as he swallowed the Communion wafer.

Then came the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, where 20 schoolchildren and six adults were murdered by a troubled gunman. At that moment, a bell went off in his head, he said, ringing “there is no God, there is no God.”

Now, Max goes by his online handle “Atheist Max.” A 50-something professional artist from the Northeast, some days he now spends two or more hours online trying to argue people out of their religious beliefs in the comments section of Religion News Service.

Max left more than 3,600 comments in the past 12 months, making him RNS’ top commenter. Many of his remarks can be interpreted as angry, hostile and provocative, casting him in some minds as an Internet “troll” — a purposely disruptive online activist who delights in creating comment chaos.

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He’s written “Jesus is despicable” or its equivalent more than once — red meat to some readers who come back at him with fervor. Other users have called him “mean-spirited” or “angry.”

But interviews with Max and other atheist “super-commenters” on various religion websites reveal there is more to their motives than disruption and rage. While some may see them as trolls, they see themselves as therapists. And far from seeking chaos, they have their own codes of conduct they say help them keep their online conversations from becoming a stream of insults and hate.

At a time when online trolls are often blamed for spreading hate online, Max and others say they’re actually living out a kind of vocation that calls them to push back — sometimes gently, sometimes not — against what they see as the true source of hate and intolerance in the world.

“I really don’t want to be a jerk,” Max said, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect family members, including an uncle who is a priest. “I’m determined not to attack the person, but the belief. I’m not sure if that has worked, but I’m looking for better ways all the time.”

Max is not alone in classifying his online commenting as more benevolent than belittling. Several atheist super-commenters mentioned a concern for others as motivation for spending up to 10 hours a day arguing about religion online. They characterized their comments as a duty, maybe even a kind of missionary work…

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Online troll or therapist? Atheist evangelists see their work as a calling