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For context, I personally am religious and am a practicing Christian and I love learning about other belief systems. Because of this, I joined a forum on Disqus focused on open discussion of religion and religious customs practiced around the world. All members are welcome regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof, which is a policy I actually really appreciate.

Unfortunately, it has had the unpleasant side effect of allowing people who seem to have no genuine interest in learning about other belief systems and instead post rhetorical questions that are heavy with inflammatory and often antagonistic language. These include questions like the ones below (these aren't verbatim as I can't remember the exact wording, but convey the spirit of the posts):

Isn't is odd how demonic possessions and hauntings only ever happen to Christians? Are they inherently more fragile or just more imaginative?

How many Christians here would abandon their faith if they admitted Jesus was black?

Is there a valid reason why religion should be taken any more seriously than flat-earth theory?

And in most instances when trying to explain what I understood of Christianity in an effort to answer their questions, the conversations inevitably devolved into them demanding that I defend my faith in a way that is satisfactory to them, with the starting basis that we both know I'm wrong, that I'm inherently unintelligent and/or brainwashed, and that they would refuse to accept anecdotal or personal life experiences which have strengthened my faith. I was a pretty regular member and I think many users recognized my user handle because even when I stopped responding to these types of posts they would contact me. It was these encounters that ultimately caused me to leave the forum as it was incredibly exhausting being confronted by such antagonistic people with the expectation that I owe them nothing but the utmost respect while they intentionally attacked my faith, intelligence, and character.

Here's what I've tried:

  • Giving them the benefit of the doubt and answering their questions as legitimate curiosity. This led me to the conclusion that they don't want answers, they simply want to find a way to make demeaning statements about religion in a way that provides deniability

  • Leaving responses to some of their public comments reminding them that the forum is for learning and offering explanations, not arguing a case for or against any specific belief system. Some other users would back those up with references to the community rules but their behavior never changed

  • Personally messaging one or two of the more hostile offenders explaining how their behavior is making an uncomfortable experience for some other users. These messages either were ignored or responded to in a very aggressive manner

I don't want to contact the moderators of the forum because I feel like everyone should be free to use it and I don't like the idea of getting anyone banned or removed. I still haven't yet returned to the forum because their activity has become so pervasive that it's actually rarer to see a post made to the forum that hasn't been hijacked by them than one that has and it's sadly ruined the experience for me

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    "I don't like the idea of getting anyone banned or removed". Why is that? Do you not like confrontation? Do you think it's wrong to silence people? Maybe the real problem is you feeling guilty about something that you shouldn't feel guilty about. Banning these people would be reasonable. – Peter Feb 7 at 12:04
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    If they do not follow the rules of this forum, then theyself cause their bann/remove from it. Not the person (for example you) who make the moderators aware of it... – Allerleirauh Feb 7 at 18:22
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Contacting the moderators and letting them handle it is pretty much your only answer.

You cannot get people to do what you want over the internet, especially not if they don't respect you and are only on the forum to antagonize others.

I've been a member of a few forums like the one you mention, both the religious type and the irrelegious type, and both have to constantly deal with trolls trying to rile up the members. It's a part of internet life.

Talking to these people never works. The only things that I've seen that worked are:

  • Being very liberal with the banhammer
  • Dedicating a specific part of the forum to people who disagree with the premise, with a big warning that there's limited moderation in that part, and that disagreeing with the premise will not be tolerated outside that part of the forum

The latter basically means you're installing a figurative cess-pool in your forum. There's always trolls who like to stir up trouble, but likewise there's always people on the forum who like to mess with the trolls, and giving both sides the room to get it off their chests keeps the rest of the forum cleaner.

But either way; both options require the power to modify the way the forum works. If you don't have it, and you're not willing to work with those who do, you will get nowhere. Most of these people come to the forums with the goal of wasting your time and getting you worked up; any interactions you have with them, especially those that take effort on your part, is just playing into their hand.

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    Ooooh yes. Very good answer. Back then when I had a huge forum, for these very special individuals, I added a very special feature: they were not banned, they could still post, but only themselves and the mods would see the posts, and no-one replied. It was fun watching them scream into the void. A worthy punishment, since they crave attention... while denying them the perks of posing as a victim for being banned. – bobflux Feb 7 at 13:36
  • Bobflux, Parler used the same method to silence everyone who didn’t agree with their religion aka Qanon cult. – gnasher729 Feb 10 at 10:46
  • "You cannot get people to do what you want over the internet, especially not if they don't respect you and are only on the forum to antagonize others." This is the main point of the answer and can't be stressed enough. The only thing I disagree with here is messing with trolls - that only encourages them and makes them angrier (and more happy to troll others) As a Christian, Romans 14:19 is something that applies here. If the other party doesn't want either peace or mutual edification, then ending the relationship is a good practical solution. – baldPrussian Feb 10 at 17:58
  • @baldPrussian I'm not suggesting the OP go mess with the trolls, just pointing out the reality that on most forums there are people who enjoy messing with the trolls and letting them blow off steam can help the rest of your forum, too. – Erik Feb 18 at 12:52
  • @Erik good point, thanks for clarifying. Trolling trolls kind of starts a contest of "who's the biggest jerk" - not a prize I try to shoot for. – baldPrussian Feb 18 at 15:00
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I read your story. You are having a serious run-in with internet trolls. I call the people you describe "trolls" because, according to the Wikipedia article on Internet troll:

a troll is a person who...intentionally upsets people on the Internet. Typically they do this by posting inflammatory...messages in an online...forum...with the intent of provoking readers into displaying emotional responses...This is typically for the troll's amusement

I cannot tell you what to do but I will give you information based on my personal experience with similar people, i.e. people who have no desire for genuine discussion.

Your Options

If you're not a moderator, the only direct recourse I can see for you is to report these trolls to a moderator, along with evidence of their abuse. Possibly there are more subtle techniques, which I suggest below, but for people as coarse as these my suggestions may not be effective.

Freedom for Whom?

You protest against reporting because:

I feel like everyone should be free to use [the forum] and I don't like the idea of getting anyone banned or removed. I still haven't yet returned to the forum

You appear not to see yourself as part of this humanity who is "free to use the forum." You let these trolls run you off the place while you refuse to report them. Technically, that is your prerogative but it is not the principle you claim to hold dear, i.e. the belief that everyone should be free to use the forum. You, my dear, are part of everyone. If they want to use the forum they are free to conform to the rules that everyone else adheres to.

Respect and Dignity

I lack belief in God or gods, which makes me atheist, but I believe in respect and human dignity. I have been on Quora for a good four years and, despite its shortcomings and faults, the one thing I really like about Quora is its strict policy that users must be nice and respectful. It's called the BNBR policy and states in part:

A core Quora principle, "Be Nice, Be Respectful" (or “BNBR”), requires that people treat other people on the site with civility, respect, and consideration.

......

It is never OK to violate the Be Nice, Be Respectful policy, even in response to another person who has violated the policy. If you think that someone has violated this policy, please report the content using our in-product reporting tools. If you're being harassed by another user, you can also block them.

I think every online forum could benefit from this kind of policy. However, for it to work, people must use it. On Quora, it is also applied to how questions must be written. Given my experience with questions on Quora, I see how your sample questions above could be made "neutral." If you don't have the technical ability to do that on Disqus, you can make them neutral in your head and respond to the "neutral" question. That approach may--or may not--induce the trolls to be more respectful. Possibly your best bet is to ignore questions like this. More on this below.

Rewriting the Questions

To illustrate my meaning I will copy each sample, then below it write my neutral translation.

Question 1

OFFENSIVE: Isn't is odd how demonic possessions and hauntings only ever happen to Christians? Are they inherently more fragile or just more imaginative?

NEUTRAL: Why does demonic possession and haunting only ever happen to Christians?

Question 2

OFFEINSIVE: How many Christians here would abandon their faith if they admitted Jesus was black?

Neutral: Would Christians abandon their faith if they knew Jesus was Black?

Question 3

OFFENSIVE: Is there a valid reason why religion should be taken any more seriously than flat-earth theory?

NEUTRAL: Should religion be taken more seriously than flat-earth theory? If so, why?

You will note that I removed the emotional aspects, the "sneering" parts like "isn't it odd," "if they admitted," and "valid reason." Those terms are meant to make a specific group of people look stupid and dishonest. That is not okay.

Questions like that are not meant to acquire information but to argue and "fight" for its own sake. One is best advised to avoid such questions.

Will This Work? Some bits from my own life.

Unfortunately, some really nasty people that I have known will make fun of you for attempting this. They will "move the goalposts" or perform any number of nasty tricks just to watch you jump through the hoops. For them, it's fun and games. This trick is far older than the internet and does not require adult brains. I remember a couple of rural schoolboys who liked to do this back in the sixties as we walked to and from school. I have encountered many adults who do it, too, online or off. Nowadays I block them on the internet, and in real life I cut contact if possible, and otherwise I don't speak to them unless I have to.

It feels harsh and unforgiving but my life has been greatly improved. As stated above, these people have every freedom to conform and adhere to the rules of social niceties like everyone else if they want to interact with us. That's all I know to say. You have to make your own decision and live with the consequences. All the best.

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    Your question 2 is interesting, because we know where Jesus was born and where his parents (well, that’s complicated) came from, and we can assume that his skin colour didn’t attract any attention, so he was most likely what many Americans would call “black”. (I would say dark, not black, but I’m not American). – gnasher729 Feb 10 at 10:51
  • There are 2 types of questions: 1 is designed to gain information and 1 is not. I think this answer touches on that but doesn't say so directly - I'd suggest including that information. This answer does, however, note that there are people who just want to argue, which is valid and should be taken as a given in internet discourse. – baldPrussian Feb 10 at 18:32
  • @baldPrussian, thanks for your tips re two kinds of questions. This insight will make my life easier, too, going forward. I have now edited my answer and the advice applies to myself as well as to the question-writer. I never realized this point but I do now. Thanks so much! – Sarah Bowman Feb 10 at 22:26

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