Well, well. Isn't God supposed to be deid? If you, gentle reader, didn't make a phone call, send a letter, or post on The Herald or Richard Dawkins websites on the subject of atheism and religion last week, you're in a minority. Everybody and her aunty has expressed herself in public on the subjects of the Big Bang, the string theory, black holes, the meaning of transcendence, the last judgment and Muriel Gray's T-shirt. What fun!

One thing the debate has established is that dogmatic atheists are no more (or less) attractive than dogmatic Christians. Cool scientific rationalists can go completely berserk as often as intense God-bothering believers. And there are as many Dawkins parrots out there as there are dodgy Elvis impersonators or Billy Graham stylists - as evidenced by pointlessly regurgitated mantras such as "celestial teapot", "spaghetti monster", "tooth fairy" and "courtier's reply", lifted straight from the authorised atheist holy scriptures. There's so much tedious cloning going on that I'm starting to believe in Unintelligent Design.

Mind you, there have been some tremendously stimulating contributions from both sides of the argument since last week's column about the swooning Richard Dawkins-Muriel Gray love-in at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

With passionate debates like this, the dark side of the internet is never far away. By that I mean internet incivility, or the ritual verbal ad hominem abuse of opponents.

Many internet forums read like the minutes of the Angry Tourette's Syndrome Convention. It is one of the plagues of our time.

I got an e-mail a while back from someone who said he got my contact details by means of an internet search engine. Slightly alarmed, I keyed my name into Google, and the first statement which came up was "Ron Ferguson is a complete arse". Deary me. A profound intuition told me that this wasn't intended as a compliment. It turned out to be a charming Old Firm website response to a column I'd written about sectarian singing.

What makes internet forums particularly problematic is that people can post under false names and engage with impunity in a wee spot of character assassination. There are Christians out there doing uninvited homers for God and carrying out the odd crucifixion at weekends. There are atheists who feel called to pour boiling water from their ever-present celestial teapot on to the genitalia of religious believers. They carry out their raids under cover of a pseudonym, often at two or three in the morning. These nocturnal drive-by shootings are designed to wound, if not to kill.

The internet can be a force for personal and political liberation, but it also carries poison under the cloak of respectability. In forums and chatrooms, people are bullied or defamed by individuals whose identities they would be shocked to discover. Youngsters have their confidence sapped by cowardly classmates who go for the anonymous kill. Online communication can quickly degenerate into vitriol, especially on blogs. With more than 70 million blogs on the internet at the last count, there is plenty of scope for gratuitous viciousness. Free speech without civility can quickly descend into what has been termed "blogofascism", a rhetoric of hatred which is applied to races and religions as well as to individuals. Routine terms of abuse such as "idiot" and "moron" are simply the more printable terms of non-endearment applied to anyone the poster happens to disagree with.

Part of the problem is that the internet demands instantaneous responses. In less frantic times, one might let an angry letter cool in the in-tray; or you might think better of posting a raging reply. When rapid response replaces reflection, intemperance quickly spirals into hatred and abuse. Yet the world wide web is a huge resource of information and ideas, and blogs and internet forums are important vehicles of free, uncensored, expressions of opinion. It's both impossible and undesirable to police them, unless criminal behaviour is involved. What we lack is a humane etiquette to go with the brilliant technology.

Meanwhile, back at The Herald ranch, the debate about God continues to rage. Despite Muriel Gray's risible statement that the Dawkins best-seller, The God Delusion, has closed the argument, it will go on till the lights of earth are switched off. We human mammals, trying to make some sense of our brief stay on this precious planet, are incorrigibly meaning-seeking creatures, and our insatiable curiosity makes us want to know why there is anything at all.

In our quest for understanding, we are limited by our brains, our histories, and the frailty of our language. We seek light where we can, and the hard, shop-soiled, hand-me-down dogmas and sloganeering T-shirts of organised religion and organised atheism may or may not help us much. So let the questing conversation continue: but with civility, please.