FreeThought Fort Wayne

        Be Reasonable

We will wear you down by our capacity to suffer

Posted by Skeptigator on August 4, 2008

As I watched from the sidelines as the whole PZ/Cracker thing played out*, I couldn’t help but be struck by how similar the whole event was to an auto accident. You know how you sit at a red light next to a recent fender bender trying to recreate the accident to figure out whose fault it was? I’ve been doing it with the PZ/Cracker farce. Is the idea of “transubstantiation” ridiculous? Yes, on soooo many levels. Was PZ justified in criticizing not only the idea but also the way over-the-top actions of the particular Catholic church? Yea, sure. Was the call to have people send in a wafer to be desecrated over-the-top and unnecessary? Over-the-top? yes. Unnecessary, hmmm… now that’s an interesting question.

“When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Is it necessary sometimes to do unnecessarily outrageous things to point out injustice or simply the ridiculous. If it wasn’t necessary it’s safe to say that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert’s whole shtick wouldn’t be on the air. But one has to ask what defines the “appropriate unnecessary” action.

Let’s take some actions from the U.S. Civil Rights movement of the early 1960’s as an example. Why not simply write about racist treatment instead of boycotting buses? Clearly boycotting bus systems is far more effective than simple speeches and angry editorials (that would likely go unpublished). Why boycotting? Why not disabling buses, slashing tires, molotov cocktails or physically barring bus drivers from getting on the bus? Would those not achieve the same purpose? (Do me a favor and bare with the comparison. I don’t want to draw too many parallels with the Civil Rights Movement and the “oppression of atheists”. Certainly they are of the same kind but certainly not nearly the same degree, if you catch my drift.)

The question-at-hand/purpose of the boycotts was that some “more than necessary” action was required to truly raise awareness to an injustice. A speech or letter to the editor would have been all that was necessary. But that was not what was required since it would not contribute to an actual solution any time soon, at least. So the question remains, “When faced with an injustice and the “all that’s necessary” action won’t be enough, what should the form of the “unnecessary” action be?”.

In the 1960’s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s answer to this question was Non-Violence.

Nonviolence is a philosophy and strategy for social change that rejects the use of physical violence. As such, nonviolence is an alternative to passive acceptance of oppression and armed struggle against it. Practitioners of nonviolence may use diverse methods in their campaigns for social change, including critical forms of education and persuasion, civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action, and targeted communication via mass media.

And with that definition in hand we can see the practical results of this policy. Fire-bombing a bus, no doubt effective as an “awarness-raiser”, would not probably qualify as a non-violent. Therefore when looking at the activities of the 1960’s you will see, lunch counter sit-ins, boycotts and peaceful protests. All consistent with a non-violent philosophy.

Of course, looking back is 20/20, we can say that this is a very effective form of protest. At the time there were serious doubts as to it’s effectiveness. Without that doubt the Black Panthers would never have had the appeal they did.

“We will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Why is the philosophy, if it can be called such, of non-violence effective? The key to it’s effectiveness lies in some of the very criticism that the strategy received, this from Black Panther George Jackson,

“The concept of nonviolence is a false ideal. It presupposes the existence of compassion and a sense of justice on the part of one’s adversary.”

Isn’t it interesting to ask the question, whose philosophy/strategy/tactics survived today? Sorry George but you painted the entire U.S. population with the statements and actions of it’s most vocal members. And most importantly you grossly underestimated American (and human) compassion.

It took years but the American conscience couldn’t bare the sight of firehoses being aimed at peaceful protesters, armed guardsmen being necessary so that children could get an education, they couldn’t take the virulent, hateful rhetoric of so many politicians, they couldn’t take the images of bloodied men and women with bitemarks from police dogs, seemingly daily footage of riot gear-wearing police and guardsmen attacking men and women in the streets. Those protesters wore down the just-as-human xenophobia, ignorance and hate by showing the capacity of a fellow human being’s ability to suffer. America as a whole had to admit, “These are just ordinary folks trying to do and have ordinary things.”

The genius, if you can call it that, of the non-violent method is that it provides a third-way. What happens with violence (and violent reactions) is that it too often leads to further escalation and more insidiously creates a clear division, a line in the sand, if you will. Us vs. Them. Therefore, the question of justification can not be a valid one in this context. Is Israel justified in defending itself against mortar shell attacks from Palestine? Were the Negroes of the Civil Rights era justified in resisting oppression by violent means? Are half the bar fights around the world justified? Justification is a component but something else needs to temper that justification otherwise we won’t get anywhere as a society.

“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ok, I know, how are the two related? I’ll answer with a question. Is PZ Myers justified in his response to the admitted ridiculousness of this particular episode and “transubstantiation” in general? Ok, fine, how about these questions, “Is it effective?” or even better “Does it serve the intended purpose?” And the big question, “Is this “awareness raising” akin to a lunch counter sit-in or slashing the tires of a bus?”

Until I hit upon this analogy I have been torn, asking myself if I don’t like the whole affair simply because “it’s divisive” but then kicking myself because sometimes divisiveness can’t be avoided. Or I would say, “I sure wish that would have played out differently” but then I look at the actions of both parties realizing that there was little possibility of it happening in any different way. Literally, I said to myself, “I wish there was a third way” and that’s when the word-association triggered in my mind.

Neither the actions of the Church can be changed nor the actions of the student who absconded with wafer Jesus. However, by making the request and stating his intentions to desecrate the cracker, he was using the verbal equivalent of “violent” action or reaction. His “violent” reaction left little to no room for a third-way. It simply upped the level of rhetoric (escalation of violence) and drew a very clear line in the sand and said you are either “for” transubstantiation or you are “against” the established traditions and have to reject all forms of religion and become an atheist. The distinctions obviously were not stated in such a way but the idea remains.

“The only bad thing about burning your bridges behind you is that the world is round” – Unknown

You couldn’t gain support from the believing public who accept that the churches reaction was way over-the-top because in order to do so they would have to stand by a man who would be actively opposing everything you stood for (including some very minor things that you didn’t). The whole episode failed to build even a wafer-thin bridge** between two opposing viewpoints. Each side simply dug in a little deeper.

I bring up the whole affair not to encourage PZ Cracker trolls to visit this site but to point out that this little skirmish is indicative of poor tactics in general on the part of atheists, agnostics, secularists or whatever flavor you brand yourself. We need to build those bridges with the religious on those issues where we hold common ground. We need to where down the public consciousness to the idea that these atheists aren’t trying to tear anything down but simply trying to be treated like anyone else.

We need to continue to have stories where a member of the Armed Service, Jeremy Hall, who simply tried to opt out of a prayer and was threatened for his troubles, after all, he is just trying to serve his country in the best way he can. We need more public high school students, like Matthew LaClair,  who want to just go to class without being told they are going to hell.

So the question remains, do you throw the molotov cocktail through the bus window and feel justified? Or do you boycott the bus knowing you will be effective?

* To those who don’t follow such things, essentially a Catholic student took a Catholic communion wafer to his seat where he attempted to show a non-Catholic friend. He was subsequently assaulted (or nearly so) by Catholic laity and then he ran out of the sanctuary. This prompted the Catholic church to post guards at the next service.

PZ Myers, fairly well-known science blogger, wrote about the story and called to have someone send him a communion cracker so that he could desecrate it “properly”.

The ensuing drama, death threats and all-around juvenile behavior centered around not the churches over-reaction but actually on PZ Myers call to have someone “steal” a cracker.

** Oh no he didn’t!

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17 Responses to “We will wear you down by our capacity to suffer”

  1. andyscathouse said

    I guess Skeptigator is the good cop. I respectfully disagree. I fully support PZ. PZ desecrated the wafer, Koran, and the God Delusion with coffee grinds and a banana peel. This is a free speech lesson. I and others should not have to tip toe around middle evil beliefs and be able to come to the defense of a student being threatened over a disgusting sacrifice ritual. Others should not have to bow down to someone else’s religion. Should I not be able to use cargo due to John Fromm’s cargo cult? Do you remember the craziness over the Danish cartoon? There was a good lesson in all this. Look how crazy people are over their religions. Death threats, job firings….. These are supposed to be followers of gentle Jesus meek and mild. This exposes that problem and the zealous Bill Donhue. I think the student was kicked off student council or about to be.

    There are times to join forces such as American’s United for Separation of Church and State. There are other times when boldness does help our cause. It does feel good to hear so many agree with us for a change. The rules were not to disrupt the services and PZ did not single out the Catholics, it sort of happened. The car accident is a good analogy but I do think we learned from this. I think the ultimately answer is more on all sides. People are at different stages on the way to reason. It took Dawkins not a Paul Tillich lesson to move me to activism. We need more PZ Meyers, and more liberal religious views like the Unitarians and us in between.

    I think I might smell Trolls.

  2. theodoersing said

    So what are we supposed to peacefully protest anyways? The Boy Scouts of America don’t allow atheists; hence, the reason I dropped out after cub scouts.

    It is extremely difficult to adopt a child in Indiana if you don’t present a full and decent record of your church goings; hence, I had my own kids (fortunately I could).

    Try being a Big Brother or Big Sister while openly admitting your lack of belief, and you will lack a Little Sister or Little Brother. So I spend my quality time helping my family and friends the best I can and donating to secular charities instead.

    All these peaceful boycotts have done nothing for me personally. They are about as effective as my unwillingness to eat McDonald’s or shop at Walmart.

    All that being said, I’ve never seen any violent reaction to anything helping your cause or your group’s image.

    For me, it boils down to what I perceive to be most effective and what is “acceptable”. By acceptable, I mean allowing you to get your point made without causing physical harm to others. We could quibble about psychological harm or distress, but overall, I think these are emotional appeals designed to counter a rational argument.

    I think PZ made a very calculated move in his reaction to the hostage Host. It made people aware of our extreme attachment to absurdity. It reminds me of “A Modest Proposal” in terms of how we use hyperbole to bring to light the seriousness and lunacy of a given situation. The subtlety of the humor is lost on most.

    I like PZ’s style, but I’m striving for a more straight-forward approach. There are times that call for wit, sarcasm and humiliation. We need to balance this with humor, compassion and humility as much as humanly, and humanely, possible.

  3. firstofall556 said


    I understand what you are saying sometimes you need to fight fire with fire. But I ask you what is your impression of Malcom X? He wanted civil rights just as much but who accomplished it?

    If you want to change people’s minds you need to be better than the opponent.

    I agree with Skep that PZ didn’t handle this situation better than the church did.

    I hope next time we can do better.

  4. de_tokeville said

    When Matthew Shephard was murdered and the Westboro Baptist freaks crashed the funeral and and assaulted the mourners with hate speech, it forced a fair number of outspoken gay-bashing clergy to backpedal. “No, I don’t endorse maiming and killing gay people,” Pat Robertson and Jerry Fallwell and their ilk were compelled to say. Thus was born “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”

    Actually, it’s not bad advice as regards the young provocateur, who really needs to grow the fuck up.

  5. andyscathouse said

    skep and firstofall,

    I don’t think it is fair to compare PZ to Malcom X. PZ did not hurt anyone physically and did not ever condone anything like that…. not even disrupting the church services.

  6. andyscathouse said

    Theo- Be careful about criticizing McD’s. They have much better coffee now with wifi and THEY Stood up for homosexual marriage! I couldn’t believe it either! There are religious boycotts as we speak. I will blog about that tomorrow.

    The same with Walmart, they do some things great like efficiency and force suppliers to use less packaging, and some things wrong. I shop there for things like laundry detergent because I hate coupons.

    I do get your point though if you don’t use the service already, it is hard to make an impact.

  7. @andy

    I think you are fundamentally missing the point of my post. I never said that PZ wasn’t entitled to free speech or that he isn’t justified. I simply asked the question, if the goal of our efforts is to raise awareness and garner support then PZ is only 1 for 2.

    I do however think the comparison is fair between PZ and Malcolm X, only so far as the way in which their tactics are productive or counter-productive.

    I don’t want to speak for firstofall but their post wasn’t about violence or any such business (no thank you I say to the red herring). The point was that Malcom X and MLK were battling for the same thing and took radically different approaches. Whose legacy stands today? Whose actions contributed the most?


    Matthew Shepard is a perfect case in point. How quickly did the hate rhetoric die down, how quickly did the tactics of the Christian Right change? It became obvious how the inflammatory and bigoted statements could quickly devolve into our basest natures. Thank you Jesus. This was a self-correction from within. This was human compassion that said, “You know this is getting out of hand, there are real people being killed and hurt, becuase of these words”. So the message became tempered.


    To those who disagree with what I’m saying, what would have been the natural result if hordes of roving gays took to the streets in their mesh shirts, day-glo bandanas and short-shorts and started burning churches and hick bars. What would have happened to the story of Matthew Shepard? Would it be buried on page 6 with Gay Riots of ’98 on front page?

    The true message, the thing that people will react to is too often being buried in the responses.

  8. andyscathouse said


    I don’t think I misread your article. I do think it is well written by the way.

    PZ is to Malcolm X due to counter productiveness? That comparison you just stated between Malcolm X and PZ is circular reasoning and is a non-sequitur. It makes even less sense now. The violence part or abrasiveness comparison made more sense to me.

    I disagree with your final score card of 1 for 2. It is more complicated than that. PZ was on Catholic radio programs and I thought he did very well. He was heard in a calm environment and I think he may have reached a few people he never would have before. I think he is debating Ray Comfort tomorrow. That will be an easy win. The post with the picture was very well written and great example of free speech. The God Delusion part was a delightful surprise. I think people are still learning about free speech and seeing an ugly side to religious pundits. I call that a big win and the people that were overheated well frankly they will always be there and we have to accept that we are not going to reason with most of these people.

    Again, I think we need more of good cop and bad cop reasoning in the market.

  9. andyscathouse said


    That last part of your message was appealing to the absurd. This whole thing with PZ evolved from outside events. PZ stood up for a student and pushed back and Bill Donhue did what he does…. and PZ made the most of it. I don’t think that is anywhere near burning churches by gays in mesh shirts with tasteful matching pumps not withstanding…

  10. de_tokeville said

    I think Andy’s speaking metaphorically. Those who make sport of firebombing at people’s sensibilities accomplish nothing but creating ill will toward us all.

  11. andyscathouse said

    One more point,

    Since we are talking about hurting religious sensibilities and no physical violence, I think we need to consider removing a few more blasphemous articles. Salmond Rushdie was wrong because because he dared to write criticisms of Islam. Or Ayan Hirsi Ali’s movie Submission? By this logic, should we censor “The Life of Brian” or Bill Maher’s “Religious?” It is scary that those kinds of laws are passing in Europe.

    I know we are doing a hard balancing act of marketing positive skepticism. We have a hard job ahead and I think for us as a group here we should focus on the middle. It doesn’t mean I say stop to a PZ.

    Again, more push on all fronts without ever taking anyone rights away to worship is the best strategy.

  12. Anon said

    With apologies to William…

    To offend or not to offend, that is the question:
    Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
    The slings and arrows of outrageous beliefs,
    Or to take arms against a sea of nonsense,
    And by opposing, end them?

    We are all on this planet together, so we do need to figure out how to get along and, because we are emotional creatures, that usually involves not offending others.

    But the idea that one shouldn’t say/do something because someone else finds it offensive is an idea that is not conducive to the search for truth and the progress of humankind.

    I suppose the necessity of the wafer stunt depends on one’s view of religion. If one views religious beliefs as benign, then a stunt like that is entirely unnecessary.

    If, instead, one views religious beliefs as malignant, than at some point, I would hope that one would point out that the idea of (e.g.) transubstantiation is incorrect. Whether it’s done now, or ten years from now, it’s still got to be done. And although ridiculing an idea is fallacious:

    One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent.

    – H. L. Mencken

  13. de_tokeville said

    An engaging, complex work of art that manages to offend sensibilities is quite a bit different than an act deliberately calculated to do nothing else. I wouldn’t endorse censorship of anyone’s free speech in any case.

    I see religion as both benign and malignant on a broad continuum. That means picking fights carefully. The wafer stunt reminds me of something I did once that I thought was funny at the time. Today I’m ashamed of it.

    When I was a young adult. thinking myself all high-minded and worldly wise because I’d just completed Sociology 101, some friends and I kidnapped a baby Jesus from a creche scene, crucified it and returned it to its place. What exactly did we accomplish? We probably made some people feel very violated just as we would feel if our personal property were to be trashed.

    Had we been busted, I’m sure the community would have regarded us with the same sort of contempt reserved for, say, a Timothy McVeigh.

    Even if I find others’ world view as odious as they find mine, I’m doing nothing to further the cause of mutual respect if I’m committing acts of aggression. We get a lot more sympathy from others on the promimal end of the religious continuum when we fight for justice; none at all when we display the same hatred and intolerance we purport to abhor.

  14. @andy

    I think your comment about Salman Rushdie is appropriate to the discussion. What Salman Rushdie did within his own religion (if you will) was raise awareness by using words. What was necessary was for *him* to change but what was *required* to bring about a societal change was something more and simply saying what he did was provocative enough.

    We can argue the finer points here but this was an attack from within and context is key. It would not have been appropriate if you or I wrote Satanic Verses. That would have been the metaphorical equivalent of firebombing a bus…

  15. @de_tokeville

    amen brotha

  16. firstofall556 said


    Thank you I love that last paragragh. That is jsut what I was trying to get at earlier with my last comment. But you said it much more eliquently.

  17. andyscathouse said

    Another point to consider:

    There is something to be said for standing up to that much pressure and making a brilliant statement about free speech at the same time. The religious bullies couldn’t pressure and get to him. Boy, did they try every thing they legally could using Fox News style attacks. I don’t think I could handle that kind of pressure. (He was also attacked from what Dawkin’s calls the “I am Atheist, but” people). Is that what we are really afraid of? I think we need to be ready for this kind of attack on us someday. (Hope not). I find PZ inspiring and liberating. it is a different zeitgeist in today’s knowledge worker/internet age. This is not a net-loss for freedom or our humanist cause. I think in the long-run it will be a gain.

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