The Wall Between Civilization And Our Innate Savagery Is Weakening

Published April 9, 2021

The Federalist

Civilization is difficult.

Civilization is especially difficult if it means not just political stability and material advancement, but also a decent moral order. We’re all born into this world as tiny barbarians. Without care, we will grow to be larger, more dangerous barbarians.

The murder of Mohammad Anwar, an immigrant working as an UberEats driver, allegedly by two teenage girls attempting to carjack him, is a case in point. Following the fatal accident, video footage shows one of the accused girls complaining that her phone was still in the wrecked car. A man was dead or dying next to her, apparently by her hand, and she was focused on retrieving her technological bauble.

Unfortunately, this horrible event is already receding from our consciousness, slipping out of the headlines and away from our attention. Still, it’s worth more reflection before it fades away, as it shows the frailty of our modern hopes of taming the savagery that lies within us, and the need to remember where our real hope lies.

To begin with, the event illustrates that science cannot save us. Surrounded by material abundance and wondrous gadgetry, human depravity still finds a way. Having enough is not sufficient to make us good. Indeed, humans will often commit evil acts simply out of boredom. Ironically, contained within innumerable texts, podcasts, and videos, the phone the accused was so concerned about retrieving provided free access to the moral wisdom of the ages. Yet, the availability of moral teaching is insufficient to inculcate virtue — indeed, without guidance, we lack even the rudimentary virtue needed to know that we are morally deficient and have much to learn and practice.

Children need personal instruction and examples to develop into good men and women, but our culture no longer shares the same moral vision. Morality is, of course, always contested to some degree, but ours is particularly an age of fractured moral consensus and seemingly intractable moral disagreements. Those who mourn what they see as moral decline must recognize that many symbols and rituals of the older consensus were losing power even before they were discarded, and they will not be efficacious if restored. Official but superficial school prayers, observing the national anthem before games, and other civic or religious ceremonies are no longer representative of a united moral and social order.

The modern illusion that we can leave people to develop their own moral codes is fading, and the need for a shared understanding is becoming clear. Thus, a new moral order is attempting to assert itself — the still-cooking stew of wokeness, intersectional ideology, critical theory, and left-wing social justice claims. Though it lacks a settled name, it makes bold claims about being able to identify and address the evils the plague us.

Unfortunately, while this ideology is a poisonous substitute that erodes society, it has, nonetheless, captured much of our leading institutions as well as America’s upper class. In particular, it is in control of the education system. What we teach children is largely a function of who is doing the teaching, and teachers are increasingly the acolytes of the new moral order. They may not be a majority, but few are willing to resist their programs and priorities.

Among their priorities is bringing demon worship into public schools. When we see, California’s new mandatory ethnic studies program includes prayers to Aztec gods — or, to be more accurate, to Aztec demons — who were worshipped by human sacrifice, including torturing children to death, we’re reminded civilization is no guarantee of good.

While human sacrifice is not (yet) part of the curriculum, its designers are open about wanting to reverse the replacement of native gods by Christianity. Whatever we call this ideology, it is leading to depravity, not virtue. This embrace of evil is, as Cameron Hilditch notes, an attempt to out-Christian Christianity itself, taking Christian concern for the downtrodden to the point of sympathy for the devil.

This ideology is not particularly coherent. The Aztecs, after all, were imperialists who enslaved and murdered the peoples around them, which made it easy for the Spanish conquistadors to recruit indigenous allies. To mourn the demise of the Aztecs’s bloodthirsty gods is to take sides against the indigenous people sacrificed to those gods.

This curriculum also reveals a complacency about civilization; it forgets the demons that haunted humanity for so much of our history. The world is still sinful, but it is better with the demonic gods of the Aztecs on the ash heap of history. This bitter, incoherent ideology that seeks a renewal of the Aztec gods will not form children into moral men and women. Rather, it resummons, in name, if not yet, in fact, the demons that have haunted humanity.

Against this, we must remember that the demons have been defeated. Around two thousand years ago, another empire, powerful, magnificent, and sometimes cruel, casually crucified a man. He was one of many it condemned, and with little thought. He had taught remarkably and even performed miracles, but He still died an agonizing, ignominious death.

And then something happened. He rose from the dead. Not as a ghost, not as a spirit, but bodily, with a heart pumping blood and lungs breathing oxygen. And the demons retreated as word of the resurrection spread, for He had conquered sin and death, by which man had been bound to the demons. Unlike the demons, He did not demand human sacrifice to earn favor, for He had become human to be sacrificed on our behalf.

This is a revelation that goes beyond making us moral, for it transforms our being. Before the perfection of the Divine Victim, moral remonstrances are both affirmed and humbled. We are, at best, like the blessed criminal crucified with Christ, acknowledging his own guilt and need for mercy even while rebuking his companion for reviling Christ.

Like that man, for whom civilization could no longer give anything but death, we may look to Christ’s promise of something better than civilization — the kingdom of heaven.

Nathanael Blake is a senior contributor to The Federalist and a postdoctoral fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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