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Cultural Desensitization to Acts of Evil

Cultural Desensitization to Acts of Evil

Bruce Atkinson, Ph.D.
Special to Virtueonline
January 20, 2021

When any behavior or activity becomes commonplace in our culture, however evil it might be, it also becomes desensitized in our collective soul. For example, in the context of violence portrayed in the media, desensitization describes a process "by which initial arousal responses to violent stimuli are reduced, thereby changing an individual's 'present internal state'" (Carnagey, Anderson, & Bushman, 2007, p. 491). The acts become 'normalized' to us such that we can more easily accept them. We find ourselves no longer outraged by terrible acts of evil.

This process certainly occurred with the evil institutionalization of slavery. Slave owners in the south (and there were for many years owners in the north as well) and others who simply accepted it as a normal way of life at some point lost the sense of its essential evilness. As the Bible puts it (1 Tim 4:2), one's conscience is 'seared' and even if people know that the practice is far from the ideal, they are able to find seemingly valid excuses for themselves... and thus reasons to continue it.

Because we are so far away in time right now from institutionalized slavery and are so sensitized to the racial aspects of what existed in the USA in its early days, no one today would perceive slavery as anything but a horrible evil... and we would do almost anything to prevent it from returning. Partly due to the influence of English abolitionist William Wilberforce and President Abraham Lincoln (and the Civil War!), we have moved from desensitization to sensitization when it comes to slavery and racial discrimination; that is, our consciences are now appropriately sensitive to this issue. Black lives do matter as much as other lives, and no one disputes this truth.

Much of the desensitization process can be witnessed in how our language changes over time. Here is what professor J. Budziszewski prophetically wrote over 20 years ago:
"Things are getting worse very quickly now. The list of what we are required to approve is growing ever longer. Consider just the domain of sexual practice. First, we were to approve sex before marriage, then without marriage, now against marriage. First with one, then with a series, now with a crowd. First with the other sex, then with the same. First between adults, then between children, then between adults and children. The last item has not been added yet but will be soon: you can tell from the change in language, just as you can tell the approach of winter from the change in the color of leaves.
As any sin passes through its stages from temptation, to toleration, to approval, its name is first euphemized, then avoided, then forgotten. A colleague tells me that some of his fellow legal scholars call child molestation "intergenerational intimacy": that's euphemism. A good-hearted editor tried to talk me out of using the term "sodomy": that's avoidance. My students don't know the word "fornication" at all: that's forgetfulness." (J. Budziszewski, "The Revenge of Conscience," First Things, June/July, 1998, https://www.firstthings.com/article/1998/06/the-revenge-of-conscience )

Many conservative Christians blame the 'cultural Marxists' and other radical liberals for these changes in language. From Michael Giere: "Notice the words that are no longer in the radical left's lexicon: freedom and liberty, personal responsibility, freedom of speech, association, religious liberty, personal goodness, or public righteousness. Words that only a decade ago still peppered the public discourse have vanished. Even the national media, whom one would think have a vested interest in freedom of speech and thought, have fallen silent. These words are aliens in a political wilderness."

The brain-washing process of desensitizing our consciences spreads like a virus from the media (language changes) to actually changing the moral norms of society. It is a slow and sneaky process. Most of us have heard of the "frog in the pot" metaphor, the gradual desensitization of the frog to the heat... that ends up boiling the frog before he can jump out.

From "Authentic Christianity" by John Stott and Timothy Dudley-Smith, we hear the following powerful assertion: Has your conscience been compromised by the norms accepted by your culture? Of course, it has, whether you are aware of it or not. The morally 'disordering' influence of the media is more subtle and insidious than direct incitement. What happens to all of us, unless our powers of moral judgment are perfectly acute and alert, is that our understanding of what is 'normal' begins to be modified. Under the impression that 'everybody does it', and that nobody nowadays believes much in absolutes of truth and goodness, our defenses are lowered, and our values are imperceptibly altered.

For example, we begin to assume that physical violence (when we are provoked), sexual promiscuity (when we are aroused), and extravagant consumer expenditure (when we are tempted) are acceptable. These are indeed the accepted norms of western society in the present generation. But this view of reality is warped; we have been conned. Western culture and the spirit of our times have greased the easy path to our self-destruction. "Evil is at its worst when it masquerades as virtue." (English proverb)

And from Louis D. Brandeis, a past Supreme Court Justice: "Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government's purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding."

This desensitization process is what happened in the 20th and now in 21st century with the holocaust of abortion on demand. This is a far worse evil than slavery ever was, certainly according the scriptures. Note that the killing of not-yet-born infants is the world's leading cause of death, including the leading cause of death in the USA. https://virtueonline.org/abortion-was-leading-cause-death-worldwide-2018-killing-42-million-people

Note this little blurb from LifeNews.com that shocks but also improves our sense of proportion. The number of COVID-19 and abortion deaths in 2020--Abortion: 42,655,372. Coronavirus: 1,830,979. That the abortion rate has fallen slightly in the U.S. in the past decade does not lighten the Lord's grief.

Abortion (when it is not to save the physical life of the mother) breaks one of the Big Ten ("Thou shall not murder") because it truly is murder of the most innocent and vulnerable of all human beings. Jesus said that He identifies with the "least of these;" He said that how we treat them is how He will regard our treatment of Himself. Are you OK with killing Jesus again and again, without repentance? (1)

In many places the scriptures regard unborn children as living humans known to God and even capable of a level of consciousness (2). One of the earliest writings of the early Christian Church ("The Didache," or Teachings of the Apostles) clearly names abortion as a major sin (3), and for two thousand years, church tradition in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches have followed this rule. Of course, the Reformed evangelical tradition has also condemned abortion. It is only in the last millisecond of church history that some radically liberal churches like the Episcopal Church have embraced this modern holocaust.

I like blogger Don Benson's "ratchet metaphor" and will adapt it to this situation. With abortion, as with same-sex marriage, we have another click in the ratchet by which the liberal unbelievers are destroying Christianity.

Again, the example of the Episcopal Church is instructive. As usual, there's little debate among the bishops, no transparency, no explanation. It's the simplest of ratchets and it works through an equally simple bit of arithmetic. They have achieved their political goals as an organization purely by selection of whom they appointed to positions of power and influence; arithmetic does the rest -- their newly appointed people go on in turn to appoint others in their own likeness. The result is an exponential grab of influence towards a rapidly approaching endpoint where every point of decision-making within the Episcopal Church has an overwhelming majority of liberals. There was a time when they could even afford to appoint a few orthodox Christians here and there to make that wing of the church think things weren't so bad after all. Of course, it made not the slightest difference to the overall power situation, but it helped keep the conservative evangelicals quiet! So, for many organizations, like the liberal Church of England, there is no grand debate, no big bust-up, no major crossing of red lines which might cause a mass walk-out. Orthodox Christians in the church may huff and puff about rainbow flags and outrageous comments which promote abortion, but nothing actually changes. That gentle little ratchet quietly clicks away, scarcely noticed by most people, never to be reversed-- until one day it stops, there's silence and that particular church has died.

The other outcome, in the national sociopolitical arena, is the elimination of any semblance of external religious freedom. Instead, we may be overwhelmed by an unstoppable tsunami toward socialistic fascism-- that is, total control by an entirely secular state. This seems to be where we are going.

They say that God will not be mocked. Actually, God is being mocked constantly by the faithless leaders of our nation. What is meant is that God will not be mocked without major negative consequences. The Apostle Paul was rather clear about this; we will reap what we sow (Galatians 6: 7-10). But regardless of what is happening in our culture and government, and despite our grief and righteous anger, let the committed followers of Jesus Christ not grow weary of doing good and promoting the gospel truth.


(1) The Lord Jesus taught His disciples (Matthew 25): "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.. ... Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me." We should get the point. Who are truly the most innocent and vulnerable ("least of these") of all human beings if not babes in the womb? From God's perspective, the pro-choicers are seeking the abortion of Jesus, because He identifies with these not yet born infants.

(2) Unborn babies are viewed as persons in the scriptures, already known to God as unique and valued individuals. For example: "Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying, 'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.'" (Jeremiah 1:4-5) "My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together... your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be." (Psalm 139:15-16)

The Bible attributes self-consciousness to preborn babies, something that even modern medicine has studied and acknowledged. https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnfarrell/2018/04/19/tracing-consciousness-in-the-brains-of-infants/?sh=53440b50722f

Jacob and Esau "struggled together within" their mother's womb (Gen. 25:22). The New Testament offers a similar glimpse into prenatal consciousness: "And it came about that when Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb" (Luke 1:41). "Struggling" and "leaping" are the result of consciousness, and most certainly of human life and worth.

No Hebrew woman would have ever thought of killing her unborn baby. In those days in Hebrew culture, having children was the most valued and worthy thing a woman could do. And to be barren was one of the worst things for a woman to endure (Gen. 17:15-16; 25:21; 30:1; 1 Sam. 1:2-10; Ps. 113:9; 127:3-5; Luke 1:7; 23:29; Gal. 4:27; Heb. 11:11). To kill an "inheritance from the Lord" would have been unthinkable, it was so taboo and obviously horrible as to be not worth mentioning.

(3)From: The Didache, or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. Circa 90 AD. Tim Sauder, Translator. Chapter Two: "And this is the second commandment of the teaching: you shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not corrupt children, nor practice sexual deviation; you shall not steal; nor practice calling on spiritual guides; nor use sorcery; you shall not procure an abortion, nor practice infanticide; you shall not covet your neighbor's goods." [my emphasis]

Dr. Bruce Atkinson is a practicing psychologist and Christian counselor in the Atlanta area. He earned a PhD in clinical psychology and MA in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary; he also received an MS in research psychology from Illinois State University and a BA from Beloit College, WI. He is a USAF Veteran (medic) who served in Vietnam. He is also a member of the Anglican Church in North America and a Moderator and frequent contributor to VirtueOnline.org

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