“There are issues offered by proponents of ritual child circumcision that deserve to be taken seriously. Asking people to let go of something they intensely value is asking them to bear costs, even if it should be clear that avoiding objective harm to the child must be stressed more.”
So, let’s take the religious circumcision arguments seriously. There are only two arguments to be made: it is required by my religion, and/or it is important that my child fit in with his coreligionists. Do these hold up to scrutiny?
“Is it required by my religion?”
Parents who circumcise for religious reasons often claim that circumcision is required in their religion. In the case of the German court ruling, the two religions at issue in the population of Germany are Judaism and Islam. Very briefly: Judaism has male circumcision in its holy book, the Torah, though there are those who argue that it was not in the oldest version of the text, called the book of J. For more discussion of this, see here. Islam does not require circumcision in the Quran; instead, it is in the Hadith, the collected sayings attributed to the Prophet. However, there are many versions of the Hadith, some of which do not mention circumcision at all. Jewish circumcision has a prescribed ritual performed by a Mohel (ritual circumciser). Islam has no prescribed ritual and instead circumcision is performed according to the cultural traditions of the community.
Now, this is where discussing religious motivation becomes tricky. If you are a believer, which version of the Torah do you believe? Which version of the Hadith do you believe? Not to get too far into religious scholarship, but the decision to circumcise hinges on what one chooses to believe about one’s religion.
- Was Abraham real? He is the putative father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but we cannot prove that he existed or what he did. If a Jew believes he was real, and believes the later versions of the Torah, then he believes he must have his son circumcised.
- Did Mohammed really say everything in all the conflicting Hadith? How can he have given two or three or more conflicting instructions? There are Muslims who believe that circumcision is not required, and some who do, and it is done differently in each country.
- There are even Christians who ignore the very clear injunctions against circumcision in the New Testament and choose to follow the Old Testament to justify their choice of circumcision.
Then there is the problem of how the circumcision is done. If a Jew believes the version of the Torah that requires circumcision, then there is a prescribed ritual manner of circumcision: the Brit Milah. Despite this, many Jewish children are circumcised in a hospital by doctors, not on the eighth day, and not by a mohel. These are not ritual circumcisions. Such parents often do not follow other of the religious rules like keeping kosher, ritual bathing, etc., but insist that their sons must be circumcised in order to be Jewish.
From an anthropological and historical perspective, circumcision appears to be a pre-existing ritual practiced by ancient Egyptians that spread throughout the neighboring areas of the middle east. It became incorporated into some of the Abrahamic religions in the same way that Christianity consciously adopted many pre-existing pagan rituals like the Easter celebration. Of course, to suggest to the devout that their religion did not spring in its eternal form from the mind of god, but rather was the natural product of its time and place like everything else about human culture would be heresy.
All religious arguments for circumcision are an appeal to authority, except the authority appealed to is not universal. The nature of religion is that it is obviously correct to its adherents, and obviously wrong to those who do not believe. In modern times, the concepts of tolerance and multiculturalism have made us afraid to criticize anything about religion, and thus religious circumcision goes largely unassailed from outside the religion. How can we talk about it when believers see any question of it as an affront and an attack? Professing a religion is a choice – one which many who are born into religious families cannot see, just as they cannot see the culture they swim in – a choice about which imaginary ideas, rules, and myths to believe, and which to reject as untrue. It cannot be proven, and it does not rest on shared moral understandings, which make it totally unsuitable as the basis for law, but most importantly, religious circumcision of minors does not cohere with the legal principles of self-determination, bodily autonomy, and freedom from harm which do form the basis of Western legal systems.
“Does my child need to be circumcised in order to fit in with his coreligionists?”
Well, will there be a penis check? What will happen if a child is found to not be circumcised? Will others know that the child is not circumcised? Will he be denied anything which denial would be more harmful than the objective harm of the circumcision? Who is qualified to make such a decision? Proponents of religious circumcision often resort to threatening that an uncircumcised child or man would not be able to participate in religious rituals, would not be able to find a marriage partner, would be ostracized, etc. Are these threats real? I assert that the purported disadvantages are by no means certain: community acceptance and religious practice varies across time and space. What is unthinkable now may be unimportant 20 years from now; what is taboo in New York may be fine in San Francisco. In addition, these same objections are made by non-religious proponents of circumcision: “He’ll never get a girlfriend,” “He’ll be made fun of in the locker room,” etc. Only the devout would assert that imagined religious exclusion would be worse than general social exclusion, and yet no one can put forward an argument that the uneducated prejudice of the ignorant is more important than the universal personal right over one’s own body. If an adult’s life has been made so miserable by his foreskin, he can choose to be circumcised. Funny, but there are not a lot of takers. Why then force it on the child?
Some assert that the parents will bear the costs of not circumcising. According to this reasoning, the parents are the ones who are required to have the sons circumcised in order to fulfill their religious duty. Well, that may be their belief, but does the law allow one citizen to harm another because of religious motivations? The Quran says to kill the infidel. The Old Testament says to kill disobedient children, gays and adulterers. Will this hold up as a defense in a murder trial?
There are many Jews who never attend synagogue, do not keep kosher, and who didn’t even have a bris – they had the normal hospital circumcision – but who insist that the circumcision is integral to their Jewish identity. How can this be so, if the circumcision is performed the same on Jewish and non-Jewish babies? Or are they asserting that how they view the circumcision is what gives it the importance? If so, can we not then say that how the circumcision patient sees his circumcision is more important than how his parents see it? Then we must still outlaw circumcision of minors.
A larger problem for the religious is that the children they circumcise may not choose to follow the religion into which they were born. To suggest so is terrifying to the devout, and so they brush aside this objection. Perhaps one of the reasons why the religious are so tense about laws against circumcision of minors is that they know that a substantial portion of adult men would not choose to be circumcised, and another overlapping portion will not choose to remain in the religion. These are seen as existential threats to the religion, and thus the devout believe they must fight them.
There is another option, though. The religions can change and adapt to the times. Judaism has a long history of religious self-examination. There are Jews who reject circumcision but who remain very much Jewish and religious. Adults can choose to be circumcised for religious reasons, too. Would not the adult’s choice to be circumcised for his religion be a sacrifice so much more religiously meaningful? Unfortunately, Islam closed off all religious self-examination a thousand years ago, but since circumcision is only in some of the conflicting Hadith, it remains primarily a cultural problem, as evidenced by the varying ritual practice and the fact that only some Muslim females are circumcised.
Proponents of religions circumcision cannot expect to have their arguments taken seriously until and unless they become willing to critically examine the history of circumcision in their and other religions. They cannot expect the rule of law to be subordinate to their beliefs, no matter how dear those beliefs are to them. Religions are unprovable, and to more and more people, unimportant. The percentage of atheists continues to grow, and the historical antecedents of religious circumcision are so obviously un-godly as to be un-ignorable. Religious law as a basis for civil law remains largely confined to Muslim countries which also circumscribe women’s rights, stone rape victims to death, etc., yet even so, Germany is pledging to allow religious exception to anti-circumcision law in order to appease its Jewish and Muslim constituency. This is a mistake. Because of their growing unassimilated Muslim populations, European countries are being besieged by demands for tolerance of Muslim practices which are antithetical to Western law and cultural practice: for women to cover their faces even on government IDs, for minor girls to be married against their will, for plural marriage, etc. Religious leaders, emboldened by the misapplication of cultural open-mindedness, claim special dispensation to practice their rituals in defiance of national law, and cowed German legislators agree to their demands in order to preserve their country’s “image.” Though allowing religious male circumcision may not bother many Americans, inured as they are to male circumcision, what will we say when African immigrants demand the right to circumcise their daughters? Oh, that’s right: we made that illegal in 1997, and won’t even draw a drop of blood from a girl’s clitoris to satisfy her parents.
Were there a religious exception to laws against circumcision, then we would have to allow them to circumcise their daughters. This is why the law is supposed to be agnostic to religion: when you allow exceptions to the law based on religious claim, you are privileging one religion over another, which is exactly what our country was founded against. What does the United States of America stand for? Freedom. The rule of law. Equality. We are blessed to be founded on the rational and fundamentally fair principles of the Enlightenment, and the right to self-determination and freedom from harm are intrinsic and universal. As your parents taught you, doing what is right is more important than what others think of you. Germany never learned this lesson, apparently, but in America, are we afraid to stand for our principles? Preserving children’s rights to their own bodies is not attacking religion – it is standing up for our foundational principles. You can practice whatever religion you want, but you cannot force that religion onto others, not even your children. The unproven and unexamined beliefs that constitute the currently popular religions are not more important than each man and woman’s rights. That is what our country was founded upon, and that is where we must remain.