"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Thursday, 28 June 2012

So, secularists opposing circumcision are what now?

Mmmm'Kaaay! I  wasn’t sure whether to write about this or not, but then I went and read the drivel spewing out of Brendan O’Neill in The Telegraph about the recent ruling regarding circumcisions from the Cologne regional court in Germany. The case in question was brought following the circumcision of a child of Muslim parents that resulted in complications requiring emergency hospitalisation. The original Doctor involved was charged, though subsequently cleared of wrongdoing but the court wanted to provide clear guidelines for the future and declared on Tuesday that child circumcision constituted 'illegal bodily harm,' even with parental consent. In its verdict, the court said that the 'fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents.'
Predictably Jewish and Muslim leaders are condemning the prohibition, snarling about “freedom of religion” . For example Ali Demir, the Chairman of the Islamic Religious Community in Germany said:
'This is a harmless procedure with thousands of years of tradition behind it and high symbolic value.’ 'The decision of the Cologne State Court that the religious circumcision of boys is illegal and punishable by law is a wholly inappropriate interference with freedom of religion. I feel the ruling is hostile to integration and discriminatory for those affected.'
Which is the worst argument for continuing to perform unnecessary surgery on an unconsenting minor that I can think of.
For one thing male circumcision is not always harmless. There are sufficient examples of complications, both immediately following the procedure and in later life to make the practice unwarranted in the 21st Century. Secondly, you could make the same argument from tradition for Female Genital Mutilation , corporal punishment and child slave labour, but I don’t hear anyone trying it (yet). But here is the Telegraph trying to claim that secularists praising the ruling are engaging in “medieval anti-Semetism”.
Many secularist campaigners are cock-a-hoop about the ruling. They believe their description of circumcision as “child abuse”, as a cruel operation that ignores the UN-guaranteed “rights of the child”, is radical and caring. But in truth it echoes centuries’ worth of nasty anti-circumcision posturing by people who hate certain religious faiths.

Now I’m sure that anti-Semites do and have for centuries used the circumcised penis as a way to degrade and belittle the Jewish faith, but that is not what is happening here. Even in Germany (that’s Germany, FFS!) the Jewish community is not phrasing this as an anti-Semitic ruling specifically, (although they are obviously not happy about it) so where does the Telegraph get off accusing secularists of prejudice just because a barbaric tradition is finally getting the scrutiny it deserves?
This pathetic appeal to cultural relativism ignores the fact that physical alteration (and yes ‘mutilation’) of a child for reasons of religious or cultural inclusion is inflicting an identity and possible lifelong disfigurement on them that in adulthood they may not wish to subscribe to. It is, surely, possible to bring up a child in a tradition without abusing them in this way (I’ll ignore the concept that all religious instruction is child abuse, although I agree it can be if it is willful indoctrination that protects children from differing world views) while leaving the big decisions about symbols and ritual displays until they’re old enough to consent.
For sure, I’m in favour of this ruling, if not actually “cock-a-hoop” (which is a poor choice of epithet considering,) but mainly because it is a blow for sanity and individual human rights against blind tradition and the imposition of communitarian mores: not merely because it restricts the continued privilege of religion to insist that everyone born into the culture has to suffer for it.


  1. Really. It could be some kind of weird secular initiation rite, and it would still be a bad thing. The default view of mutilation should be "don't do it to infants or children." Not a terribly onerous standard, surely.

  2. Yes it could be, but I'm not sure there is an equivalent in real life. There are penile mutilations carried out in some south american and australian aboriginal coming of age ceremonies, which make circumcision look like a a walk in the park, but they are are at least performed on individuals who are notionally adults. Cultural indoctrination is a powerful thing.