Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011...10:04 am
Circumcision, Religion, and Morality
…I know I haven’t blogged for such a long time, but I am deeply involved with a large project that will actually transform this site. This entry, unplanned, is one of those writings events just sort of ambushed me into. It’s good, though, and, in form with what is maybe my blog’s main theme, it tries to present some fresh ways of looking in taboo corners…
Acting on a suit by Jewish groups and the ACLU, a judge recently ruled San Francisco could not vote to outlaw circumcision of male children, using a technicality of its incongruence with state law. I found myself compelled to join a Facebook debate over the issue when reading particularly strong language, calling it “religious intolerance” to oppose circumcision of newborns and “offensive.” At this point in thinking about it, I am not sure of my opinion. I’d rather weigh the issues first. I believe there are underlying impulses, especially with taboo subjects like this, that can be enlightening to identify.
In order to get there, allow me to just get the basic issues out of the way. A great many Americans wrongly believe there is scientific support for routine neonatal circumcision that serves hygiene–that professionals are at least sort of unsure about whether maybe circumcision might be worth it for keeping the dirty penis clean. The truth is, there is not a national organized board of medicine on the globe that supports non-ritualized routine circumcision. They, rather, condone it only for the ritual of religion or “tribal” reasons. They also support it for sexually active teenagers in parts of Africa ravaged by HIV, as the removal of the foreskin can make it more difficult for HIV to infect. Medical experts believe the penis to be a clean, properly functioning organ that does not need special efforts to be hygienic. In 1980, when I was a freshman at NYU, I remember my roommates gossiping about a new roommate put in with us, that he had never been circumcised and wasn’t that so disgusting because he had “smegma,” which is a sort of natural lubricant and, actually, a cleanser the penis’s foreskin provides but which my roommates believed was some kind of parasitic slime that would poison the floor of our shower.
The hygiene idea, it seems to me, resonates so much with Americans due to the Puritan foundations of our culture. Circumcision only became common in the US at the turn of the 20th Century, a result of the rise of a culture of medical experts who supported a whole host of quackery, from phrenology to eugenics. I’ve blogged on our culture’s demonization of male sexuality. The penis is seen by many of us as dirty and religiously impure, an organ that exercises our carnal, bestial nature. The concept of male sexual purpose being bestial is solely reliant on religious concepts of sin, especially original sin. It is fitting that a nation to whom Puritan instincts still resonate will have the penis as its one focus for ritualistic amputation.
But purity is not what worldwide circumcision is about. If you look at a map of the world categorized by circumcision rates, it will look much like a map categorized by death penalty rates. It is the religiously extreme nations that especially practice circumcision. Religiously mild areas, like Europe, have low rates. About 70% of the world’s circumcised men are Muslim, in tribal areas. This is because, unlike the US, most of the world’s circumcisions occur at adolescence for tribal reasons. A maturing male proves he is not a threat to the tribe by going through a painful ritual that makes his bodily appearance conform to that of his elders. (It may also be that it involves a lessening of sexual stimulation, making him less vulnerable to female influence, a better warrior.) This impetus is at least as old as ancient Egypt. It is similar to female circumcision, tribal scarring, and such other practices.
It is only recently and in a much more vaguely defined way that circumcision has become “tribal” in the US. The medical bodies, in search for a reason not to condemn a majority of Americans, have come to include a parent’s desire to have a child look like his father under the exempted “tribal” category, to which- in the American spirit of freedom of religion- they give the same wide berth they do for religious ritual. Perhaps this impetus is even stronger in the US than that for purity. Many years ago, a close friend used this simple reason to explain his choice to me. “I want him to look like me.”
So, this is where my mind is when I consider the religious freedom argument.
First, in a civil context, we must decide whether or not this is a moral question; as, in a society free of religious rule, religion must follow morality- not the other way around. Religious freedoms are granted by the state in its laws and constitution, not by a person’s particular God. If circumcision is not a moral issue, then, of course, we can grant an exemption to religion to amputate the foreskins of newborns at will, as easily as we give religions tax breaks or parking privileges. If it is a moral question, like gay marriage, which has a real effect on people’s fates, religious interests/beliefs/prejudices cannot be permitted to precede morality.
I believe most Americans in favor of the practice do not see it as a moral question. Necessary to their position is that this is a victimless procedure. In this context, the strong words “intolerance” and “offensive” ring with true righteousness. Yes, religious liberty is being threatened- take arms!
However, if we are careful to give all civil issues moral scrutiny, we might be surprised what we find in the case of circumcision. I am not so sure it is harmless. I’ll even put aside the obvious negative issues: exposure to risk (ie: a certain percentage of newborns get their penises accidentally cut off, among many other possible complications;) loss of nerve endings that must be assumed to significantly alter the sexual experience; and the loss of that smegma stuff my roommates were so frightened of. Let’s just look at the presumption that parents get to do stuff like this to their kids. Surely, if a parent was found sitting in a park snipping off pieces of their anesthetized baby’s foreskin just for fun, the state would take the child. The ACLU and the Anti-Defamation League would be farther from that parent’s defense than Mars. The principle? Well, there is a principle there. In fact, it was used by the Royal Dutch Medical Association, who called attention to something called the “child’s right to autonomy and physical integrity” in supporting a ban on circumcision. This is the same principle applied to a parent who wants to fill their child’s face with scars or tattoos. Now, either you believe in this principle or you don’t. Either a child has that important right or a child does not. If that is a right, this is a moral issue, and so, in a society truly free of religious rule, religion has failed to follow morality, and circumcision must be made illegal, even though most of the people practice it. (A political impossibility in our society, I acknowledge.)
However, I believe there may be something else at work than people simply ignoring the moral issue. Perhaps there is a little switcheroo going on in people’s logic when religion is introduced. It may be that some people’s impulse (not that they’ve ever actually cogitated on it,) especially those raised in particularly ritualistic or dogmatic religions, is to believe that religion has a kind of magical power to purify immorality. So, though they acknowledge the immorality of the act in one frame, an impulse trained to them through religion switches off a usually active moral sentinel when an issue is given a religious framing, as morality in our culture is almost always relegated to the religious sphere, as if it is invented by religion and not, rather, by universal ideals that have naturally developed in human relations.
There are other things involved, for sure. I’ll bet homophobia leads plenty of parents to write off the trauma experienced by babies being circumcised. (When one of my babies was born, through a glass partition, I accidentally witnessed the circumcision of five newborns, all lined up in a row by a particularly industrious doctor- just him and the screaming, traumatized baby boys. He didn’t know I was watching. He was very calm.)
I understand. It is a small thing. It is only done to males and just to the outer portion of our penises. It still leaves us plenty of the functioning organ to use, plenty of nerve endings survive to provide much sexual pleasure.
And, being a person who was circumcised at birth to no negative effect that I ever stressed over, I can’t say I vehemently disagree. I’ve moved on, though. No one involved in the birth of either of my boys (the first who is nearing adulthood,) ever so much as mentioned it as an option. Circumcision rates are falling fast in the US, and I am certain some day the practice will have gone the way of witch-dunking and UFO-sighting.
To leave behind religious and tribal identity in this matter requires courage to welcome change. It requires the will to imagine the moral advances ahead of us and then to hurry there with haste.
We have a nation of men walking around with mutilated penises for zero good reason and we fail to see how ridiculous the picture is. I’d rather we were cleverer than that.