Following a German court’s ruling that the circumcision of male infants constitutes a violation of child’s right to bodily integrity, The Telegraph’s Brendan O’Neill has mounted a particularly vacuous defense of the practice. As he sees it, “The rebranding of circumcision as ‘child abuse’ echoes the ugly anti-Semitism of medieval Europe” – yet he somehow finds a way to blame this on atheists:
There are many bad things about the modern atheistic assault on religion. But perhaps the worst thing is its rebranding of certain religious practices as “child abuse”. Everything from sending your kid to a Catholic school to having your baby boy circumcised has been redefined by anti-religious campaigners as “abuse”.
Let’s just take a moment to contemplate how remarkable it is that someone can make the entirely fact-free assertion that atheists are “assaulting” religion and that this is a bad thing, and have it published in a major newspaper. As far as introductions go, this has all the grace and composure of a 6th grader’s five-paragraph essay on current events. Apparently this modern atheistic assault on religion has become so extreme that the only other example of it he can find is the occasional labeling of a religious upbringing as “child abuse” – a rhetorical flourish that’s less of a serious accusation, and more of a way to raise questions about the ethics of forcing narrow and rigid dogma on young people. And O’Neill considers this particular offense among “the worst” committed by atheists. Clearly the situation is much more grave than we thought.
Regardless, his distaste for the so-called “New Atheists” has no bearing whatsoever on the ethical status of infant male circumcision. Whatever “anti-religious campaigners” have called it, this doesn’t change whether it’s actually right or wrong. It’s disingenuous for O’Neill to treat this situation as little more than a chance to express his personal grudge against atheists. What few arguments he has for allowing circumcision are unconvincing, if not outright incoherent:
This is an alarming attack on freedom of religion and on parents’ rights to initiate their children into their faith. The court case centred around a four-year-old Muslim boy who was given a very bad circumcision, but the precedent set by the case will of course affect Jews as well as Muslims. And as Germany’s Central Council of Jews rightly said, the court’s ruling is “an egregious and insensitive measure”, which represents “an unprecedented and dramatic intervention in religious communities’ right of determination”.
How can “freedom of religion” possibly be construed to extend so far that it allows religious people to remove parts of other people’s bodies without their consent and for no medical reason? Tattooing results in even less impairment than removal of the foreskin, yet parents who apply tattoos to their children have often faced charges. Are we to believe that the mere fact that some people might believe something as part of their religion is enough to make this completely acceptable? And if so, what are the limits to this?
When religion is used to justify something that would otherwise be considered wholly unacceptable, it’s nothing but an excuse for the inexcusable. Treating religion as the only reason you need to remove body parts from others is really no reason at all beyond “we want to”. How could someone else’s religion be so important that it makes this okay?
And how exactly does circumcision function to “initiate their children into their faith”? Having your foreskin removed is not something that automatically initiates you into any religion. It’s not like cutting it off implants some kind of permanent Judaism/Islam module in the child’s brain – otherwise there would be a lot more Jewish Muslims in America. Nor is circumcision practiced exclusively by religious people or as a way to mark a child as a member of a religion.
Such a doctrine is utterly ignorant anyway, because the presence or absence of a foreskin has no relation to what someone professes to believe (and reducing a person to nothing but a vector for your preferred ideology is intensely disrespectful of their agency). When you leave the religion that was responsible for your circumcision, that part doesn’t grow back! It’s asinine to focus on the importance of freedom of religion, while not caring at all about the freedom not to have parts of your genitals removed at will by others – especially when you’ve just argued that the state of the foreskin is a part of religious identification and expression. If it’s really that important, then what about the child’s freedom of religion?
Oh, but it doesn’t end there:
But in truth it echoes centuries’ worth of nasty anti-circumcision posturing by people who hate certain religious faiths. In Medieval Europe, as pointed out in the book The Covenant of Circumcision, Jew-baiters often depicted circumcision as “cruel and grotesque”. The “barbarous and cruel Jews” were slated for callously snipping off their own boys’ foreskins and for secretly desiring to do the same to Christian boys, too. These “merciless” creatures were described by one English writer as “foreskinne-clippers”. The modern atheist’s description of circumcision as “child abuse”, though used to attack both Jewish and Muslim communities, is only an updated, more PC version of the old anti-Semites’ description of it as “cruel and grotesque”.
To O’Neill, it’s practically impossible that circumcision actually could be a violation of the child’s rights – such a finding must be motivated by anti-Semitism rather than sound judicial and ethical reasoning. I suppose it hasn’t occurred to him that using the existence of anti-Semitism as an excuse to ignore any arguments against circumcision isn’t particularly respectful of the Jewish people either.
Just because circumcision is a Jewish practice doesn’t mean a ban on circumcision is specifically targeting Jewish people, and just because a history of ugly anti-Jewish prejudice exists does not mean that circumcision can’t be wrong – yes, even if opposition to circumcision has played a role in anti-Semitism. Hitler can say it’s sunny out, but that doesn’t mean it’s raining. Ted Kaczynski can believe in global warming, but that doesn’t mean anthropogenic climate change must not exist. O’Neill can question the motivations behind this finding until the cows come home, but any historical association with prejudice it may have doesn’t justify his refusal to engage with its actual points. If considering all infant male circumcisions unethical – not just those conducted by Jewish people – is “only an updated, more PC version” of anti-Semitism, then not hating Jews is apparently the new hating Jews.
And yes, that’s where O’Neill is taking this:
History tells us that the rebranding of religious practices as child abuse can have terrible consequences. Many anti-Jewish pogroms in the past were justified on the basis that Jews abused children.
I hope O’Neill is aware of who was responsible for most of these pogroms. Hint: it wasn’t the work of “New Atheists”. If he’s seriously trying to claim that infant male circumcision must be allowed in order to prevent some future explosion of anti-Semitic violence resulting from its prohibition, he’s going to need a lot more evidence than that to justify removing foreskins as a peacekeeping measure. As is, he’s only reiterated the confluence of unexamined tradition and unwarranted respect for religion that have so often enabled much of society to look the other way on this issue – a moral question with an answer that would otherwise be clear as day.