DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


The Circumcision Ban And The New Atheism

You've probably heard about a recent campaign in San Francisco, California to put a measure on the ballot banning circumcision.  I think this campaign illustrates some of the troubling assumptions people are increasingly making about spirituality in our culture, and I'm going to look at some of those assumptions in this post.

Lloyd Schofield, who started the campaign, explains the ban by saying that "it's a man's body, and his body doesn't belong to his culture, his government, his religion or even his parents."  Thus, according to Schofield, forcibly removing a male baby's foreskin is immoral.

Religion Isn't Like A Nose Job

This argument may sound good on the surface, but if we examine it more closely, we can see that it proves too much.  What about situations where surgery is required to save an infant's life?  Should such operations be banned because "it's the infant's body" and no one has the right to invade it?  I think most people would say no.

But this, I'm sure Schofield would respond, doesn't undermine the ban, because circumcision is never (as far as I know) needed to save babies' lives.  Instead, he has said, it's more like "cosmetic surgery." No one should be forced to get a facelift, the argument goes, and the same principle applies here.

The trouble with this argument is that, for many, if not most, of the people who choose to have their babies circumcised, the procedure is not akin to cosmetic surgery at all.  It's a religious requirement.  If you believed, as these people do, that God exists, He is the ultimate arbiter of morality, and He wants you to circumcise your child, I don't think you'd see it as a trivial matter.

In other words, when we unpack the rationale for the circumcision ban a bit, we can see that it's based on an idea hostile to religion:  that religious practices are just as frivolous and unnecessary as cosmetic surgery.

If we want to have an honest debate about this law, I think we need to acknowledge that it's based on anti-religious assumptions of the sort we often see in the writings of "New Atheists" like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, and ask the ban's proponents to justify those assumptions.

The False "Religion Vs. Morality" Distinction

But there's a deeper, and more problematic, assumption behind the ban -- the notion that the ban is justified by moral principles that are separate from, and superior to, religious beliefs.  "People can practice whatever religion they want, but your religious practice ends with someone else's body," says Schofield.

Again, this sounds convincing at first, but let's take a closer look.  Where do the ban's defenders get the moral rule that "your religious practice ends with someone else's body?"

Did they learn this through scientific observation?  No.  As philosophers have often pointed out, moral principles are different from laws of nature like the law of gravity -- we can't learn what's right and wrong by conducting experiments.

Some might argue that Schofield is expressing moral values most people share.  However, even assuming most people buy the principle that "your religious practice ends with someone else's body," that doesn't make the principle true.  To use a timeworn argumentum ad Hitlerum, a majority of the German people may have supported Hitler's rise to power, but I think you'd agree that doesn't mean it was a good thing.

My point is:  it's far from obvious that the principle "your religious practice ends with someone else's body" is somehow more valid than the religious view "God commands me to circumcise my child."  Neither principle is more "neutral" than the other, and there's no good reason to dismiss the second one just because it contains the word "God."

I suspect we'll see more and more legislation influenced by "New Atheist" ideas being proposed, and I think we need to understand those ideas and the role they're playing if we want to have a fully informed discussion about these laws.