Religion, Reason & Circumcision

I read a lot of frustrating (to me) statements about circumcision. Here’s one for today:

We often get the idea that God is out to deprive us of something. We read the Bible, and particularly the Law, as enlightened Westerners and marvel at the ridiculous things God required of his people. Or were they ridiculous…? It is not so uncommon for science to catch up to what God told people several thousand years ago.

Maybe, just maybe, God knew something about hygiene and health all along. Circumcision and monogamy do go a very long way toward protecting both partners from infection and disease. I wonder what else God knows that we haven’t figured out yet….

It’s also not so uncommon for science to disprove what God told people several thousand years ago.

Whether or not the Bible contains any literal truth or not is beyond my concern here. I can accept that some of it is probably true in the process of stating that much of it reads like a collection of parables rather than a text of historical record-keeping. It’s also worth noting that the New Testament clearly indicates that circumcision is not a requirement or a command for the followers of Jesus. For the sake of the 21st Century argument against circumcision, both points are irrelevant. We live in a society ruled by laws. Inherent human rights must inform those laws. No words from any book can be used to justify cutting away the healthy foreskin of a child.

Several demonstrable historical facts are also important here. At the time of the Bible and Christ, without access to clean water for regular bathing, hygiene was probably an issue. That wouldn’t have justified the routine circumcision of infants, for even then, medical practice should not have involved removing healthy body parts from children. (Is the curse of poor hygiene only attributable to the foreskin, where girls stay daisy-fresh without regular bathing?) However, we do not face that condition today in the Western world¹.

We also know that the foreskin has health/biological functions. It protects the sensitive mucous membrane of the glans and inner foreskin from damage and keratinization. It provides sexual pleasure for both men and women. It has a functional purpose during intercourse. It is neither an anatomical mistake of evolution nor a proving ground for faith.

We also know that the historical reality of circumcision and the “modern”, Western reality of circumcision are different. In Biblical times, circumcision generally involved removing whatever part of the foreskin protruded beyond the tip of the glans. Today, and particularly in circumcision designed to reduce HIV transmission, Western medicine removes a significant portion of the foreskin. In infancy, this requires tearing the adhered foreskin from the glans. It generally involves removing the sensitive frenulum, as well. The penis is more “skinned” than cut.

What we practice today – the ritual mutilation of children for religious and cultural reasons – was not handed down from God. Whether from evolution, God, or some combination of both, we have brains. We are meant to use them. God never commanded circumcision, as explained in detail in Marked in Your Flesh by Leonard Glick. But if He did, I’m not willing to descend to such irrational behavior when reason demands a different response. As I’ve said before, any god who would demand such an abomination is not a god who deserves respect or allegiance.

¹ The development of antibiotics and condoms, in addition to monogamy, further reduces the notion that we should invade the body of an innocent child with a scalpel because he might act irresponsibly. Of course, if he’s being monogamous according to God’s law, he probably doesn’t need circumcision to protect him from HIV.

4 thoughts on “Religion, Reason & Circumcision”

  1. In Biblical times, circumcision generally involved removing whatever part of the foreskin protruded beyond the tip of the glans.
    Which means the glans would’ve remained covered by a truncated foreskin that continued to act as a supposed harbor for “unhygienic” stuff.
    This fact effectively demolishes the silly idea that the ancient Hebrews practiced circumcision for hygienic reasons or that God’s (or whoever’s) intention was to promote hygiene by making circumcision obligatory.

  2. Why would an all-powerful God tell someone to circumcise an infant on the eighth day of life for safety reasons when he could’ve simply changed our physiology so the surgery could be safely performed on the first day?
    A much more likely explanation for the eighth day rule, of course, is that the bible’s authors discovered (through trial and error) that babies who were circumcised on or after the eighth day suffered from a much lower mortality rate than the ones who were circumcised before.
    In pondering this ugly truth, one can only imagine how many babies wound up dead before these “holy” men realized that the number of fatalities could be reduced by postponing the procedure.

  3. I don’t remember if Dr. Glick addressed vitamin K in Marked in Your Flesh, but it’s fairly clear the circumcision requirement showed up in the Bible long after it was first written, so some measure of trial and error would’ve been possible. No idea if that happened, but it’s as logical as anything else.

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