There are few things worse than physical mutilation. Genital mutilation is not the same as gouging out an eye or cutting off an arm, but it’s the same thing on a smaller scale and there is no justification for allowing parents to do this to their children. None. Ever.
Let’s get down to the basics. Cutting up children’s bodies is unjustifiably wrong in any context you want to hold. It should be a decision left to them to take of their own free will once they are legally an “adult” in whatever culture they happen to inhabit. The preference given to religious practices leads to some pretty ludicrous results. In many countries you can get into legal trouble for spanking your child in public or in the home—but if you want to mutilate their genitals? Why, that’s okay. How did we ever get to this insane position?
How this abominable habit likely started is unknown. It probably harkens back to some sort of coming of age ritual for both men and women before recorded history. But if you ask my opinion, I blame the Egyptians for making it popular. (There are many books out there about this subject if you’re interested: consider “Circumcision: A History Of The World's Most Controversial Surgery” by David Gollaher and “The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective” by Ellen Gruenbaum, both available on Amazon.com.)
Circumcision: A History Of The World's Most Controversial Surgery
The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective
Circumcision Not Widely Practiced
No one knows exactly why the Egyptians started to practice this for men (it might have been for cosmetic reasons, after all this is the culture that gave us wigs, mascara, and perhaps rouge and perfume), but it may not have been linked to religion and it does not appear to have been widely practiced. Also, all early indications are that it was first practiced on adult males. There is no reference, as far as I know, of Egyptians widely practicing female circumcision at this time. The small Semitic tribes bordering on the Egyptian realm were heavily influenced by this great and ancient power to the West (Egypt had been around for over 1,000 years as a continuously established civilization before we have any evidence of independent developed Semitic culture in the Levant.) This influence was probably the conduit to transmit to these far less developed peoples some of the customs of the admired Egyptians (sort of like modern Americans trying to dress like Princess Diana).
One of those small Semitic groups that picked up this practice was the Canaanite Hebrew tribe, although it was probably already a custom in their region before they emerged as a separate group within the larger Canaanite cultural milieu. But they did something odd with this cultural parasite of a custom, they incorporated it as a critical component within their religion. “And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you” (Genesis 17:11). I guess YHWH didn’t care to have a covenant with women, since they aren’t mentioned—which is probably good for women, as there is no knowing what YHWY would have wanted them to cut off. Those who are not circumcised are excluded and YHWY even goes so far as to threaten to kill Moses (and perhaps his son), but his wife rushes in and cuts off his son’s foreskin and touches it to Moses genitals before YHWH can come down and kill Moses (and son) (Exodus 4:24-26). (If you read the citation, be advised that the translation of “feet” is a euphemism for the penis because the Hebrews seemed to have a lot of hang-ups about talking about genitals.) YHWY takes circumcision seriously, indeed. Even today in Israel, it may be the case that a Jewish family can be fined for failing to have their son circumcised on a timely basis.
Why did God Need His People Circumcised?
Now why would a bunch of goat-herding illiterates decide that their god needed to “know” his people because they were circumcised? I mean the Egyptians already knew about tattoos (although this was forbidden in the Hebrew Bible too (Leviticus 19:28)—funny isn’t it, that you never see American Christian fundamentalists picketing tattoo parlors, but they do go after homosexuals). They also knew about branding, and probably also notched animals’ ears to designate ownership. If God has to look at your physical characteristics to know if you are HIS, it’s the same as a shepherd with a flock (which fit nicely with our goat herders’ mentality at the time, I suppose). If they tattooed their foreheads instead of slicing bits off of their penises, YHWH could more easily see them (rather than having to look up their robes), or they could have branded their buttocks (my personal favorite option), or notched their ears (early Vulcans perhaps?). Like circumcision, all of these alternatives are unalterable too. But they had to go for the penis, didn’t they? I guess YHWH likes to look under men’s robes to see who is HIS. The world will forever bemoan the fact that YHWH didn’t want to mark his people out by requiring them to wear silly hats instead of brutally mutilating their and their children’s bodies.
I have often read that the Muslims accepted the practice of circumcision from the Hebrews, but as I have noted this is wrong. The Hebrews didn’t invent the practice (Muslims also don’t consider the Jews to be the “chosen people” thereby requiring special herd markings ordained by God). As noted before, the earliest record we have of it is from the Egyptians. This was a cultural practice that became justified and sanctioned by the religions developing in the region where it was practiced. It’s not even in the Koran as a requirement from Allah. But it was a practiced custom during the life time of Mohammad in this region and was adopted and applied to others through the oppressive instrument of religion (“if I had to cut my penis, I am going to make sure you have to cut yours too;” a sort of reverse penis envy I suppose).
Muslims Against Circumcision
The best site I have seen against circumcision and examining it critically is actually a Muslim one. There are a number of places in the Koran where Allah states that humans are perfect creations, so why the need to cut anything off? This is true in the Hebrew Torah too, where man is supposedly made in El’s or El Shaddai’s (he was not YHWY back then at the beginning) image. I am told that there is “a ton” of early and medieval Jewish “scholarship” on the issue of whether that means that YWHY/El Shaddai had a foreskin or not—but it seemed a total waste of time to try to track it down. In any event, circumcision, as I noted, was a cultural parasite at the time of Mohammad and does get mentioned in the Hadith (probably by people trying to justify the practice by linking it to the religion, despite the fact that the religion didn’t espouse it). In Bukhari, Book #72, Hadith #779 it discusses practices which are laudable or advisable, including circumcision, shaving pubic hair, mustache trimming, cutting finger nails, and plucking armpit hair. These are not limited to males, and so here is the “justification” for female circumcision too, which by the 5th Century in Arabia was already a cultural practice to some extent. None of these practices are done to comply with any demand from Allah, they are just mentioned as being “advisable.” Does this mean that you can’t get to paradise if you don’t shave your pubes? Makes the hijab a bit more interesting, don’t you think?
Female circumcision is often justified in Africa and is even promoted in other countries as being sanctioned by Islam. In other places in the Hadith, Mohammed is quoted as advising on issues of female circumcision. These references allow certain cultural groups to claim that it justifies female circumcision as well (see the problems this causes in cultures without a history of such cultural practices, such as Indonesia). The fact that it is catching on in Indonesia is an obvious example of where a cultural invasion is taking place. The people were happily Muslim before, but now many are being pressured to accept an abhorrent practice with dubious links to their religion. The cultural parasite in action, infesting another society under the banner of religion.
Circumcision is not widely practiced in Europe, but caught on in the United Kingdom and the United States during the English Victorian Era. It’s introduction was championed by many Christian groups and medical professionals for its alleged sanitary benefits (anything would help, I suppose, if you are just washing yourself once a fortnight) and as a way to prevent excessive masturbation (then believed as possibly leading to insanity – which goes to show that going to university back then, same as today, doesn’t necessarily make you smart). Although nowadays it is still promoted in the US on the bogus basis that it’s healthy (as if the uncircumcised penises of the rest of the world were all sick and ready to fall off). But the original impetus also was partly religious. Some have claimed that it’s just a way for hospitals and doctors to earn additional fees for nothing. Whether it’s linked to religion or health, both are deemed authoritative justifications for something that should have no religious meaning to Christians. Many Christian commentaries claim that Baptism has replaced circumcision as a way to confirm one’s commitment to God. I like that idea, as at least it allows women into the club. No such luck for women even in modern Orthodox Judaism.
No Health Benefits
I am not going to talk about the supposed “health benefits” of circumcision, any more than I would merit the Creationist argument for a 6,000 year old Earth with a response—there is no objective evidence that this is true. Yes, some doctors have recommended circumcision as a way to reduce HIV transmission, but many others have noted that better personal hygiene would work just as well. Also, there are no objective studies on this, comparing samples of people with similar hygiene habits. So I put this in the “nothing else is working, so let’s try this” category. I think it’s also a way for certain religious groups to avoid the discussion about condoms, which if used make the whole argument a tremendous waste of time. Which would you rather do to avoid HIV, cut off part of your penis or wear a condom?
So where does that leave us? Christians have no reason to continue this barbaric practice, and it should be outlawed, just as would cutting of the little finger, or smallest toes, or ear lobes, or any other body part of a child. Muslims have it as a vague recommendation, and they should recognize that it has no link with their core theology. It doesn’t mark them as Allah’s chosen. It doesn’t help get them to heaven. It’s a recommended cultural practice, whose time has passed. We know more now than we did then, so it’s time to drop it, as doing so does not impact the core religious values. Many mainstream Muslims do support this position (although more so in connection with female than male circumcision).
Circumcision in Judaism
Lastly, we come to the Jews, and this is obviously an issue with them, since their all-powerful YHWH seems incapable of knowing who are his chosen people unless they cut off their foreskin. There is no mention of why this is needed, or what spiritual transformation it engenders. In fact, there is no explanation at all, just a “do it Moses, or I’ll kill you” sort of thing. It is a symbolic demonstration of a dedication (you can’t say commitment, since it’s done to children who are obviously incapable of making a commitment to any belief system at that age) to their deity.
Modern Judaism bears little or no resemblance to historic Judaism. There are no animal sacrifices for making pleasing smells for YHWY, there is now in some cases an emphasis on helping others (which is pretty much totally absent in the Hebrew Bible, where if YHWY is talking about the Hebrew’s neighbors it’s usually in the context of making sure they and all their animals all get killed, their unmarried women get taken as booty, and they lose their land). So surely it’s not too much of an infringement on their rights to stop a practice which has no proven benefit for the children and only harms them – for life. They don’t practice many observances recorded in the Hebrew Bible, but I know that none are at the same level as this covenant one.
Protection of Children
From the standpoint of a society committed to a rule of law applicable to all people, which is a greater right to be protected? The right of an innocent child not to have his or her body mutilated for life, for no provable benefit other than satiating their parents’ irrational desire? Or the right of the parents to accommodate themselves to an unrepeated demand about 2,500 to 3,000 years ago, from a deity whose words were conveyed through a person (Moses) who probably didn’t exist, about a practice with no disclosed religious benefit other than to show you are a devote of YHWH. If you want YHWY to know your child is a believer, I suggest you get him a silly hat to wear, and keep your hands (and the rabbi’s mouth) off his penis. Yes, the preferred method of circumcision in Jewish practice is to have the rabbi suck off the cut foreskin and blood – if you don’t believe me, check this out.
So, get motivated! Let’s get some laws passed outlawing this barbaric practice. Protecting children is a laudable goal, and it’s time that society protected their interests over the irrational opinions of their parents. The Hebrew Bible also allowed you to sell your daughters, and we don’t do that anymore either. This is just another step in the right direction of ensuring that our children are not treated as property. And if you don’t agree, then please quote me a price for your daughter….