A couple of months ago, an interesting alliance of Jews and Muslims came together in opposition to a German court ruling that effectively said that circumcision of male children — even for religious reasons — is considered bodily injury and is a criminal offense.
Although the legal aftermath is still being debated and certainly not settled in stone, there’s no shortage of impassioned voices taking both sides of the argument.
The American Humanist Association is sponsoring a poll, asking about the procedures. The question, specifically asks “Should humanists oppose male circumcision?”, and the available answers are “Yes. Circumcision is a religious practice, and children should make the decision for themselves when they are older,” and “No. Parents should have the right to decide for the child, and there are medical benefits to circumcision, such as lower risks of STDs.”
As of the writing of these words, there have been 432 votes, of which 59% have said “yes” and 41% have said “no.” (Exact breakdown is 254 to 178). Not that this is a scientific poll, but still.
I hate the wording of the “Yes” answer. With the possible exceptions of a vasectomy or a procedure that will literally save a man’s life, I can’t imagine any adult male willingly undergo any surgery that puts his dick under a knife. (And even in the case of saving his life, he might still balk at the idea… Note that, by these standards, I am specifically excluding M to F transgendered people, an exclusion that is both fair and reasonable.)
Even if I didn’t hate the wording of the “Yes” answer, I can’t honestly say “yes” or “no” to this kind of a question. My reasons are severalfold:
Very few, if any, people can honestly say whether or not life is better with or without the foreskin. If you still have your foreskin, then you don’t really know what it’s like not to have one. And if you’ve been circumcised (as I have), chances are you were so young when you underwent the procedure, that you don’t know what it’s like not to have been.
That raises questions as to whether or not circumcision is a good idea. Let’s first talk about health benefits. Sure, if you’ve been circumcised, there is less chance of infection. I’ll grant you that. But why stop with the foreskin? Surely there are other places (both for men and women) that can be cut away with in order to reduce infection. It seems to me that this kind of research is done after the fact in an attempt to justify the procedure. A form of begging the question, so to speak.
Sexual performance. Most of the women I’ve known (both sex partners and casual acquaintances) who have been with both circumcised and uncircumcised men, have generally reported that the uncut guys don’t necessarily last as long as those of us who have been cut. And lasting longer, although not a perfect predictor of sexual performance, at least gives the woman more opportunity for pleasure.
This does kind of make sense, since being circumcised is generically tied in with a reduction of sensitivity. There are a lot of nerve endings being cut with the procedure. Does this mean, then, that I, as a circumcised male, will not enjoy sex as much as my uncut brethren? Sure. I guess. As I said above, I don’t know any differently, so how can I really judge it? I do enjoy sex. Especially when I feel as though my partner is. That makes it an interesting double-edged, um, sword.
But it’s tradition, a lot of people will argue. Yes. That much is true. When speaking of traditions, though, I’d like to hear a more substantive argument to continue it than, “But that’s the way we’ve done it for” however long the tradition has been in force. It was also once a tradition to put political and religious dissenters into arenas with lions and make a “sport” out of it.
So I suppose it’s fair to ask the question as to where the tradition came from. Obviously, it stems from a religious mandate. Specifically, it is a covenant between god and Abraham, as outlined in Genesis 17:10-14. But what’s the reason behind this?
Most of the rules for how we live our lives in the Torah, Talmud, Bible, and Qu’ran can be generalized into one of three categories, even if those rules are no longer specifically honored. These categories are:
1. Ones that were a good idea for health and safety reasons, given then-available technologies and understandings
2. Ones that sought to differentiate one tribe from another
3. Ones that equated coincidence with success and therefore sought to magnify the coincidence.
An example of the first type include prohibitions on eating pork or mixing dairy with meat. Without proper refrigeration techniques, it’s safe to say that either of these foodstuffs wouldn’t last long, especially in the middle eastern heat, and thus would spoil quickly.
An example of the second type include prohibitions on tattoos and homosexuality. If tribe A conquered tribe B, and tribe B had an initiation ritual of marking the skin, then tribe A might have imposed its will on tribe B accordingly.
An example of the third type include instructions to eat locusts or not to mix different fabrics. Locusts apparently do have some very good nutritional value but if no one was willing to try it because of how disgusting it looked unless and until they got really desperate/hungry, they literally didn’t know what they were missing. When they found out they could eat it, they wrote it into their scriptures. If one person who always wore one type of fabric always emerged victorious in battles over people who mixed their fabrics, then it would have been easy to mix correlation with causation.
I could very easily list scores of other biblical rules and admonitions that fall into each of these three categories, but you get my point.
Therefore, it bears asking, which of the above three categories does circumcision fall into?
I think we can rule out reason number 3 for the reasons I mentioned above about an adult male willingly going under the knife.
Reason number 2 is certainly possible, but in most tribes, the differentiating factors between tribes generally crossed gender lines (like tattoos). So having something that only helps to be an identifying factor for men and not women strikes me as incomplete at best.
That kind of leaves us with number 1. What I’m about to say is something that, at least to me, makes sense. I have no evidence for what I’m about to say, so I welcome anyone who wishes to try and rebut me. I’m sure that living in a desert before the advent of underwear could make things … quite painful if a few grains of sand happen to get stuck in between the foreskin and the glans. I should think someone suffering from this kind of irritation might literally be willing to try anything to ease the pain. And, once they learned it worked, god blessed it and ordered it to be followed.
Hence a tradition that applies to two tribes that can trace their origins to arid, dry, desert-like areas.
As I said, it’s not a given that this is the origin, but I think it makes sense.
Should this tradition continue? I don’t know. There’s no shortage of biblical traditions we no longer follow, thanks to what we might consider relatively simple technology today. Underwear to keep sand from getting in. Or, since no one follows Leviticus 15:19 thanks to the advent of maxi pads and tampons, maybe it is time to let the tradition die out…….