Against religious circumcision.

Germany  Cologne has banned it, causing much anger amongst Jewish and Muslim communities. Zack Beauchamp thinks the issue deserved more cautious treatment and consideration of religious liberty. Sullivan insists that circumcision constitutes assault, and religious liberty is best preserved by letting the child decide for himself at a later date.

First off, contra Sullivan, we need not be skeptical about ‘medical’ reasons for the procedure. The NHS recognises some. But that’s not what we’re dealing with here. What we have is parents wanting to carry out the practice on their children simply because their religion calls for it.

Maybe I’m missing something, but I struggle to see why this is such a divisive issue. I understand why religious people have an interest in protecting the practice, but for those of us stepping back and assessing what the state should allow, I’m baffled that there’s even a debate to be had.

I quoted Brian Barry back in February on an analogous ‘dilemma’, and I’ll do so again:

If there is a sufficiently compelling reason for having the law in the first place, its inconveniencing some people (for whatever reason) is not a basis on which exemptions should be granted. The fact is that almost all laws are more burdensome to some people than to others. The paradigmatic liberal achievement of freedom of worship manifestly suits those whose religious beliefs are compatible with it better than those whose beliefs commit them to the imposition of a religious orthodoxy. A law prohibiting drink-driving does not bother non-drinkers, a law against paedophilia restrains only those inclined to it, and so on. So long as there are sufficiently good reasons for having uniform laws, their having a differential impact is no reason for making exceptions to them.

He was writing in the context of legislation like the Slaughter of Poultry Act, which the relevant religions were exempted from. That is, they were allowed to keep bleeding animals to death whilst still conscious, in accordance with the type of rituals displayed in the video above, despite new prohibitions for everyone else. And like Barry, when I find reasons for laws and then hear religious people protest that it contradicts their conscience, I hear no alarm bells ring. The fact we have good reasons for the law make their ‘argument’ from religious liberty a non-sequitur. Why should the mere fact a religion demands something necessitate that as a society we must accommodate it? And if the Torah’s calling for it suffices to allow the otherwise unmotivated clipping of a child’s dick, what’s the limit here? Would defenders of religious freedom wish to allow the amputation of a child’s legs so long as a Holy Book demanded it?

I would, naturally, hope not. But my point is that I can’t see how that kind of logic is escapable once you make room for religious circumcision.


3 thoughts on “Against religious circumcision.

  1. Ok, but I think Barry’s point that there must be a ‘sufficiently compelling’ reason for the law is crucial. The fact that it upsets so many people are upset and object to a law might give us a reason to reconsider it. My question is whether this fight is really worth it.

    • Not the type of reason he means, surely, given he’s explicitly dealing with laws aggravating particular cultural groups in that article?

      On whether it’s worth it, though, you mean they’ll just go overseas? True, and relevant to practical law-making, I guess. I restrict this to an ‘in principle’ argument accordingly.

  2. You might be right, this could just be my gloss on Barry rather than what he actually says, but I always thought it was consistent with his arguments to repeal a law *for everyone* if it imposed enough of a burden on certain people, and that the objections of cultural minorities could help bring these burdens to light. That is, if the religious arguments work, they should be strong enough to repeal the law altogether, and not just provide exemptions for religious minorities.

    As an analogy, suppose that ramblers object to a law that defines trespassing more strictly. Barry’s argument suggests that if the ramblers have a good enough argument that the freedom being restricted ought to be protected, that argument must hold for everybody, whether or not they happen to be a rambler. I think this is an ‘in principle’ argument (although I do think Barry looks a lot less belligerent if you consider the allowances he makes for political practicality).

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