The Religion Exemption

Glen Newey · Circumcision

In 2009, Elmer and Chastity Weebles, a Christian couple from Hackensaugh, New Hampshire, had their infant son marked with the stigmata of Christ. During the operation the feet and hands of eight-day-old Mercey Weebles were impaled with ordinary kitchen skewers by a medically unqualified pastor known to the Weebleses. Secularists lobbied to have the couple arraigned on charges of assault. But the DA’s office declined to file charges against the Weebleses, arguing that to do so would violate the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. The NH attorneys were backed by Deputy Governor Dirk Lopov-Iacioppa, touted as a future presidential hopeful, who proclaimed: ‘I do not want Hackensaugh to be the only county in the United States in which Christians cannot practise their rites.’

Yes, I made all that up, though US God-botherers who reserve the right to propagandise their hapless offspring with ‘creation theory’ are real enough. So, of course, are the protesters, including Angela Merkel, against a recent decision by a Cologne court to outlaw circumcision after doctors at a hospital admitted a four-year-old boy who had suffered complications after being circumcised: the chancellor said she didn’t want Germany to be the only country in Europe where Jews couldn’t practise their rites. One might infer from what Merkel said that, if the practice were exclusively Islamic rather than also Jewish – the case involved a Muslim boy – banning circumcision would have been fair game.

Giles Fraser has argued that anti-circumcisers fetishise choice, and thereby ‘concede to the moral language of capitalism’. Happily, though, you don’t need to be a benzedrined Friedmanite to think that getting a choice is sometimes a good idea: the choice not to be tortured, for instance, which is sometimes forgone by devotees of S&M but prized by most of the rest of us. But it would miss the point to say that the reason torture is bad is because its victims don’t get a choice over it. For one thing, it would leave unexplained the moral gap between being tortured and, say, tickled against your will. Even here it's not that consent makes no moral difference: imagine if babies subject to circumcision could actively withhold their consent – would Fraser favour bashing on regardless?

Lack of consent seems like a defeating reason. But the absence of a defeating reason against a practice is not, by itself, a reason for it. Ad hoc modifications to babies’ anatomy that lack medical warrant need good reasons to back them. The assumption surfaces, predictably made by persons of faith, but surprisingly shared by many liberal secularists, that religious reasons are grander than others. Imagine if Goth parents decided they wanted to hammer bits of chrome through the dangly bits of their infant offspring. Practices that might count as grievous bodily harm if inflicted by secularists get legal protection if carried out by bearded hierophants.

Legal opt-outs for religion also apply to less obviously exceptionable practices. In the US, the Native American church got an exemption for its use of the hallucinogen peyote on the grounds of ‘sacramental’ use. But does that make them more eligible than lifelong bong-puffers? (‘Yeah, man... I guess you could say it’s kinda religious for me.’) The opt-out for religious reasons has been lampooned by an Austrian ‘pastafarian’, a follower of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Since religious dress is exempt from a ban on headgear in driving licence photographs, Niko Alm posed for his with a pasta-strainer on his head. The Austrian police said that the photo was allowed because Alm's face was fully visible, not for religious reasons.

And presumably the religion exemption also fails at the other extreme, when it comes to practices like Aztec-style human sacrifice. Some religions are clearly more equal than others. If Alm, Aztecs and the hypothetical Goths aren't in the club, who is, and on what grounds?


  • 19 July 2012 at 5:28pm
    klhoughton says:
    "Ad hoc modifications to babies’ anatomy that lack medical warrant need good reasons to back them."

    Thought you were talking about circumcision above. Why the sudden change to discussing modifications "that lack medical warrant"?

    • 19 July 2012 at 7:01pm
      Phil Edwards says: @ klhoughton
      Giles Fraser:

      I was circumcised by the mohel when I was eight days old on my grandmother's kitchen table in St John's Wood. It wasn't done for health reasons. It was a statement of identity. Whatever is meant by the slippery identification "being Jewish" – my father is, my mother is not – it had something to do with this. Circumcision marked me out as belonging.

      It's non-medically-warranted circumcision we're essentially talking about here.

      Glen Newey:
      it would miss the point to say that the reason torture is bad is because its victims don’t get a choice over it. For one thing, it would leave unexplained the moral gap between being tortured and, say, tickled against your will.

      How big a moral gap is that, though? There's certainly a difference in experiential quality between torture and sexual harassment, but I think the lack of consent is pretty central to why we think they're both objectionable.

      imagine if babies subject to circumcision could actively withhold their consent – would Fraser favour bashing on regardless?

      I think he'd say that's a badly-formed question. Quoting Fraser again:

      We are born into a network of relationships that provide us with a cultural background against which things come to make sense. "We" comes before "I". ... And circumcision is the way Jewish and Muslim men are marked out as being involved in a reality greater than themselves.

      This is quite a big and interesting, if barmy, claim. He's essentially saying that circumcision, like birth, precedes any possible subject formation - and that circumcision, like nurture, forms part of the context within which subject formation takes place and by which it's determined. But that where the long process of nurture incrementally frames the boy's developing sense of identity within the dramas played out in a physically-present family, the quick hit of circumcision irrevocably embeds it within a largely virtual religious community.

      Although I may be over-analysing this. That last sentence quoted above essentially says "it's what we do, all right?"

  • 20 July 2012 at 2:59am
    outofdate says:
    Is it too late to point out that the court did not ban circumcision?

    • 20 July 2012 at 2:05pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ outofdate
      They didn't ban circumcision, they decided that in this case, the operation was carried out with the express approval of the parents so that the doctor was not guilty of causing bodily harm. The court decided that religious circumcision carried out without the agreement of the boy concerned is an offence. The parents of an under-age boy cannot make such a decision on his behalf. (Appeal Court Cologne, 7 May 2012)
      This was enough to arouse strong disapproval among Muslims and Jews. One critic writes that the Jewish rite, carried out at after six days is usually much safer than the Muslim rite. The boy in Cologne suffered severe blood loss and was in a clinic for ten days, which certainly sounds as if he suffered bodily harm.

  • 20 July 2012 at 4:13am
    Herman Munster says:
    It's even more complicated. A good friend of mine became a pediatric anesthesiologist. When I asked him why infants weren't anesthetized during circumcision, he replied that they were too young to remember the pain of the operation.

    The same sort of thing will happen to me next year when I get that grand examination men receive in their fiftieth year. The proctologists administer Valium before the procedure, which prevents the formation of long-term memories.

    How about a remake called Zero Recall?

  • 20 July 2012 at 1:39pm
    Harry Stopes says:
    The physicality of circumcision makes it seem very intrusive (and choice-denying), but in my opinion it's less so than the whole process of bringing up a child in a given religious tradition. If you can make your kids dress a certain way, wear their hair a certain way (or cover it), make them go to church or mosque or synagogue every week, give them a religious education, and so on, I don't see that it's any MORE bonkers to cut off their foreskin.

    • 23 July 2012 at 8:26pm
      alex says: @ Harry Stopes
      But then all upbringing is 'interference'. Religion is just shorthand for citation of a) precedent, lore; and b) community, in defence of whatever particular molestation parents inflict on their spawn. Atheists aren't exempt, it's a belief system like any other.

  • 20 July 2012 at 1:53pm
    drright says:
    Couple of points.
    Your use of the term torture is wrong in the context of S&M. Torture is defined under the UN Convention against Torture as,
    torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession,... is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

    A classic case of S&M coming before the courts is R v Brown where different moral/legal considerations were discussed.

    In human rights terms the male infant has a right to freedom of religion. Lack of consent by the child does not limit his right. The State has a positive obligation to protect his right to freedom of religion. What occurs is another person (e.g. mohel) causing grievous bodily harm without consent from the child and outside the medical exemption.

    In the context of harm:
    In a case R (on application of Williamson) v SoS for Education and Employment, parents wanted teachers in the school to smack their children ((at most actual bodily harm--it wouldn't even leave a mark) if they misbehaved. They argued that this was a manifestation of the parents' religion. The House of Lords denied this request.

  • 20 July 2012 at 2:27pm
    bblacky says:
    Just because a practice has a long historical tradition, and is defended by a large faction sharing the same fairy tale, is scant reason to justify it. Look at circumcision as a profound social violation: "This is what we can do to you. This is our power over you. You will submit to our fantasy."

    What about infanticide? It was common in many countries (particularly for unwanted female infants) until recently. "Part of their culture, their belief system!".

    All the arguments about cleanliness, or resistance to STDs, is but a coverup for the elemental brutality of the act.

    The only way to lose a foreskin is to wear it off.

  • 20 July 2012 at 8:51pm
    Bob Beck says:
    Fraser's main objection gets things just exactly backwards.

    To invoke the right to choose isn't to "concede to the moral language of capitalism."

    Rather, apologists for capitalism attempts to cloak their ideology in morality by co-opting the language of liberalism, at least the "choice" part of it.

  • 21 July 2012 at 7:38am
    streetsj says:
    Where does baptism fit in? Pouring water over a baby (without its consent) would seem to be a clear assault if a trivial one. But entering the baby into the Christian church without its consent seems to me to be a clear transgression of its right to freedom of religion.
    I don't know what current Christians think happens to the souls of the unbaptised dead, but there seems no reason to me why the decision of which church a child wants to enter shouldn't be left until it can make up its own mind.
    Sadly I think it would be difficult to proscribe marinating children in religious (or other) drivel before they came to their own conclusions.

    • 21 July 2012 at 11:41am
      outofdate says: @ streetsj
      Quite. You have to marinate them in some drivel if they're to come to any conclusions at all; these people raised by wolves are never up to much in the wit department. To learn to speak we must be able to call a spade something, even if we later decide it was a shovel all along, as the Rev. Fraser appears to have done with his hocus-pocus.

  • 22 July 2012 at 1:37am
    bblacky says:
    In the [predominantly Catholic] Philippines, being uncircumcised is shameful, a sign of such extreme poverty that your parents can't afford to have you cut. 'Supot' is the term they use; it means 'bag' as in 'Your dick's in a bag! Why don't you uncover it?'

    The custom is most probably a hangover from the Islamic occupation of the islands, as the Spanish conquerors certainly did not promote any such practice.

    In [mostly Muslim] Indonesia the mythology is astonishing. 'Oh Mr. Byron, if you're not cut you can't have babies. And you'll get sick.' Pointing to a billion plus Chinese, practically none of whom are cut, as a logical counter to such a ridiculous argument, only works if the receptor's logical circuits are activated. Religion (particularly Islam) tends to keep them locked off.

    The formal circumcision rite a big coming-of-age ceremony for pre-teen Muslim boys, with a family celebration, nice gifts, food, fancy clothes, the whole works. I was once invited into a bedroom to witness a hapless nine-year-old laying on a bed with his still-injured dick exposed for all to witness.

    Even Indonesian Christian boys tend to get cut, at least in Java. The threat of ridicule from Muslim friends, and the idea of 'sunat' as 'purification' is quite strong.

    It is only the stalwartly Hindu Balinese who dismiss the whole matter. Out of the question. It is clearly cultural as much as religious, at least in this part of the world.

  • 23 July 2012 at 4:22am
    outofdate says:
    I saw an excellent reality TV show once where a touchy-feely American family got to live with a Malaysian tribe. Their nine-year old had equal rights with everyone else in the family, and decisions were made by 'pow-wow'. And dad was discovering his inner man in the jungle at long last, or threatened to, and wanted a tribal tattoo, but the son set his face against it (such wails you never heard), because the parents had thought they were very clever and under some previous manipulative bargain had extracted the promise that he would take it to the pow-wow when the time came that he wanted a tattoo or piercing. Dad had to back down with his tail between his legs.

    The natives were aghast, and at some kind of traditional naming ceremony at the end of the trip they named the son after a local toad -- which, they explained, is known for making an awful racket 'A toad?' the child screamed. 'I'm a toad?'

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