Freethinker article

Article Freethinker
Submitted by Richard on Sat, 10/20/2012 – 16:56

Ophelia Benson (see has written an article for the November edition of Freethinker (the voice atheism since there is no God knows when). I have a preview, please do not circulate or publish thanks:

Giles Fraser and “the liberal mindset”

It was in the news a few days ago that Germany is preparing a new law to protect the “right” of parents to circumcise their male infants. This is in response to a judge’s ruling in Cologne in June that the child’s right to bodily integrity is violated by non-medical circumcision.

The wording of the reports on the new law emphasised the putative right of parents to circumcise while the infant’s right not to be circumcised was relegated to the final paragraph. The National Post (Canada) for instance put it this way:

The Justice Ministry has now issued the outlines of the new legislation that will protect a family’s right to circumcise their child, provided they have been fully informed about the procedure and use the “most effective pain relief possible.”

Completion and approval of the new law, which gives any family the right to have their child circumcised, regardless of religion, may be just weeks away. Some lawmakers are pressing for a vote of conscience freed from party discipline.

The opposing right was not mentioned until the end of the article.

Granted, the whole question is complicated by issues around immigration, xenophobia, and especially the Holocaust, but even so, one would think – especially once the issue had been decisively raised by the judge’s ruling – that the infant’s right to remain physically intact would get more attention.

Of course the judge’s ruling in June was greeted with outrage by religious conservatives and what the Guardian predictably called “Jewish and Muslim leaders” and “representatives of the two religious communities”. Less of course, at least I would have thought so, was the startlingly callous reaction of the Anglican priest and former canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral Giles Fraser, in his “Loose Canon” column in the Guardian. He wrote that

the circumcision of babies cuts against one of the basic assumptions of the liberal mindset. Informed consent lies at the heart of choice and choice lies at the heart of the liberal society. Without informed consent, circumcision is regarded as a form of violence and a violation of the fundamental rights of the child. Which is why I regard the liberal mindset as a diminished form of the moral imagination. There is more to right and wrong than mere choice.

I’m reliably and perhaps stupidly surprised when Fraser writes things like that, I suppose because I expect a former lecturer in philosophy at Oxford to have a liberal mindset himself, or at least to be fair to the point of view he’s criticising.

Of course there more to right and wrong than mere choice, but who thinks otherwise? Fraser implies with that rather crudely written paragraph that “the liberal mindset” does, but that’s absurd. Thinking that informed consent and choice are important doesn’t entail thinking they’re all that’s important.

He is at any rate clearly disagreeing with the idea that circumcision of infants is a form of violence and a violation of the fundamental rights of the child, but without spelling out exactly why. Instead he says the liberal mindset is inadequate, but that’s a different claim. It’s very difficult to figure out exactly how infant circumcision could help being a form of violence and a violation of the fundamental rights of the child. There’s no need to make a fetish of choice to think that. It’s a permanent alteration of a part of the body – a highly valued part, at that – for a religious or ritual or “community” reason, done in infancy when informed consent is impossible.

Fraser makes no attempt to explain why circumcision must be done to infants instead of leaving it until they are old enough to decide for themselves. Perhaps it’s because he thinks they shouldn’t be able to make the choice. If so he should have had the courage and honesty to say so explicitly.

What he does instead is tell a story about himself and his son and circumcision, starting with the fact that he himself was circumcised and that his father was Jewish and his mother was not.

Years later, when my wife objected to the circumcision of our new son on the grounds that it was cruel and unnecessary, I reluctantly gave way. Intellectually, I knew that there was little left of “being Jewish” to protect. After all, my wife was not Jewish and I had become a Christian priest. Halachically, it made no sense.

It’s pretty chilling if he’s representing his own thinking accurately. His wife objected to the cruelty and he gave way reluctantly? So he was reluctant to spare his infant son the pain of circumcision? He explains that it seemed like an abandonment of Jewish identity and giving Hitler a posthumous victory, which is comprehensible, but he doesn’t explain if or why or how that trumps the concern about cruelty, much less why it was his right to choose for his son rather than his son’s right to choose for himself.

It’s a familiar but depressing example of religious thinking simply failing to address the real, secular, human-based issues.

Brian Earp’s comments

This is getting right to the core. I’m working on a paper on exactly this issue: the conflict between “liberal ethics” and a wider view of ‘morality’ that would countenance circumcision. My basic argument is going to be that anyone who enjoys the fruit of secular societies built on “liberal ethics” — in other words who has their own choices respected, who is free from violence against their own person, who can prosecute cases of assault when they themselves are the victim — can’t glibly dismiss these ethics as soon as they enter the church or a synagogue. Make your choice. If you want to live on an island with your co-believers and construct your society on a “community” ethics by which issues like protecting children and preserving bodily integrity are seen as too narrowly “liberal” for your moral imagination — go for it — but we will shame you from our society, and we will weep for your children.

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