Friday, February 23, 2018

Iceland, circumcision, individualism, religion

You may have seen in the news this week that moves are afoot in Iceland to put an end to the circumcision of baby boys for religious reasons.  It's a move which has much popular backing, and would probably enjoy similar popularity in this country.

There are lots of dimensions to the arguments around this action.  There is the medical/psychological angle; there is the issue of religious freedom; there is the cultural question.  What really strikes me, though, is the radical, atomised individualism that stands behind many of the arguments I've seen advanced by those in favour of a ban.  The argument runs: how dare you religious people impose your religion on a child who hasn't chosen it, to the extent of not respecting the bodily integrity of the child?

The first key assumption behind this argument is that we are born completely neutral and entirely autonomous.  Our identity is defined from within ourselves, and has nothing to do with the family into which we are born.  This position is absolutely essential to modern Western secularism.  We resist any attempt to define us extrinsically, by our relationships or our circumstances.  But this is nonsense, and dangerous nonsense.  Every child is born into a family, and so much of their identity derives from those relationships which are (so to speak) thrust upon them.  You could say the same about being born into a nation, or, indeed, a religion.  To deny this is actually to be anti-culture.  Culture is all about that network of relationships, stories, and institutions which define us just by being there around us.  Atomised individualism means there can't be culture, which means there can't be human society.

The second key assumption is that religion is about my choices and beliefs.  I might decide to get circumcised later in life (personally I won't!), but that will be down to my own independently derived religious beliefs.  Actually, I pick up from some of the comment around Iceland that even this isn't quite right.  We're not very happy with the idea of circumcision because religion is meant to be a spiritual, private thing - something in which you can indulge if you want to, but which should leave no trace in the 'real world'.  But what if religion has much less to do with me and my choices and the way in which I choose to view the world, and is much more like being confronted by something real which one cannot deny and which has a transformative effect not only on the mind but on politics, ethics, and yes even the body?

A question for Christians like me surely is: given we're not going to be engaging in infant circumcision for religious reasons, are there nevertheless ways in which we ought to be resisting these assumptions of secularism and demonstrating the way in which identity is extrinsic (most fundamentally in Christ!) and religion is public?


  1. Perhaps by demonstrating a greater financial/social dependancy on each other within the church and within the family as an antithesis to the atomising individualism you mention. Given the economic conditions of today, those two (wife as home worker; mutual church support for necessities) would have to go hand-in-hand in some areas... which is perhaps the point.

    1. Well, yes. And of course marriage is a big part of this - commitment, sharing... There is a need to extend this sharing across the church fellowship, so that we don't replace atomised individualism with atomised family-ism...

  2. Agreed. The difficulty is getting enough people to think it worth pursuing in the first place.