Islamophobia or fair critique?

Brian D Earp argues that criticising a religious practice from the perspective of secular ethics is not the same thing as being prejudiced against the religion.

In a now-notorious ruling, a regional court in Cologne, Germany decided that non-therapeutic circumcision of young boys violates their constitutional rights to bodily integrity and to self-determination – even if carried out with parental permission, and even for religious reasons. The German legislature passed an emergency statute to protect religious circumcision from any future legal challenges, but the initial court decision sparked a firestorm of controversy. Muslim and Jewish commentators were outraged. Child rights activists and a handful of humanitarian groups were overjoyed. Professional bioethicists were not entirely surprised.

Why not? Ritual circumcision is a pre-Enlightenment tribal tradition. The Jewish version is openly sexist – females are left out of the divine covenant, perhaps to their great relief – and males lose functional erogenous tissue to an excruciating surgery done years before they are old enough to give their consent. Islam is more egalitarian: it allows for circumcision of boys and girls, although there appears to be no heavenly commandment involved in either case, and the procedure takes place in later childhood as opposed to pre-verbal infancy. Both versions are consistent with the norms of patriarchal tribalism; both elevate the concerns of the community over the freedom of the individual to make decisions about his own body in his own time; and both brand a child with a permanent mark of religious belonging despite the significant possibility that he may one day fail to embrace the belief system and/or cultural practices of his parents. Medical ethics, on the other hand, along with much of Western law, came to fruition in a post-Enlightenment world that favours notions like autonomy, consent, individual rights, and a child’s entitlement to an open future. Going by strict definitions, the medically irrelevant excision of healthy genital tissue – whether it’s taken from the vulvas of little girls, or the penises of little boys – is equivalent to criminal assault of a minor under the legal codes of most developed nations. The tension was bound to cause cracks somewhere.

And there is a genuine tension here. The religious metaphysic – which appeals to things like community rights, ritual continuity, and obedience to divine command – just doesn’t square very well with the normative basis of much of contemporary philosophical ethics nor with the underlying legal paradigm of secular constitutional democracies. You normally don’t get to cut off non-diseased, non-regenerating, functional and protective body parts from other people without first getting their permission, whether you think God told you to do it or not. Even religious freedom has its limits. But this point has not been very thoroughly acknowledged by the most vocal of Muslim and Jewish commentators in the ongoing aftermath of the Cologne decision: cries of religious persecution and even of outright Islamophobia and anti-Semitism came very quickly to the tongue. They’re still ringing in the air.

Yet as Russell Blackford recently reminded us in his wonderful essay, “Excessive tolerance?” (tpm 59), it really is OK to criticise religious practices on moral, ethical, or legal grounds. If one can pull off one’s critique in a spirit of fairness, that is, and without any sort of undue spite. His topic happened to be the burqa. Reviewing Martha Nussbaum’s recent failure in The New Religious Intolerance (Harvard University Press) to find “anything problematic at all” about veiling norms within Islam, Blackford brought up the existence of a handful of plausible, respectable, cogent, and relatively simple-to-pose moral objections to these contentious norms that have nothing whatsoever to do with irrational prejudice against Muslims.

Blackford’s assessment of Nussbaum is right on the mark, and provides a general lesson. While it’s true that “the state”, as he put it, “ought to adopt a degree of epistemic modesty about religious issues, and many moral ones (as well),” individual thinking citizens, and philosophers above all, need not be quite so timid about taking a clear ethical stand on potentially harmful customs, whether they are religious in nature or otherwise. As Blackford puts it with characteristic pithiness:

“We are well within our rights to conclude, from within our respective understandings of the world and conceptions of the good, that a particular religion has its dark side, or that a moral norm favoured by some religion is preposterous and harmful.”

Of course, compelling women and young girls to hide themselves in cloth bags in the name of modesty is (at least arguably) one such moral norm. So too is cutting off parts of their genitals in the name of chastity. Likewise, and – again, as at least a sensible, non-prejudiced, non-bigoted collection of arguments can reasonably be taken to show – so too is amputating functional erogenous tissue from the penises of male babies and other minor boys.

As Douglas Adams once observed, “If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like … everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it.” Same for different views on economic policy, or whatever else might come up for spirited and productive debate. But if somebody mentions something about her religious practices: “Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? Because you’re not!”

Adams’ point was plain enough. But it’s worth spelling out as a reminder – especially given recent debates about the moral and practical limits of freedom of speech in a climate of dangerous, and sometimes deadly, taking-of-offence. There is absolutely no good reason to think that we must refrain at all times from criticising an idea or custom just because it is rooted in religion. Indeed, sometimes we have an obligation to do the opposite. What if the pious practice is harmful? What if it flies in the face of certain ethical norms? What if we think those norms should count for something and are worth defending in the strongest of terms?

The circumcision debate will rage on for some time to come, and there are decent arguments to make on every side of it. But we do have to have the debate. Criticising a religious practice from the perspective of secular ethics is not the same thing as being prejudiced against the religion, nor does it imply any sort of ill-will toward members of a particular faith group. This distinction bears repeating at every turn. We simply have to be able to talk these things through.

Brian D Earp is a research fellow in the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford. With Julian Savulescu, he is writing a book on the science and ethics of “love drugs” and the neuroenhancement of human relationships. His Academia.edu page is here.

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34 Comments.

  1. “there are decent arguments to make on every side of it”

    About the only bit I disagree with. The arguments for cutting maybe valid, but then they rely on preposterous religious presuppositions as premises; so they are invariably bad arguments.

  2. It seems to be frankly ridiculous. I am neither Jewish nor Muslim, and I was circumcised. It was I think faintly fashionable the time for reasons of hygiene or something and I remember nothing of it whatsoever.

    Neither did I ever feel that it had rendered me mutilated or my sex life was in any way reduced. In fact I suspect it the reverse. :)

    My mother reports that I yelled a bit, but then I did a lot of yelling. Babies yell. And that the bandage fell off a day later.

    To make this illegal seems to me to be courting antipathy for no good reason. I can’t talk about female circumcision because I am not female.

    But male circumcision does no harm as far as I can tell, and its slightly more hygienic (possibly why its done) so why on earth make a law about it?

    I am no lover of much of Islam, but this really is ridiculous. And probably extremely offensive to those of the Jewish faith as well. But then Germany has a history..

    ..as far as violating the constitutional rights of a one year old – FFS where does THAT take us. The right to pee in your nappies and crap on the carpet? the right to drink a stiff Manhattan before applying yourself to your mothers tit? The right not to have you activities restricted so you can crawl into the street and get yourself squashed? this is liberal left LUNACY.

  3. chris richardson

    I don’t understand why this even needs to be said.

  4. Leo,

    For many men you may be right. But not all cut men agree, and they didn’t have a choice. In a particular community where it is the norm to be cut there may be full adult acceptance.

    But if there is no medical need or any health benefit then why do it. It’s the religious requirement that is stupid. But even so, there is nothing stopping an adult choosing to be cut, in adulthood. Religions vary their practices over time – that’s why we have so many crazy religions. So there is nothing to stop a religion changing these practices to being voluntary adult choices. It’s pure nonsense in the heads of the religious that decide, quite arbitrarily, how ‘sacred’ a practice is. It is their insistence on an act being sacred that then makes them take offence when it is challenged. It’s the sacred nature of the koran that dictates that the punishment for apostasy is death. Should our Western liberal values not interfere with that practice?

    Your anti-liberal rant misses the point. The point is not to inflict any unnecessary harm on non-consenting children. Your other examples are rather poor instances where some act is inflicted on the child for their own future benefit – there positive health benefits of children not walking around in soiled clothes. There are positive health benefits to various childhood injections that cause momentary pain. So no, your examples seem to be clouded by some anti-liberal ire. And possibly by some anti-German feelings that mark out all Germans as latent Nazis – which is the sort of generalisation typical of anti-Semitism: irony.

  5. Whenever a thoughtful article about the ethics of circumcision (by which I mean medically unnecessary or non-therapeutic circumcision of male minors, people who by definition cannot give consent to surgery) there is always somebody like “Leo Smith” who ignores the arguments and responds angrily that he was circumcised and either couldn’t care less or thanks his parents for doing it, and he can’t imagine what the fuss is about, and then goes on to make ridiculous analogies between circumcision and cutting hair or fingernails, or some such. In this case it is suggested that restricting the right of parents to surgically remove part of their children’s genitals is the same as asserting that babies have a right to drink alcohol. (The reference peeing in their nappies is a bit confused: is it not the purpose of nappies to be pissed in?) The tone and content of these contributions are always so similar, that I often suspect that it is always the same person, commenting under different aliases. The degree of anger is always so out of proportion to his insistence on the utter triviality of the issue that one suspects he must be labouring under unresolved issues.

    But we have heard this sort of argument before: “I was beaten/whipped/smacked as a child, and it never did me any harm.” “My parents sent me down the coal mine when I was 11, and I’m still alive.” According to Thomas Hobbes, parents had an absolute right of life and death over the children, and could sell them into slavery or kill them if they so chose. Of course it is true that in the past children were subjected to all kinds of cruel treatment – as were adults: it took a lengthy civil war to end slavery in the United States, not much more than 100 years ago. But if you are going to use the standards of the past to assess the acceptability actions that affect other people there can be no such thing as progress, and we would still be living in a world where nobody had any rights at all; for if bodily integrity is not an inherent human right, neither is the right to freedom of religion, let alone the freedom of speech that Mr Smith is so eager to exercise.

  6. As someone who was also cut as a child for ‘health’ reasons I’m afraid I can’t agree that it’s harmless. It’s certainly affected my life and relationships adversely.

  7. I think the burden rests on the person advocating action not on the person advocating inaction. Not circumcising is the default position. Why should anyone circumcise? All the arguments I have heard are pretty bad. The few less bad arguments certainly don’t, in my mind, overshadow the bodily autonomy argument and informed consent argument. In other words I hold bodily autonomy and informed consent more dearly than all the bad arguments for circumcision that I have entertained.

  8. I was circumcised at about 1.5 yrs old — and I remember it. I felt utterly betrayed and abandon. It is my earliest recollection of hatred toward other humans. I am 52 now.

  9. This is a tricky topic. I am a non-practicing muslim and I was circumcised. I personally dont have any problems with it. To me and my family, circumcision is is a tradition. I had my son circumcised but in the future if he thinks it was unfair, I will let him decide the fate of his children.

  10. Ron,

    I have something to say about your denial that there are ‘decent arguments to make on every side’ of the matter. You support that denial through the claim that the ‘arguments for cutting’ have ‘preposterous religious presuppositions as premises’. That claim seems to ignore what we might call a ‘meta-level’ consideration. To wit: one argument for letting (some) religious people do things that various others find abhorrent, is that (at least in some cases . .) freedom of religion requires that we let them do it.

    I am not sure that such an appeal to religious freedom – an appeal that the article mentions – establishes that religiously-motivated circumcision should not be made illegal. Yet, that appeal is not *obviously* misguided or weak.

    In short: even if we think that the religious arguments for circumcision are bad, it might be immoral to forbid the religious to circumcise.

  11. Hi Nicholas,

    As far as belief is concerned we don’t yet have mind reading that could reliably perform thought policing, so, for now, actual belief (what one actually believes) is entirely free (free-will aside). The freedom to express a belief and to practice the acts that such belief dictates is as free, in a free secular society, as any other freedom, in politics, sex, etc. These freedoms are restricted, in consenting adults, in principle, only to the extent to which they do not infringe on the freedoms of others – the freedom to decide to take part in a practice or not, for example. As such, it is within the bounds of religious freedom for consenting adults to choose to be circumcised. Children are deemed not have the ability to consent in full knowledge of the consequences, so adult religionists are not free to impose their belief based acts on children.

    So I don’t think I’m ignoring any meta-level consideration. Circumcision, FGM, restricting access to medical treatment, all for religious reasons, when applied to children, are all immoral: on the basis that it is immoral to inflict unnecessary suffering or change on children.

    It goes further, of course, in that Dawkins and many others think that the very act of indoctrinating children into religion is itself a form of psychological abuse. You only have to read some of the dreadful experiences of those that want to leave a religion to see how the indoctrination is so deep that abandoning it is either personally traumatic, or is traumatic in the way in which such a person is abandoned by friends and family. That there are some benign religious sects that are more open to dissenters is fortunate, but this is not generally in keeping with what religion is about: faith, conviction, unquestioning submission.

    That principle of not inflicting one’s adult choices on children applies to non-religious acts too. I don’t think tattooing children would generally be considered moral; but fashion ear piercing is often thought to be acceptable. Personally I think making a child wear a Manchester United shirt is the height of irresponsible parenthood; so clearly there are some grey areas where the amount of pain and long term suffering is open to personal opinion. The potential and actual problems are not always studied by science, and so remain mostly opinion; but there have been studies.

    I’m not qualified to critique the science, in examples like this: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022534705650987. At least in these cases the procedure was an elective one in adulthood. Even if the majority of elected circumcised men found it beneficial, there is no major benefit that would suggest a positive choice to circumcise children, rather than wait for adulthood – unlike the case for vaccination against various diseases, where there are positive benefits to childhood vaccination.

    The problem with circumcision and FGM is that they can cause both physical and psychological problems that impact on long term personal relationships in sufficient number of cases to want to avoid such practices. It doesn’t matter that the religious find such acts sacred: as far as I’m concerned I don’t see any difference in these cases than if these procedures were performed because it was fashionable.

    I don’t think childhood ear piercing is particularly traumatic in adulthood, so does not carry with it the long term harm that genital cutting can; but still, it’s morally questionable for a parent to effectively use a child’s body as a fashion statement of their own. Many young children reach an age where some acts are worth engaging in, if the child chooses. I would not inflict piercing on my children through my choice – and it is a parental choice when applied to the very young. But when my young daughter was below the age of legal consent she wanted her ears pierced and I felt that she had sufficient capacity to make that choice without too much risk of later trauma – it was a part of growing and learning about the effects of choices, which I think it reasonable to introduce earlier rather than later, since one doesn’t become magically capable of consent on reaching 18. I also allowed my children to consume alcohol in moderation – though my son sneaked a binge session from which he suffered enough to learn a valuable if uncomfortable lesson. Personally I would have prevented my children undergoing genital cutting until they reached the age of consent; from which point would have I still tried to dissuade them using argument and evidence as I would with any adult friend.

    Religion is nothing more than a cultural fashion. This has been obvious in California over the last 50 years, for example. It seems odd that so many people can dabble in so many different religions and mystical systems looking for ‘truth’, and even more odd that different people eventually settle on any one of the many on offer – clearly there is no one ‘truth’. In the case of the big religions they have a longer history and a bigger legacy where whole sections of the population earn a living from them, and dedicate their lives to them; and they have a greater hold on whole cultures or sections of a culture. But that doesn’t make them any truer for that. They are still founded on really poor presuppositions. As such they are not good enough reasons for the genital cutting of children.

    I really don’t see why these practices can’t be adapted to being adult choices. It’s not as if Judaism and Islam haven’t changed and resulted in various sects within each religion. They clearly can change when they want to. But that’s another whole ball game – the ridiculous notion that tradition is sacred in religions that change so much over time.

    So, “In short: even if we think that the religious arguments for circumcision are bad, it might be immoral to forbid the religious to circumcise.”

    Well I wouldn’t forbid it, in consenting adults. That’s the point.

  12. Dear Ron Murphy,

    Thanks for your comments. I saw your reference to ear piercing and I agree that it’s an interesting point of comparison that is frequently raised when circumcision is the topic of conversation. I happen to be sympathetic with your general view on the practice: it’s not the end of the world, but it does seem somewhat suspect to punch holes in our daughters’ ears before they’re old enough to have a say in the matter — otherwise it seems to be, not for their good, but for our own personal enjoyment; and this seems like an unfortunate instrumentalization of the girl for the parents’ aesthetic fun. In case you find it worthwhile or interesting I’ve put some thoughts down about this comparison in another article (where I also address the “health benefits” canard about circumcision) …

    http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2012/08/the-aap-report-on-circumcision-bad-science-bad-ethics-bad-medicine/

    Best,
    Brian

  13. Brian,

    Thanks for the link. Very informative post and some very good points in comments from contributors; and some interesting angles, even those I disagree with.

  14. sheesh. All kids are subject to their parents will before they are old enough to stand on their won two feet? this is insane. About as insane as justifying paedophilia as ‘only natural’ for ‘some people’

    I am sure a rattlesnake isn’t responsible for being a rattlesnake, and definitely deserves his freedom of expressions, but I’ll still beat his brains out if he comes around me.

    i really despair.

  15. I’m a non-orthodox muslim. I was circumcised without anaesthetic when I was seven and it hurt like hell and I knew it was going to hurt like that and I didn’t want it done and so protested and struggled like hell. This meant it didn’t go well and had to be redone in a hospital with anaesthetic.

    But even then I didn’t think it was a barbaric custom what I thought is why didn’t they do that in the first place.

    If muslims want to get absolve themselves of this symbolic act then the argument really can only come from within, and it has not. Symbols and rituals are important in every culture – religous and secular.

    The real problem with the so called objective secular ethical judgement is that it is not. Essentially, though they may not wish to express it in such bald terms, the view is that religion is archaic, irrational, primitive and possibly even evil.

  16. Mozibur,

    ‘barbaric custom’? Well, it’s a custom. Barbaric can mean simply a primitive or ancient custom that has some element of cruelty, even if the cruelty is not intended. The point of ‘barbaric’ in this context can simply mean an ancient custom that seemed harmless, compared to the perceived ritual or spiritual benefit, but by today’s standards seems cruel since it is known to be unpleasant and unnecessary – what is the philosophical theological purpose of it? Religions do change over time, so why can’t this practice stop? When does a culture get to continue a practice that has no demonstrative benefit (since religion’s gods can’t be shown to exist the related practices can’t be shown to come from such a god’s requirements) when there is suffering inflicted on the child and the adult is left with a result they had no way to consent to?

    Are there any particular ‘secular’ rituals you think are harmful in this same way?

    Objectivity is a reasoned assessment of facts, evidence, argument, without favour or bias towards individuals of groups. There is a clear objective case that the child is not in a position to consent or refuse, and even if offered the choice he is not able to assess how he might feel about it as a sexual adult. The objectivity of the matter isn’t very complicated or nuanced. It’s also objective to the extent that it not biased based on religion or culture. It is just as much opposed to the practice on secular health grounds where they are unfounded. There are many medical practices that were thought to be beneficial but which later were found not to be. When they are shown to be non-beneficial and potentially harmful in some way then the objective response is to stop them.

    It is the dogma of cultural and religious custom, that insist customs must be continued for no other reason that they are customs, that is the unobjective biased position.

  17. I think the reason circumcision has persisted over the centuries is because it’s done to children. If it were required of adult men the practice may have died off long ago. When it comes to female circumcision, there are cultures in which the mothers, aunts, and grandmothers of a girl insist on them being circumcised, and even participate in carrying out the very painful procedure. This just goes to show how deeply ingrained some religious beliefs actually are. What good is a logical/rational argument against gut-level belief? This may be why Germany felt the need to legislate against circumcision. It is also why Canada didn’t take a vote on whether to allow gay marriages. Some issues are human rights issues which always trump religious or emotional arguments.

  18. Ron,

    Why, by todays standards? Surely it would have be seen as painful even when it was first established as a custom.

    Sure, religions do change over time and also place and they bump against other culture and absorb other influences. For example, muslims in South-East Asia chew Paan and many muslims do drink in the West despite the official prohibition against intoxication.

    Secularism when taken neutrally as a midpoint between existing traditions is different to when its considered as a positive category in itself.

    Your starting point for your ethical analysis is the presuppositions of an entirely secular mind-set shown exactly by your statement ‘since religion’s gods can’t be shown to exist’ we must then suppose ‘the related practices can’t be shown to come from such a god’s requirements’. Surely, one should start from a more empathic consideration, given that Allah does exist and the Koran is his speech and the prophet is his messenger then what follows in a reasoned manner from that.

    Western secular Ideological form has many avatars, and its not enough to simply pick and choose the best part of them. Communism as a social force and ideology is explicitly anti-religous, pro-science and technology and caused immense disruption and agony in Pol-Pots Cambodia, similarly with Capitalism. John Gray calls them forms of political religion for good reason.

    Secularism isn’t generally associated with rituals of its own, simply because of its beginnings as a neutral point between religous orthodoxies. But that may change as certain new athiest groups are experimenting with church like gatherings to develop rituals of togetherness. But this in a way is old news, Comte tried to develop a Church of Man somewhat earlier, but perhaps the memory of Chritianity was still too strong then.

  19. I don’t buy the position that there is an entirely objective place from which one can view the world in its entirety. This Archimedean point, if it exists, is only available to God (whether you believe in him or not) and not to mere mortals having pretensions to pure objectivity. Wasn’t it Hume that quipped that reason was the slave to the passions?

  20. Mozibur,

    You make a fair point about some practices being cruel by older standards too. The phrase, “by today’s standards” is of course shorthand for the view of an entitlement to independent self-worth and self-determination whereby pain and suffering should not be inflicted on others, at least without some very good reason, and reasons of religious belief are not good enough where adult consent is not available.

    On that point I would expect that even at the time they were instigated many religious traditions were seen as inappropriate by others that didn’t follow those traditions. It would be interesting to know how some traditions, such as circumcision, came about – and here I mean in actuality and not as later reported by religious texts.

    Neutral secularism is really about the separation of the state and other public affairs from religious control and privilege. Many secular religious people and secular atheists hold to the freedom of personal belief, religious or otherwise, but not the special privilege of one or more belief systems over another.

    “Your starting point for your ethical analysis is the presuppositions of an entirely secular mind-set…”

    No it isn’t. My perspective is entirely philosophically open minded. This is a common mistake. For any belief in some entity, such as a Christian or Muslim God, or any god of the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians or any other source, there must be a presupposition that there is such an entity; and that presupposition presumes that entity provided evidence of their being, in religious texts for example, and then the religious texts are offered as evidence, confirmation, of the entity. But it all falls down if you don’t presuppose the entity.

    To say atheism is a presupposition, for example, is to say I presuppose there is no God, no fairies, no ghosts, no aliens currently abducting and probing humans, flying pigs, pink elephants, … What you are calling a presupposition isn’t; it’s merely a reluctance to accept without evidence the many rather odd things people claim are true but can’t show are true. That in itself seems reasonable enough to me.

    I’m not presuming there is no God, I just see lots of very poor arguments, usually based on unreasonable premises, and zero actual evidence. I would no more see enough evidence to believe in God that Mickey Mouse. But Mickey Mouse is fictional, you might say. Well, yes. So is God. But Mickey Mouse is known to be fictional because he was an intended invention of a cartoon character. Well, if I’m to believe some religious people God reveals himself in mysterious ways that are not always obvious; so maybe Mickey Mouse has revealed himself to us, but being the fallible humans we are we don’t get it yet. Could humans be so blind? Well yes, according to Islam, because according to Islam the Jews and the Christians failed to appreciate how God really is, and that’s why Islam is true, being the latest and correct revelation from God. But, maybe Muslims are mistaken about Mohammed and that Joseph Smith really did receive gold tablets and that the Mormons really do have the latest and best word from God; or maybe the Scientologists do. We could go on like this listening to these rather naive claims about revealed truth when there is no reason to do so.

    So, I remain open minded about some super-duper-entity that is capable of creating universes. That sounds really cool; but more to the point at the moment, we have no way of checking that out. The religious on the other hand not only believe their own favourite books that make unsubstantiated claims about a creator entity, but also, again without evidence, endow him with a very personal interest in us. But we may be very unremarkable creatures in a universe that may have far more capable brains evolving elsewhere that have some very useful information about how our universe cam about. It’s rather naive and parochial of the religious earthlings to presuppose this universe is all about them; especially when there are so many competing religions with equally unevidenced claims. You’d think they’d have wised up by now and figured out that they are all probably wrong.

    My preferred way of going about figuring where we’re up to is here: http://ronmurp.net/thinking/. And it’s far more contingent and less presuppositional than you presuppose.

    “Surely, one should start from a more empathic consideration, given that Allah does exist and the Koran is his speech and the prophet is his messenger then what follows in a reasoned manner from that.”

    No. That’s precisely what we should not do. Why should I take the word of a bunch of desert tribes; especially when, like the Christian story, it was written way after the time when it was all supposed to have taken place. You have an entirely biased view that is no better that a Christian one, or hat of Scientologists.

    “Western secular Ideological form has many avatars…”

    Mere anti-Western rhetoric you have learned. Try to understand the philosophical contingent perspective. I’m not making an rhetorical jingoistic claims for the West here. Western Europe, just happens to be the place in space and time when a lot of fortuitous conditions came together. I acknowledge the great contribution of the Islamic empires in improving science in their time, and in sustaining much of the work of the Greeks. It’s actually quite a democratic unprivileged perspective, which I’m surprised Muslims don’t appreciate, since they are always telling us how Islam is for everyone, no matter where you were born or to what parents. But you can’t get any more democratic than a scientific system, where anyone at all can contribute and have their say, as long as it is reasoned and evidenced. There aren’t even any requirements to believe in God or not. Many scientists do believe in God; they just don’t provide evidence for their God the way they would expect to for their science; and they are prepared to believe stuff on someone’s say-so, or from some ancient desert book, far more easily than they would believe the time of day.

    “and it’s not enough to simply pick and choose the best part of them”

    Of course we must pick and choose the best part of any system. I’m quite happy that we have chosen the keep the best if Islamic influences in early Western philosophy and science, and to discard the nonsense. I’m happy to keep some Greek philosophy, and ditch the junk. I’m happy to use Euclidian geometry, where it works. It seems quite idiotic to me to believe stuff dogmatically just because some authority says we should, some authority that has nothing to back it up but a book and some scribblings of people of some ancient power system.

    I agree that Communism didn’t work out too well. So what. I’m not supporting it. And you can’t get any more politically religious than Islam. Religion is the belief in metaphysical origins, and how they apply to us now, that are based on no evidence whatsoever. At their best they are benign guesses and wishful thinking, and at their worst are malignant destructive cancers that grow for no reason other than their own benefit.

    “But that may change as certain new atheist groups are experimenting with church like gatherings to develop rituals of togetherness. ”

    There are some atheist people who are convinced there is no evidence to support the various religions, but who want some spiritual aspect to their lives. I suppose it’s possible they may become distorted and evolve into some genuine religion that gives belief to some entity. I’m not keen on them myself. Then you also have what are essentially atheist Christians, to pick just one form, who want everything that can get from their Christianity, particularly the principles by which they believe Jesus lived and taught (which are also possibly fictions), but who are becoming ever more convinced that there is no existent entity God – see Spong, Rollins. While one can distil some good ideas from some of the old prophets of religion I don’t see the need to clutter our thinking with them. I find Islam and Christianity idolatrous in their reverence for the prophets, even though Islam tries to avoid idolatry.

    “I don’t buy the position that there is an entirely objective place from which one can view the world in its entirety. ”

    No, neither do I. Science is our best attempt to be objective. That’s why I also don’t think any humans are in a position to be certain that some event in the brain is the word of God, whether the direct word of God or by the medium of some angel. Humans have rather flaky brains that have evolved just enough to be able to navigate the world on a scale that suits the senses (e.g. we cannot see the microscopic, we can see light in only a certain range, etc.). Humans have invented science as a more rigorous means of trying to understand the world. In doing so they have found that brains are so fallible that they can easily be persuaded to believe total bunk. That’s where the religions come in. All very convincing stories, to the gullible.

    “This Archimedean point, if it exists, is only available to God …”

    Only if you presuppose a God. If you don’t then that perfectly objective point of view is available to nobody.

    Just think about it logically:

    1) If our brains are so fallible how can we know what we think is God is actually God?
    2) Could it be that God has in some special cases revealed himself perfectly to some particular individual?
    3) If any individual claims (2), how do you know they are not succumbing to the fallibility of (1)
    4) Go To (1)

    So, with all that there is no justifiable religious reason for continuing circumcision. And the wider point is that there is no justifiable reason for believing the claims of religions at all.

  21. God’s law on Virginity

    Here’s another bit of religious dogma that has caused enormous misery over the centuries: God’s requirement for girls to be virgins, with hymens intact, before marriage. The hymen is presented as unique in women, to defend God’s law about no sex before marriage. It’s claimed that the hymen is put there by God to make sure women obey his commandment. But what religious leaders never tell anyone is that the hymen is present not only in human females but also in most animals as well, such as squirrels, gazelles, frogs, bats, cats, chimpanzees, dogs, elephants, llamas, guinea pigs, horses, bears, zebras, lemurs, manatees, rats, seals, just to name a few. Does this mean that God forbids frogs from having sex before marriage, because he put a hymen in young female frogs?
    The hymen inhabits the same rationale as circumcision.

    By the way, masturbation was supposedly against God’s will because it was believed by the ancients that a man’s semen contained the entire human baby. Women were believed to be only the incubation vessel. Now that we know better, the prohibition against masturbation seems rather archaic, not to mention misguided.

  22. “You make a fair point about some practices being cruel by older standards too”.

    Thank you. However I deliberately used the word ‘painful’ rather than ‘cruel’ as physical pain has no moral component which the word cruelty can imply, and given the topic this is important.

    I don’t believe anyone can be philosophically open-minded, we all have commitments, prejudices and biases; and its better to square up to that fact rather than pretend to a place of objectivity. This doesn’t mean that superficial relativism, since we are born into a world where certain traditions have emerged. Whether its a literary/artistic, religous or scientific tradition.

    The key point is not pain, as the use of anasthesia makes the circumcision painless. Its already acknowledged both by the secular state and Islam that in principle an adult is not subject to religous compulsion. An adult muslim, if he so wishes, is able to circumcise himself. The question then simplifies to what extent can a parent impose irreversible religous symbols on their child when there is the risk that he may leave the tradition in the future. If he doesn’t then the question is moot.

    Circumcision, from an Islamic practise is not part of Islamic religous law whereas it is part of Judaic law. It is not mentioned in the Quran, and some Quranists who hold then there is no religous sanction for the custom. One of the four main Islamic Schools of Moral Philosophy, the Hanafi, say that it isn’t obligitory, but the practise is wide-spread; its not confined to the Abrahamic religions. Quite strangely it is practised by over half of South Koreans whereas fifty years ago almost none did.

    “Mere anti-Western rhetoric you have learned”.

    You’ve misunderstood me. I’m merely making the point that, yes, its true that religion has its ‘dark side’, but so does Athiestic Philosophy. Its tiresome to hear atheists bang on about the evils of religion with having the moral circumspection and modesty to acknowledge the evils of atheism. Communism is explicitly atheistic, that is why I chose it. That it arose in Western Athiestic Philosophy is incidental.

    “Try to understand the philosophical contingent perspective.”

    What is philosophical contingency? It’s not a philosophical school I’m familiar with in terms of the main tradition of Western Philosophy. Looking through your web-site its clear that your perspective is scientific positivism, which was/is the main current that drives the Anglo-American analytical tradition as opposed to the Continental one. Of course its more complex than this, but this is generally accepted terminology.

    “Science is our best attempt to be objective”

    Yes, but morality isn’t objective despite serious attempts by Kant and the Utilitarians to make it so. Hume remarked that ‘reason is a slave to the passions’, and he launched a devastating critique on on the methodology of science by attacking one of its key concepts – causality – he rooted this in human psychology, this was further elaborated in by Kant who implicated conciousness in our immediate understanding of time and space.

    “So, with all that there is no justifiable religious reason for continuing circumcision. And the wider point is that there is no justifiable reason for believing the claims of religions at all.”

    Yes, I can see that you don’t believe in religion; but why should your claims be universalised in the same way that you critique Islam for? Perhaps one should turn this around and say that believers of a particular creed, when sincere, will act as though their creed is universal. Its not possible to do otherwise. The question is how when there is a plurality of sincerely held traditions must they be mediated. This is one of the reasons for secular ethics. The ethics of mediating between competing claims. Atheism should take its place as a creed and shouldn’t be confused with secularism, which there is every danger of happening.

  23. Mozibur,

    “I don’t believe anyone can be philosophically open-minded… ”

    Within the limits of human capability there are still measures of the extent to which this is possible. They may not be absolute, certain, and may be particularly susceptible to personal perspective. That’s why first philosophy, and later science, attempts to construct systems that are externally objective as possible. Religion is specifically not open minded, and values closed mindedness, affirmation of belief irrespective of evidence one way or the other, and theologians are renown for making bogus arguments based on unsupported premises, and for making evidence claims that turn out to be nothing more than anecdote.

    “The question then simplifies to what extent can a parent impose irreversible religious symbols on their child when there is the risk that he may leave the tradition in the future. If he doesn’t then the question is moot.”

    He needn’t leave the religion. As an adult he could subscribe to the same religion but without the need for circumcision, and consequently object to the fact that he circumcised without his consent. For some individual that continues to subscribe to both the religion and the circumcision, then clearly yes the point is moot. But that is after the fact, hindsight. Circumcision in childhood is always an imposition that the adult might regret.

    Your equating communism with atheism is mistaken to the extent of that atheism is independent of communism – you can be an atheist without being a communist. Of course atheists acknowledge the evils of communism as implemented in the 20th century. They acknowledge it often. What you will find is that they reject references to communism as an argument against rational secular atheism generally, for this reason.

    But all theisms that rely on faith are still faith based theisms, and the method of belief, faith, is available to both moderate theist and extremist theist alike. The use of faith that convinces a moderate Christian that Jesus really did rise from the dead is also the kind of faith that can convince an extremist to perform terrorist acts. The methods of believing that the religious use may coincidentally result in some benign beliefs, but can just as easily become malignant. Communist didn’t arise out of atheist – it is not a system derived from atheist but one which merely has atheism as a component. You can be an atheist capitalist, libertarian.

    “It’s tiresome to hear atheists bang on about the evils of religion …”

    There are two points regarding the evils of religion:

    1) Religions generally are supposed to represent the intentions to being good. It’s ironic then that they can be so violent and still think they are doing it for good reasons.

    2) Religion enables cruel acts, as I described above. All it needs is a believer to believe that some cruel act is required, and that’s sufficient.

    The reasoning and use of evidence to support moral codes is specifically what religions don’t require, though some theologians may attempt to bolt reason and evidence on to bad presuppositions. More on the dangers of religion: http://ronmurp.net/2007/12/03/is-religion-dangerous/.

    “Communism is explicitly atheistic, that is why I chose it. ”

    But it’s the errors of communism as a practiced political system that was at fault, not the atheistic aspect of it. It would be quite possible to construct a communist theistic religious political system that would fail just as much. In fact that should be quite easy. Some of the key features of communism are that it is classless social order with common ownership. That would be just fine, since all ownership could be considered God’s, not a person’s. Several religions are specifically classless. Communism is a social and political ideology, so add a god and you have Islam.

    I’m not a specialist on communism, but you might find it worth looking at this guy: http://barefootbum.blogspot.co.uk He’s been debating communism for several years. He might well agree on the faults of 20th century communist states, but not on communism generally.

    “What is philosophical contingency? It’s not a philosophical school I’m familiar with in terms of the main tradition of Western Philosophy.”

    The problem may be that you’re looking for a school of thought. There isn’t one that I know of. Even within scientific positivism there is enough variation to make the label unhelpful. Just as is the ‘atheism’ label: http://ronmurp.net/2010/05/19/atheist-label/. The phrase ‘philosophical contingency’ is not a reference to a particular philosophical school but is a grammatical phrase that describes the contingency as one based on philosophy. I take contingency in science to be most evident; but in philosophy there have sometimes been claims to certainty. But from a philosophical perspective I don’t see how there can be – at least for humans.

    I don’t see any problem making morality objectively explainable. I agree it’s difficult to make generalisations, but that’s because of the variability of human behaviour and thinking (and thinking is only the behaviour of the brain). Expecting some general rules for how a particular human might best act in a specific situation is unreasonable. Moral guides are only guides, and ones that we invent and choose to adopt. In this respect it is open to objective investigation. It is also subjective, of course, in that individuals always have their own views on morality.

    The problem lies in the term ‘objective’. An ‘objective morality’ is often meant to be one that is independent of humans, written in the stars or dictated by God, waiting only for the a wise human to discover it and explain it. There is no evidence or reason to suppose such ‘objective morality’. This is what Hume was objecting to with the is-ought problem: he was not saying that there is ‘ought’ knowledge and there is ‘is’ knowledge and they are independent; but that the supposed ‘ought’, the ‘objective morality’, does not exist at all, and that all things are ‘is’ things and are open to investigation.

    We can examine how humans behave, how they suffer, and how they feel they want to live, and how they feel they want to interact with other humans, and all this can be carried out objectively, if limited by contingencies of knowledge and the complexity of human behaviour; but in simple terms moral codes can be invented and agreed. But then morality is no more than a code of behaviour that humans choose to apply to themselves and others. Though it may be difficult right now there are already advances in neuroscience that are explaining how the brain works, which should eventually give us better insights into how morality works in human brains: how we give importance to some preferences, and call them moral beliefs, while other preferences we continue to label as mere preferences. The religious and some philosophers continue to insist that morality is not about preference, but about something deeper; and this is the false dichotomy Hume was objecting to.

    I agree causality is a problem. I don’t see any philosophy or religion getting around it or explaining it in a way that makes the system persuasive. But within the scope of causality I find reason and evidence to be the best hope we have of understanding the universe; and I find philosophy helpful, but unable to give us the confidence in its answers because it lacks the support of evidence; and I find religion and other mysticisms the worse because they are nothing but inventions supported by wishful thinking.

    Yes, reason is a slave to the passions. That’s why science is an attempt to compensate for that by making investigations impersonal, third party, repeatable under consistent conditions, dependent on agreement by experiment – and contingent and open to revision. Hume was on the right track here, philosophically. But it’s science that has been demonstrating the extent to which this is so, and it is science that attempts to compensate for this in its methodologies. Religion is a total abandonment of reason and submission to the passions – it is irrational; though theologians, not wanting to sound too crazy, like to slap a bit of reason onto the presuppositions they have already abandoned themselves to and play rationalising games. If you want to see that in action at its most bizarre try Hamza A. Tzortzis, or C. S. Lewis, or Alvin Plantinga, or William Lane Craig, or, … there’s an endless supply.

    “Perhaps one should turn this around and say that believers of a particular creed, when sincere, will act as though their creed is universal. It’s not possible to do otherwise.”

    I agree that for someone so committed it is difficult if not impossible to change their belief, while in that state of commitment. It is possible sometimes: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankschaeffer/2013/09/i-blame-god-for-the-shutdown/. Schaeffer was immersed in the thick of irrational evangelical thought, but managed to actually think for himself and escape it.

    That’s why secular atheist humanists are secular: they may think they have all the best arguments and evidence from science, but they acknowledge the contingency of human knowledge, and object not to the personal convictions when they remain personal but object to the personal convictions being forced on others that don’t hold them.

    And that’s why it’s the most open minded ‘system’ humans have available. I scare quote ‘system’, because there is zero dogma – often the dogma that the religious like to accuse atheists of boils down to a failure to understand the contingency and openness. Really, provide some good evidence and argument for gods, astrology, homeopathy, panpsychism, fairies, whatever, and secular atheist science proponents will consider it. Of course they are human, so yes they might dismiss too easily what later turns out to be actual evidence. But eventually the evidence wins them over.

    The key issue here is that if there were evidence that showed there was a God then humanist atheist science proponents would become theists, of sorts. We would want to know what this intelligent entity is up to. Did he create the universe, and is he personally interested in us, as the religions claim to varying degrees. That there is evidence of some extra-universal intelligent agent would be fascinating, but it could turn out that he makes it clear that the religious are the idiots that have been making stuff up about him without any evidence: http://ronmurp.net/2010/04/22/wager-on-an-atheists-god/

    “This is one of the reasons for secular ethics. The ethics of mediating between competing claims.”

    And what does secular ethics tell us? How does it tell us anything? On what basis do such mediators reach judgements or give advice? Where disagreement is purely an argument, where parties accept the same premises, then do they rely on logic and reason? Where the premises are not agreed no valid argument is going to resolve the disagreement, so what evidence do they bring to bear?

    I can see that there are many moral dilemmas that don’t have an easy solution because they eventually boil down to a difference in preference. But I would suspect that most problems remain as dilemmas because there is not enough time to resolve them properly, or because when the presuppositions of one of the parties are questioned they close the debate and end the mediation process.

    So, back to circumcision. What is the good reason for it that requires it being carried out as an infant rather than waiting for the age of consent? What will mediation do here? The problem is that the very same people who want to circumcise infants will happily agree that some other decisions should be left for the individual to take when they reach an age of consent. The very people who think circumcision of infants is reasonable might object to the arranged marriages of children. When you hold to a basic principle that seems most universal in most matters, reaching the age of consent, why is some specific religious practice exempt?

    “Atheism should take its place as a creed and shouldn’t be confused with secularism, which there is every danger of happening.”

    Well, it’s only the religious who usually make that mistake. I regularly have to point out myself, and I see other atheists, and some religious secularists, pointing it out. Secular atheists and secular religionists know the difference.

    Atheism could be a creed. I know some atheists I call faith atheists – they simply decide that there are no gods because they can’t see any. But their willingness to take philosophy and science seriously means they don’t get that not currently having evidence or proof of some god does not mean there is not one.

    And of course there is Humanism, which does have a creed of sorts. An example: https://humanism.org.uk/about/our-values/

    But come on, how about being a little bit more genuine in your use of the term ‘creed’ when applied to atheism. You should know full well by now that the atheism you are referring to, the public atheism of secular humanists, of scientists, of New Atheists, is a very respectable and contingent position of rejecting theism for lack of supporting evidence, which is no more exceptional than rejecting astrology, homeopathy, fairies. Most such atheists would accept that the case for atheism is not proved, and make that point often.

    Atheism generally is not a creed in the way that it is with religion. This is equivocation on the use of the term.

    A creed can be:
    a) a statement of faith in the shared beliefs of a religious community.
    b) a person’s political, social, philosophical beliefs, without reference to how those beliefs are derived – in other words not necessarily a faith.

    When used in the context of debates like this the use of ‘creed’ with regard to atheism seems reasonable, from (b), but of course it is usually meant quite unreasonably to refer to (a), which is wrong. As I said, equivocation. Duplicity.

    If you still don’t get the contingency that allows atheists to avoid an actual creed, try this: http://ronmurp.net/2010/10/28/what-do-new-atheists-actually-believe/.

  24. “Religion is specifically not open minded, and values closed mindedness”

    So, both Newton and Darwin who were both Christians and Scientists is both open and closed-minded, how does that work? A religion has its own system of values, yes; and within that system arguments are made. And of course science has its own system of values, and its own tradition of argument. In that sense, they’re both epistemologically the same.

    “That’s why first philosophy, and later science, attempts to construct systems that are externally objective as possible”

    This isn’t true at all – you should read some Philosophy. Parmenides talks about the One; Plato has a mystical side, he talks of the soul, the world-soul and the demi-urge. Anaximander talks of the apeiron – the boundless. None of which is ‘externally objective’ in the sense you talk about. Pythagoras was mainly a religous figure, Empedocles talked of strife & love as cosmological powers. Wittgenstein said the way to truth is essentially mystical; Bryan Magee, the British Philosopher has pointed out that Kants Philosophy is essentially his Pietism in a rational mode. Hegel talks of the absolute spirit. Even Bertrad Russell, said that a little serious reflection shows that Realism cannot possibly be correct.

    Of course, if you think that none of these are philosophers, and only those philosophers that are materialists/physicalists count, then yes, you’d be right.

    “theologians are renown for making bogus arguments based on unsupported premises”

    Is this your open-mindedness in action? Well, the Ash’arite Islamic theologians took the Epicurean atomic theory and atomised space and time, which is exactly what some current theories of physics are attempting to do. The Tao makes no arguments that a materialist would argue, but its seen as a religous & philosophical classic in China and elsewhere. Serious theologians do make sustained arguments – they’re just not scientific ones; why should they be? They’re not doing science, and asking them to do so, is perverse.

    Popular science books make out that mathematicians have tamed the infinite by Cantors theory of the transinfinite. In fact, they are no where close. The infinite is just that, beyond any possible human comprehension, as Aristotle clearly recognised when he made the distinction between potential and actual infinites. So, does that count as a ‘bogus’ claim? One could say that they are exaggerating out of rhetorical pleasure, but I rather suspect they actually believe it. In fact, Cantor distinguished between his theory and what he called the absolute infinite which he identified with God.

    “Circumcision in childhood is always an imposition that the adult might regret.”

    Yes you’re circumcision is an imposition. What of it – so is school, and so is the law that pushes her there where she might be bullied and have a terrible time and grow up and regret ever attending. Impositions are everywhere. The question here is whether this imposition is allowed, and whether disallowing shows religous intolerance.

    “But it’s the errors of communism as a practiced political system that was at fault, not the atheistic aspect of it”

    It shows a limited understanding of human nature if you think that all athiests are good, in the way some Islamists or Buddhists will say that all Islamist or Buddhists are good. In principle, all of these creeds (including atheism) are morally good, as they have a widely accepted tradition behind them. The point I’m making, is that the article is biased, by stating that only religions have a ‘dark side’, without acknowledging that atheism can do so too. But we, as you have said, ‘must take the best’ within a creed, and that is what secular ethics, the neutral point between creeds should do.

    “Yes, reason is a slave to the passions”

    I think you’ve misunderstood Hume. He’s making the point that one can have a passion for reason too. This is the same point that Euripides makes in his play Oedipus Rex. His passion for reason destroys him. It is the same story in Goethes Faust.

    “There is no evidence or reason to suppose such ‘objective morality’. This is what Hume was objecting to with the is-ought problem”

    Again, I think you misunderstand Hume. He is stating that there is no rational way to move from what ‘is’ the case to what ‘ought’ the case be as he indicates in his book A Treatise on Human Nature, ‘when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not.’ Kant tried to provide that rational basis to move from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’.

    “The key issue here is that if there were evidence that showed there was a God then humanist atheist science proponents would become theists, of sorts.”

    Again, I think you misunderstand me. I can see pretty well that you’re an atheist. I’m not evangelising Islam, or God. I don’t expect, nor am I interested in trying to convince you that there is a God. I’m well aware of how humanism, or atheism thinks as I was one of them. The point I’m making, and which should be obvious, is the reason why people believe in a particular religion has nothing to do with science, and that shouldn’t be held against them.

    “you should know full well by now that the atheism you are referring to, the public atheism of secular humanists, of scientists, of New Atheists, is a very respectable and contingent position of rejecting theism”

    Yes, I do agree that it is a respectable position, where have I said that it is not? But, I don’t agree with it. Surely you should be happy with that?

    “And what does secular ethics tell us”

    Well, this is what Brian should be telling us; he says that he is, whereas I think he is biased. Secularism arose out of the religous bickering between various Christian factions in Europe. This means that it developed some kind of tradition in coming to judgements about competing claims. Of course secularisms vary, British, American & French secularism are different, even though broadly share similar features. The question is how to deal with the tradition that is Islam which has only recently has a substantial presence in Europe. Since circumcision is also part of the Jewish faith, and is sanctioned by religous law (which is different from Islam, as Brian notes, where it is primarily custom), one should argue from from that basis – that is how has secular ethics dealt with circumcision within the Jewish community.

    The main point I’m making with Brians article is that he isn’t following secular ethics, that his own athiesm is influencing him unduly, that he is demonstrating his bias by saying religions ‘have a dark side’. And it is this bias, and not secular ethics that lead him to say circumcision for children should be banned. Historically speaking Europe has a difficult time with its minorities, for example with the Jewish faith (and this is not anti-Western – I acknowledge for example there have been anti-muslim pogroms in India) and it is this historical knowledge that should make Brian much more cautious and circumspect than he is being.

  25. Mozibur,

    There is no problem with a human brain holding beliefs that are contradictory at some level. It is even less of a problem when a philosopher or scientist presupposes there is a God and then interprets all science in terms of explaining God’s creation. It helps if religious claims have an falsifiable ‘supernatural’ component. Theists can make pretty much any wild claim they wish, and simply say their God is ineffable, or that we poor humans can’t understand him. What a cop out.

    “Serious theologians do make sustained arguments – they’re just not scientific ones; why should they be? They’re not doing science, and asking them to do so, is perverse.”

    But as a result of their non-scientific beliefs they have scientifically observable effects in the real world. So, a theologian imagines there is a God, a specific type of God, and he imagines that God does not like homosexuals, so much so that he calls for the death of homosexuals. It’s the perversity of the use of religious belief that’s the problem. I don’t see anything wrong with asking people to provide evidence for their claims if in making their claims they are making real world impositions on others.

    Infinity is a concept that is used to express unbounded knowledge – we suspect something goes on without end, but we can’t tell. That’s all it is. It is entirely bogus to take some simplistic concept like that and suppose it has any implications for some imagined God. I can just as easily imagine an infinite natural non-teleology with no intelligence.

    School, health care, and many other impositions on children have empirical reasons for their application. Children who are not educated suffer because of it. Children that are not persuaded to brush their teeth suffer for it. There is no significant data to support child circumcision. There is only very scant data that circumcision might be helpful in avoiding something like HIV, and then only in very particular circumstances, where AIDS is prevalent. There is no medical reason, no good reason to insist on circumcision of children. What few poorly evidenced benefits might exist could be accounted for by voluntary adult circumcision.

    “the law that pushes her there where she might be bullied and have a terrible time and grow up and regret ever attending”

    Bullying by other children is not provided by the school and is not imposed by the teachers. It happens because intelligent bullies can hide their actions from teachers and force the victim to conceal the bullying. At most it is a failure of the school to do what it should do. The law is right to send children to school, and that general principle is not negated by the small percentage that suffer at school. It is a reason to make school experience better, not to stop it. The experience of circumcision could be made batter, if adults were allowed to choose it for themselves as adults. So there is a good reason to stop circumcising infants.

    “Impositions are everywhere. The question here is whether this imposition is allowed, and whether disallowing shows religious intolerance.”

    No. The question is whether the imposition is for the child’s benefit. Evidence of benefit should be required before any invasion of the person, especially of children. It is not for religious believers to impose their mythical beliefs about a non-material entity on the physical person of a defenceless infant. There are many men circumcised for religious reasons as ing=fants who are now not even in the religion; and some of them regret being circumcised because it is causing problems for them as adults. Where the heck do the religious get the idea they have a right to do this?

    “It shows a limited understanding of human nature if you think that all atheists are good

    I’m not sure where you get that I do think that. I said the atheistic aspect of communism isn’t the problem. That is a statement about atheism, not about atheists. Atheism is no more than not being convinced by claims about deities. Of course atheists are human and fallible. But that fallibility is what science is attempting to compensate for. Religion revels in the fallibility by making stuff up without any requirement to verify it.

    Who says only religion has a dark side? Nobody I know of – but see later. Critics of religion are simply pointing out instances of when religious belief in the hands of fallible humans is particularly bad. That is not a claim that the non-religious are always good, or even that the non-religious are not often just as bad as the religious. The ‘dark side’ comment is pointing to the fact that the religious are supposed to be good, so it’s the other side, the ‘dark side’ or religion when it does bad stuff that is particularly noticeable.

  26. Mozibur,

    I think you misunderstand Hume, on both counts.

    Hume: “Thus it appears, that the principle, which opposes our passion, cannot be the same with reason, and is only called so in an improper sense. We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them. As this opinion may appear somewhat extraordinary, it may not be improper to confirm it by some other considerations.”

    He is talking about the relationship between reason and the passions, how some may think that reason predominates; but Hume himself thinks that the passions are dominant, and so they should be in empirical beings like us. Reason is looking out through the window of the sensory experiences, and reason is driven by internal sensory experiences, the emotions, the passions. See below on brains as sensory organs. This mistake of assuming the mind is the primary tool for acquiring knowledge is an idea that predates our understanding of evolution and of the brain: http://ronmurp.net/2012/05/06/the-primacy-of-thought/.

    “He is stating that there is no rational way to move from what ‘is’ the case to what ‘ought’ the case be as he indicates in his book A Treatise on Human Nature, ‘when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not.’”

    Here Hume was not explaining that he thinks there are ‘is’ and ‘ought’ statements and so there is an is/ought separation, but was objecting to what theologians and other philosophers that were saying that. In examining their words he is surprised to find that out of nowhere, with no reason or evidence to support their case, these other philosophers were talking about ‘oughts’ as if they were something that existed or were self-evident. The ‘oughts’ of these philosophers are injected, to Hume’s surprise, with no explanation as to why they should be taken seriously. Others were saying you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, and Hume was saying, well yeah, because there are no ‘oughts’, they are bogus ideas, there is only ‘is’.

  27. Mozibur,

    “But, I don’t agree with it [atheism]. Surely you should be happy with that?”

    Yes, as a secular atheist I’m quite happy that you think as you wish. But you continue to refer to atheism as if it had a creed, as if it were a belief system that is making positive claims. It is not. It is merely a statement about the assessment of other claims, claims of theism and religions, with the working conclusion that there is insufficient evidence to support a basic hypothesis that there might be some intellectual entity that created the universe. It is even more critical of the further claims that individual religions build on top of that basic theistic hypothesis. The basic hypothesis is a reasonable one, but as yet unevidenced. All the other religious stuff is even less convincing than that.

  28. Mozibur,

    Brian quoted Russell Blackford, and in that quote Russell was saying two things, one about the dark side of religion and one about “a moral norm favoured by some religion is preposterous and harmful”. The latter I took to be referring to circumcision. The ‘dark side’ I took to mean the extent to which supposedly good religions perform ‘dark acts’. The work of Islamists is most prevalent at the moment, but in recent history Christianity in Ireland has been pretty despicable, whether by both Christianities in the ‘Troubles’, or by the oppressive work of Catholic priests in the lives of Catholics generally, or the miserable institutions that young unmarried mothers had to be subjected to. These are belief systems that make great claims about being associated with the goodness of Jesus, or being a religion of peace, when the acts of its proponents in the name of their religion is too often anything but good or peaceful – and it’s certain dark in the way it persecutes certain people.

    I don’t take Jewish circumcision to be part of that ‘dark side’. I take it that Jews that subscribe to circumcision do what they think is right and good. I simply think their supposed good and imagined benefits are not realised, and in the end impose too much on the future adult without his consent, and is preposterous in the reasons offered for it, and often harmful in its results.

    As such, and given religions do change their customs and laws, I don’t see why enlightened Jews aren’t pushing to have circumcision be only symbolised at infancy and actualised in adulthood as a voluntary option. I’m sure God, should he exist, would be amenable to that, given all the other changes throughout all religious histories that the religious think God is happy with. Perhaps they need another prophet to inspire them to change the rules. Sadly prophets are not two a penny as they once were.

  29. “But as a result of their non-scientific beliefs they have scientifically observable effects in the real world. So, a theologian imagines there is a God, a specific type of God, and he imagines that God does not like homosexuals”

    I doubt that this how it works for this. I rather suspect anti-homosexuality is already in that cultural context and a theologian being brought up in that culture provides justification for it.

    “Infinity is a concept that is used to express unbounded knowledge”

    Yes. But why do you have to bring God into it? I wasn’t suggesting
    that God was involved. I was merely using it as an example where Science makes deliberately misleading claims, that is it is engaging in myth-making. Similarly for the myth that Plato was so overcome with mathematics that he had written over his academy ‘let no-one enter who is ignorant of geometry’. There is no evidence for this at all. In fact, although he allows that mathematics gives a glimpse of the infinite’, he also warns that it narrows the mind.

    “There is no medical reason, no good reason to insist on circumcision of children”

    I don’t think that muslims and jews are saying that they circumcise children for
    medical reasons. I don’t see why you keep insisting on bringing this up. They do it for religous reasons. Its symbolic.

    ” It is not for religious believers to impose their mythical beliefs about a non-material entity on the physical person of a defenceless infant”

    You accept that Jews circumcise their children ‘do what they think is right and good’, do you exclude muslims from this? Would go along with the American Christian pro-life movement that says abortion is an attack on the ‘physical person of a defenceless’ foetus?

    “I think you misunderstand Hume, on both counts”

    Well, you haven’t provided any evidence of that. You’ve merely paraphrased those two statements. Please tell me how does saying ‘one can have a passion for reason’ contradicts ‘reason is the slave of the passion’? If I may remind you implied science was the neccessary corrective to the passions.

    “Hume was saying, well yeah, because there are no ‘oughts’, they are bogus ideas, there is only ‘is’”.

    No, this isn’t right. Why would Hume be examining bogus ideas? The point he’s making is to place morality on a rational basis, after all he is doing philosophy. He’s simply pointing out a logical gap in moving from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. He isn’t saying that morality is bogus. This is similar to Bishop Berkeley complaining about the calculus when he exposed the gap in Newtons reasoning in the limit process in calculus – he wasn’t saying that calculus was bogus. Kant accepted that the gap was there and took a different direction to place morality on a firm rational basis.

    “But you continue to refer to atheism as if it had a creed, as if it were a belief
    system that is making positive claims. It is not”.

    I don’t see how you can deny its a belief system. Or are you? I guess you mean it is making a negative claim – that God doesn’t exist. But it is also making a positive claim – that physicalism is solely true. The previous claim follows from it. Surely the prior claim is the important one, the second negative claim is a deduction. I suppose one could say that it is not a creed as it isn’t a religion as traditionally understood. But, I admit that I do see it as a quasi-religion and this is because I don’t make hard & fast distinctions between the philosophy, theology & religion. I did at some point under the pressure of my Western training, but I’ve decided that my former viewpoint is preferable. I do think however that cultural anthropology would back that up.

    “Brian quoted Russell Blackford, and in that quote Russell was saying two things, one about the dark side of religion and one about “a moral norm favoured by some religion is preposterous and harmful”

    I wouldn’t consider circumcision a moral act. Its a religous symbol. I really very much doubt that anthropologists of any stripe and colour will find it preposterous at all, simply because they study humanity in the whole, and religion is a part of that. After all it was Levi-Strauss work that gave the lie that primitive cultures were actually primitive. Actually, in his book ‘The Savage Mind’, in a footnote, he complains about the heavy rationality & literacy of Islam. I think this is a little cultural projection, Western rationality is no picnic either.

    “These are belief systems that make great claims about being associated with the goodness of Jesus”

    There is no doubt in my mind that if Europe remains a primarily atheistic federation for the next 500 years, that it will develop a moral canon (you can see this in the beginnings of secular ethics) and will also commit atrocities and massacres in that moral name which it will hold up as some shining example. I can offer no objective evidence for this – its in the future after all – but I think that its a reasonable claim/conjecture given the historical record of humanity as a whole.

    “Sadly prophets are not two a penny as they once were”.

    No, they’re not.

  30. I mean that Europe will offer up the moral name as a shining example not the atrocities or examples.

  31. Mozibur,

    “Yes. But why do you have to bring God into it? I wasn’t suggesting that God was involved.”

    You brought God into it: “In fact, Cantor distinguished between his theory and what he called the absolute infinite which he identified with God.” My response to this is that the religious use this rather basic notion of infinity to explain the unbounded nature of God, and they sometimes do that to support the monotheistic notion that there is only one God and he has no other gods with him or creating him. The association of infinity with God, and the time-equivalent of infinity, eternity, is used to define God so as to exclude all other possibilities.

    “I don’t think that Muslims and Jews are saying that they circumcise children for medical reasons. I don’t see why you keep insisting on bringing this up.”

    I brought it up for two reasons. One is that supporters of circumcision often do claim there are medical benefits. But specifically here I mentioned it in opposition to your point about common impositions. Impositions like education, or vaccination, are performed because there are real benefits. There is no such excuse for circumcision, because there is no benefit that could not be gained by waiting until the person is an adult. Vaccination is an acceptable imposition because it has well established health benefits, circumcision is not because it doesn’t. I also take your point about symbolism, but that is also insufficient for the imposition of circumcision on infants. And, to cap the point off, education and vaccination are not symbolisms. So, whether you want to excuse circumcision for religious symbolic purposes, or to point out there are other impositions that we accept, circumcision is wrong on both counts.

    “You accept that Jews circumcise their children ‘do what they think is right and good’, do you exclude Muslims from this?”

    I accept that both believe they are doing it for what they think are good reasons. And I also accept that when people in the US do it for health reasons they think that it is a good reason. I am accepting the good will of their motivation – i.e. none of them do it out of ill will to the infant. But I am not accepting their reasons are good enough, because there are no health benefits for the infant and any other reasons so far given, such as religious symbolism, are insufficient to warrant the imposition at that age. Circumcision, for both health and symbolic reasons, could be postponed to an age of consent.

  32. Mozibur,

    “Would go along with the American Christian pro-life movement that says abortion is an attack on the ‘physical person of a defenceless’ foetus?”

    This is more complex. I’ve been having this very debate, about the relative merits and harm of circumcision and abortion. See here: http://wellspentjourney.wordpress.com/2013/09/16/abortion-and-circumcision-hypocrisy-on-the-left/#comment-3108.

    In summary, a single and multi-celled zygote has not gone through any cell differentiation, so there is no brain. It’s a bunch of cells and can be removed. This is not a person in any meaningful sense. But eventually the foetus develops a brain and starts to become a person. At birth after none months we take it to be a person. But birth isn’t a good enough demarcation, because a premature birth still results in a person. The late foetus and infant may be in very early stages of development of their brain – they have acquired little experience except that in the womb. But the problem is that we have no means of making a sensible and precise demarcation between non-personhood and personhood. I am not pro-life to the extent that I would go as far as the religious who think that somehow the soul of the person forms or is inserted at conception; but I would not favour late abortions and the full choice that some pro-choice advocates want. There comes a point when a woman carrying a foetus has to accept that she is responsible for two lives. That is one of the unfair outcomes of evolution. If humans had a process where fertilisation and foetal development was entirely outside a woman’s body the issue would not arise – only wanted zygotes, foetuses and infants would be produce. There is a special case where the pregnancy is life-threatening to the woman – I could not ask a woman to give her life up for an unborn child; no more than I would insist a non-swimmer dive into a raging river to save a drowning child. There are some choices that are not easy and we have to deal with them as they come along.

  33. Mozibur,,

    “I wouldn’t consider circumcision a moral act. It’s a religious symbol.”

    It is both. It is a moral symbol if those that do it declare that it is, according to the religion they subscribe to. But it is also a moral act. They think it’s a morally good act. I think it’s a morally bad one. It’s bad because it is performing an act against a self-determined human without their consent, before they even reach an age where they could consent. Suppose Jews did not circumcise, but they came across a culture that cut of the little finger of infants for some pagan religious reason. Would that be OK with most modern Jews raised in democracies that also happen to oppose genital cutting of young girls? By normal standards of harm it is immoral, and by comparison with how they act in other matters it is inconsistent. All round circumcision for religious symbolic purposes is a bad idea.

    “I really very much doubt that anthropologists of any stripe and colour will find it preposterous at all, simply because they study humanity in the whole, and religion is a part of that.”

    That would depend on your anthropologist. You will find that there are anthropologists that study Mayan sacrifice that do not judge the Mayans but merely study their behaviour. But I doubt they would approve of human sacrifice now. There may be many anthropologists that would observe and study circumcision around the world and throughout history and the present, and yet disapprove of it. And there may be some Jewish anthropologists that approve of it.

  34. In a world that is shrinking through integration of societies and cultures it is understandable that we would come across things that we do not understamd about each other, but what is normal to us may be strange to them and vice versa, yes there are points to each side of the argument and i would recommend everyone to follow the one they find most logical, what is important here is not to fight those differences but try to understand them, not to hide them but to show them.

    You talk about norms amd fighting for them, but then whos norms? And what makes it a norm, because its normal to you, under this supposition we can say that anything different to what you know is un-normal.

    You would then be fighting for your norm and they for theres, where then does it end, it cannot unless their is understanding and meeting in the middle, it is innevetable nowadays that we will be living side by side with people of different cultures why be afraid or fight against it when we could use it as an oppurtunity to learn and broaden our horizons

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