Believing something is right because we’ve always believed it

Some parts of daily life seem so natural, benign, and commonplace that we don’t consider them to be as awful as they really are. Perhaps we so easily believe something is right, just because it has always been so. Take for example, circumcision.

Circumcision as genital mutilation

To be clear, I’m referring to male circumcision here, and circumcision performed outside of a medical necessity.

For many years, I considered being circumcised, and the act of circumcision, to be relatively benign. It’s ubiquitous, it’s commonplace. I’ve not heard a man complain, nor sue his parents, because of it.

Really though, circumcision is a form of genital mutilation forced upon children.

I read words to that effect a few years ago, and it made me stop in my tracks. Oh. I’d never thought of it like that.

It’s generally children that are circumcised, babies even. It’s forced – probably by a parent or church, carried out by the scalpel of a surgeon if you’re lucky. It’s forced in the sense that the child doesn’t have a say, is not informed or asked for consent. It’s a genital mutilation – an act that removes flesh from the body – yet one that doesn’t appear to be a mutilation because it’s so commonplace.

Years ago one of my friends expressed revulsion at an interesting fellow with a nose ring. I clearly remember thinking that my friend was a little confused – could he not see all the women around him that had earrings? Somehow the one piercing of flesh had become some commonplace that he no longer saw it for what it was.


Why are parents so happy to have their children circumcised? There’s no malice. Rather, it’s probably because of what everyone else was doing, it’s what because of what their culture has led them to believe was the appropriate thing; recently perhaps because they thought there was a health benefit – though even that is in serious doubt.

Primarily though, it’s probably because of what a religion has ordained, for example the Jewish brit milah or the Muslim Khitan.

The Germans

A German court has recently ruled that circumcision is grievous bodily harm. According to the ruling:

the fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighs the fundamental rights of the parents

It’s unfortunately not yet law, but it makes a lot of sense. It feels very much like the correct and moral stance to take. And it’s progressive – few countries, if any, ban circumcision because of the power of religious bodies.

Unsurprisingly, there are many religious parties that object, calling it an intrusion on religious freedom. What awful and barbaric rhetoric comes from these religious folk – believing that their culture, their beliefs, trump the bodily integrity of children.


That is malice coming from the religious groups – and you have to wonder what its source is. A vested interest in protecting their religion perhaps?

But I wonder whether the average man on the street being exposed to thinking about circumcision as bodily harm would agree, would continue to condone it? Or would they be swayed by the rhetoric of their religion – unthinkingly. Would they consider the truth, or would they simply take it as an affront on their identity, their tribe, their religion? That would be a blind belief in authority.

I wish there were epidemiological studies of the spread of ideas like this – ideas that touch on something so fundamental (body integrity and religion).

I also wonder whether it really does take the actions that are happening in Germany – the slow painful process of someone being sued, higher courts getting involved, someone thinking and lobbying, inter-lobby fighting and political gain, ruling, fighting and subsidence, wash, repeat – until there is consensus, and a wide enough spread of awareness to make the change stick. History is filled with this change – big instances being the racial and gay movements.

It’s so slow, so painful, so inter-generational.

How do you change folk from believing something is right because they always have believed it, and rather have them think about the act, and take a stance on what is right, not just what is common. How can society change more quickly, or is that an impossible pipe dream?

4 thoughts on “Believing something is right because we’ve always believed it

  1. I think this is an interesting debate and you do a good job framing the discussion.

    However, if your position is to challenge established notions, I think you could go further with the evidence you provide.

    You seem to be making an argument against religious and parental choices. I’m a huge believer that you should challenge existing notions, otherwise, we could not have disruptive thougts that bring about innovation and change. Plus an idea is only as good as the discussion and debates around the idea.

    But I’m surprised by the German court’s ruling. I don’t know all of the facts, but it seems like a ruling was created around a botched procedure that one doctor performed whereas doctors and non-doctors alike have been performing the same procedure successfully for thoussands of years. I thought the US was overly litigious but I think we’re in second place now after this court ruling.

    I also believe this is an interesting topic because it’s not about a child’s choice. After all, a child won’t typically remember anything before 3 years old. This is really about a parent’s choice. Parents are called on to make any number of more important decisions about their children:
    * what should their child’s name be
    * should they be vaccinated
    * who should be the caregiver if both parents work, etc…

    I find the child’s name to be the most challenging since the result of that decision can mean being part of the cool crew at school because you fit in or being beat up on the playground because you don’t.

    Unless circumcision can be proven to be more harmful if it’s done than if it’s not, this ultimately needs to remain the parent’s perogative and not be legislated. Legislative bans like what was proposed in San Francisco ( or court rulings like what you posted happened in Germany is denying a fundamental right for a parent to make decisions on behalf of their child regardless of whether religion weighs in or not.

  2. Thanks for your comment Adam. You make some good points.

    I think at the heart of it, I don’t believe the rights of a parent extend to permanent bodily manipulation. That’s an abuse of rights.

    The name given to a child is potentially non-permanent. If I feel it disfigures me, I could change it later in life.

    Vaccination is based on real medical evidence – it’s precautionary, and necessary at that early age – to vaccinate against some nasty diseases.

    Circumcision though, is a permanent change to a child’s body, and the reasoning, if there is any, is cultural or religious – not for the welfare of the child.

    I find it difficult to emphasise that, given that it’s such a common practice, but imagine someone brought their newborn child to work with a facial tattoo. We’d think that wrong, rightly. It’s cosmetic.

    If every child had a facial tattoo, we might think it okay. Which is how I believe folk view circumcision.

    It’s done for cosmetic reasons, or worse, reasons from some religious book (Christian), or religious culture (Muslim).

  3. Vaccination is not only based on real medical evidence, it’s based on the needs of the many vs the desires of the few. Herd immunity is real and it is important to preserve so that those who cannot be vaccinated for whatever reason can still be reasonably safe from disease. This is why schools mandate vaccinations.

    Ear piercing, incidentally, also falls under the umbrella of body alteration — I won’t call it mutilation because it’s not nice to tell people they’ve been mutilated when they didn’t think of themselves that way before — and although it has no negative side effects the way circumcision does, I see both practices ultimately going the way of tattoos: there’s no federal legal minimum age, but most shops won’t tattoo minors regardless of consent or law.

    Interestingly, you two have been talking about limiting this practice through laws and regulations, but I don’t think that’s necessary. A cultural shift may be enough. It is legal, for example, to run nude through the streets of San Francisco, but mercifully this is a rare practice. We don’t have to legislate it because we can regulate it culturally.

    As to how to actually effect this cultural change, I’ve got Machiavelli on my reading list. I’ll let you know what that turns up.

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