On an old globe from the sixteenth century, the east coast of Asia bears the Latin phrase, “HIC SUNT DRACONES“, translated “Here be dragons”. Since that time, the phrase has occasionally been used to denote dangerous or unexplored territory, and so is terrifyingly appropriate for this post.
If you’re the sort of person who might read a post like this one and feel that I had you personally in mind while writing it, you should stop reading now. Not much in this world is more emotionally evocative or potentially offensive than religion, but I plan to cover one such topic now. I don’t intend to offend anyone, let alone anyone in particular; I simply want to make a point, one that’s very relevant to my evolving beliefs, but one which may offend anyone who believes I’m speaking to them personally.
If you think there might be things I could write here that could seriously impact our friendship, you shouldn’t read this post. If my approval of your decisions or the decisions of those close to you is essential to our friendship, and if—somehow—you’ve never managed to incur my vocal disapproval before, you should just pass over this post and wait for the next. I won’t hold it against you at all. My relationship with you is more important than you reading this post.
Paul calls him “the father of all who believe,” and later adds that “he is our father in the sight of God”. He is claimed as the father of all three major monotheistic religions: “the God of Abraham” refers to the same person whether you’re speaking to a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim. In all three religions Abraham is venerated for his faithfulness. More than half of the human population of this pale blue dot puts this man on a pedastal.
But does Abraham really deserve this praise? He was ready to slaughter his son! He held in his hand the knife he was going to use to slit his son’s neck. He had built the altar on which he planned to burn his son’s body because he believed that the smoke rising from the altar would please his God. Why is this man held up as a sign of faith when any father doing the same thing today would be committed or jailed?
For years this was just a theoretical consideration of mine, easily shelved and ignored, placed on the back burner of my philosophical stove for later consideration, after I’d addressed more interesting concerns like predestination and the odd desire of an omniscient God to listen to my opinions. That changed, however, when my wife gave birth to our first son. This theoretical consideration quickly became a nagging practical question: what if God asked me to sacrifice my son? Would I say “no”? What reason would I have for doing so? Why should I say no when Abraham clearly said yes?
I can’t honestly say that I know the standard Christian replies to this question because I never asked it publicly. It wore on my conscience silently. Every time I would read or reference James 2 in a theological debate—”Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?”—it gnawed at me. What Abraham was willing to do was wrong, plain and simple. It wasn’t entirely uncommon in Abraham’s time and culture, but it was still wrong, and still (I would argue) obviously wrong.
I would not do it, neither now nor before my faith crisis. If I thought I heard God telling me to kill my son, I’d check myself into a psychiatric ward until the voices went away. I don’t think I ever would have been willing to do what Abraham, “the father of us all”, did. If believing in Christ obligates me to hold up as “faithful” a man who was willing to slit his own son’s throat at God’s request, that’s a problem that I have with believing in Christ.
The author of Hebrews gives Abraham a loophole. “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead”. So maybe Abraham had convinced himself that God would raise his son from the dead. I wonder how many of Molech’s worshipers reasoned that Molech could raise their children from the dead. Did Abraham’s “reasoning” here really indemnify him? Would it exonerate someone today? If a parent killed his children reasoning that “God told me to, and I reasoned that he could raise them from the dead,” would we set him free? If we’re willing to give Abraham a pass for such reasoning, why not a parent living today?
Ultimately, the only thing that indemnifies Abraham is that he didn’t actually kill his son. Where the rubber met the road (or, more appropriately, where the knife met the neck) Abraham did not slaughter his son and offer him as a burnt sacrifice. In the end, he didn’t do something evil at the request of his God. While that doesn’t get God off the hook for asking Abraham to do something we now recognize as evil, it does get Abraham out of hot water.
Or does it? Here lies the dragon I warned you about earlier. Medical terminology, too.
Abraham may have been a fantastic dad, apart from his willingness to kill his son at God’s request. But there’s at least one other place where I believe he fell down by accepting a command from God. There’s at least one other evil act that Abraham did his God’s command that makes me seriously question whether I should believe in any religion which holds him up as a archetype of faith.
Several years ago I learned about the brutal practice of female genital mutilation. In some (primarily African) cultures it is accepted and even expected that women have their genitals modified in some way: sometimes their labia are cut off or sewn together, sometimes their clitoral hoods are removed, sometimes their clitoris is amputated in its entirety. These are brutal procedures, often performed without anesthesia and frequently without the full consent of the girl I won’t hesitate to refer to as the victim.
To my modern sensibilities, such brutality is disgusting. That it’s performed on my planet, let alone by members of my own species, saddens and infuriates me. Many in the western world feel the same way, and have embarked on campaigns to raise awareness of female genital mutilation, striving to end the practice. I’m thankful that, at least in my enlightened country, such brutality would never and could never gain the support it has in more primitive cultures.
But even here in America a very similar procedure is performed every single day on infant boys who have not given their consent. It’s so “ordinary” that stories abound of hospital doctors who assumed that consent was given by the parents simply because they hadn’t said otherwise. It’s frequently cast as a purely cosmetic operation, despite the fact that it is a medical amputation which removes a portion of sexually-sensitive flesh that grows to be the size of an index card in an adult man. It is directly analogous to the form of female genital mutilation involving the removal of the clitoral hood. It is circumcision, the same procedure Abraham willingly performed on every male in his house (slave or son, with consent or without) at God’s command.
Parents have certain rights over our children. We can authorize medical procedures which may be needed to ensure that our children live full and happy lives. Parents of a child born with a cleft palate, for instance, are entirely justified in authorizing the surgery necessary to repair that birth defect and allow their children to speak and eat as effectively as others. We can even authorize procedures as invasive as amputation when medical needs demand it. Foreskin, however, is not a birth defect. It’s not a medical condition. There is absolutely no medical need to amputate it in healthy infant boys. Parents primarily authorize circumcision for religious reasons—Jews and Muslims both require circumcision in accordance with God’s commandment to Abraham—or, in the unique case of the United States, for conformity to secular culture.
Many parents—following their culture or their religion—have chosen to circumcise their sons, and they no doubt meant well in making that decision. They wanted their child to feel normal, or they wanted him to look like his daddy, or they wanted him to be a covenant member of their religious community. Regardless, in choosing to amputate a functional part of their sons’ bodies without medical justification, they overstepped their parental bounds and, frankly, abused their sons.
Child abuse does not cease to be child abuse because it is commanded by religion or because it is accepted by the culture of the time. Beethoven’s father was abusing him by boxing his ears, even if his contemporaries accepted the punishment as perfectly ordinary. Beating a child until he bruised would have been perfectly acceptable in the nineteenth century, but we rightly recognize it as child abuse today. Many well-meaning parents of that time punished their children with bruises, but that doesn’t alter the objective fact that despite their good intentions, they were abusing their children when they did so. Likewise, Abraham was abusing his sons and his male slaves when he imposed circumcision on them, unless they gave their informed consent to the procedure.
My complaint goes further than Abraham, though. God commanded not only that Abraham circumcise himself and his male family members, but that this barbaric, medically unjustified practice continue for millennia as a sign of the covenant he made with Abraham. This was a problem for me as I tried to preserve my belief in God. The God that I wanted to believe in, the God that I was raised to believe in—this God, supposedly all loving—demanded for thousands of years that his followers ritualistically violate their sons’ human rights by amputating a functional part of their bodies with neither medical justification nor their sons’ informed consent. Why should I choose to believe in that God? Why should I choose to worship that God?
If God had only commanded that adult males be circumcised as a sign of their commitment to him, I would have raised an eyebrow, but ultimately could have written off the command as one of the quirks of the Almighty. What God demands from people who can willingly submit to his command is his business. But imposing the abusive practice on millions of infant boys: that’s not just a quirk of the Almighty, that’s an abandonment of reasonable ethics! Would it be good for a parent to send his son into surgery to detach his attached earlobes? Would it be good for a parent to dye his infant’s hair some other color? Then why would it good for a parent to surgically remove a functional part of his infant son’s penis?
My calculus of human rights is simple: every person has the right to decide whether they want their bodies cosmetically modified. I have the right to determine whether my body is cosmetically modified, and you have the right to determine whether your body is cosmetically modified. I should decide whether my penis is circumcised, and my sons should decide whether their penises are circumcised.
At the risk of sounding like an ideologue, twice now I’ve had to sit in the hospital and answer (multiple times!) the question, “Do you want your son circumcised?” No, I don’t want my son circumcised. No, I don’t want to amputate a functional part of his body for cosmetic or cultural reasons. No, I don’t want you to inflict on my son unnecessary and excruciating pain even though “he won’t remember it”. No, I don’t want to arbitrarily limit his sexual pleasure by removing flesh that rightfully belongs to him.
And no, I don’t want to belong to a religion which worships a God that demanded infant circumcision for thousands of years.
(If, despite the disclaimer above, you’re still offended or hurt by this discourse, please see my comment below.)