Ask Richard: Atheist Parents Disagree About Circumcision

Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.

Dear Richard,

Both myself and my wife are atheist (but I’m a little more extremist). We were both raised in traditional Jewish homes. That is, we were brought up on the culture and tradition, but not brainwashed into believing in an abstract god.

When our first son was born, we disagreed on whether or not he should be circumcised. My wife was for circumcision, claiming that an uncircumcised child growing up among circumcised kids would get teased, and have a hard time. I was against the practice as much as the tradition — the ceremony is usually a big event, where circumcision, or “briss” is performed in front of many guests, family and friends. In the end, we had our son circumcised, but without the ceremony (to my mother-in-law’s lament).

Now my wife is pregnant again, and the same argument has resurfaced. The difference this time is that we live in America, where the children’s peers will not be 100% or evenly predominately comprised of circumcised children, so the teasing argument is at least partially out of play.

I am completely against the practice of circumcision (contrary to what proponents claims that it is healthier, there is no clear evidence either way), but my wife is for it, mostly because of tradition.

What do you think?


Dear Tom,

Maybe you’ll have a girl. 😉

I agree that circumcision is silly. On the other hand, I think getting into a serious conflict about it is almost just as silly too. The debates about it can be shrill, but I haven’t seen convincing evidence to support any of the more extreme claims of either side, how it’s either very good or very bad for boys physically, psychologically, sexually or socially.

It’s silly, but it has already been done to one son. If you have another son and you decide to not circumcise him, you may face an interesting challenge.

Eventually, at bath time your two little boys are going to notice that they are different. One of them, most likely the older, circumcised one, is going to ask you why. You should be prepared with an answer that is honest and also makes sense. Since circumcision is silly to begin with, and (at least in my opinion) the controversy is almost just as silly, it may be difficult to have a response that is both honest and also makes sense to the boys.

You’ll have to explain what the foreskin is, why and how it was removed from the older boy, what the traditions are in your family and your former country, why that tradition is not as strongly followed in America, and why you decided to not have it removed from your younger son.

Then you may have to deal with questions from either or both boys in the “why him and not me” category. These may include: why one boy was honored with a tradition and the other was not, or the flip side, why one boy had this tradition forced on him while the other was spared; why there was all that (at least to a child’s mind) unequal or inconsistent treatment; why you and your wife disagree on that tradition (because that might eventually come out; the boys will sense it); why one parent got their way with one boy and the other parent got their way with the other, and does that mean something about who’s favored by which parent; and so on.

Now, if you think I’m brewing a tempest in a teacup, that these questions won’t come up or they won’t be a big deal, then great. Maybe they won’t. I just think that you should be ready, just in case. It could be that a light answer like, “Oh, you were born where that’s done to all the boys, and your little brother was born here, where it’s not such a strong tradition,” may be enough for them. Try to present it as light and unimportant as the subject actually is, but if either of the boys seem to be more concerned, don’t dismiss their concerns and leave their questions to be answered only by their imaginations. Watch for nonverbal cues, in case the subject is embarrassing to them and they clam up. Also, watch for your own embarrassment and keep it in check. Kids learn which topics are supposed to be embarrassing by observing all the nonverbal and verbal signals from their parents. If the parents seem to be comfortable and matter-of-fact, the kids will respond that way too.

The main thing is that either way, it’s important to not let it become a wedge between you and your wife. I don’t want to be insensitive or overly casual about it, but I think the whole thing is not important enough for marital strife. If the two of you decide to not circumcise a second son, agree ahead of time on your answers to all those questions and any others that you can anticipate. If the two of you decide to have it done, have it done by a doctor just like the first time, instead of in a bris. Otherwise, you’ll get all that “why him and not me” stuff from your older son. Your mother-in-law will just have to lament once again. She’ll probably accept it more easily the second time.

Tom, the most important thing is to keep building a strong bond with your wife, one that will withstand the pressures of disapproving family members and the general stresses of marriage. Both of you should be completely open with your thoughts and feelings, and completely accepting that you’re going to sometimes have different viewpoints.

Many atheists from Jewish backgrounds continue to observe some of their family’s traditions and landmark ceremonies for cultural or familial reasons. How important they consider those things to be can vary widely between individuals, as you have seen with you and your wife.

It would be wise for the two of you to come to agreements ahead of time about other Jewish traditions that will certainly come up, such as Bar or Bat Mitzvahs and anything else that your relatives may urge you to do. If such things start conflicts between your relatives and the two of you, well, that is one of the sadly common consequences of your being atheists, and that can be a pain in the neck. But it is very important to prevent those family pressures from working their way into little differences between you and your wife, and causing a schism between the two of you.

Don’t put off discussing these things, thinking that you have several years to not worry about it. Your relatives may start badgering both of you right away, and you should present a united front. It’s tough enough to be atheists without having family intrusions causing divisions between you and your spouse.

I wish you and your wife a healthy pregnancy and birthing, and I wish all of your family an abundance of happiness and love.


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