Circumcision in religion: What does science say?

Connor Wood

Circumcision kit

Last Tuesday, June 26th, a German court in Cologne ruled that circumcisions could not be performed in its jurisdiction on children before they turn of age to consent to the operation. The ruling, which came in response to a four-year-old Muslim boy who experienced post-circumcision bleeding, inspired Jewish and Muslim groups across Germany to condemn the court’s decision, decrying what they see as unprecedented disregard for religious liberty. While both sides in this heated debate have respectable arguments, the scientific study of religion offers some perspectives that have led me to believe the court’s opinion was misguided. Specifically, body modification as a signal of group identity is a pervasive feature of religious cultures worldwide, and such signals can be vitally necessary for groups to survive, and thrive, in a hostile world.

One of the truly remarkable stories in world history is the persistence of Jewish cultural identity over nearly two millennia of diaspora. After the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by Roman forces in 70 C.E., Jewish culture was dispersed across the empire, and Jewish diasporic communities developed a role as perpetual outsiders. Often based in urban regions, these communities maintained their own cultural practices and identity even as they traded with and contributed to the societies that hosted them. Amazingly, Jewish culture was never assimilated or agglomerated into European cultures. Indeed, European Jewish communities even managed to thrive.

One explanation for the Jewish diaspora’s remarkable resilience in the face of European indifference and hostility may be found in the growing body of literature on the role of ritual and onerous, even painful practices – such as circumcision – within religious communities.

Researchers such as Scott Atran, Joseph Henrich, and Joseph Bulbulia have argued that the surprising predominance of difficult, painful, and even dangerous religious rites in human cultures across the globe may be traced back to the need to solve the basic problems of human social mechanics, especially the riddle of mutual cooperation. Since humans utterly depend on one another for survival – ostracism from a hunter-gather band is often tantamount to a death sentence – tribes and groups need to find some way to ensure that every individual will contribute responsibly. If there are too many free riders, or group members who take from the group but don’t give back, then the group will fail.

The solution, according to these researchers, is explained by what’s called “costly investment theory.” Costly investment theory states that, paradoxically, groups that demand more of their members actually fare better than those that demand less. So one way to solve the problem of ingroup cooperation is to insist that everyone who wants to join the group must do something difficult or exhausting to show their level of commitment to the collective. Once you’ve participated in a difficult or straining ritual, you’ll be more motivated to throw in your chips with that group from then on. You’ve already invested a serious chunk of energy, so it would be literally wasteful for you to back out or betray the group now.

Bodily modification, including circumcision, tattooing, and scarification, are common means worldwide of inducting new members into social groups and tribes. Because these procedures are painful and irrevocable, they’re quite literally costly investments. Indeed, they effectively forever cut off options for betrayal or defection to another group, since a permanent physical sign of allegiance to one tribe will be seen by members of other groups as a threat. In short: if your body has been seriously altered by your religious group or tribe, you’re probably in that group to stay.

Now, let’s look again at the Jewish diaspora in Europe. Flying in the face of all odds, resisting enormous cultural, political, and even military pressures, the Jewish communities of Europe survived and even thrived over the course of 2,000 years, maintaining their separate identity and religious customs in generation after generation. This suggest pretty strongly that something about Jewish culture worked. While there were probably many factors at play, the theory of costly investment makes a strong case that circumcision was likely one of them. Christian Europeans did not practice circumcision, making the procedure a powerful identifying marker of Jewish identity. Since circumcision was visible and irrevocable, it limited or eliminated the ability of Jewish husbands, sons, and fathers to abandon their communities and forge new lives among the Gentiles.

This is a bold statement, then, but I’m going to make it: I think there’s a good possibility that without circumcision as a marker of Jewish identity, that identity would not have survived the diaspora. Strong communities are not forged merely of mutual fondness and shared interests. They are forged of blood and pain. They are forged of commitment.

While the controversy in Germany began with a Muslim boy and his parents, I think the example of the Jewish European diaspora is a good one for showing why bodily modification is a fundamental feature of many religious communities. And in today’s European Muslim communities, circumcision likely plays a similar role as a marker of identity and belonging.

Insights into mechanisms such as these, which serve to tighten and bond human communities, often seem quaint or even horrifying to modern cosmopolitan people, who have been raised in a moral system that strongly values individual autonomy and self-determination. This Western individualistic ethical system finds its roots in the liberalism of writers such as John Locke, who saw enforced participation in group norms as coercive, barbaric, and immoral. While I partly share those views, I also have come to recognize that they arise from a very unique set of political and economic circumstances, and that this Lockean individualism simply could not function in most human contexts throughout history.

To illustrate why: I can afford to be individualistic, because I live in a culture that provides for most of my needs outside of the bounds of human relationships. I don’t need to know my grocer in order to eat. I just give her money, and she sells me food. Similarly, I don’t need a lasting, committed relationship to the guys who pick up my trash every Wednesday morning. I don’t even need to know their names (in fact, I don’t). As a result, most of my real relationships are voluntary – the people I play sports with, my friends, my musical collaborators. I don’t need them, except for companionship.

But in most cultures, in most times and places, this isn’t true. The vast majority of people have depended intimately on their immediate social environment for the most essential goods of life: food, shelter, childcare, protection. And so for most people who do not live in Western capitalistic societies, having strong, functioning social groups is actually a matter of survival. Even for minority groups within those Western societies, ingroup dependence is still greater than it is among established majority members.

This is why I think the German court’s decision was a bad one. It was explicitly predicated on the sovereign right of an individual to his own bodily integrity, but that sovereign right is in turn predicated on a set of philosophical assumptions that simply do not apply beyond a fairly narrow socio-political niche. Religious and cultural practices that impinge on individual liberties can be painful and seem barbaric. But they often also fulfill adaptive functions, and we need to keep this in mind if we’re going to make good decisions about how to respond to them.

Addendum:

The battle of group-versus-individual is one with no clear answers. Western liberals tend to underestimate the importance of group belonging and commitment, while many traditional societies and conservative religious groups go too far on the other side, often oppressing their members – especially women and children – for the sake of cultural continuity. I happen to think the German court veered too far to the liberal side of this equation, but more Lockean views offer very good arguments. As it is, the evidence to me seems to suggest my interpretation, and I’m sticking with it unless further, contrary evidence surfaces.

 

  • Derek Michaud

    Do Scott Atran, Joseph Henrich, and Joseph Bulbulia offer any suggestions as to why such costly rituals are begun or does their analysis stick to the issue of the survival of these practices only? Curious because while they may be socially helpful once they are started there would seem to be something more like a psychological (or theological) reason for developing such practices in the first place.

    • connorwood

      Derek, I believe costly investment theory mostly looks at the adaptiveness of the behaviors rather than their specific etiologies. But because costly investment is seen in species other than humans (for example, the phenomenon of “stotting” among African antelope), the same mechanisms that produce socially adaptive behaviors in other species are probably in play in human groups. In other words, questions about how specific costly investment rituals get started among humans lead straight back to the evolutionary question of why any particular trait develops in any species to begin with. The Darwinian answer is that it’s essentially random, so that may be as good an answer as any. But I’d be very interested to see any psychological or theological theories for particular costly practices (like circumcision).

  • Tim Evans

    I’m ambivalent on this on this topic. I haven’t thought enough about it to come up with a clear opinion. Intriguing all the same.

    One interesting paradox about the ruling of the Western individualists is that in mandating minority communities to adhere to majority law (i.e. practices), they are sidestepping individualism by coercing those minorities to assimilate to their own form of group rituals. The Western group ritual here is to ardently reject group rituals; its sort of a meta-ritual. The Western credo: Individualism must reign supreme, so long as it is our individualism.

    • connorwood

      Tim, I like the meta-ritual point. It’s too true. On circumcision, I’d count myself as ambivalent as well, but with a skew towards religious groups’ rights. It’s a difficult subject, and there aren’t any clear answers. But my general m.o. is to point out facets of our Western viewpoint that make it difficult for many well-educated, highly individualistic members of American and European cultures to understand or communicate with more group-oriented, tribal, or religious people.

      I don’t mention this point in this post, but part of my motivation for disseminating knowledge like this is that I think a better understanding of how these more close-knit, traditional cultures work is going to be really important for reaching understandings about big issues like global warming in the next few decades.

      • Tim Evans

        “But my general m.o. is to point out facets of our Western viewpoint that make it difficult for many well-educated, highly individualistic members of American and European cultures to understand or communicate with more group-oriented, tribal, or religious people.”

        To let my own cat out of the bag, that is precisely why I enjoy what you have to say.

  • cowalker

    “Religious and cultural practices that impinge on individual liberties can be painful and seem barbaric. But they often also fulfill adaptive functions, and we need to keep this in mind if we’re going to make good decisions about how to respond to them.”

    Well, here’s an even more costly investment–female circumcision. I’m sure you would support the decision of a German judge who came down against allowing that. But why oppose that and allow male circumcision? I’m not claiming that the physical effects of the latter are as extreme as the former, but both are mutilation. I think that Western governments are quite right to forbid irreversible bodily modification inflicted on minors by citizens or visitors within their borders. In this context, the only survival that is promoted by the practice is NOT literal survival, but cultural identity survival. That is not the foremost value in Western society. If you disagree with Western values you should not live in a Western society.

    Here’s a bigger question: Is preserving multiple cultural identities within a larger Western society truly a positive good? Do gains from encouraging resistance to the melting pot of society outweigh the reduction of conflict that follows absorption into the larger society? Would it have been so terrible if Jews had wholeheartedly embraced the various cultures they lived within , and lost their Jewish identity long before Hitler was born?

    • Kristen inDallas

      We permit 5-year old girls to get their ears pierced (with parental consent), and we permit 13 year old girls to take hormonal drugs that alter their fundamental body chemistry. We make these permissions based on the whim of what modern culture thinks its “normal”, and the idea of “individual liberty” even though in both situations it’s the parents liberty in making decisions for a minor child. How is it okay to allow that, and not allow similar parentally-approved body modifications that are rooted in deeply held religious beliefs?
      Also, there is a big difference between wholeheartedly embracing something, and being coerced into conformity.

      • guest

        “How is it okay to allow that, and not allow similar parentally-approved body modifications that are rooted in deeply held religious beliefs? Also, there is a big difference between wholeheartedly embracing something, and being coerced into conformity.”
        Well, given that circumcision happens when one is an infant and not even capable of linguistic action, there is, in fact, a big difference there. I believe that would count as being coerced into conformity on a smaller scale. What if someone decided they didn’t like a choice that was made for them(like circumcision) later in life?(I’d be one such person) Well, there is nothing you can do about it, and you didn’t even get to make the decicison, even as a minor. Parental permission and parental coersion are not the same thing.
        Now, if you have the belief Connor Wood does, that this particular issue is made up for by protecting a culture, that is one thing, but to pretend that permission from parents, even for a minor, is the same as doing something to a child who cannot give an opinon is the same thing, is folly.

      • cowalker

        The ear piercings and contraceptive produce reversible effects.

      • cowalker

        Also, what do you think about female circumcision if it’s rooted in the deeply held religious beliefs of her parents? What if it’s just rooted in deeply held cultural beliefs about the role of a woman in society, and fear that their daughter won’t be able to find a husband within her cultural tradition? Would it matter which it was? If so, how would you figure out which it was?

    • connorwood

      Cowalker, I think you’ve misunderstood a fundamental part of my argument. Cultural identity survival is, in fact, a necessary condition for literal physical survival for many people around the world. Cultures are not museum pieces, luxuries to be retained if and when we have the resources and will. They are the transmission nets for informal goods, services, caretaking, and other vital necessities, and as such they are the machinery of economic life. Without strong, functioning cultural groups – such as those perpetuated by costly investments like circumcision – literal physical survival would in fact be threatened among individuals.

      And I cannot agree with the sentiment that all groups ought to “melt into” their Western cultures. Host cultures benefit from the influence of foreign groups. My favorite example? Rock ‘n’ roll, invented by people who mixed European melodic traditions with African (slave) percussive techniques. I, for one, am glad that African culture was still vital enough to give the world this gift.

      As for female circumcision, I’d be happy to see it die out, but ordering tribespeople to stop an ancient practice because it offends our Lockean sense of morality is not the way to get that to happen. I think the indigenous and tribal peoples of the world have had enough ordering around by Europeans. To quote one Somali woman: “If Somali women change, it will be a change done by us, among us. When they order us to stop, tell us what we must do, it is offensive.…to advise is good, but not to order.”

      Source: http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/2313097.html

      • cowalker

        I think you missed the context of my remark about forbidding both male and female circumcision.

        “I think that Western governments are quite right to forbid irreversible bodily modification inflicted on minors by citizens or visitors within their borders. In this context, the only survival that is promoted by the practice is NOT literal survival, but cultural identity survival.”

        I was talking about activities taking place within the borders of a Western country. I’m not proposing that we send soldiers into other nations to monitor their rituals. Of course we do exert pressure to try to influence such nations to abandon practices that violate human rights, and I support that.

        When eastern or African peoples migrate to a Western country, they will be more successful if they adapt to that country rather than trying to maintain a bubble of their own culture around them. Is it tragic that everybody in America is Irish on St. Patrick’s day, but in reality people of Irish heritage are no longer distinguishable from the rest of the American population in appearance, behavior or self-identification? I don’t think so. The Irish contributed what they contributed but have pretty much melted into the population. I’m glad we got rock and roll, but our nation would be so much better off if African-Americans had been assimilated into the dominant culture long ago–contributing to that culture in the process. Don’t mistake me–I’m NOT saying that African-Americans were resisting this process. The fault there was with the dominant culture, of course, which abused and exploited them and then rejected them, to the great misfortune of both.

  • http://callumjameshackett.tumblr.com Callum Hackett

    First, let’s not be short-sighted in our appropriation of scientific terminology. Adaptivity does not make something good; adaptivity only makes a trait more likely to aid reproductive success. It may well be the case that cancer is a product of adaptive genes – genes which allow us greater reproductive success in early life, but which cause physical deterioration later, with no mechanism for these to be removed from the genome because the early reproductive success means they’re already passed on before the cancer hits. Yet we would not say that cancer is adaptive. Adaptivity is a neutral concept and should not be appealed to in order to claim that something is beneficial.

    Second, it seems to me that this is a theory without any substantial justification, and I see no reason to go along with it. There are many minority sects – either ones wholly detached from prevailing religions, or small denominations of a broader religion – which did not require body “modification” in order to keep their identity. It’s their divergent ideas that matter, as these are strong enough to bond a(n indoctrinated) community. Body modification may well be a sufficient cause of prolonged identity, but not a necessary one given alternatives.

    But most important, I think it’s also worth pointing out the HUGE fallacy that, *even if* this thesis is true, it does NOT provide *moral* justification for the act of child genital “modification” (/mutilation); instead, it only provides a pragmatic means to an end, and even that end is not one we can be wholly certain is desirable, never mind suggesting that it justifies the means.

    • connorwood

      Callum, I used the term “adaptive” specifically in relation to the ability of a cultural group to survive and – importantly – provide for its members in the face of adverse circumstances. As such, yes, adaptivity is a good thing for that group and its individual members. Context is vital for proper usage and understanding of scientific terms, which I’m not appropriating as an outsider to the discussion on the evolutionary functions of religion but use appropriately as a member of that discussion.

      Next, part of your skepticism may come from the fact that you’ve misplaced the emphasis of the (very well-accepted) theory of costly investment – it does not depend on bodily modification per se, but instead of any kind of costly investment. The prototypical example in American society today is the relative success of conservative Evangelical Christian denominations compared with the decline of the mainline Protestant churches. More conservative denominations typically demand more investment in terms of time, tithing, ritual participation, and commitment to doctrines, while more liberal mainline churches generally have much laxer requirements for membership. Costly investment theory predicts that the more conservative churches would thrive and the liberal ones decline, which is in fact what is happening. Similar dynamics apply to human groups across the world – stronger demands on individuals (up to an extreme limit) mean stronger and more durable groups.

  • ht

    thanks for the article!

    three points I’d make on the issue:
    First, the evolutionary argument about group identity through mutilation is an interesting aspect of circumcision. but (as every “argument from evolution”) it only applies to the descriptive side of the issue. The ruling (as every rule of law) is a prescriptive assessment of values. In this case two socalled “legally protected interests” were weighed against each other: freedom of religion and personal autonomy. The court decided in favour of the latter, which you, I think correctly, attributed to the western tradition of philosophy of law that includes John Locke.
    If you want, as your last paragraphs and conclusion suggest, to make a prescriptive statement about the issue at hand, I think you would have to accomplish one of two things: either you argue for group identity as a legally protected interest in itself or you include it in the domain of religious freedom. either way you would still have to argue for the dominance of this value over personal autonomy.
    You do this by saying that “this Lockean individualism simply could not function in most human contexts throughout history.” This is quite a bold statement. Depending on each other is one thing, group identity, may it be based on religion, nationality, ethnicity, gender or whatever else, is another.
    In fact I think we do depend a lot on each other even in urban, industrialized societies. This is precisely the reason why we (or at least: most of us) choose to live under the rule of law. But instead of the rules of religions we want these laws to be appropriate for everybody, not just the people we intimately know. We have gone a long (but not quite finished) way in cleaning our laws of rules that treat people different because of their religion, race or gender.
    But even if the dominance of autonomy over group identity were possible only in western capitalist societies, I cannot follow your argument in the last paragraph. Germany is just that: a western capitalist nation state. Why would liberalism be the wrong guideline for the court there?

    The core issue for me is my second point: you seem to suggest, that “strong, functioning social groups” are in opposition to individual autonomy, that we can just afford their absence because of the impersonal ways to satisfy our basic needs and should therefore reconsider their importance even under our circumstances. I basically agree with the last part even though I am, as above mentioned, skeptical of their irrelevance: we need and should think about strong social groups everywhere ( , we just don’t need them to be exclusive, but that’s another topic).
    But why would autonomy be detrimental to that. You mention two aspects:
    One is “leaving your group/family behind”, and that physical features that signify your allegiance make this harder. But is that really a good thing? You should have reason to stay with your group because of the positive consequences (for yourself and for everyone else in the group), not because of fear of the bad things that follow exclusion. I would argue, on the contrary, that the more your loyalty rests on external disincentives, the weaker the social coherence becomes. That also means that if there is good reason for someone to leave the group, superficial hindrances weaken its functioning.
    The second is the “costly investment” aspect itself: If you have sacrificed or suffered for your group it strengthens your bond. Taking this as a functional statement I will not go into its validity but will instead deny that from this follows anything against autonomy. You yourself write in italics that the investment amounts to commitment. But commitment is something only an autonomous subject can be said to show. The same goes for the phrasing “societies that demand more of them”. From an agent you demand, from a baby you just take. Does it seem probable, that the circumcision/tattoo/scarring I get because I choose freely when I have the intellectual capacity should be weaker than the one I don’t remember or was forced to take?
    The court in Cologne has not ruled Circumcision illegal. It has qualified it as bodily injury. And it has stated, that the parents can not decide about it for the newborn. When you’re adult, you can have it of course. Just as you can get your boobs done, which is a far more serious procedure by the way.
    So I claim that even if group identity and social bonds profit from ritual injuries, they do even more so if autonomously chosen.

    But of course, this my third point, some religious groups disagree (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jun/27/circumcision-ruling-germany-muslim-jewish). But again I have two problems with that position:
    While I can accept the authority of a court that rules based on the laws we democratically decided upon (democracy is, by the way not simply rule of the majority, there are minority rights and constitutional principles to name just two constrains), I don’t accept the authority of religious leaders, not even for their “flock”. Even if I would count religious groups among those group identities that are valuable to protect and strengthen, authoritative positions don’t help. If they really think that circumcision in this early age is so important for their cult they should argue for why this is so and therefore make the pendulum swing back in favour of freedom of religion.
    But even if they did, I wouldn’t follow their argument. That’s because in my opinion freedom of religion is a value only as long as it is in agreement with autonomy, or better put, a part of it. Freedom of religion is an individual right. The freedom of religion is granted as a protection from coercion not an excuse for it. I’m not saying that parents shouldn’t be allowed to teach their beliefs to their children (there are arguments for it, but I don’t agree), but they shouldn’t choose for them. When you, as the critics of the ruling do, think of circumcision as a ritual act, freedom of religion should be just as much a reason against parental decision as for it.
    I regard religious freedom not as a special human right as it is usually put, but rather as a way to exercise your various rights: you may believe what you want and speak about it (freedom of speech) – but only as long as you don’t invade someone else’s rights (by libel or threatening), you may with your stuff and the stuff entrusted to you do whatever fancy rituals you like (right to property) – as long as you don’t damage mine or harm my body, and so on. It actually angers me that some claim a special status for religion that transcends all other rights. But this is getting too long already.
    So instead of a lengthy argument just a question: If group identity is an important value and should be a “legally protected interests”, which groups qualify? Religions? Political parties? Subcultures? Nation states? Ethnicities? Families? And should your parents decide which one you are part of? (Think it through with all of them!)

    tl;dr:
    Freedom of religion is not opposed to autonomy but rather an integral part. Without it “costly investments” are weaker. Parents are constrained in their power over their children and rightly so. Religions should not claim superiority over other in-groups.

    (aside to commenters: please stop comparing it to female genital mutilation: While the autonomy issue is just as virulent if not more so there, the consequences are just worlds apart. This is why FGM is illegal in Germany: Not even as an adult you can consent to it, just as you cannot consent to being dismembered or killed. Sucks for autonomy? Maybe. But some claim you have lost that already when you would consider such things. some claim that suicide never is an act of freedom. While I am skeptical in this general form I am pretty sure that most people who consider suicide or (serious) self-mutilation are not in their right minds.)

  • http://rebekkaksteg.com Rebekka @ Becky’s Kaleidoscope

    My problem with male circumcision (as with female genital mutilation) is, that it is an irreversible, painful and damaging. It should be legal – for a consenting adult, not something that should be forced on a child.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    A good part of the court ruling was that male circumcision, removal of that foreskin, was medically harmful in a permanent way. I frankly have no idea where the court got the idea that observant Jew and Muslim men were going through the last three thousand years of history as physical or emotional cripples. The “medical” claim appears to me to be an expression of racism and religious bigotry, since it has no objective basis.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    On the general theory that the higher the personal investment, the greater the loyalty, it is one that has been suppirted by sociologist Rodney Stark. In his writing on how this theory pkays out in the distinctive Mormon religion, Stark also emphasizes that the greater the individual sacrifice, the greater are the direct benefits of group membership, beyond simpke loyalty. Thatnis obvious when it comes to donations that supportmchurch building and operations and church welfare programs that aid members who encounter diffcult circumstances like unemployment. Mormons routinely feed each other during times of individual stress, and provide group labor for major home repairs, relocation to another town, and recovery from natural disasters and war. Beyond being recipientsnof benefits, the personal satsfaction that is felt when one has helped others is a reward that no ampunt of money can evince. Calling on church members to make sacrifices for others provides feelings ofnself worth that no psychtherapy session is likely to equal. Makng the sacrifices as a member is its own reward. And I propose that for observant Jews and Muslims, the sacrifice of circumcision can be one that gives the child a sense of worthiness to share in the blessings God promised to Abraham.

  • Mieke

    Interesting article. It leaves me with two questions:
    - How come women can belong to the group wothout a costly investment?
    - Isn´t the bonding effect greater when it circumcision occurs as an individuals own decision at an age where he will have an actual memory of the moment?

  • Tom Armistead

    Costly investment theory may explain why Jewish men remain committed to their community, but not Jewish women. Children of Jewish women are considered Jews by birth, but not the children of Jewish men, yet Jewish women do not undergo a body modification comparable to circumcision. So if Jewish women apostatize, the community fails, even if the men remain committed.

  • Ed

    This article fails this subject matter on one simple foundation: “the scientific study of religion”, as the author notes in the first paragraph.

    Connor Wood, so anticipating the use of his talent’s, attempts to show the depth of religious ritual as a sociological invention to promote loyalty to a cultural identification. The author makes no attempt to address the origin of circumcision as a token of the covenant God had made with man; instead he appears to attribute circumcision to some ritual the Jewish community embraced post-Second Temple and throughout their diaspora. Furthermore, the author does not even mention the word God, let alone attribute the origin of circumcision to God in His relationship with Abraham and the future Jewish people. Amazing.

    The author attributes the continuity and self-identification of the Jewish community to social ritual – like circumcision – rather than to any possible relationship this culture has had in the past, currently is enjoying now in the present, and will continue to have in the future with any kind of relationship with a supreme being. Amazing.

    Circumcision is “onerous”, the author states. “Onerous” is a prescriptive word that implies judgment.

    Is the author implying that the world is better off as an individualistic society, where each person is an island of rightful independence? He appears to be saying s when he refers to any kind of social engagement as “the riddle of mutual cooperation”. And the “costly investment theory” is hardly paradoxical except to one who does not understand commitment as being of any benefit to a modern society. And for the author to suggest that circumcision is, in itself, a significant factor in the unity of the Jewish people is completely laughable.

    The author goes on to claim that “modern cosmopolitan” society, having been “raised in a moral system that strongly values individual autonomy and self-determination.”, sees such tokens as circumcision as “quaint or even horrifying”, and yet does he actually believe that today’s man has individual autonomy in any sense of the word? Just look to any Starbucks to see the total dependence the “modern cosmopolitan” has with his fellow man.

    And does this author really think the Christian did not and does not practice circumcision. Think again, my uniformed friend.

    Finally, he considers companionship as the sole reason for community; he need not know his grocer in order to eat. Extrapolate this thinking out as a cultural goal, and it gets quite interesting. He sees interaction with others as “voluntary”, and he has somehow no longer human at all.

    Is this the standard of an understanding of life – self-determinism – as the goal for us all?

  • Jon Barfield

    Similar studies have shown how university frat houses and sports teams inspire greater loyalty and commitment through more dangerous, painful and demeaning initiation rituals. It definitely seems to be the case that difficult initiation rituals bind you to a community or group.

    As mentioned by others in this thread though, the significant difference is that these are adults voluntarily (though perhaps ill-advisedly) opting into a group, rather than being compelled to do so without their consent.

  • jerry lynch

    Curious. I just recently came to the conclusion that the basic appeal of religion has to do with sadism far more than anything else. It is the primitive need to punish, which we can take as “herd-survival.” It is not so much that all the rest is dross but that all the rest, er, rests on punishment. The overriding character of intelligent creatures, in terms of evolution, is reduced to an eye for an eye.

    Anger, blame, complaint, and resentment are our most common and lasting states of being. Why?

    If we are at our root just “fancy animals,” nothing else can explain this prolific and sustaining attitude of aggression. These characteristics are on a hunt. Their intention is to expel from the pack the “lesser.” From anyone’s life experience, we know this is an inefficient demonstration of genetics…and civility.


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