Sunday, July 08, 2012

Circumcision and the state

Some Christian anticircumcisionists use the following argument to justify banning male neonatal circumcision: according to the NT (e.g. Acts 15, Galatians), circumcision was a rite of the passé old covenant. Christians aren’t obligated to practice circumcision. That’s defunct. Hence, the state has the authority to ban circumcision.

The underlying principle of this argument is that gov’t has the authority to proscribe whatever the Bible does not (currently) prescribe. But there are several problems with that argument:

i) It’s a recipe for totalitarian gov’t. Whenever you empower the state, you disempower the public. You are transferring power from the public to the state–power which the state will frequently use against the public. So that's not something to be done lightly.

Do we really wish to cede to gov’t the authority to forbid whatever the Bible doesn’t command?

For instance, although the Bible encourages Christians to have children, the Bible doesn’t specify how many children a Christian couple ought to have. Does this mean the state has the right to dictate the number of children Christians are allowed to have?

The Bible doesn’t say Christians should have four children. Does this mean the state can regulate the number of children Christian couples can have? Does the state have the authority to forbid a Christian couple from having four kids?

ii) The argument is also fallacious.

a) As a rule, if something is obligatory, then it’s permissible–at least in principle. That’s an a fortiori argument from the greater to the lesser (a maiore ad minus).

God would not command something that’s intrinsically evil. But before something can be morally obligatory, it must be morally permissible.

b) If God used to command something, then even if that’s no longer an obligation, the fact that it ceases to be obligatory doesn’t make it prohibitory. So even if circumcision is no longer a religious duty, it doesn’t follow that circumcision is now forbidden. Rather, it would be adiaphoral.

c) Of course, it’s possible for some things to be permissible under special circumstances, but impermissible under general circumstances. Yet that requires a separate argument. That’s not a given. 

iii) In addition, it is sometimes better for the state to allow evil than suppress evil if the effort to suppress evil would cause greater evil.

For instance, it’s evil for a man to gamble away his paycheck, so that he can’t provide for his dependants. Should the state therefore suppress that evil by outlawing casinos and online gambling? But there are two problems with that solution:

a) It drives gambling underground. Creates an unregulated, black market. And that can be worse than legalized gambling.

b) It would take a police state apparatus to enforce a blanket ban on commercial gambling. And that would create its own evils. Expansive, intrusive gov’t. Abuse of power. 

In theory a police state might seem to be more virtuous because it cracks down on all manner of vice. In practice, a police state is more corrupt because those in power use their unchecked power for personal aggrandizement. The state because a massive, official shakedown operation.

iv) Apropos (iii), let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Jewish circumcision is morally wrong. That, of itself, is not sufficient reason to outlaw the practice–for we need to weigh the (alleged) evil of the practice over against the attended evils of enforcing a law against it.

That’s an a fortiori argument from the lesser to the greater (a minore ad maius). Does suppressing a lesser evil have the side effect of generating an even greater evil?

To take a concrete example, the Mosaic law had a complex position on prostitution. Cultic prostitution was forbidden. Likewise, male and female Israelites were forbidden to be prostitutes (on pain of death!).

However, foreign nationals were allowed to practice prostitution (except cultic prostitution). The Mosaic law did not condone the practice. But the Mosaic law distinguished between sins and crimes. Not every sin was a crime. Not every sin fell within the jurisdiction of the state.

That’s why Proverbs uses prudential arguments rather than judicial arguments against prostitution.

v) This, in turn, goes to the question of religious tolerance. How permissive should the state be in reference to false religion?

Take folk Buddhism. That’s a false religion.  Should a Christian state outlaw the practice of folk Buddhism?

But even the Mosaic law made provision for resident foreign nationals. These were not Jewish believers. They were normally pagan. As long as they practiced their pagan faith in private, that was tolerated. What was not tolerated is if they attempted to subvert and supplant the true religion.

So let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that rabbinical Judaism is a false religion. That wouldn’t automatically mean it ought to be outlawed. 

And, of course, rabbinical Judaism isn’t false in the same degree as folk Buddhism.


  1. Its all very well to advocate a libertarian position in minimizing what the state ought to be able to regulate, but if mutilation of children is something you think the state has no business regulating, then your position is nearly indistinguishable from anarchy. Why would the state regulate, oh say rape and assault, and then say it has no business regulating mutilating children? That wouldn't be consistent.

  2. So you think the divinely sanctioned rite of circumcision is morally equivalent to rape. Nice to see the Eastern Orthodox view of Scripture.

  3. Sanctioned in what circumstance? In the OT. The OT also sanctioned stoning people to death. You still advocating that? Or haven't you moved beyond the Jewish theocracy?

    1. I already distinguished between what's prescribed and what's permissible. Once again, try to keep up with the actual state of the argument.

    2. Yes, so stoning people to death is "permissible" in the world you advocate?

      And if circumcision is merely "permissible" and not proscribed, you should have no problem with it being banned.

    3. Another example of your chronic inability to reason. Why should something that's morally and theologically permissible be banned? It's not wrong. It's permissible in contrast to what's proscribable. Try to master elementary concepts.

    4. Just because something isn't black and white "wrong" doesn't mean that society shouldn't ban something. It's not flat out "wrong" for 13 year old girls to get married and start a family. Bu society says that isn't very wise, and bans it.

    5. If it's permissible, then there's no presumption that it ought to be banned. It's not the duty of gov't to micromanage the lives of the citizenry.

    6. How ironic. You couldn't even be a member of society in ancient Israel unless you were circumcised. Apparently you are OK with the government micromanaging the citizenry as long as they enforce circumcision, but not if they deny it!

  4. I might also add, that you're playing inconsistent positions. On one hand you are advocating the secular state which should ignore religious considerations and let people do what they want. On the other hand you say the state should allow circumcision because it is "divinely inspired". Unfortunately your whole position requires you to flip flop between mutually inconsistent positions. When pointing out that the state has no reason to not ban the mutilation of children, you have to fall back on the "divinely inspired" argument. When you counter that with Christian theology, you retreat back to the position that it doesn't matter because the state should keep out of theology.

  5. Anticircumcisionists raise more than one type of objection to circumcision. I offer different counterarguments to different arguments. I respond to them on different grounds, depending on the nature of the objection. Try not to be so simplistic.

  6. If your grounds can't be reconciled into a cohesive whole, then it can't stand. Either you favor the secular state, in which case your religious arguments fail. Or you favour the Christian state and your secular arguments fail.

  7. Answering a disputant on his own grounds doesn't require me to share his assumptions. You need to acquire some basic reasoning skills.

  8. Sure, but you don't any fixed grounds. You advocate the secular state when you need it to support your stool. When it starts to topple, you switch stools to the one supported by the Christian state. When it topples you quickly jump back again.

  9. It's not a question of what I need to support. Rather, it's a question of what the disputant needs for his argument to go through. Don't waste my time with your persistent confusion.

  10. The plain fact remains that circumcision as a religious rite, being part of the ceremonil law, has been abrogated since the time of Christ. You may argue that the German law is repulsive from a theological-libertarian standpoint, which I agree, but not from the legitimacy of a false religion, i.e., rabbinic Judaism.

    1. Rabbinic Judaism is not a "false religion." Rabbinic Judaism has some elements of falsehood along with many revealed truths.

      1C Pharisaism contained some falsehoods. Yet when Paul became a Christian, he didn't start from scratch. Much of his Pharisaical theology carried directly over into his Christian theolgy. Your objection is a half-truth. And you keep repeating the same half-truths. Do you have no capacity to learn anything? Do you have no capacity to correct your mistakes?

    2. I guess then that there are virtually no false religions because they all contain some truths. Even Satanism has the truth that Satan exists. As is your usual custom, you will seize upon some obscure loophole, or exception to a basically good argument, throw in some adhominem for good measure, and then sit back smugly as if it has value.

    3. I guess "degrees" of truth is too subtle for you. That means something can be more true than false, or more false than true. It doesn't level out all religions. Something can be mainly true or mainly false. It ranges along a continuum. Sorry if you lack the intellectual aptitude to grasp something that elementary.

      For instance, even when Israel backslides, God doesn't equate Judaism with paganism. Judaism is still founded on revealed truth. God preserves a remnant. And God promises to restore his people.

      Yes, that has value. That's hardly an "obscure loophole."

      So that's scarcely equivalent to, say, Islam or Mormonism, which are founded on false prophets, and have no divine promise that they will ever improve.