Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Problems of Indoctrination

Giles Fraser says something in this Guardian article defending male circumcision that illustrates how careful we should be when teaching and bringing up our children. Fraser, being half-Jewish through his father, was circumcised as a child and sees this as an element of his identity, so he can see why Jews would object to a ban on circumcision, it being a crucial element of their identity (he describes circumcision as a 'statement of identity'). And it would be irony of ironies if that denial of Jewish identity were to start in Germany, of all places (slight risk of Godwin-ing there), where a judge has outlawed the practice.

With that in mind he writes:
Circumcision marked me out as belonging. Years later, when my wife objected to the circumcision of our new son on the grounds that it was cruel and unnecessary, I reluctantly gave way. Intellectually, I knew that there was little left of "being Jewish" to protect. After all, my wife was not Jewish and I had become a Christian priest. Halachically, it made no sense.
For all of this, I still find it difficult that my son is not circumcised.
There's quite a lot to unpack here. I think he's observing how the physical evidence of the circumcision reinforces his 'belonging' to the Jewish community, even though he's now a Christian. He doesn't want to deny his son that sense of belonging, that connection with his ancestors, by denying him that 'mark'.

The odd thing is that his accession to his wife, reluctant though it was, is an admission that circumcision is cruel and unnecessary. So we can parse out his final sentence above to:
For all of this, I still find it difficult that my son is not treated cruelly and unnecessarily.
Or perhaps, less charitably, we remove the double negative:
For all of this, I still find it easy that my son is treated cruelly and unnecessarily.
He, like most of us, has been exposed to an environment where these things are not only treated normally but are actually venerated because they are the baggage of religion. The insidious effect of this upbringing is to normalise a harmful practice, and to propagate it. Male circumcision is comparatively mild compared to some practices in which humans have indulged, but we can see this effect can be even more harmful.

The other odd thing, mentioned in the judgement of the German court, is the effect of this 'branding', which is that 'people other than the child were determining its religious affiliation'. Now, plainly Fraser doesn't see this as so much of an imposition; and maybe he would point to himself as an example of how such a ritual does not lead ineluctably to determine one's religious affiliation. But just because it is not ineluctable does not mean it doesn't alter one's tendencies, and his difficulty in rejecting a cruel and unnecessary practice highlights that tendency. It is an infringement on another's free will, a coercion, and as such should be resisted by any religious person who takes free will seriously. He even acknowledges this somewhat:
Faith is about being a part of something wider than oneself. We are not born as mini rational agents in waiting, not fully formed as moral beings until we have the ability to think and choose for ourselves. We are born into a network of relationships that provide us with a cultural background against which things come to make sense. "We" comes before "I". We constitutes our horizon of significance.
Well, of course; but what, then, of free will?

The eagerness with which Churches seek to indoctrinate shows their hypocrisy; they pragmatically refute their championing of free will when they teach children their dogma. None of us are causa sui, and church men know this as well as anyone.

So, I'm not for ignoring religious teachings - that would be impractical and illiberal. But an honest education of children would involve an appraisal of all religious teachings in comparative studies, not a proselytising advocacy of one such teaching. I will begin to respect the Churches more when they eschew any opportunity to inculcate their doctrines into minors, and allow their ideas to thrive or fail in the adult marketplace of ideas.


  • AllanW says:
    23 July 2012 at 06:32

    Extremely sound and careful parsing of Fraser's article, Mark, thank you. I enjoyed it immensely because it was so tactfully and comprehensively assembled; bravo!

  • Mark Jones says:
    24 July 2012 at 02:07

    Thanks Allan. Fraser followed this up with a rather indignant piece attacking classical liberalism. He says he's a communitarian, not a liberal, but of course one can be a social liberal and share some of the values that he holds. The thing he doesn't like, I think, is now more commonly called libertarianism.

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