Religion and circumcision

In response to my two earlier posts where I condemned the practice of circumcision (see here and here), commenter TGAP Dad took issue with my response to a comment in the second post in which I said that “The only reason people do it is because parents want to indelibly mark their religious beliefs on the child”, pointing out that in his own experience growing up in an almost exclusively Christian community, circumcision was still routinely practiced, disproving my statement since Christianity does not require the practice as a religious identifier.

I agree with TGAP Dad that my use of the word ‘only’ was too strong, especially for the US, and should have used the word ‘largely’. I had overlooked the fact that universal generalizations about human behavior are almost always wrong. I was also guilty of extrapolating too much from my own experience because in my own country of origin Sri Lanka, for example, the only people who were circumcised were the Muslims, who constitute just about 6% of the population.

But just like I was in error from too sweeping a generalization, we should not extrapolate too much from US data either. If we look at this map from the WHO of rates of male circumcision globally, we see a strong correlation of circumcision with countries in which Islam is the dominant religion, such as the Middle East, Africa, and a few Asian countries, which is not surprising since Islam and Judaism explicitly require it.

The only regions where circumcision rates do not correspond to sizable Muslim or Jewish populations is in the US, Canada, Australia, a few small countries in southern Europe, and South Korea. As the WHO report states, “Examination of the prevalence of male circumcision shows that the major determinant of circumcision globally is religion, but that significant numbers of males are circumcised for cultural reasons.”

I became curious as to how these cultural reasons arose in these few countries and came across this article on the history of circumcision from the Circumcision Information and Resource Pages, a clearinghouse of circumcision information. It says that circumcision became widespread in the 19th century in England and the US because of the belief that it prevented masturbation. So the origin of even the cultural practice among some Christians is likely rooted in Christian puritanical beliefs about the evils of masturbation. The South Korean anomaly is explained by US influence. “South Koreans started to circumcise children during the American trusteeship following World War II. The American cultural practice of circumcision became nearly universal in South Korea after the Korean War of 1950-52.”

But over time the masturbation rationale has also been discredited as scientific evidence mounted that the practice provides no benefits. The article goes on to say:

In 1949, Gairdner wrote that circumcision was medically unnecessary and non-beneficial, and contraindicated because of complications and deaths. The British National Health Service (NHS) deleted non-therapeutic neonatal circumcision from the schedule of covered procedures in 1950. The incidence of neonatal circumcision in the United Kingdom declined sharply to a very low level after publication of this article after the procedure was delisted by the NHS.

America waited another 20 years before addressing the problem of non-therapeutic circumcision. The Journal of the American Medical Association published an influential landmark article by Dr. E. Noel Preston, Captain, MC, USAF. Dr. Preston established that there is no therapeutic or prophylactic benefit to circumcision. He also cited “undesirable psychologic, sexual, and medico-legal difficulties.”

Influenced by Preston, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in 1971, issued a statement that “[t]here are no valid medical indications for circumcision in the neonatal period.” This marked the beginning of the end of America’s infatuation with male circumcision. The incidence of male neonatal circumcision in the U.S. peaked in 1971 and began a slow decline that continues to the present day.

Religions in the their early stages tend to try and find ways to separate their members from the rest by means of diets, observances, dress, and in the more extreme cases, bodily mutilations like circumcision. It is quite likely that early Jews saw circumcision as an important way of distinguishing themselves from those around them. Interestingly, Christians in the first century, when they were the new religion on the block, strongly discouraged the practice, presumably to distinguish themselves from Jews.

As with many practices that originate in religion but which people are unwilling to relinquish even when the religious justification goes away, over time other reasons, such as alleged health benefits, are layered on to justify them, and they become seen as ‘cultural’.

But as with nearly all things that lack any real justification, the practice seems to be declining and that is a good thing.


  1. says

    It says that circumcision became widespread in the 19th century in England and the US because of the belief that it prevented masturbation. So the origin of even the cultural practice among some Christians is likely rooted in Christian puritanical beliefs about the evils of masturbation.

    I don’t think that was an idea that was new with the christians. Maimonedes (1135-1204):
    The bodily pain caused to that member is the real purpose of circumcision. None of the activities necessary for the preservation of the individual is harmed thereby, nor is procreation rendered impossible, but violent concupiscence and lust that goes beyond what is needed are diminished. The fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasure is indubitable. For if at birth this member has been made to bleed and has had its covering taken away from it, it must indubitably be weakened. The Sages, may their memory be blessed, have explicitly stated: It is hard for a woman with whom an uncircumcised man has had sexual intercourse to separate from him. In my opinion this is the strongest of the reasons for circumcision.

    “violent concupiscence and lust” oh my!

  2. slc1 says

    At one time, the practice was performed routinely in many places in the United States. For instance, there was a book written by an author who identified himself as Doctor X which was based on his experiences as an intern in a Seattle hospital, entitled Intern. In one of his surgical rotations, he offhandedly mentions that, as an intern, he performed circumcisions routinely. Clearly, at least in this hospital, the practice had nothing to do with religion.

    It was estimated that, at one time, some 90% of Americans males were circumcised. As I understand it, the percentage has now fallen off to some 50%.

    It appears that resistance to routinely performing the procedure is rising among Jews in Israel.

  3. says

    I don’t think that was an idea that was new with the christians. Maimonedes (1135-1204):

    New as in they knew of it or new as in they routinely practiced it? Because you are quoting a famous Jewish physician who is not explicitly mentioning Christians (unless he mentions them in some other part of the text you did not quote) so I’m not sure what the relevance would be to Christians practicing it.

  4. says

    The only other regions where circumcision rates do not correspond to sizable Muslim or Jewish populations is in the US, Canada, Australia, a few small countries in southern Europe, and South Korea.

    I suspect that in South Africa (and probably many other African countries) probably also belong on that list. In many African cultures, circumcision is considered an important part of the rite of passage into manhood.

  5. Alasdair says

    I’ve always thought that the original reasons for circumcision were not so much for religious identification as for hygiene: if you’re living in a sandy desert without widespread supplies of water, circumcision might make sense to make it easier to keep clean. But even if that was once the case, it no longer applies, at least for anyone living in modern Western countries. It seems after the original purpose had become obsolete, people invented new ones to justify continuing the practice…

  6. says

    I thought you meant circumcision as as the idea rather than circumcision as an anti-lust strategy as the idea. Got it!

    Yeah, I think that’s a great example of what Mano was talking about regarding alleged health benefits getting layered on top of the religious mandate to reinforce it. In other words, not only does God want us to do this, it’s also good for us.

  7. anat says

    Well, Judaism forbids sexual relations from the beginning of a woman’s period until 7 days after bleeding ends. I suppose he considered it a bad thing if a woman’s lust got in the way of the purity of her family.

  8. anat says

    I doubt it. Leviticus is very big on washing.

    Anyway, before Hellenic times circumcision as practiced by Jews was a more minor procedure. When some Jews acquired Hellenic culture they started reversing their circumcisions by tugging on the remaining part of the foreskin in order to pass as Hellenic citizens. At that time the procedure was changed into the complete removal of the foreskin.

  9. anat says

    The only regions where circumcision rates do not correspond to sizable Muslim or Jewish populations is in the US, Canada, Australia, a few small countries in southern Europe, and South Korea.

    The southern European region includes Bosnia, which has a high Muslim population.

  10. Henry Gale says

    I was circumcised in 1969 in the states and neither of my parents were religious. The Wikipedia article on circumcision reports that around the year of my birth rates were between 77% and 91%.

    Clearly those are too high for religion to be the motivation. My mom said it was common practice because of hygiene issues like Alasdair mentioned.

    That said, I kind of agree with how Elaine on Seinfeld feels:

  11. bbgunn says

    I once mused that the whole the religious aspect of circumcision came from some one-off Bronze age remark that was translated incorrectly: “For the love of god, they did what to your penis?”

  12. says

    Actually a LOT of the christians Ive talked to about it think its the christian thing to do to have their boys circumcised. Guess they somehow skipped over the parts of the new testament talking about how it is no longer required…

  13. slc1 says

    I don’t know about Australia but it is my information that the circumcision rate in Canada is much lower then in the United States and has been for several decades.

  14. says

    Clearly those are too high for religion to be the motivation.

    I assume by that you mean the motivation that parents comprehended?

    Religion would be the underlying motivation if the alleged health benefits were lies that originated in religious practices (I would include religious fear of masturbation in that category)

  15. TGAP Dad says

    It still seems to me a murky question for an expectant parent (of a boy): to circumcise or not.

    On the one hand, there is only a very small risk of the procedure itself, and no real long-term drawbacks.
    On the other, the seems to be no real reason TO do it.

    It all comes down to whether or not it reduces the risk of STD transmission once he becomes sexually active. I Mano’s earlier post, some serious flaws were pointed out in two studies, but neither of these addressed the plausibility of the issue at hand: is it possible that circumcision reduces the risk of STD (notably HIV) transmission? Are there any well-designed studies addressing this very important question?

    Apparently WHO and UNAIDS are not relying on these two studies (or decided to ignore their flaws) or have concurring data as they are continuing to promote circumcision in an effort to slow its progress. (And yeah, I know WHO also thinks cell phones may cause brain cancer. Don’t get me started…)

    To an expectant parent, this is a weighty issue as it has a far better recovery profile when done in infancy as opposed to adulthood. What is a trivial procedure in infancy with a week-long recovery is more disruptive as an adult; much more painful and with a 1 – 2 month recovery.

  16. slc1 says

    As I understand it, the Christian scriptures only say that the procedure is no longer a religious requirement, not that it is prohibited or to be discouraged.

    Relative to that, it should be pointed out that Yeshua of Nazareth underwent the procedure on Jan. 1, assuming that he was actually born on Dec. 25, neither assumption having any evidence to support it (according to Stephen J. Gould, Dec. 25 was arbitrarily chosen as his birth date so that the procedure would have occurred on the start of the new year, namely Jan. 1, which would be on the 8th day following the birth). Of course, this ukase was made according to the Julian Calender and was retained when most of the world went over to the Gregorian calender, indicating the lack of historicity.

  17. IB says

    And Albania, where the same applies. In fact looking at the map it looks like all the Ex-Yugo states + Albania are the ones that are darker, bar Croatia which actualy looks grey.

    The Phipinnes is presumably the same as S Korea?

  18. smrnda says

    I thought circumcision became popular in the US because of quack doctors eager to make a quick buck, or the belief that it would discourage masturbation, which was said to lead to blindness or insanity. I thought doctor Kellogg who thought that bland cereals would reduce masturbation was one of these quacks.

  19. Mano Singham says

    That is like to be a major factor. But the Philippines also has about 5-10% Muslim population concentrated in certain regions so that has to be taken into account.

  20. sailor1031 says

    Well, since the family was out of town in Bethlehem when the birth occurred I believe they had a few extra days grace to scedule the cutting – maybe why the feast of the circumcision is on Jan. 6th. That’s if you really wanted to try to make sense out of this ridiculous story…..

  21. says

    Elaine is a fictional character, her words almost certainly written by circumcised men, and she’s quite wrong. It is the intact penis that has more character. It’s a TRANSFORMER!

  22. says

    With stone tools and no asepsis, circumcision would have killed far more than it ever protected from anything. 20 youths died from tribal circumcision in Eastern Cape province, South Africa, alone last month.

  23. says

    Even the majority Catholics of the Philippines have it done in late childhood as a rite of passage (despite the many Catholic strictures against it). Some claim it is neccessary to grow tall (the do it just before the growth spurt). There have been some strange body modificaitions in the Philippines, but apparently this one was introduced with an early Muslim occupation.

  24. says

    It is only “a murky question” because a murky question is more likely to get a “yes” answer. The default answer to “Should I have a normal, healthy, functional, non-renewing part of my son’s genitals cut off?” is No.

    Any reduction in STDs is marginal if it exists at all, and STDs are very much not a problem until adulthood, and then under adult control. Dickson et al. in the Dunedin, NZ cohort study found no significant difference, but it was the earlier, smaller less well balanced Fergusson study in Christchurch, NZ, that found a small difference in a high-risk subsample that got world headlins that continue to reverberate.

    Australia and New Zealand have done the experiment, circumcising nearly all boys in the 1950s, hardly any in New Zealand and a small minority in Australia today. A generation has grown up looking unlike their fathers and with NO outbreaks of any of the diseases it was supposed to be good against.

    Basically the WHO has been hijacked by circumcisionn enthusiasts.

    “…it has a far better recovery profile when done in infancy as opposed to adulthood.” This is just not true; a man can monitor his own pain relief and check for any signs of infection or bleeding, and because a baby’s penis is so tiny compared to a man’s, any small mistake on it is magnified in adulthood.

  25. kylemilner says

    With the advances nowadays in tissue engineering, circumcision should no longer be an irreversible procedure. There are organizations like which are trying to use techniques of regenerative medicine to restore a natural foreskin to those who were circumcised against their will.

    When all men have the choice to restore themselves to a natural, intact state, I believe a lot of the superstition and clouded thinking regarding circumcision will fall away.

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