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.