Christopher Hitchens has famously been wrong about a lot of things. Graves in Iraq and a scathing Tina Fey review tell us as much. And with the publication of a large-scale study into circumcision in March this year, he was again shown to have picked the wrong side.
Hitchens rarely equivocates. In 2009, in what is now regarded as part of the ‘Hitchslap’ canon, he bullied Rabbi Harold Kushner on the subject of male circumcision. He first likened it to genital mutilation. Then, reaching rhetorical heights, he stated that circumcision, “a disgusting and wicked thing”, is “designed to repress sexual pleasure,” and “can be life threatening”.
In March, the Open Journal of Preventative Medicine published a review of current international evidence on the subject, concluding that the benefits outweighed risks by a factor of 100 to 1.
Male circumcision has been shown to reduce a person’s risk of contracting a plethora of diseases, including HIV, HPV, syphilis, kidney infections, and penile cancer. The process that Hitchens thinks is evil is, according to Sydney Medical School’s Professor Brian Morris who led the review, “about as effective and safe as childhood vaccination”.
These are not groundbreaking conclusions. In 2007, the same year Hitchens published his atheist manifesto God is not Great, peer-reviewed papers had already drawn links between circumcision and reduced risk of disease.
As for the impact of male circumcision on sexual pleasure, Morris explains, “The scientific evidence shows no adverse effects on sexual function, sensitivity, satisfaction or sensation – if anything the opposite.”
It’s startling that Hitchens, a hero of atheists everywhere and life-long advocate for scientific inquiry, could be so unequivocally wrong. It’s saddening that his beliefs (and they are no more than beliefs) about circumcision appear to be informed not by fact and reason but by hate.
The clue is in the subtitle of God is not Great:How religion poisons everything. The thesis is simple: religion has been responsible for evil; therefore anything associated with religion, including circumcision, is evil.
But in choosing to prefer his faith in the universally corrupting nature of religion over the results of empirical investigation, Hitchens does himself and the anti-theist movement he helped build a disservice. He allows belief to warp and dictate his understanding of the world; he becomes the very thing that he wishes to denounce.
His ruminations on circumcision are emblematic of a broader problem that permeates aspects of modern atheism: the movement’s distrust of all things religious has engendered within it a culture of obstinacy that is, in essence, anti-intellectual. When atheists draw baseless conclusions about practices and defend them despite scientific opposition they withdraw into a myopic world of stubborn preconceptions and false preachings, a world that they claim is solely inhabited by religious zealots.
At its core, modern atheism is underpinned by a spirit of inquiry and a firm trust in evidence and observation. These values are good, and they should not fade into the periphery the instant the spectre of religion rears its head.
In God is not Great, Hitchens describes the rational foundations of his atheism: “We distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and pursuit of ideas for their own sake.”
Perhaps if Hitchens had been open-minded in 2009 when speaking to Harold Kushner, he wouldn’t now look like such a dick.