I wish to say something of Tim Asimakis’ article on Christopher Hitchens which appeared in print last week. As I understand it, the gist of this article was that Hitchens once condemned male circumcision as a medical practice, a criticism contrary to academic findings on the benefits of that practice. According to Tim, the conclusion is that Hitchens criticises male circumcision merely because religious people advocate for it, which is anti-intellectual reactionism rather than a reasoned inquiry.
The nub of the issue, however, is that religious arguments for male circumcision have not traditionally been couched in the positive utilitarian terms mentioned by Tim. Rather, male circumcision has been performed as a matter of religious deontology. It is justified because of ritual or customary importance, for instance, as a condition precedent to ‘manhood’. It may also be justified as a potential suppressant of emotions or drives that are considered ‘bad’. Such assertions cannot be supported on a purely rational basis. They can only be supported if one is willing to accede to the frame of reference of the religion which undertakes the practice.
Hitchens’ scientific view of male circumcision may be misguided. However, to the extent that he is critical of the arguments referred to above, he is entirely correct. For they may be applied to a large variety of activities regardless of their medical benefit. One example of this, referred to by Hitchens, is female genital mutilation, a practice so invasive that it could not possibly be defended on grounds of religious freedom or cultural relativism. Part of Hitchens’ argument is that defence of certain practices on religious grounds obscures an important discussion of their ethicality (is consent important?) and utility. This is hardly ‘anti-intellectual’.
In deriding Hitchens as a dick, Tim misses the far greater issue that a pluralist society incorporating a multitude of religions must be prepared to look beyond assertions that ‘Activity X is OK because my religion thinks so’. It must rather scrutinise the activity and its consequences. Hitchens’ focus is right, even if his medical analysis is possibly wrong.