Tolerance and Taboos: Why Circumcision Is Not a Crime

A commentary by Matthias Matussek

A German court's outlawing of the circumcision of boys -- and the vociferous support it has received in the self-proclaimed enlightened media -- confirms a tendency that has seen religion-bashing and intolerance become the new cool. Respect, though, rather than supposed "common sense," is the true basis for social progress.

"It is this fundamental respect for foreign customs that we are increasingly losing." Zoom
DPA

"It is this fundamental respect for foreign customs that we are increasingly losing."

By now, it's an embarrassment to almost everyone in Germany that, in the grounds for one of its decisions, a regional court in Cologne almost off-handedly declared circumcision -- a religious tradition dating back thousands of years -- to be illegal. But the incident confirms a tendency toward rampant anti-religious prejudice and growing intolerance toward believers.

To be sure, the German government is rushing to re-establish peace under the law with new legislation, hoping to prevent Germany from becoming what Chancellor Angela Merkel called "a laughingstock." But elsewhere in the world, people are shaking their heads over the fact that it's the Germans, once again, who -- as Rabbi Pinchas Goldschidt, the president of the Conference of European Rabbis, said -- are trying to make it impossible for Jews to remain in their country.

Likewise, in a piece in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, philosopher Robert Spaemann justifiably expressed his surprise over the sudden realization that circumcision is a horrible crime against children, one that had elicited little concern over the years from the now-vocal advocates of a ban.

Now they are getting down to business and raising the volume, as if to make up for lost ground. The sharpness of the attacks is only surpassed by the absurdity of the justifications. A procedure that is hardly more painful than a vaccination -- something for which parents also don't consult their child in advance -- is now being expanded and revamped to form a strategy of cultural anthropology.

Ralf Bönt, a commentator in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, writes that, when a boy is circumcised, he is being shaped into a "soldierly man," someone who is "smooth as stainless steel" and as "ready for liftoff as a rocket." I've tried to discover the soldierly aspects in the Adagietto of Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony and the stainless steel in Heinrich Heine's "The Lorelei," both works by circumcised men, but I must admit that I have not succeeded (although Heine would certainly have had a lot of fun with the notion of a rocket ready for liftoff, if he had known what a rocket is). But perhaps I'm already completely desensitized to being a soldier in bed or elsewhere because I'm part of the roughly one-third of men around the world who perceive circumcision as an enrichment.

Bönt, convinced that "common sense" is on his side, suspects that "sex is painful and orgasms are complicated" for the circumcised. Common sense? Common sense looks completely different to someone who is Jewish or Muslim, Russian, Chinese or Indian. But, in our country, it's so closely intertwined with "sound popular judgment" -- a Nazi term -- that it gives me goose bumps.

Just to be clear: No, Ralf Bönt, orgasms are not complicated for the circumcised, and nothing hurts. And the comparison to circumcision of the clitoris in young girls is ludicrous. Circumcision deprives girls of much of their ability to experience sexual pleasure, but not boys. In fact, dare I say that the opposite is true? The fact that matadors of reason like Bönt plunge into speculation about common sense in their diatribes shows just what a low point our once-vaunted sex education has reached.

Indeed, many prejudices tend to have some element of supposedly sound common sense. The Muslim author Navid Kermani detects a vulgar rationalism in arguments like Bönt's, one that has lost the sense of the sacred (and 85 percent of the world's population is religious in one way or another).

But this sacred zone actually exists in every human being. It is the same zone in which wonder and love and miracles exist, as do art and the spirit -- in other words, everything that goes beyond the biological functions of human beings. It's an intimate and even the most vulnerable area, and it's certainly one that everyone would like to see protected and respected.

But that is precisely what aggravates a secularized environment, one that responds with growing and more aggressive intolerance to the things that are sacred to people. A commentator with the Berliner Kurier newspaper even sees the Jewish commandment of circumcision as "an absurd and perverse concept of God, one that arose in the theology of the Old Testament to ensure the ethnic uniformity of the Jews." Did Edith Stein, the Jewish girl who became a philosopher and Catholic nun before dying in a gas chamber at Auschwitz for her faith, know this?

When Disrespect Becomes Fashionable

A few weeks ago, Martin Mosebach, the writer and recipient of the Georg Büchner Prize, wrote a critique of religion-bashing in the Frankfurter Rundschau. His now notorious thoughts on blasphemy are nothing but one big indictment. He wrote about "blasphemy as a casual attitude or calculated game" -- which every theatergoer or visitor of an art opening has already experienced -- and was stridently disparaged for his trouble. There is hardly anything more provocative than to question our reasonable society's right to blasphemy. All of a sudden, reason no longer recognizes pleasure. The columnist Sibylle Berg ridiculed Mosebach, calling him a dim-witted "holy warrior in a tweed jacket," a "mentor of wannabe young noblemen" and, more generally, a second-rate author incapable of holding a pen.

Only one person came to his defense, fellow writer Navid Kermani. First, he pointed out how much more cautious and respectful the worldly Mosebach is toward foreign cultures and religions than all of his vociferous critics. But even Kermani was put off when Mosebach wrote that Muslims were "scaring the hell out of" blasphemous artists. Mosebach argued that only the fear of punishment could lead to reverent and decent behavior.

Now the German satire magazine Titanic has depicted an incontinent pope on the cover of its latest issue. The magazine has also depicted Jesus in various functions, including one in which he resembles a toilet paper dispenser. The headline reads: "Does Jesus still play a role?" The satirists at Titanic haven't dared to show the Prophet Muhammad as a roll of toilet paper yet, but it's easy to imagine what would happen if they did.

Meanwhile, Titanic has announced plans for a new cover story about the pope. It will continue to push the envelope on the pope because it knows that Germany -- despite the fact that it still has a large number of registered church members -- hasn't been a Christian country in a long time. Today, the fathers of the German constitution would no longer come together "before God and the people." But we are quick to overlook the fact that our secular nation, according to the famous adage by former Federal Constitutional Court Judge Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, "depends on conditions that it cannot in fact guarantee."

The notion that there is such a thing as human dignity and that it is sacrosanct is not put to a vote (nor is it subject to the dictates of common sense). This principle means that we are more than biology, more than a pool of human beings that can be cultivated, nourished and circumcised. Each of us has a soul. It is this aspect of transparency that protects us from allowing ourselves to be turned into biological procreation machines, to be fitted into the master plan of every arbitrary regime of terror.

In the name of reason alone (and common sense), there is no love, no beauty and perhaps even no God. For that, the heart must be open. In any case, there are no elementary logical conclusions to explain why Van Gogh turned the sky above a wheat field into a cosmic wonder.

When the Dalai Lama visited Cologne's cathedral, he insisted on attending a Mass, which he witnessed with his unique, deep respect for foreign customs. He was mesmerized by the things that are sacred to others. It is this fundamental respect that we are increasingly losing. But isn't it self-evident that anyone who walks into a mosque should remove his shoes, and that he should respect the fact that men and women attend the religious service separately -- as is the case in Orthodox synagogues -- no matter what the equal rights officer who currently considers herself to be an authority on the matter thinks?

A Genuine Step Forward

The level to which the debate between the secular world and religion has sunk becomes all the more apparent when we look back at the year 2004, when theologian Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) and philosopher Jürgen Habermas discussed the "Dialectics of Secularization" with great mutual respect. At the time, Habermas warned that "the secular consciousness, too, pays its price for the privilege of the freedom not to be religious" because of the enormous risks of uninhibited reason, the plumber's access to Creation.

Habermas, who described himself as "unmusical" in religious matters, said that secular society has to learn not to immediately deny religion its substance. "Naturalistic worldviews," he wrote, "by no means enjoy prima facie priority over competing worldviews or religious outlooks."

This is how some people react to this admonition today: "Besides, there are already enough oafish people who don't even perceive a desire for freedom without constantly new restrictions." In this way author Ralf Bönt, with his appeal for freedom, tramples through syntax and logic without having someone like Sibylle Berg deny that he can write. But, of course, they also happen to share the same stance, which must be sufficient.

The anti-religious rhetoric is no longer restricted to newspaper columns. The Protestant theologian Petra Bahr recently witnessed the following scene in front of Cologne's cathedral. A group of Spanish tourists was on its way to the noon devotion with organ music when a young man in a red T-shirt stepped in front of them and shouted: "Get out of the Church."

The Spaniards were stunned. The slogan on the man's T-shirt read, in lettering resembling the Coca-Cola logo: "God is dead." As the group walked away, the man shouted after them: "The Church is a compulsory institution," which surprised the Spaniards even more, since they hadn't perceived their action as attending a mandatory event. Perhaps our Coca-Cola agitator also felt a little compulsive himself.

What if we were to say to him: Have a little respect for people with religious beliefs and be tolerant?

We have eliminated almost all taboos in our society, and we tout this as a sign of great progress. But we need taboos. Child pornography is one of them, and denying the Holocaust is another. Both are punishable offences. Since Freud, we have known how much humor draws on the violation of taboos. Jewish humor would be inconceivable without the sly or hilarious settling of accounts with the Almighty. Oddly enough, though, it is not blasphemous and never derisive.

What if we rejected blasphemy -- that is, the foolish disparagement of God and faith -- out of inner conviction and respect for others?

This would be a genuine step forward.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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