In my youth, I used to hear people say, when looking upon the abused and destitute of this world: “There but for the grace of god go I.” Which always sounded to me like another way of saying: “There and by the curse of god go they.” The concept of omniscient omnipotence, whether of the all-knowing, all-powerful invisible super-parent or the all-seeing, all-controlling totalitarian state, carries with it the implication of responsibility for all the good and evil that happens on earth — or the utter indifference to both. I always thought that the latter alternative made the most logical sense, given the evidence that I could see. And whenever I heard people say: “God helps those who help themselves,” I immediately understood the message to the working-class: “God says you’re on your own.” So I never thought much about “gods” from about the time I learned to read and think for myself.
For example: my Lutheran mother gave me a bible on December 25, 1959, and encouraged me to read it. Only twelve years old at the time, I never got further than Chapter 17 of the Book of Genesis. I found it incredible that a ninety-nine year old man would “fall down on his face” – twice – before the awful specter of an invisible something-or-other that promised to add a syllable to his name, making him A-bra-ham instead of just A-bram. Not only that, but the awful invisible specter granted the old guy and his descendants eternal title to some land on condition that he slice some skin off the end of his penis and off the penises of his sons (which his ninety-year-old wife would soon present to him), and their male children’s penises, and the penises of all their male slaves, and so on and so forth. I think I counted something like eight or nine references to circumcision just in that one little chapter.
It occurred to me to wonder why the awful invisible specter would create males with foreskins on their penises only to then insist that they slice them off. I asked my mother but she found the whole subject embarrassing. Many years later when I had to visit a military hospital in Vietnam (to have one of my fingers x-rayed for a possible fracture) I passed by the ward where the circumcision and hemorrhoid patients recuperated from their surgeries. Some of the poor guys couldn’t stand up and some of them couldn’t sit down. I thought about that bible that my mother had given me and tried as best I could not to burst out laughing and crying at the same time.
Looking back, I can see now that as a junior high school student, I probably put aside the bible and religion as sources of reliable information about the time my mother gave me another book to read: Language in Action, by S. I. Hayakawa. Mom had gotten the book from a well-educated friend and probably wanted to discuss it with him, but as a working widow who never graduated from high school, mom no doubt wanted to practice on me first. She had a pronounced tendency to do that sort of thing with her oldest son. I sure miss my mom. Anyway, Hayakawa’s book introduced me to Alfred Korzybski, general semantics, and a bibliography of many fine books that I went on to acquire and read throughout the years that followed. I learned to ask: “What do you mean?” and “How do you know?” I also learned that “No word ever means the same thing twice.” In short, I found asking questions more interesting than uncritically accepting “answers” handed down through the generations that to me sounded like utter – and often, barbaric – nonsense.
Which brings me back to the lesson in Free Thinking which I learned from that early bizarre encounter with Theological Circumcision filtered through the viewpoint of general semantics. I wondered: “Does god have a foreskin on his penis?” I posed this philosophical question because I had heard people say that “god made man in his own image,” and therefore, I reasoned, if man has a foreskin on his penis then so does god. But god had commanded a very old man lying face down on the ground to slice the foreskin off his penis. But that would then make the old man something other than the image of god. On the other hand, if god did not have a foreskin on his penis, then he screwed up when he created an old man who did. This led me to suspect that god only commanded the old man to mutilate his own genitalia (and those of subsequent generations of males) as a means of absolving god for getting that “spitting image” creation thing wrong – generation after generation after generation.
At any rate, moving on to the practical political ramifications of Theological Circumcision, it only makes sense for Christian Americans to admit that since Muslims also slice off the foreskins of their male children and trace their ancestry back to the same ninety-nine-year-old man who fell down on his face and got a syllable added to his name for mutilating his own genitalia, then the Muslims have the same title to the land of Palestine as do the Jews or any other males for that matter – including Australian aborigines — who have had the foreskins of their penises circumcised. It says so right there in the Old Testament of the Christian bible. And who can argue with something as authoritative as that?
Michael Murry, a Vietnam Veteran, writer and poet, occupies the Asian Desk for The Contrary Perspective.
10 thoughts on “Theological Circumcision – Foreskins and Free Thinking”
Michael.. You are an incredible Aristotelian in tracking down ‘first causes’. You may have come up with the ultimate logical argument questioning the existence of the Judeo-Christian ‘god’. And just to think, it all lies at the end of a Judeo-Moslem- Aborigianal penis. So where does that leave the Christians? godless or godlike?
I once tried tracking down that whole “fist cause” thing attributed to Aristotle. I found this:
From Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book IV, Part I:
“There is a science which investigates being as being and the attributes which belong to this in virtue of its own nature. Now this is not the same as any of the so-called special sciences; for none of these others treats universally of being as being. They cut off a part of being and investigate the attribute of this part; this is what the mathematical sciences for instance do. Now since we are seeking the first principles and the highest causes, clearly there must be some thing to which these belong in virtue of its own nature. If then those who sought the elements of existing things were seeking these same principles, it is necessary that the elements must be elements of being not by accident but just because it is being. Therefore it is of being as being that we also must grasp the first causes.” [emphasis added]
And, again, from Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book IV, Part I:
“Evidently, again, those who say all things are at rest are not right, nor are those who say all things are in movement.. For if all things are at rest, the same statements will always be true and the same always false, but this obviously changes; for he who makes a statement, himself at one time was not and again will not be. And if all things are in motion, nothing will be true; everything therefore will be false. But it has been shown that this is impossible. Again, it must be that which is that changes; for change is from something to something. But again it is not the case that all things are at rest or in motion sometimes, and nothing for ever; for there is something which always moves the things that are in motion, and the first mover is itself unmoved.” [emphasis added]
About which solipsistic, tail-chasing, tautological reasoning, Betrand Russell simply said: “The conception of an unmoved mover is a difficult one.” Aristotle, of course, did not know of Issac Newton’s laws of motion whereby every action has an equal but opposite reaction. Had he known of this universal truth — not to mention the centuries of utter nonsense that theologians would make of his preliminary investigations — he would probably have revised his comments on “being” to state that non-existent forces do not move people to the same degree that people do not move non-existent forces. Which doesn’t mean that people do not move. They just tend to move in circles.
Or, as Sir Francis Bacon wrote about that Aristotlean “being as being” business:
“No one successfully investigates the nature of a thing in the thing itself; the inquiry must be enlarged, so as to become more general.”
Though the Greeks of antiquity laid the foundations of Science, Aristotle couldn’t “know” that, indeed, everything IS in motion, starting on the atomic scale and moving on up to the very galaxies. In theory, only at Absolute Zero does molecular motion cease. But I believe that is just a theoretical state, not posited to actually exist anywhere. This universal notion of motion is reflected in the Eastern philosophies as the concept that “Everything is subject to change” and in Hegel/Marx that “The only constant in the Universe is the existence of change.” But the French say “Plus ca change, plus la meme chose” (“the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing”)…but what do THEY know [giggle]?? Yet, the statement still acknowledges the existence of change. Though many people are apparently merely going in circles, I can personally testify that human beings ARE (occasionally!) capable of changing for the better. And that, too, is a fundamental principle of Buddhism.
Mike–Thank you for a very entertaining column. When my own father introduced me to atheist literature as I transitioned into my teenage years, Joseph Lewis was of some fame. He was an outspoken opponent of circumcision as a needless mutilation with no health benefits. I believe there is still debate in medical circles about whether such benefits exist. I myself was circumcised at birth; I believe this was simply considered standard practice where I was born (Long Island suburbia) and not related to Jewish MDs dominant on staff at the particular hospital. This assuredly had NOT been requested by my atheist dad and vaguely christian mom. I took advantage of my time as a prisoner in Fort Dix Stockade to read the Old Testament in its entirety–yes, every last “so-and-so begat so-and-so”! I read New Testament a few years later, and later still the Koran. Why? Because 45 years ago (my stay in Dix) obnoxious “christians” were already very active in trying to influence governmental policies on all levels and punching in the “wall of separation between church and state” holes that have only grown bigger with the rise of bible-thumping politicians in this country. (“Nothing new under the sun,” if we recall Father Coughlin, etc., from many decades ago.) I say in all seriousness their success in rendering the “wall” a thin membrane of Swiss cheese is one of the most tragic developments in our nation’s history. At any rate, I felt it desirable to be armed with the facts of what the bible actually says when combatting the “good book”-thumpers, many of whom have read precious little of that tome–only the passages that lend most support to their rightwing ideological stances. As for the Koran, I read that when I learned that Islam is the fastest-growing religion on the planet. Again, valuable knowledge I believe, and I don’t regret having invested the time to do it.
There is no doubt in my mind that theocracy is THE most dangerous, repressive form of government and that any attempt to impose it in this country should be met by armed resistance. Praise freedom of inquiry and pass the ammunition, brother.
I once worked as a director of computer services for a small start-up Buddhist college in Los Angeles. As part of my employment, the school asked me to take some graduate courses in Religious Studies for which I would not have to pay any tuition. I had already spent several years associating with Japanese lay Buddhists so I went along with the program out of curiosity, eventually picking up a master’s degree. I can’t say that I found the subject matter appealing, other than an introductory course in Sanskrit — but I enjoyed interacting with the Buddhist monks from various countries and traditions, especially the Venerable Madewela Punnaji, formerly a medical doctor from Sri Lanka, who defined religion for me as “a public neurosis in which many people share.” As well, I once asked one of my professors how anyone could expect me to read those tedious ancient texts. He just smiled and replied: “You’re not supposed to read them. You’re supposed to worship them.” So I guess I did learn something.
That’s well put, Mike. People think they’re supposed to worship Jesus rather than following His teachings. So they tie themselves in knots (and fight wars) on questions of worship when they should be striving simply to be charitable and compassionate and loving.
I’m probably more sympathetic to Christianity than you and Greg. For me, the basic teachings of Jesus reflect great wisdom. They also challenge you to be a better person. And they urge you to look within for enlightenment (“The kingdom of God is within you”).
There are many noble ideas and teachings in Christianity. It’s too bad they get lost in all the rigmarole about dogma and doctrine and enforcement of rules by church hierarchies.
“There are many noble ideas and teachings in Christianity. It’s too bad they get lost in all the rigmarole about dogma and doctrine and enforcement of rules by church hierarchies.”
Amen to that ! In fact, once you strip away dogma, doctrine and ritual from all major religions – surprise, surprise! – they are ALL based on the same humanist philosophy.
Actually, if we strip away the dogma, doctrines and rituals of the “major” religions, those in the Abrahamic tradition…there’s pretty well NOTHING there! Except for the little matter of patriarchal dominance, i.e. suppression/repression of women. The significance of this cannot be overstated, IMO. I will only add that there is no deed of self-sacrifice for the common good made by someone professing deep religious motivation that has not been duplicated many times over throughout history by atheists. I highly urge anyone reading this who is not familiar with the writings of America’s most eloquent Freethinker, Col. Robert Ingersoll, to check them out post-haste.
there’s pretty well NOTHING there!
Not quite nothing, just the little matter of “loving your neighbour as yourself”, and applying the Golden Rule “do as you would be done by”. All the rest of religion, I agree, is mainly either superfluous, or even detrimental to the happiness of humanity. The philosophy of Buddhism may be the exception, and if Christianity had not got itself mired in the Jewish ideas of blood ritual, sacrifice and miraculous happenings, it too may even have become a rational and respectable way to live your life.
And I too have no doubt that most atheists generally make good humanists, and care about the common good.