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Circumcise Me: Participating In Religious Rites You Don't Really Believe In

Taffy Brodesser-Akner has written a piece for Salon detailing the feelings of angst and dread that washed over her while attending her youngest son’s bris.  She admits to believing that circumcision is genital mutilation, and yet, she is compelled to have this ancient rite performed on her infant.  She writes, “Looking down at my son, not even big enough to open his eyes and object, I am struck by the unfairness of it all. He has not chosen this; he is about to enter a covenant that he does not consent to.”

Ain’t that just life?

I mean, no child consents to their given, uh, circumstances.  We’re all born randomly to families who believe – or don’t believe – in God, bringing light to their faith through an array of rituals ranging from fantastic to fearsome.  (Genital mutilation probably falls closer to the darker side of the spectrum.)  Some seriously crunchy types might tell you that babies are chubby little angels who sit on glowing orbs in heaven and look down on earth, scanning the populous in order to find their perfect parents, the special couple they have decided to bless with their love.  I have to admit, I find that sort of story appealing from time to time, as if we’re all one, all part of the same great spiritual (read: positive) energy, and that my daughter has come to me like a spirit guide of sorts, challenging me and teaching me patience and the shunning of the ego.

And then I think about my own given circumstances, and how they toss that whole system askew.  Because would I have chosen to be born into a Catholic family from Central New York filled with alcoholics and anxiety sufferers who don’t know how to communicate complicated thoughts without crying or yelling?  I hope not.  (Then again, maybe in my cherubic pre-born state I knew I wanted to be a comic and saw them as a fertile training ground.)  But nonetheless, I love my family, and in a desire to honor my mother’s wishes, I chose to baptise my daughter, even though I don’t approve of the Catholic Church in any way, really.  (I’m pro-choice, pro-gay marriage and against peeking up alter boys’ skirts.)  I think the question is not whether I should have submitted my child to a religious rite I don’t believe in, but whether or not a religious rite has any meaning – or more importantly, effect – if you don’t believe in it.

In other words, can we pick and choose pieces of the religion we were raised with in order to suit our own purposes?  Yes.  Because as Brodesser-Akner writes, it’s not the men in robes who dictate what our experience with God has to be.  She says, “We get so caught up in the method and persona of who is delivering the message that we forget that it is not they who control the information. It is just they who have first crack in your life at disseminating it. They are not messengers of God. They are merely messengers of your parents’ tuition dollar.”  (Or in my case, messengers of the offertory collection.)

To some, I may be comparing apples and oranges, because having a priest sprinkle water on your child’s head is certainly more physically benign than asking a mohel to snip the tip.  Newborns don’t know the difference between a baptism and a bath.  I’m not sure I do, either.  I know I thank God every time I take a shower.  Showering, to a harried mother, can feel like a re-birth.  It’s just that during a baptism, someone else is telling you God is there.  A stranger is leading you – if you believe the happy hippies are onto something – back to the spirit of your Creator.  But of course if you’re inclined to be spiritual (as opposed to Religious), you probably have a sense that God is everywhere, ready for you to indulge in him/her/it at any time, without a guide.

Regardless of how you feel about circumcision as a medical practice, you have to appreciate Brodesser-Akner’s intent.  She explains that she went through with her son’s circumcision as a kind of trade-off.  “I will give you this, God,” she says.  “I will hurt my sons for you, and you, in exchange, will keep us safe.”

I’m well aware that those against cutting and/or the atheists out there will have no sympathy for the author, if not quite pathologizing the way she turns a blind eye to mutilation for the sake of Biblical magic, at least mocking it.  A lot of people I know are atheists, and I respect that.  But just as I’m uncomfortable with proselytising Christians, I bristle every time I hear someone cavalierly, arrogantly deny the existence of God.  It’s not that I’m not okay with your choice not to believe, it’s just that I hate to hear non-believers suggest that everyone who believes in God is an idiot.

Then again, pretty much every atheist I know is childless, and as Brodesser-Akner notes, having a child changes your spiritual needs.  She writes, “When we begin to have children, we cling to those beliefs; we cling to the hope that the universe is not random so that we can function.”

I understand that, and her magical thinking.  She says, “I’m not even stupid enough to think that I have any kind of guarantee that Haskel’s life will be blessed because of this…. I even leave room for the idea that religion is a made-up superstition whose goal is to function in exactly the way I’m using it.  But I have to do what I can.  Whatever our magic is, whatever spells we can cast, whatever wishes we need to make, whatever deals we can broker, we need to do what can.  Sometimes, being a parent is just too much to handle without at least some wishing, without just a little magic.”

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