Let’s get this straight to start with. Giles Fraser is a priest in the Church of England. Born a Jew, and circumcised according to Jewish custom when he was 8 days old, he relented when his wife objected to circumcision, and did not have his son Felix circumcised according to the custom of his people. All this is recorded in his Guardian article, “This German circumcision ban is an affront to Jewish and Muslim identity.”
What started the ball rolling was a decision in a Cologne court where a judge ruled that circumcision is against the best interests of the child, and accordingly instituted a legal ban. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, said that she “did not want Germany to be the only country in the world in which Jews cannot practice their rights.” An interesting sidelight on this statement, which Fraser tells us beggars belief, is that the original case concerned a Muslim boy, and complications arising from his circumcision.
I have already expressed myself in support of the judgement of the court in Cologne. The problem as I saw it then — and I have not changed my mind — is that the belief that the common good of the community can be achieved independently of individual autonomy is not obvious. This would have to be shown, and, I suggest, it cannot be. If community can exist only by suppressing the autonomy of individuals, has the common good been achieved, or is there still something wanting — namely, the personal fulfilment of individuals? It is so easy to talk about the priority of community, as Fraser does, without recognising its cost to individuals. This does not mean, of course, that we do not have to balance the demands of community against the demands of individual autonomy. It may not be to the good of individuals, as well as the community, if autonomy always trumps community, but simply claiming that community should precede and trump autonomy is equally unsatisfactory.
The reason I am raising this issue again is because Fraser has allowed his argument to spill over into the Jewish Chronicle, where he has published an article edgily entitled, “Say hello to the twisted ideology of choice,” in which he pits liberal autonomy against religious community and identity. He does this in a very direct and simplistic manner. He asks us to imagine a liberal community in which some mad parents decide not to teach their children a language:
After all, [he writes] a language like English is impregnated with a set of values and assumptions. So why not keep the child away from all language and then when they get to adulthood allow them to choose for themselves?
To which he then adds:
I offer this bonkers experiment as a reductio ad absurdum of the sort of thing that is often said about imposing religion on children.
It is not, however, so easy to reduce arguments or claims to the absurd, and I do not think Fraser has been successful in this instance.
The reasons for Fraser’s failure are not far to seek. There is a big difference between rites which are associated with cultural or religious identity, and the learning of a language. Languages may be impregnated with values and assumptions, but language also provides the means for questioning those values. It is impossible to address questions to a circumcision. It is either done or not done, and if it is done it is not undoable. Consider the so-called circumcision of girls. More radical, certainly, but no less related to cultural and religious identity, and no more able to be rebutted by an argument. If the circumcision of the male is permitted, then, by parity of reasoning, the circumcision of the female should be permitted too, if it is a matter of intimate cultural and religious identity.
And what about other cultural rites and practices — the initiation rites of boys in Papua New Guinea, for example? In his book, The Culture Cult, Roger Sandall quotes from Robert Edgerton’s Sick Societies, where these rites are described. Edgerton’s account refers to the initiation practices of PNG societies before Australian contact, which
required that boys go through initiation ceremonies in which they were forced to drink only partly slaked lime that blistered their mouths and throats, were beaten with stinging nettles, were denied water, had barbed grass pushed up their urethras to cause bleeding, were compelled to swallow bent lengths of can until vomiting was induced, and were required to fellate older men, who also had anal intercourse with them. 
Those who experience such an initiation would no doubt experience a kind of indelible bonding with the community, and the priority of community authority over their own individual desires or choices, but it is not obvious that this would be in any way desirable, or worth perpetuating, or that the practices should be upheld by the courts of a liberal democracy.
It may be said that the circumcision of boys is in no way so draconian or inhuman as this. Yet it is a practice for which there is no obvious rationale, save the maintenance of community identity. And there is no sense in which the induction of the child into the language community is a helpful analogy to what is being done to the body in the course of circumcision. To see this we should remember how widely in Africa and elsewhere female circumcision is practiced, recognising that precisely the same defence is being made of this practice that is made by Fraser for the practice of male circumcision, namely, community and cultural identity. Fraser attempts to deny that there are any parallels here. In his Jewish Chronicle article he says that after his Guardian article he
was inundated with letters telling me I was a child abuser, that male circumcision was like female genital mutilation. But mostly the arguments against it were about choice.
But, of course, circumcision is like female genital mutilation. The fact that it is so widely practiced, so that it is scarcely noticed any more, does not change the fact that it is an unnecessary mutilation of the male sexual organ.
That both practices centre on the sexual organs is obviously of some significance, even though that significance is now apparently lost to history. The bizarre story in Exodus (chapter 4), where Moses is saved from God’s homicidal wrath by the circumcision of his son, the prepuce being thrown in the direction of the menacing presence of God, is a dramatic account of the importance of circumcision, but it does nothing to justify it, or to explain its significance.
And suggestively throwing in the horrors of the Nazi treatment of the Jews as a kind of bomb into the middle of the discussion is scarcely helpful, because this is a case in which individual rights are uppermost. No one is denying that circumcision is a legitimate mark of belonging; the issue is whether this mark of belonging should be imposed on those unable to choose this physical mark of belonging for themselves. Trying to conceal this by playing the Nazi card is basically dishonest. I have suggested that the same should also apply to baptism for Christians. While not producing (except theologically) an indelible mark, baptism is also about community identity, which is reinforced by parents who promise to bring up their children in the faith of the church, a promise which clearly preempts the child’s choice in the matter.
It is at this point that Fraser’s argument plays fast and loose with how we are to understand membership in a faith community. He argues, as many others do, that faith has nothing essentially to do with belief. In the Guardian article he says:
… one of the most familiar modern mistakes about faith is that it is something that goes on in your head. This is rubbish. Faith is about being part of something wider than oneself.
However, if belonging to something that is wider than oneself includes being taught as unquestionably true certain beliefs about the world and history, and about the sacredness of certain books and places, rituals and communal practices, then faith is also about what goes on in your head, and includes an array of beliefs and truth claims as well as ritual practices, spiritual experiences, and communal belonging, all intended, as we now know, and often very effectively used, to imprint an entire way of life onto a developing mind. Faith may be about being part of something wider than oneself, but it is also undeniably about belief as well, beliefs about what is included amongst the various items of furniture that go to make up the world as seen through the eyes of faith. For a Christian priest to deny this, when at the centre of the church’s liturgy is a statement of belief, seems to me to be a little like straining at gnats and ignoring far bigger game.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that we cannot see that religion engages many other aspects of the human psyche than simply the discursively intellectual one. Of course it does. Religions have been particularly successful in enlisting the loyalty and support of their members by using an entire spectrum of beliefs and practices to provide a comprehensive view of reality as a single whole. And the word ‘view’ doesn’t quite capture the totalising experience of religious faith, for religion engages practically every aspect of thought, feeling and communal belonging. And here the Nazi experience is actually a useful analogy, for Hitler learned an enormous amount about creating an all-encompassing sense of belonging from his early experience of the Roman Catholic Church, as an acolyte at the Lambach monastery, where he attended school, and where the solemn high mass affected him deeply. The repetitiveness of the message, the enlistment of youthful enthusiasm, the idea of snatching victory from defeat, the use of symbols and ritual (there were actually several swastikas in the Benedictine monastery school that he attended), the repeated declarations of belief and loyalty: all these became parts of Hitler’s totalising ideology to which people were prepared to commit themselves until death. Anyone who has watched Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens, filmed during the 1934 Parteitag in Nuremberg, will have a glimpse into the mesmerising world of religious ritual, and the way that it uses all the senses in producing an overwhelming sense of belonging to something greater than oneself.
One Hitler poster in particular pays tribute to Hitler’s religious sense of his own significance, and pays a debt to the religion which, while opposing it politically, he never renounced — and which, it is worth remarking, never renounced him. Here is that astonishing poster, obviously borrowing Christian themes to underline the Nazi belief (and Hitler’s belief as well) in Hitler’s significance as an outworking of Providence.
Of course, there is no doubt that, in one sense, Fraser is right. Belief is secondary to faith. Listening to Hitler’s speeches is like listening to a broken record. But it is not only the repetitiveness; it is the platitudinous nature, the emptiness of what he says, that is so striking. The words themselves are accompanied by ritual and drama, and that is what gives the beliefs substance. The same may almost certainly be said about most religious beliefs. They are, in a sense, only the intellectual scaffolding on which experiences may be hung, and the experiences are what give significance and substance to the beliefs.
This, however, does not make the beliefs unimportant. Faith is not only about belonging. It is about believing too, and religious beliefs often unfold in completely inhuman ways. All you have to do is to ask someone like Tony Nicklinson what effect religious beliefs had on his life. Or, and much more ominously, how the emotional loading of the contemptible beliefs spouted so passionately by Hitler spelled disaster for so many millions of people. The beliefs may seem trivial, but loaded with emotion and drama, they may have disastrous effects.
It is one thing to celebrate a belonging that you think is unexceptionable and possibly even personally rewarding; but it is quite another simply to affirm the importance of belonging to something greater than oneself, and in relation to such belonging to stress the unimportance of autonomy and choice. “Choice,” says Fraser in his Jewish Chronicle article, “has become a cuckoo value in our society — driving out other values like fairness and community.” In his Guardian article he says that “[l]iberalism constitutes the view from nowhere, [and] has no sense of history.” Why? Because a court in Cologne claimed that a child should not be physically mutilated as a sign of belonging? And because this is unthinkable in a country which had demonised and almost succeeded in exterminating the people whose rite of belonging this is? Talk about ruling passions! The question is whether this is a reasonable thing to do to infants unable to think or to choose for themselves. We have evidence of what happens when things are done to children which make choice later in life difficult or impossible. We have evidence now, practically everywhere, of how religious belonging makes community virtually impossible to achieve, because religious belonging tends to be totalising and exclusive. As a result people respond in completely idiotic ways to perceived insults or offences. Mentally challenged little girls are imprisoned for the supposed offence of blasphemy, and Christians flee in fear before the comprehensive belonging of their Muslim neighbours. Does Fraser not see a problem with this, or does he simply choose to close his eyes to it for fear of causing offence?