The Ethical Dilemma: I’m an Atheist Non-Debater

Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective? In the spirit of The New York Times’ “The Ethicist” or Slate‘s ‘Dear Prudence,’ Humanist Network News is proud to introduce ‘The Ethical Dilemma,’ an advice column by Joan Reisman-Brill.

Send your questions to The Ethical Dilemma at All inquiries are kept confidential.


Defender of the Unfaith: Now and then when I mention that I don’t believe in god or religion, someone will pick a verbal battle with me: “Why not? How can you say that? What about this and that?” Frankly, I don’t enjoy arguing under most circumstances, and particularly when the other person is really attacking and only wants me to say things he can turn against me. I’m also just not very good at it. Yet I feel like I’m failing myself and other nonbelievers, as well as believers who should hear the arguments, if I don’t rise to the occasion. What can I do?

—Desperately Seeking Christopher Hitchens

Dear Desperate,

While it would be nice if we were all articulate and poised when challenged to defend our positions, the fact is many of us are ill equipped. And, as you perceptively note, sometimes the questioner doesn’t really have the slightest interest in what we think or why, but just wants to brandish his own dogma. Some people (not me!) are great extemporaneous speakers and can hold their own with the worst of them. But even so, it’s very hard to win points using logic and reason against an illogical unreasonable premise.

Calling yourself a non-believer doesn’t mean you’re on call as spokesperson for all non-believers. And non-believers are a very diverse conglomerate, so there’s no way one could speak for all, no matter how eloquent. So when someone charges at you without warning, sidestep like a matador facing an angry bull (being careful what you step in). Patiently explain that your views are backed by too much history and evidence to cite on the fly, and that it took years of deep thought and study to arrive where you are. Then suggest that if your questioner is truly interested in learning about your views, he or she should read your favorite book on the subject (mine is Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, copies of which I’ve handed out). Then smile sweetly to indicate the end of discussion.


Circumcision Decision: Growing up, I thought every newborn male was circumcised at birth as a matter of hygiene, as well as being a requirement in some religions. Now I’m hearing a lot of controversy—it’s mutilation, it prevents disease, it’s sacred, boys have to look the same as their fathers, it mutes sensation, etc. I’m really confused. What’s the humanist perspective?

—A Little Off the Top

Dear Little,

While I can provide one humanist’s perspective, I dare not speak for all, or for all time, or cover all the arguments for and against. This is a very prickly topic getting increasing attention and debate these days.

Certainly there are religions in which circumcision is sacrosanct. As a covenant between Abraham and God, Jewish and Muslim traditions typically make the cut some time after a boy is a week old and before puberty. Although Christianity is also an Abrahamic religion, circumcision is optional and many Christians skip the snip.

Interesting factoid: When the Nazis were checking for foreskins and sending boys without them to concentration camps, some Jewish families decided against circumcising their newborn sons because that little bit of skin could one day save their lives. The heck with the covenant.

In the U.S. and other western countries, circumcision has come to be regarded as hygienic and civilized, and the practice is routine in many hospitals regardless of religion. But recently two divergent schools of thought have been emerging: One, backed by some medical studies, associates circumcision with lower incidence of certain diseases, and advocates the procedure for all males at any age, particularly in places where condoms and hygiene are sparse. The other side, including a group called Jews Against Circumcision, regards the practice as mutilation and a throwback to archaic rituals. There are movements in the U.S. and other countries working to outlaw the practice, at least until the child is old enough to decide for himself. One problem with that option is, just as with tonsillectomies (anyone remember when everyone used to have even healthy tonsils removed for prophylactic reasons?), it’s just a little snip for a teeny weenie, but it can be a big deal for a bigger deal. Another problem is that some equate any attempt to curb circumcision as religious persecution, so most lawmakers are loath to touch the subject.

As for the tangle of assorted arguments—it’s  not mutilation, just a little useless skin, it’s cleaner, boys need to look like their fathers, babies don’t feel pain—here are a few thoughts: Suppose it became widely regarded as cool to have no earlobes, and removing them would prevent them from becoming frostbitten or torn by yanked earrings. Would it be ok to snip our babies’ lobes after delivery, when they’d hardly feel a thing, and that way they’d grow up to look just like their trimmed parents?

How about just the health argument alone? No one knows what good the appendix does, but we all know it can burst and kill us. Yet there’s not much demand for slicing it out just in case. As a skeptic, I’m inclined to question the strength of the association between disease prevention and circumcision, and to wonder whether other approaches (like an antiseptic lubricant) might be just as effective. Sooner or later some study will show an increased risk of disease or dysfunction associated with circumcision, and then the health-and-hygiene argument could tip the other way.

There are always risks with any medical procedure. Even healthy babies can contract an infection, or the person wielding the blade can sneeze at the wrong moment, with horrifying consequences. Even more horrifying is the practice among some sects for the man performing the cut to use his mouth to suck the blood from the wound (honest—I can’t make this stuff up); if the person doing the oral swab harbors a virus such as herpes, the newborn with undeveloped immunity can become infected, resulting in catastrophic damage or death.

Nonetheless, there are people who will fight to the death for their right to circumcise their sons, just as in some places people defy laws against circumcising their daughters, despite the fact that the results of the procedure can range from frightful to fatal. When circumcision is culturally the norm, it can be devastating to buck it—more devastating (at least for the families, if not the victims) than any damage the operation might cause.

So today, as experts push the third world to circumcise men and boys to prevent diseases, other groups are campaigning to limit the practice at least for those too young to consent. Meanwhile, circumcision is irreversible, carries its own risks, and may diminish some of the joy of sex. (Before you guys testify about how great it is with or without the turtleneck, please present your first-hand before/after comparisons.)

So it would be nice to leave the little fellow intact and let him decide when he’s older, and when there’s more scientific data to inform the choice, even if that might entail a more painful incision decision. But those who disagree are free to make a different call. Let’s just be glad that either way, we still have a choice (unless our parents already got us a permanent trim). The fact that more people are now weighing the pros and cons, instead of just doing whatever Daddy did, is a good start toward stopping unkind cuts.

Joan Reisman-Brill is a writer based in New York City. She received her BA in English literature from the University of Chicago, an MA also in English lit from the University of Michigan, and an MBA in management and marketing from New York University. She has worked in public relations, marketing and myriad facets of writing and editing for nearly four decades. She has been steadily increasingly her humanist identification and activism at an accelerating rate, and while she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, she welcomes this opportunity to tackle the questions.