Dr. Montague’s distinguished career as an anthropologist included writing over fifty books, teaching at several universities, and receiving many honorary degrees and awards for his outstanding work on human nature and development.
As an anthropologist, I have been interested for many years in the rituals, practices, and myths adopted by different societies. One of the most enduring of these practices is circumcision, which has been practiced by various cultures for thousands of years. It is typically a rite of passage marking a transition from one status to another. Such rites of passage, celebrated at birth, puberty, marriage, and death, are frequently associated with certain procedures entailing bodily mutilation. This removal of a part of the body, however, is not regarded in most societies as a mutilation. More often than not, it is seen as a religious consecration that makes the individual holy and invested with a special status.
In the United States we have invented “reasons” to replace religion in justifying circumcision. Myths associated with circumcision have become an accepted part of our society. Thus far the power of precedent and social custom has resisted the force of knowledge, reason, and logic.
The perpetuation of myths about circumcision in this country is not unlike the persistence of myths in other, divergent societies. Those in so-called civilized societies may believe that they are too “advanced” to believe in myths, but that, too, is a cultural myth. We are all subject to believing in myths. At this juncture in our history we should remember that civilization is not a gift, but an achievement, and that civilization is a race between education and catastrophe.
One outstanding characteristic that marks us as human beings is our educability. We have had to learn almost everything we know and do from other human beings, beginning with our principal caregivers, our parents, and then our teachers and others. Consequently, to be human is to be in danger, for we are capable of being taught unsound things as well as sound ones. Therefore, we need good teachers who will challenge entrenched beliefs and practices by setting out the facts that need to be considered in arriving at a just decision.