It's not about the foreskin, nor about any special exotic provisions in Islam and Judaism – it's about something that goes much further, and that must concern the entire society: it’s about religion as a whole. Legal certainty around circumcision will be laid down in Germany, probably through a new law. That's a good thing. But the real reason for the debate lies deeper – in a strong, sometimes downright panicky discomfort with intense, visible, self-conscious faith. And that's not a good thing.

The controversy over circumcision has clearly illustrated the problem, because it does not just concern one religious persuasion. If it were only about Muslims, the debate would have been immediately politicised in banal ways. Opponents of Islam would have demanded a ban on a foreign custom practiced by immigrants, while the multiculturalists would have stood up for the rights of a minority suffering discrimination.

The fact that this controversy lumps together Jews and Muslims has upset the convenient logic of those positions. It turns out that it is not just a special, unwelcome faith that has come into conflict with modern society; the potential for friction lies in religion and in the religious life in general.

Spirit of distrust and suspicion

The danger is that it is not being dealt with confidently, but fearfully and narrow-mindedly. Christianity, the traditional majority religion in Germany, cannot avoid the attentions of the intolerant any more than can the Islam of immigrants. The modern religious-political debate in the Federal Republic began in 1995 with the "crucifix judgment" of the Federal Constitutional Court, that argued against the regular mounting of crucifixes in the classrooms of Bavarian schools.

The "headscarf debate" followed, on the question of whether Muslim teachers who covered their hair could be teachers or civil servants. Now comes the circumcision debate, triggered by a court ruling that recognises an unacceptable bodily injury in this Bible-based practice.

In all three cases, the spirit of distrust and suspicion is evidently at work. Instead of understanding the cross as a sign of a rich, thought-provoking tradition, the judges saw in it a missionary and propaganda tool that exerted spiritual pressure on students who were of other faiths. The headscarf, for those who wear one, is not an expression of a personal life choice, but the quasi-political symbol of a freedom-hating ideology.

And circumcision, which could also be seen as a physically harmless intervention of great ritual solemnity, is viewed by the authors of the ban as an act of cruelty done to a defenceless being.

The intrinsic meaning of religion is always shoved aside and replaced by a hostile external viewpoint that holds itself up as "objective". What the cross, the headscarf or the circumcision “really are," disregarding the pipe dreams of the pious, are decided by a religiously disinterested, if not religiously illiterate, everyday consciousness.

Everyone has a zone of innermost beliefs

Of course, the insider’s view of one’s faith is not absolutely valid. Not everything that the word "religion" covers is allowed. Widow-burning we will not tolerate even if a Hindu theologian should demonstrate vividly that it is a tradition divinely sanctioned. Circumcision of the clitoris of young girls is a brutal mutilation; even if it is justified in any religious faith (which it is not), a state based on a constitution cannot tolerate it. What offends against human dignity must be prevented.

But there’s also the human dignity of the religious. What a society that tends to be tone-deaf towards religion tends to forget – or the point that it often simply misses – is the depth of the injury that comes from meddling in religious freedoms. The Catholic priest who will keep the secrets of the confessional even if his doing so makes it difficult to arrest a criminal and so lands him in trouble with the police, the Muslim youth who fights school management for the right to pray – for them it’s a matter of conscience, of something precious and irreplaceable perhaps, at the very core of their personality. It behooves a civilised society to weigh up those matters as carefully and generously as possible.

Believers living in Germany, whatever their faith, have the right to no more and no less. No one has to be religious or hold religion to be a good thing; when one thinks of the devastation that was wrought over centuries of fanaticism and that is still being inflicted today, it’s easy to understand the widespread scepticism towards faith. But handling sensitively what is held sacred is in the common interest of all. Everyone has a zone of innermost beliefs, a conscience, that he is taught to shelter and respect. Hopefully.