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'Strange Gods': A secular scholar examines religious conversion

Are converts most often motivated by faith – or do more practical considerations come into play?

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    Strange Gods:
    A Secular History of Conversion,
    By Susan Jacoby
    Pantheon
    512 pp.
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Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion, by Susan Jacoby, is itself a pretty strange thing. Jacoby, a noted secularist intellectual with several books to her name (including, most recently, “The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought”), wrote her latest because “most histories and personal accounts of conversion have been written by believers in the supernatural, who understandably view changes of faith mainly in terms of their spiritual origins and significance.”

To be sure, such an assumption reflects the author’s exposure to a particular and circumscribed narrative at the Catholic schools she recounts attending as a girl more than it does contemporary sociological literature on religious conversion. Nevertheless, “Strange Gods,” with its scope (Augustine of Hippo to Muhammad Ali), insight, and carefully assessed judgments, emerges as an engaging rumination on – if not quite a history of – this tricky and multifarious subject.

The author’s understanding of conversion includes switching from one denomination of Christianity to another. It can even mean “surrender to a secular ideology and an organization … possessing many of the characteristics of anti-evidentiary authoritarian religion,” though Jacoby’s focus remains on traditional faith-based creeds. She recognizes that people convert for all kinds of reasons, and does not spare the Catholic Church or various Protestant denominations criticism when discussing their coercive tactics in several eras.

Yet when coercion is not involved, she maintains that “pragmatic considerations,” such as a desire to facilitate marriage by adopting a spouse’s religion, play more of a role than genuine conviction. She also sees an occasional nexus between such considerations and conviction, as when true faith is nurtured by the promise of an afterlife, something that helped early Christianity woo people away from pagan religions, or when a woman such as the English proto-feminist Margaret Fell (1614-1702), originally a Puritan, joined the Society of Friends (Quakerism), a new religion that afforded her more opportunities for public activism than did creeds with greater political power and prestige.  

The author’s contention that pragmatism might easily shade into opportunism is beyond dispute. One does sometimes want to remind Jacoby, however, that the difficulty in pinpointing such instances is twofold: Not only does speculation come into play, but whereas plenty of converts insist that they were motivated by faith alone, comparatively few cite other, more mundane factors. As she herself puts it: “To rationalize their behavior, such converts frequently transform opportunism into righteousness in their own minds. They are living a lie, but they may not be lying consciously.”

Not one to shrink from certitude, Jacoby declares it virtually obvious that some rather well-known (and in certain quarters, perhaps celebrated) conversions were opportunistic, though in part understandable given the circumstances. “Would [John] Donne ever have become a Protestant had the Reformation not unfolded as it did in his native land [England], any more than Paul of Burgos would have become a Catholic had the persecution of Jews not intensified in Spain at the end of the fourteenth century? I will go out on a strong limb and say no and no.” 

Of course, joining the winning team – for whatever reason – doesn’t always turn out well. “Strange Gods” offers several poignant if unoriginal reminders of this fact. The notorious example of the Spanish Inquisition, which targeted so many Jewish and Muslim converts to Catholicism in the 15th and 16th centuries, prompts Jacoby to stress that those who force people to adopt a religion are likely to doubt the sincerity of such conversions, and may continue to persecute the converts. She also points out that Heinrich Heine’s voluntary conversion to Lutheranism in the 19th century for the sake of a career as a lawyer or law professor (jobs closed to unconverted Jews in his native Prussia) did the influential poet no favors; even after he obtained his law degree as a baptized Lutheran, the Prussian bar refused him admission.

Despite a certain cynicism on her part, Jacoby acknowledges that history offers many examples of individuals who converted or held fast to a religion even as this redounded to their harm. At one point, she refers to Christians who, during Roman emperor Diocletian’s reign (284-305 CE), chose death rather than renounce their faith. And toward the end of “Strange Gods,” she devotes a chapter to Muhammad Ali, for whom “[n]othing could have been more inconvenient … than his conversion to Islam in 1964 and his attempt, three years later, to claim conscientious objector status when he was about to be drafted during the Vietnam War."

Though Jacoby was raised Catholic (and discovered as an adult that her father converted to Catholicism from Judaism), she is an atheist. Both her staunch support of religious freedom and her atheism have helped her appreciate the uniqueness of America’s historical religious tolerance, which differs from much of Europe’s in that it did not emerge from the crucible of war, as well as Americans’ propensity for changing religions. (The author cites the Pew Research Center’s findings that nearly half of American adults have adopted a religion other than the one they were raised with.)

Indeed, with the exception of the forced conversion of many African slaves to Christianity, the US has steered clear of religious tyranny. The physical vastness of the country, the multiplicity of creeds among its European settlers, the pioneers’ westward drive into areas with no established churches, and the birth of new religions (Jacoby cites Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Science, and could have added Seventh-day Adventism) combined to frustrate sporadic attempts at religious oppression by various actors. And that was before the Constitution enshrined secularism as law and banished any specter of a religious state.

For all Jacoby’s relief that this is the case, she cautions against extrapolation. “The modern American notion of religion as a purely personal choice, nobody else’s business, thank you very much, could not be further removed from the complicated historical reality of conversions on a large scale.” 

One might initially scoff at the idea that this point needs emphasizing. Yet Jacoby is right – and not just because some people have a tendency to project their reality onto their forebears, but because, as she explains, “a nonsensical argument about whether there can be such a phenomenon as voluntary conversion when the ‘convert’ has been starved, tortured, and threatened with execution” played out in the media following James Foley’s beheading at the hands of the Islamic State terror organization. (Jacoby could have added that a similar spectacle took place following the same group’s identical murder of Peter Kassig, though there is some evidence that he had begun gravitating toward Islam before his kidnapping and subsequent conversion while in captivity.)

The terrible reality is that freedom of thought, conscience, and religion remains elusive for millions of believers and non-believers around the world, including but not limited to ex or heterodox or non-Muslims in many countries where Islam holds sway, and non-state-sanctioned adherents of virtually any religion in China.      

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and freelance reviewer based in Beirut, Lebanon.

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