Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'Strange Gods': A Secular Scholar Examines Religious Conversion

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'Strange Gods': A Secular Scholar Examines Religious Conversion

Article excerpt

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. …

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