Longing for Liberty: Susan Jacoby's New Book Traces Conversion's Connection to Religious Freedom

By Jones, Sarah E. | Church & State, April 2016 | Go to article overview

Longing for Liberty: Susan Jacoby's New Book Traces Conversion's Connection to Religious Freedom


Jones, Sarah E., Church & State


Strange Gods: A Secular History Of Conversion by Susan Jacoby, Pantheon Books, 464 pp.

Susan Jacoby, the author of The Age of Unreason, Freethinkers and other books, tackles the thorny subject of religious conversion in her compelling new release from Pantheon Books.

Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion critically examines conversion narratives, mostly within the context of Western Christianity, and provides them with historical and cultural context often omitted in other retellings.

"Religious conversion is an irresistible subject for a secularist or an atheist precisely because so much human energy, throughout recorded history, has been expended on persuading or forcing large numbers of people to replace belief in one supernatural mystery with another," Jacoby, an atheist, explains in her introduction.

But this endeavor is personal as well as philosophical. She opens with a discussion of her own family's relationship to the subject: Her father, a relatively non-observant Jew, converted to Catholicism upon marriage. His uncle had converted to the Episcopalian Church, and Jacoby's father told his children he'd grown up in the same denomination.

"When I was growing up," she writes, "I could not have possibly known that in the first half of the 20th Century, mainstream Protestantism was a much more common choice than Catholicism for Jews wishing to conceal their origins, because Protestants occupied a much higher social and economic rung than Catholics in the American class hierarchy."

Jacoby, therefore, understands the uneasy significance of conversion. Secularism is a relatively recent experiment in the long relationship between state power and religious faith; states have historically enforced the dictates of one faith to the detriment of others. Discrimination manifested in various forms, but although its severity varied, conversion remained a consistent way to elevate one's social standing and escape retribution for belonging to a hated sect.

As a consequence, coerced conversions occupy a significant portion of the book. But she is careful to note in her introduction that conversion is also a matter of conscience, "an intense emotional desire to believe in something true."

The first convert she profiles, St. Augustine of Hippo, falls mostly in this category. Augustine initially professed an affiliation with the Manichees, a dualistic sect popular in his era. The Manichees eventually ran afoul of the Roman Catholic authorities of the day, but Augustine had already converted by the time this occurred.

Augustine is still revered by many in the Catholic Church (and some outside it) as a theologian and philosopher. Religious tolerance, however, was not his forte. In The City of God, he stopped just short of advocating for the genocide of Jews. Instead, Jacoby writes, he argued that Jews "should be harassed, dispersed throughout the world at the pleasure of Christian rulers, treated as constant targets for conversion, but not, in the end, exterminated."

Thus to all heretics, Augustine and eventually Catholic authorities--concluded. According to Jacoby, Augustine's work dramatically influenced Catholic Church policies toward Jews and the other religious minorities living under its thumb.

For centuries after Augustine's death, Jews suffered the brunt of the Catholic Church's disdain. In Spain specifically, the violent transition from Muslim to Catholic rule had catastrophic consequences for the country's Jewish minority.

Jacoby includes a detailed account of their transition from a relatively peaceful existence under Muslim control to bloody persecution under Isabella and Ferdinand, whose Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula also re-established Catholicism as its state-sanctioned faith.

In 1492, the joint monarchs signed an order expelling tens of thousands of Muslims and Jews--including conversos, who had publicly become Christians--from the country. …

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