'Strange Gods': A Secular Scholar Examines Religious Conversion

By al-Shawaf, Rayyan | The Christian Science Monitor, February 25, 2016 | Go to article overview

'Strange Gods': A Secular Scholar Examines Religious Conversion


al-Shawaf, Rayyan, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

'Strange Gods': A Secular Scholar Examines Religious Conversion
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.