For an essay adapted from this book, see "The First Victims of the First Crusade," The New York Times, Feb. 13, 2015.
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Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion (Pantheon, 2016)
Beginning with Saul blinded by the light on the road to Damascus, Strange Gods, offers a provocative and original exploration of the cultural, economic and political forces driving religious conversion in the Western world. Most histories and personal accounts of religious conversion have been written by believers in the supernatural, who understandably view changes of faith mainly in terms of their spiritual origins and significance. Susan Jacoby, by contrast, explores the natural, earthly needs, fears, and longings that have played a critical role in individual and mass conversions throughout western history. She places conversions within specific political and social contexts ranging from the force imposed by the Inquisition to mixed marriages—as important in the early Christian era as they are in what 21st-century Americans call our “religious marketplace.”
Moving through time, continents, and cultures, in a narrative dealing with the mass and often-compulsory conversion of American slaves to Christianity, as well as with the better-known story of forced conversion of Jews and Muslims by the Spanish Inquisition and repression of Christians, atheists, and Muslim dissenters by violent Islamic theocrats today, the author emphasized the existence of a gray area between outright force and conversion for social advantage. The story also includes conversions to authoritarian secular ideologies, notably Stalinism Communism, that resemble traditional evidence-proof faith in their absolute truth claims and use of force to impose ideological uniformity.
The reader will encounter such disparate converts as the church father Augustine of Hippo, who converted to Christianity from paganism in the fourth century; Solomon ha-Levi, a 14th-century rabbi who became a Roman Catholic bishop and adviser to a pope as well as Castilian kings; the great 18th-century German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who regretted having been baptized a Lutheran though he also rejected Judaism; Edith Stein, a German Jew who converted to Catholicism, became a nun, and died at Auschwitz in 1942 because, for the Nazis, no formal conversion could wipe out the stain of Jewish birth; the heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, who scandalized Americans in the 1960s by converting to Islam; former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who waited until he left office to announce his conversion from the Church of England to Roman Catholicism; and former House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich, who embraced a new religious denomination each time he married a new wife.
As an atheist, Susan Jacoby believes that complete freedom to choose any religion—or no religion at all—is the great achievement of the post-Enlightenment world and is inseparable from political liberty. At a time when freedom of religious choice, for believers and nonbelievers, is under renewed attack in many parts of the world—from regions controlled by radical Islamists to Russia and China—this message could not be more timely.