Review: Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion, by Susan Jacoby

One of my favorite authors, who wrote the great Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, has written another wonderful book that I believe should be foundational to any freethinker’s library, or any historian’s for that matter.

In Strange Gods, Susan Jacoby considers religious and ideological conversions, from those as famous as Augustines’s and Muhammmed Ali’s to the lesser known Margaret Fell’s and Peter Cartwright’s, in the wider context of the political and social circumstances of their times. From Augustine of Hippo, early father of the Christian church and author of Confessions and The City of God who converted from paganism to Manichaeism to Christianity, to Muhammad Ali, heavyweight boxing champion and activist who converted from Christianity to the Nation of Islam, to Sunni Islam, to Sufism, her book ranges mostly through the world dominated by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam after the turn of the first millennium CE. Jacoby explores the roles of the personal forces within and the forces of family, community, and the wider cultural, political, and religious shifts without, which led people to adopt new beliefs and in many cases, to spend the rest of their lives proselytizing for them.

What a great idea for a book! Jacoby’s in-depth study shows us how stories of conversion not only offer invaluable insights into the transformative power of newfound belief on individual persons, but how it can affect the lives of those around them and of those who come after them, for good and for ill. She offers us an in-depth exploration of each conversion from a refreshingly secular viewpoint, free of partisanship and complete with associated circumstances, influences, and social dynamics. Since conversion stories are rarely explored outside of the context of the newly adopted belief system, we don’t often get a clear view of the significance of this experience for the converted as well as for the people around them. To those within a religious tradition, converts, especially those who become prominent spokespersons or martyrs, are offered as proofs of the validity and superiority of that particular faith, yet all belief systems have their own and hold them up in this same manner. To those outside of each given tradition, converts can be dismissed as lost or misled, or even considered hoodwinked, brainwashed, or traitorous. Jacoby’s treatment helps to reveal how much larger a story conversion is than the exclusively religious and personal event it’s so often considered, while retaining a sympathetic understanding of its meaningfulness in individual lives. In these pages, each conversion story is not only a rich psychological study, but a valuable history lesson as well.

One of the conversion stories that stood out for me is one I’ve thought about many times over the years. A cultural Catholic myself, I’ve long been familiar with the story of Augustine’s conversion and with his resulting views on topics such as sex, sin, women, the Jews, and so forth. As I grew older and began to consider things more critically, Augustine seemed to me less a repentant sinner and paragon of virtue and more an off-the-deep-end zealot, who went from being a man with a healthy sex life in a loving relationship with a woman and their child to a self-obsessed, Jesus-freak fastidious hater of all that’s natural. His conversion was deeply meaningful to him, but what about the woman he dumped after their long-term relationship, their child whom he cast from his home, the friends he rejected, and the father he turned against? I try now to take a more balanced and sympathetic view of the man and I find Jacoby’s profile of his spiritual and psychological journey helpful in this regard, though I still believe many of his theological views are harmful and have had a long-term negative influence on the way the Christian world has regarded sex and the nature and role of women. Augustine did what he felt he needed to do and what he came to believe was right, and in light of the circumstances of his life and personality, his thoughts and actions are understandable, even if not always admirable. Jacoby does not idolize him by any means, but respects his intelligence and his right to believe freely, and presents a full picture of his life and circumstances with the right mixture of fairness, sympathy, critique, and refreshing touch of humor. (I’m gratified to find that someone else sees his mother Monica as a real ‘piece of work! I’ve long thought of her as manipulative, passive aggressive, and kind of creepy!)

Jacoby’s exploration of the divergence, convergence, and conflict in matters of belief is a masterful one, and goes beyond the study of conversion as a matter of faith: she also offers a deep study of the personal and social effects of forced conversions, a subject not discussed often enough. The imposition or social pressure to conform to religious and ideological orthodoxy is an ancient and effective tool to impose the will of the ruler on the people, or to impose the will of some people on others. But we kid ourselves if we think it’s just something people did in the bad old days; there are still many parts of the world where conversions are still imposed at the end of a gun or with the threat of the lash, or, at least, with knowledge that it’s the only road to social acceptance, ability to get a job and live free from harassment.

In the end, Jacoby’s book is a testament to how the Enlightenment brought about one of the world’s best inventions: the social and political ideal of freedom of conscience. The more it’s realized in the world, the longer, safer, and happier lives we’ll live, with a greater ability to understand and appreciate the true richness of the variety of human thought.

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