In a groundbreaking historical work that addresses religious conversion in the West from an uncompromisingly secular perspective, Susan Jacoby challenges the conventional narrative of conversion as a purely spiritual journey. From the transformation on the road to Damascus of the Jew Saul into the Christian evangelist Paul to a twenty-first-century “religious marketplace” in which half of Americans have changed faiths at least once, nothing has been more important in the struggle for reason than the right to believe in the God of one’s choice or to reject belief in God altogether.
Focusing on the long, tense convergence of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—each claiming possession of absolute truth—Jacoby examines conversions within a social and economic framework that includes theocratic coercion (unto torture and death) and the more friendly persuasion of political advantage, economic opportunism, and interreligious marriage. Moving through time, continents, and cultures—the triumph of Christianity over paganism in late antiquity, the Spanish Inquisition, John Calvin’s dour theocracy, Southern plantations where African slaves had to accept their masters’ religion—the narrative is punctuated by portraits of individual converts embodying the sacred and profane. The cast includes Augustine of Hippo; John Donne; the German Jew Edith Stein, whose conversion to Catholicism did not save her from Auschwitz; boxing champion Muhammad Ali; and former President George W. Bush. The story also encompasses conversions to rigid secular ideologies, notably Stalinist Communism, with their own truth claims.
Finally, Jacoby offers a powerful case for religious choice as a product of the secular Enlightenment. In a forthright and unsettling conclusion linking the present with the most violent parts of the West’s religious past, she reminds us that in the absence of Enlightenment values, radical Islamists are persecuting Christians, many other Muslims, and atheists in ways that recall the worst of the Middle Ages.
(With 8 pages of black-and-white illustrations.)
Jacoby (The Great Agnostic and Freethinkers) has spent 15 years writing this fine secular inquiry into the history of religious conversion in the West. Beginning with the famous Damascus road conversion of Saul to Paul and then moving on to Augustine of Hippo's Confessions, Jacoby travels through 14th-century forced conversions in Spain, 20th-century "socially-influenced conversions" resulting from mixed marriages, and today's headlines about ISIS's brutal religious persecution. From her atheist viewpoint, she attempts to remove the religious and psychological elements of conversion, leaving only the sociopolitical forces. She writes, "The modern American notion of religion as a purely personal choice, nobody else's business... could not be further removed from the complicated historical reality of conversion on a large scale." Missing from Jacoby's overall argument are the ways that religious belief, practiced in the public square, can contribute to the common good in a democracy. Without this, her tour de force risks marshaling history to serve her own ideological agenda. Her analysis of the dangers of a religious belief beyond personal conviction may be challenging for many readers of faith, but it's well-argued and illuminating.