Conversion and Its Discontents

By Jack MilesMarch 27, 2016

Strange Gods by Susan Jacoby

SUSAN JACOBY is a heroine of free thought, formally so designated by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which in 2004 awarded her its “Free Thought Heroine Award” for her book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. The Freedom from Religion Foundation presents an interesting assortment of awards, including the “Emperor Has No Clothes Award,” the “Atheists in Foxholes Award,” and the “Nothing Fails Like Prayer Award.” For Christians who want their freedom from religion certified, the Foundation also offers a DeBaptismal Certificate.

As one whom the Freedom from Religion Foundation would reckon among the culpably enslaved, I might not be expected to welcome Jacoby’s new book Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion, but welcome it I do, for in book after book this writer has been a paradoxically effective religion teacher, and this new book, her most ambitious yet, is no exception. Atheists as self-conscious and purposeful about their irreligion as she are a small minority in America and a tiny minority in the world at large, but her improbable strength is that she makes the subject of religion, a subject she can never be done talking about, contagiously interesting.

In her new book, Jacoby manages just this feat in chapter after chapter. True to her calling as a heroine of free thought, she fights the good fight for irreligion as she goes, treating her reader to many a saucy aside, many a laugh-line for the baptismally decertified. No matter: Along the way she also seduces her readers out of the mistake that that religion is a boring and done-with subject and into the recognition that dealing with it is an open-ended intellectual engagement of compelling interest.


What is conversion? “A lonely experience,” Dorothy Day wrote of her conversion from Communism to Roman Catholicism. “We do not know what is going on the depths of the heart and soul of another. We scarcely know ourselves.” In his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James summarized conversion as

1. An uneasiness; and 2. Its solution.

1. The uneasiness, reduced to its simplest terms, is a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand.
2. The solution is a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers.

“I once was lost but now am found / Was blind but now I see”: James’s “simplest terms” have precisely the “Amazing Grace” simplicity that powered the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries, not to speak of the Billy Graham revivals of the 20th. To this day, in the American mind, conversion is paradigmatically individual, interior, lonely, urgent, and life-changing.

Jacoby concedes that the sudden, profound, and lasting transformation of a life can indeed begin from within. She even puts Caravaggio’s evocation of the conversion of St. Paul, the paradigm of all conversion paradigms, on the cover of her book. And yet such conversions, though examples of it do recur in this book, are not her principal subject.

Hers is to be a secular history of conversion, by which we are to understand a history of conversion as fostered by extra-religious considerations affecting entire populations. Thus, Jacoby begins with a brief account of a key conversion in her own family. Her father was a Jew who converted to Catholicism several years after marrying Jacoby’s Catholic mother in 1944, when prejudice weighed more heavily upon the Jews of America than it does now. According to a June 2015 Gallup poll, 91 percent of Americans would vote for a Jewish presidential candidate, compared to 46 percent in 1937. (And compared to 49 percent who would vote for an atheist.) Her father linked his conversion — in a pragmatic, recognizably American way — to the happy prospect of his whole family going out for breakfast after Sunday Mass, and, more notably, to his renunciation of a costly gambling habit.

Against this background, Jacoby can write, on the one hand, “I doubt that there is such a thing as a ‘true’ conversion to or from any religion, if what is meant by ‘true’ is a purely spiritual or intellectual process, uninfluenced by external social pressures.” And yet, on the other hand, she can call her father’s conversion “a real conversion in that it was linked to a major change in destructive behavior.” There is no such thing as “true” conversion in just the sense that there is no such thing as “true” love, if what is meant by “true” is a love that is a purely spiritual or intellectual process, uninfluenced by external social pressures. But just as the interplay between love and those external pressures — social, economic, aesthetic, erotic — has been the great subject of fiction, opera, drama, and folk music from at least Moll Flanders on down, so also here. The nicely tangled interplay between religious impulses and external pressures in conversion narratives offers pleasures analogous to those of a good marriage plot or family saga. This very tension richly energized Jacoby’s earlier Half-Jew: A Daughter’s Search for Her Family’s Buried Past, which is being reissued in conjunction with Strange Gods.


Having candidly contextualized herself as a writer on this subject in her introduction, Jacoby sets out on a kind of inverse Pilgrim’s Progress through the history of Christianity as a missionary religion willing to impose orthodoxy by force. As regards the Jews, this is by now an oft-told tale. To name only two recent and much noticed books, James Carroll went at it in his Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, A History, a work included in Jacoby’s bibliography, and last year, too late for inclusion here, David Nirenberg published his voluminous Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition. Yet Jacoby’s history does not compete with either of these works directly, for she attends not just to the coerced conversion of Jews but also to intra-Christian coercion, such as the intra-Protestant martyrdom of Michael Servetus by John Calvin.

Jacoby has a gift for pulling from her extensive reading just the incident that will linger in her reader’s memory. Soon after Servetus’s martyrdom, a now forgotten Swiss professor of Greek, Sebastian Castellio, wrote a daring manifesto against Calvin entitled Concerning Heretics and Whether They Should Be Punished by the Sword of the Magistrate. “In denouncing the execution,” Jacoby writes,

Castellio […] uttered the unforgettable sentence “Who burns a man does not defend a doctrine, but only burns a man.” (The statement is often mistakenly attributed to Servetus himself.) Finally, Castellio declared with immense courage, given Servetus’s recent execution for heresy, “When I reflect on what a heretic really is, I can find no other criterion than that we are all heretics in the eyes of those who do not share our views.”

Studded with gems like this, Jacoby’s work is nonetheless not a systematic or complete secular history of either Christian conversion or conversion in general. As a history of Christian conversion, it omits, for example, the huge and much-chronicled saga of the conquistadors and the missionaries who followed them. It was their sometimes scandalous success, more than any other, that transformed Christianity from a regional religion into an international religion, overtaking Islam as the world’s largest. Similarly, as a secular history of conversion in general, Jacoby’s history does not address the huge range of topics covered in, for example, The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion. You will not read here about the mass conversion of 600,000 Dalits to Buddhism after B. R. Ambedkar, their great leader, spoke his famous line, “I was born a Hindu, but I will not die a Hindu,” leading his followers in a repudiation intended to enact their exit from Hinduism’s caste system. Now, I own a copy of The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion, and I anticipate consulting it about such matters as Dalit conversion, but I do not anticipate reading the thing straight through. In all fairness, it is no page-turner, and far be it from me to fault Jacoby for not matching it.

Jacoby’s book is a page-turner, not so much because it tells a single, forward-rushing story but because, in the manner of a good teacher each of whose classes leaves you eager for the next, any two of her chapters will leave you ready for a third. And in fairness, her work does have a narrative arc, bounding from Augustine in Part I to the Spanish Inquisition in Part II, hopping to the Reformations in Part III, then to the Enlightenment in Part IV (where the United States enters the story), then proceeding in Part V to Europe’s 18th-through-20th-century “Jewish Question,” on to American religious exceptionalism in Part VI, and finally to Part VII: “The Way We Live Now.” A heartfelt concluding essay addresses the ongoing horror of religious terrorism.

The word essay in the previous sentence may be a key to the literary mainspring of this work. When it works best, Strange Gods works as an anthology of biographical essays, each with its own intrinsic narrative interest, but each also written to make a point. For some readers, biography written to make a point is biography vitiated; for them, each life story must be told for and only for its own sake. I can only testify that I do not find Jacoby’s agenda vitiating. On the contrary, this work is enlivened by the way her transparent commitments and antagonisms flow autobiographically into everything she writes. That these only sometimes overlap with my own commitments and antagonisms only further energizes the reading encounter. She is an intellectual, not an academic, writing not with detachment but with unconcealed partisan energy. To a fault, but also to a virtue, she takes everything personally, and just this indomitable autobiographical strain in all she writes makes her especially simpático when biography itself is the genre in hand.

Thus, in Part I we have Augustine, starchily dealt with, to be sure, but the pages in her account of a conversion nearly as paradigmatic as that of St. Paul turn no less quickly for the starch. In Part II, we have Solomon ha-Levi a.k.a. Paul of Burgos, a Jewish converso who became a Catholic bishop and then a tireless but intriguingly conflicted apologist for his new faith. In Part III, we have John Donne, the sweet prince of religious adaptability, as well as the tragic, already mentioned Michael Servetus.

If these are storied names, that of the feisty Margaret Fell (1614–1702) in Part IV, an English convert to Quakerism at a time when Quakerism was so young that she is counted among its co-founders, is a household word perhaps only among Quakers themselves. Because Quakerism, in effect, retired the very notion of religious heresy as a punishable offense, it was persecuted in its early years as a sinister deviation from true Christian faith. Fell, of whom Jacoby writes with engaging sympathy and warmth, thus belongs in her Quaker recalcitrance to “the Dawn of the Enlightenment.”

Part V vaults forward to Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) and Edith Stein (1891–1942), German Jewish converts to, respectively, Lutheranism and Catholicism — he a major German poet, she a philosopher-nun who perished in the Shoah. Jacoby’s accounts of each are rich in revealing and often poignant detail. The less widely known of the two, Stein became philosopher Edmund Husserl’s research assistant during World War I when and quite likely because his male protégés, some one of whom he likely would have preferred to any woman, were all off at war. Between the wars, Husserl, himself a Jewish convert to Lutheranism, acquired a new assistant, Stein’s successor — none other than Martin Heidegger.

Whom would you predict in the biographical slot for Part VI, “American Exceptionalism: Toward Religious Choice as a Natural Right”? Roger Williams (1603–1683) would have been my guess and was in fact my general editor’s pick for a comparable spot in The Norton Anthology of Religions. Self-converted from Puritanism to Reformed Baptism, Williams fled under Puritan persecution from Massachusetts to the Narragansett Indians, there founded Providence Plantations (in what would become Rhode Island) as a refuge for dissidents, and is rightly remembered as America’s earliest champion of religious freedom. Jacoby’s choice, however, for this portion of her book, comes from the other side of the religious aisle, as it were: Peter Cartwright (1785–1872), a fiery evangelical preacher from the Second Great Awakening who ran for Congress against Abraham Lincoln and lost. The subtitle of Jacoby’s chapter on him is “Anti-Intellectualism and the Battle for Reform.”

Was I wearing out toward the end of this 512-page book, or was the author? I found her “Interregnum: Absolutism and Its Discontents” on the conversions of G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and Whittaker Chambers underdeveloped in its claim that all three sought and found in Anglicanism or Roman Catholicism the once-for-all absolutism that Arthur Koestler found and then renounced in Stalinism. Her underlying point seems to be an alleged spiritual isomorphism between absolutist Stalinism and absolutist Catholicism. But if there is so deep an inner sympathy between the two, why were there been so few conversions from the latter to the former, and why so ferocious and protracted a persecution of the former by the latter? This is not to suggest, of course, that Roman Catholicism was uniquely singled out for Communist persecution. Stalinism was notoriously anti-Semitic, and Russian Orthodoxy’s iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral is now a state museum in Red Square. The problem, finally, is that 19 pages are simply too few to handle this immense topic, and the biographical mode, crowded with four sketches in this interlude, simply breaks down.

Similarly, Jacoby’s chapter on Muhammad Ali’s conversion to Islam and draft resistance in Part VII, though appreciatively, even charmingly written (almost like an article in American Heritage magazine, now that the broken old champion is swathed in the gauze of legend), reads as a kind of afterthought. I imagine it arising from a conversation with a friend (or an editor) who may have said, “But how can you leave out Muhammad Ali, America’s most famous convert?” I would have had her move more swiftly to “Darkness Visible,” her surprising and penetrating conclusion.


Jacoby’s unsparing eye for the ridiculous in religion prompted a few knowing smiles as I read along, but only one belly laugh. The laugh came at the following, from her chapter on Peter Cartwright:

The first commandment, which emerged in the early republican era, for exercising the Constitution’s guarantee of religious liberty would seem to be: “Thou shalt not bug thy neighbors about adopting whatever loony theology thou art perfectly free to profess.”

Inasmuch as the First Amendment stipulates that Congress shall make no law “prohibiting the free exercise thereof [i.e., of religion],” the Constitution actually protects each citizen’s right to bug his neighbor about whatever weird theology he professes, and what could be more obvious than that many of us have bugged merrily away? And yet for every one who does so today, there must be 10 who abstain — 10 whose American acculturation has thoroughly schooled them to “Bug not, lest ye be bugged.”

For a careful historian of Western religion, “Thou shalt not bug,” et cetera, reads very like the adoption at the individual level of Cuius regio, eius religio, the principle that the 1648 Peace of Westphalia adopted at the national level in its determination to end Christianity’s Wars of Religion. Nations as nations would no longer bug each other about their respective weird theologies, the epoch-making treaty stipulated, though within their respective borders they could bug their citizens or subjects at will. Contemporary statist thinkers like Thomas Hobbes postulated that only if regimes had the power to impose religious orthodoxy could domestic tranquility be preserved. By that token, the later American Constitution, stripping the federal government of just that power, commenced a great national experiment to determine whether, in fact, the reverse might not be true — namely, the less government control of religion, the greater domestic tranquility.

But does the First Amendment and its popular echo in Jacoby’s “Thou shalt not bug” not rest on the silent premise that religion begins and ends with “weird theology” or, in other words, that religion is without real-life consequences? Do both the Constitution and American popular culture not assume that money matters, power matters, beauty matters, many things matter, but religion does not matter? Does this assumption not further explain why Americans adopt, abandon, and change religions with such frequency and ease?

Perhaps so. But granting so much for the sake of argument, what happens when the United States encounters a world that does not share this legal and cultural premise? Then, as has happened in the Middle East throughout the Obama as well as the George W. Bush administration, the United States is found proposing or attempting to impose economic or military or educational or political solutions for violent conflicts that are significantly religious in origin but that Americans cannot acknowledge as such because for us the ostensibly religious must always be translated into some mix of the only factors that we acknowledge as consequential — roughly, money, guns, schools, and American-style elections. American diplomacy, to put this matter more simply, is allowed to have no truck with “weird theology.” Our representatives must only talk about things that “really matter,” and as a result we get nowhere.

Just this is the knotty issue that Jacoby engages in her conclusion. Its title, “Darkness Visible,” is an unmarked quotation from Milton, for whom, in Paradise Lost, hell was:

A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light but only darkness visible
Served onely to discover sights of woe…


The hell of our day is Syria, where darkness visible serves solely (“onely”) to discover sights of woe, but I defy anyone to explain this hell in a way that excludes the mutual fear that the Sunni, on the one hand, and the Alawite Shia, with their Christian and other minority allies, on the other, each have of living under the dominance of the religious other. Materially, economically, socially, environmentally, in every way imaginable but the religious, the contending sides have everything to gain and nothing to lose by making peace with one another. It is above all their religious difference that remains toweringly intractable, lashing them on to fight to the death or to the final wreck of the only country they have.

The one form of religion that Jacoby believes truly worth fighting against is the form that seeks by brute force to impose its views upon all. She asks, almost plaintively: “Even from a devoutly religious standpoint, does it really matter if God appears dead to some, as long as others are perfectly free to reach a different conclusion?” The only honest answer is that there are liberal forms of religious devotion for which, no, it doesn’t matter, and conservative forms for which, yes, it does. But from this admission it surely should follow that we can and must talk about just these differences among forms of religious devotion and about their immense consequences. Alas, this is what too many secular liberals are loath to do.

Of such liberals, secular or religious, Jacoby writes, with reference to the atrocities being perpetrated in such places as Syria:

The easiest course for anyone — religious or secular — who is uncomfortable criticizing any aspect of religion is to avoid making careful distinctions, pretend that this violence has a purely political or economic explanation, and deny that crazed faith — perish the thought — has anything to do with such terrible acts. It is undeniable that extreme fundamentalist forms of religion, with their emphasis on martyrdom and rewards in the afterlife, tend to flourish in societies affording little opportunity in this life, but it is equally undeniable that retrograde religion itself fosters social, educational, and economic deprivation in a vicious cycle.

To her impassioned cry, I would add only that if religion is consequential in this regard and in this geographical context, then it might be just as consequential in other regards and in other contexts.

Purely religious war is as rare as purely religious conversion, but just as genuine religion, however adulterated, matters to the former, so also to the latter. By speaking as she does, Jacoby risks placing herself in the company of Glenn Beck — not her usual company, to put it mildly — in his recently published, inflammatory, and perhaps for that reason unwisely ignored It IS About Islam. But she should be undeterred, for her summons, after all, is to make “careful distinctions” within this explosive topic, and such distinctions cannot be made if the topic itself is resolutely passed over in silence as unworthy of attention by grown-up people living in the real world.

Difficult as it is to know the interior life of another when, as Dorothy Day wrote, we can scarcely know our own, we must try. In the second-last sentence of her book, Jacoby the heroine of free thought voices her dream that:

more secular Americans will realize that nothing has never proved to be a very good substitute for something, will stop fearing social censure, will openly identify themselves as atheists or humanists, and will establish institutions that provide yet another choice within the American religious marketplace.

But while she waits for this dream to come true, Jacoby the pedagogue in spite of herself is too much a realist to expect the Great Mall of American Religion to shut down any time soon. On the contrary, as she writes in her next and last sentence, “We can be sure of one thing: the marketplace, in contrast to areas of the world still cursed by religious coercion, will remain open for business.”


Jack Miles, Distinguished Professor of English & Religious Studies at the University of California, Irvine, is the general editor of The Norton Anthology of World Religions.

LARB Contributor

Jack Miles, an ex-Jesuit, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning God: A Biography (1995), editor of The Norton Anthology of World Religions, and professor emeritus of English and religious studies at the University of California, Irvine.


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