Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion

Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion

Title:Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion
Format Type:Hardcover
Number of Pages:512 pages

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.)

    Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion Reviews

  • Jenna

    Religious people like to cite conversion stories as proof that their religion is the One True Religion. Of course, they cite conversion stories to their religion, and not the ones from it to something...

  • Mikey B.

    This book covers an enormous range of history; however sometimes it can be lengthy and pedantic. The overall theme is the coercion of religious conversion which can range from opportunistic as in blen...

  • George

    ERUDITE, RECONDITE, INTERESTING AND INFORMATIVE.“Religious conversion is an irresistible subject for a secularist or an atheist precisely because so much human energy, throughout recorded history, h...

  • Ryan Bell

    Here is a link to my conversation with the author:

  • Kate Elliott

    Fairly good history, but what a condescending tone. She doesn't really respect the emotional nuance of religious experience. This tightness makes her approach brittle. The book could have been much mo...

  • Lydia

    I was worried this would be a real snoozer as I started it in the car with my husband when it was my turn to drive and he almost immediately fell asleep, but I ended up thoroughly enjoying it. I'm not...

  • Jeff

    I received this book as a gift and dove into it with high hopes which were unfortunately dashed by the end.The book itself has a solid premise: it constitutes an argument that the vast majority of rel...

  • Ayman Fadel

    Full review with hyperlinks & formatting here: you, like me, grew up receiving religious education, you likely encountered conversion stories. For Muslims, a...

  • Jill Meyer

    Susan Jacoby's "Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion", is a bit of a mish-mash. Now, that's not said in a bad way; Jacoby tries to cover the topic from Augustine to Mohammed Ali and his daugh...

  • Grace

    There was a lot of powerful information and useful perspectives on conversion and social and economic reasons for conversion, rather than just the spiritual. I particularly liked the chapter on Muhamm...