‘Strange Gods’ Chronicles The History Of Secularism And Conversion

Feb 24, 2016

Photo credit: Bridgeman Images

By NPR/Fresh Air

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. My guest, Susan Jacoby, is an atheist, but members of three generations of her family were converts from one religion to another. Her father was a secular Jew who converted to his wife’s religion, Catholicism, several years after they were married. Susan didn’t even know her father was from a Jewish family until she was a teenager. She wrote a memoir about her family’s buried past about seventeen years ago. She’s also the author of a book about the history of American secularism. Now she’s written a new book, called, “Strange Gods: A Secular History Of Conversion.” She also recently wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times about how the population of nonreligious Americans, including atheists and agnostics, is at an all-time high this election year, yet political campaigns typically ignore the growing number of secular voters.

Susan Jacoby, welcome to FRESH AIR. So why did you write a book about the history of conversion? Now, I know some of the answer to that has to do with the history of conversion in your own family – which we’ll get to in a bit – and some of it has to do with the fact that you are an atheist – which we’ll also get to in a little bit – but, just historically, what did you want to know?

SUSAN JACOBY: I wanted to know how much of conversion was forced – that is, forced in the sense that the Inquisition forced people to choose – forced Jews, let’s say, and Muslims to choose conversion to Christianity or death. I wanted to see how much of conversion historically was forced in that way and how much of it was really a kind of persuasion. Whether through intermarriage, which is the most common reason for conversion historically, or the desire to gain social advantages, economic advantages, jobs which are closed to one person rather than another if the person is a member of a minority religion. I wanted to find out what are the things – apart from the blinding flash on the road to Damascus, the light that comes out of the sky, the voice of God – I wanted to find out what are the earthly forces? Politics, economics, imperialism, slavery. In other words, to look at conversion as more than a spiritual journey but also as a material earthly journey in this material world.

GROSS: So in keeping with what you’ve been talking about – about how there many different kinds of conversions, many different reasons for conversion, some of the mass conversions that you write about were really a part of imperialism. You conquer the territory and you change the people’s religions to the religion of your state.

JACOBY: Of course, and the biggest religious wars and persecutions in history occur when religions, each claiming their own absolute truths, come into conflict. If during the Reformation you were a Catholic who lived in a part of Germany in which Lutheranism was the ascendant religion and the ruler of the province or the region was Lutheran, to stay a Catholic, you either had to be a dissenter or you had to leave. And one of the reasons there are largely Catholic and largely Protestant regions of Germany today is that people did sort themselves out geographically. So not only imperialism in the sense of conquering other peoples but also theocracy in the sense of – in the sense of churches, you know, having a very close relationship if not an absolute union with the state.

GROSS: And talking about religion and comparing America to other parts of the world, you write about how, you know, conversions, interfaith marriages, are much more common in the U.S. than in most other places in the world in part because there has been no state religion here. People have been free to choose their religion and free to change their religion if they want to, and many people have taken advantage of that freedom. Do you want to elaborate that – on that a little bit?

JACOBY: Yes. I think very few people realize how much the separation of church and state has to do with the fact that Americans are not only more religious than a lot of other people in the world but that conversions are much more common here. More than half of Americans have changed religions at least once in their adult lifetime. This is – the rate of religious conversion here is much, much higher than it is anywhere in Europe, for example. People there tend – if they don’t practice the default religion, they often slide into secularism, but it’s not a conversion in the sense of you don’t find very many Lutherans converting to Catholicism or Judaism in Sweden, for example. But you do find all sorts of people converting to all sorts of religions here. Now, part of that is our secular constitution in which – for so long in Europe before the 20th century, before the middle of the 20th century, a decision about religion was also a decision about politics. In other words, if you chose a particular religion, you were siding with the government religion of whatever region you were in. That’s never been true in America, but also, the United States also has so many more immigrant groups which also tends to imply more religious diversity right away.


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9 comments on “‘Strange Gods’ Chronicles The History Of Secularism And Conversion

  • May I take this opportunity to remind anyone who lives in the Boston, MA area that Susan Jacoby will be giving a book talk and signing at the Harvard Book Store on Mass Ave in Harvard Square on March 3, at 7pm. The event is free.

    http://www.harvard.com/event/susan_jacoby/

    Susan Jacoby is one of our leading female atheist public intellectuals. Her books have inspired me for many years now. It’s important to support our secular humanist women as I’ve pointed out many times here in the past. I will be so happy to meet her there and thank her for all of her wonderful and meaningful hard work.

    When I read her book Freethinkers, at the end of the last page of it I thought – Wow, I’m not alone in this anymore. The next book after that one was The God Delusion

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  • @OP – In other words, if you chose a particular religion, you were siding with the government religion of whatever region you were in. That’s never been true in America,. . .

    Is this seriously suggesting that theocratic politicians of the bible-belt states, do not favour members of their own religion over others, or that the ex-African Negro slaves chose to become Christians???

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  • A4d

    I’m thinking about religious choice of slaves and I suspect that the religion of their owner must have been the deciding factor as to the religion of the slave. No choice at all there. I’ll bet that the big southern plantations had their own church of choice right on the grounds so as to be convenient for their purposes. There were plenty of slaves in the north as well and I’m wondering how they came to be members of their churches. They were all dragged into those churches by their owners but at some point, their churches became a rallying place for civil rights. Here is a link to history of African American church in Boston:

    http://www.nps.gov/boaf/learn/historyculture/churches.htm

    From that article:
    In earlier periods, slaves and servants probably sat in church with the families they served. After the Revolution and after the end of slavery in Massachusetts in 1783, segregated seating became a more practiced norm. By 1800 the number of African Americans in Boston had increased, as had exclusionary and segregation practices in churches. These factors influenced the establishment of the first independent black churches in Boston.

    What if slave owners were Catholic? Did they impose that particular brand of Xianity on their slaves as well?

    If I remember correctly, slaves did participate in the churches of their masters but typical of a conquered population, they kept elements of their previous faith as well. Oppressors tend to overlook these practices, more or less.

    Except for the people discussed above, religious people here most likely follow the path of least resistance and practice the religion of their family. In the absence of a government official religion, in a nation of immigrants, it’s likely that those immigrants, no matter how many generations back, brought their religion with them from the old country. I can, with reasonable accuracy, predict an American’s religion just by knowing their last name. Decades past this was very accurate. Due to conversions for a number of reasons, less so now.

    If we have a good question for the author I will be happy to present it to her at the book signing and report back here.

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  • @LaurieB

    I am not offering as evidence as such but this tells a story. It seems it could have been more secretly practices in the south and more effected by charitable peoples in the north but it started with the slaves themselves, or so it would seem here.

    For decades all manner of people and circumstances conspired against
    African Americans even hearing the gospel, let alone responding to it
    in freedom and joy.

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  • Olgun #4
    Feb 24, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    I am not offering as evidence as such but this tells a story.

    The publication at your link, is “Christianity Today”, so cherry-picked stories rather than historical evidence, are probably the agenda!
    The number of African American Xtians today, suggests that any restraint in heavily indoctrinating and converting slaves, was at most temporary!

    For decades all manner of people and circumstances conspired against
    African Americans even hearing the gospel, let alone responding to it
    in freedom and joy.

    This piece would not be out of place coming from the lips of Ken Ham, the YECs or Harold Camping, preaching against modern science, while asserting that acceptance of Xtianity is a human “default” condition!

    “For decades all manner of people (scientists, educators, judges,) and circumstances conspired against Americans even hearing the gospel, let alone responding to it in freedom and joy.”

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  • The publication at your link, is “Christianity Today”, so cherry-picked stories rather than historical evidence, are probably the agenda!

    That’s the trouble with most sites dedicated to a particular view point or ideology, this one included.

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  • Lancshoop #7
    Feb 25, 2016 at 8:18 am

    That’s the trouble with most sites dedicated to a particular view point or ideology, this one included.

    Those following scientific methodology, of evidence based reasoning, do not do that, although some individuals who do not follow evidenced reasoning may.

    That is why science sites cannot be equated with ideological sites.

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  • @Lancshoop

    7

    Feb 25, 2016 at 8:18 am

    That’s the trouble with most sites dedicated to a particular view point or ideology, this one included.

    The difference is that most of our regulars here would take a correction or different point of view that was offered and give it fair consideration and possibly change their mind based on that. On religious or other ideological websites, an opposing point of view or correction would not even be posted or if it was posted it would inspire super defensive reactions from their regulars.

    The religiously afflicted are programed to react aggressively against any thought, behavior or statement that compromises their bottom line. People who are rational thinkers, freethinkers and those who have spent a lifetime in the sciences have practiced turning on a dime when presented with a new better way of looking at things.

    Stick around. You’ll see it happen everyday around here.

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