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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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