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By Susan Jacoby
Published by Vintage on 2017-03-21
REFERENCE, RELIGION, HISTORY
In a groundbreaking historical work that focuses on the long, tense convergence of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam with an uncompromising secular perspective, Susan Jacoby illuminates the social and economic forces that have shaped individual faith and the voluntary conversion impulse that has changed the course of Western history—for better and for worse. Covering the triumph of Christianity over paganism in late antiquity, the Spanish Inquisition, John Calvin’s dour theocracy, American plantations where African slaves had to accept their masters’ religion—along with individual converts including Augustine of Hippo, John Donne, Edith Stein, Muhammad Ali, George W. Bush and Mike Pence—Strange Gods makes a powerful case that nothing has been more important in struggle for reason than the right to believe in the God of one’s choice or to reject belief in God altogether.
In a work blending culture, religion, history, biography, and a bit of memoir (with more than a soupcon of attitude), the author of The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought (2013, etc.) returns with a revealing historical analysis of religious conversions.
Jacoby draws the first detailed maps of a terrain that has been very much in need of intelligent, careful cartography.
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Acclaim for Susan Jacoby's STRANGE GODS 'Strange Gods is a fascinating, instructive history of the various ways, both noble and self-serving, by which people have come 'into the light? not merely of Christianity but also Judaism, Islam and even anti-Communism.' ? The Wall Street Journal 'Neither a scathing New Atheist tract nor a dry academic history, Jacoby's sweeping account of religious conversion . . . fi nds an essential new angle of approach. . . . A likely story and, in her hands, a lively one.' ? Vulture 'Strange Gods, with its scope (Augustine of Hippo to Muhammad Ali), insight, and carefully assessed judgments, emerges as an engaging rumination on? if not quite a history of? this tricky and multifarious subject.' ? The Christian Science Monitor 'In a work blending culture, religion, history, biography, and a bit of memoir (with more than a soup'on of attitude), the author of The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought returns with a revealing historical analysis of religious conversions. . . . [She] impressively combines thorough research and passionate writing. Jacoby draws the fi rst detailed maps of a terrain that has been very much in need of intelligent, careful cartography.' ? Kirkus Reviews (starred review) 'Susan Jacoby's Strange Gods is an astonishing work: an audacious attack on id'es re'ues about conversion, an exposure of a legion of hypocrisies, a spirited guidebook to religions and heresies one remembers at best dimly, and a passionate defense of the right to reason and choose. Jacoby is a supremely intelligent and brave writer. It is impossible to praise her book too highly.' ? Louis Begley, author of Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters
'Susan Jacoby turns her feisty brilliance on the history of religious conversions, famous and infamous, simultaneously giving us a history of religious intolerance. Her combination of intellectual rigor, vigor, erudition, and integrity makes Strange Gods wonderfully lively and enlightening.' ? Rebecca Goldstein, author of Plato at the Googleplex 'A vivid picture of the ways in which conversions happen and the myriad reasons behind their happening.' ? Booklist 'Rare is the person who can combine deep scholarship with powerful narrative abilities and a capacity for autobiographical detail. Susan Jacoby's Strange Gods does all of these things, and in the service of a fascinating subject. Those who change their religion, those who do not, and those who could care less will all fi nd much of value in her book.' ? Alan Wolfe, author of At Home in Exile 'One of America's most astute cultural critics, Susan Jacoby writes more intelligently and insightfully than any author I have read on the vexed issues of religious identity, freedom, ideology, and the collision of secular and theological forces.' ? James Shapiro, author of The Year of Lear 'In Strange Gods, Jacoby turns a respectful yet skeptical eye on a series of conversion dramas. For much of human history, she argues, converts switched religion under social or political pressure; more recently, it's nearly always a result of intermarriage. Among the most fascinating stories are those that don't fi t either narrative: that of Edith Stein, a German Jewish philosophy student who became a Catholic nun in 1933, which didn't save her from being killed at Auschwitz; or Muhammad Ali, whose 1964 decision to join the Nation of Islam confused and even enraged white sportswriters and boxing fans.' ? The Boston Globe '[Jacoby's] book engagingly looks at the phenomenon of conversion throughout Western history . . . and although her treatment throughout sparkles with the rich, lively thinking readers have come to associate with this author, her sharp points are sharper here than they've been in any of her previous books.' ? Open Letters Monthly
SUSAN JACOBY STRANGE GODS Susan Jacoby is the author of eleven previous books, most recently Never Say Die, The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, The Age of American Unreason, Alger Hiss and the Battle for History, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, and HalfJew: A Daughter's Search for Her Family's Buried Past. Her articles have appeared frequently in the oped pages of The New York Times and in forums that include The American Prospect, Dissent, and The Daily Beast. She lives in New York City. www.susanjacoby.com
also by susan jacoby The Last Men on Top The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age Alger Hiss and the Battle for History The Age of American Unreason Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism HalfJew: A Daughter's Search for Her Family's Buried Past Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge The Possible She Inside Soviet Schools Moscow Conversations
STRANGE GODS A Secular History of Conversion SUSAN JACOBY V I N T A G E B O O K S A Division of Penguin Random House LLC New York
For Rose Glennon FIRST V INTAGE BOOKS EDITION, M ARCH 2017 Copyright ? 2016 by Susan Jacoby All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, in 2016. Vintage and colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC. Grateful acknowledgment is made to ICS Publications for permission to reprint an excerpt from Life in a Jewish Family by Edith Stein, translated by Josephine Koeppel, O.C.D., copyright ? 1986 by Washington Province of Discalced Carmelites. Reprinted by permission of ICS Publications, 2131 Lincoln Road, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002- 1199 (www.icspublications.org). The Library of Congress has catalogued the Pantheon edition as follows: Jacoby, Susan. Strange gods : a secular history of conversion / Susan Jacoby. pages ; cm Includes bibliographical references and index. 1. Conversion? History. I. Title. BL639.J33 2016 204'.2'dc23 2015019062 Vintage Books Trade Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4000-9639-8 eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-87096-9 Author photograph ? Marion Ettlinger Book design by Maggie Hinders www.vintagebooks.com Printed in the United States of America 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
CONTENTS A Note on Language ? ix ? xi Introduction ? xiii PART I Young Christendom and the Fading Pagan Gods 1 Augustine of Hippo (354'430) ? 3 2 The Way, the Truth, the Life, the Empire ? 30 3 Coercion, Conversion, and Heresy ? 56 PART II From Convivencia to the Stake 4 Bishop Paul of Burgos (c. 1352'1435) ? 71 5 Impureza de Sangre: The Crumbling of the Convivencia ? 87 6 The Inquisition and the End ? 99 PART III Reformations 7 John Donne (1572'1631) ? 115 8 'Not with Sword . . . but with Printing? ? 134 9 Persecution in an Age of Religious Conversion ? 146 PART IV Conversions in the Dawn of the Enlightenment 10 Margaret Fell (1614'1702): Woman's Mind, Woman's Voice ? 163
viii Contents 11 Religious Choice and Early Enlightenment Thought ? 178 12 Miracles Versus Evidence: Conversion and Science ? 196 13 Prelude: O My America! ? 209 PART V The Jewish Conversion Question: Where Christianity Stumped Its Toe 14 Heinrich Heine (1797'1856): Convictionless Conversion ? 239 15 The Varieties of Coercive Experience ? 260 16 Edith Stein (1891'1942): The Sainthood of a Converted Jew ? 277 PART VI American Exceptionalism: Toward Religious Choice as a Natural Right 17 Peter Cartwright (1785'1872): AntiIntellectualism and the Battle for Reason ? 297 18 Remaking the Protestant American Compact ? 317 INTERREGNUM: ABSOLUTISM AND ITS DISCONTENTS 19 True Believers ? 337 PART VII The Way We Live Now 20 'The Greatest': Muhammad Ali and the Demythologizing Decade ? 359 21 American Dreaming ? 379 Conclusion: Darkness Visible ? 394 Acknowledgments ? 417 Notes ? 419 Selected Bibliography ? 433 Index ? 439
NOTE ON LANGUAGE Readers will notice that I use the title 'Saint,' as designated by the Roman Catholic Church, only when not using it would create confusion. If, for example, I were to refer to Christopher, the patron saint of travelers in Catholic lore, and the late writer and atheist Christopher Hitchens in the same sentence (I actually cannot imagine how or why I would do that), I would apply the title 'Saint? to the traveling Christopher to make it clear that Hitchens has not been posthumously canonized. Sainthood is a specifi c, Roman Catholic concept, not accepted by most of the world's religions or by those who do not believe in any religion. Calling Augustine of Hippo 'Saint Augustine? is a value judgment made by the Catholic Church, as is the sainthood of Edith Stein, the Jewish convert to Catholicism who entered the Discalced Carmelite Order, took the name Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, was murdered at Auschwitz, and was canonized by Pope John Paul II. Readers may judge for themselves, after reading the writings of men and women like Augustine and Stein, whether they believe in saints as a special, elevated category mediating between God and humanity. In a book on the subject of religious conversion in the West, the honorifi c 'saint? comes up more often than it normally would, because conversion itself was long considered an important step on the road to sainthood by the Catholic Church. Throughout this book, I have used standard English transliterations of the names of important historical fi gures in the history of religious
Note on Language conversion. Garry Wills, in his brilliant short study Augustine's Confessions, transliterates the name of Augustine's mother, Monica, as 'Monnica,' but 'Monica? is the more recognizable spelling. I capitalize 'God? because this is common English usage? though not when I am referring to a particular god among many, or to an individual's idea of a personal god? i.e., 'My god is bigger than your god.' Unlike Catholic saints, God is God with a capital 'G? to most people who read and write English. Who am I to deprive Him or Her of a capital letter in the orthographic universe'
PROLOGUE And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, And desired of him letters to Damascus and the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? . . . And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither did he eat nor drink. And there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and to him said the Lord in a vision, Ananias. And he said, Behold, I am here, Lord. . . . And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be fi lled with the Holy Ghost. And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized. ? the acts of the apostles, chapter 9, verses 1'4, 8'10, 17'18
INTRODUCTION I come from a family of religious converts, spanning three generations and more than a century on both my mother's and father's sides. My father was born in 1914 into a nonobservant Jewish family whose ancestors had immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1849 and settled in New York City. My Jacoby grandfather and grandmother did not convert to Christianity, but they did send their children to a Lutheran Sunday school in Brooklyn. Although my father and his siblings were never baptized in childhood and knew that their family was Jewish, they were taught nothing about Judaism as a religion. My father's uncle, Levi Harold Jacoby, professor of astronomy at Columbia University, and one of the few Jews (religious or nonreligious) on the faculty in the early twentieth century, married an Episcopalian and did convert, dropping his undeniably Jewish fi rst name along the way. As an undergraduate at Columbia, he was listed as 'Levi Harold? in offi cial records, but by the time he became a member of the faculty, he was plain Harold. He was a frequent source for New York newspapers, trying to explain new scientifi c developments, such as Einstein's theory of relativity, to the reading public. In those articles, too, there was no trace of the Jewish fi rst name his parents had given him. My father and his elder brother and sister took another path in the middle of the twentieth century by marrying Irish American Catholics and converting to the Roman Catholic Church. My brother and I, as children in the Middle West in the 1950s, were told that my father had converted from the Episcopal Church? a handy falsehood pos-
xiv Introduction sibly derived from the background of the cousins descended from Levi Harold (always referred to within my branch of the family as 'the other Jacobys'). When I was growing up, I could not possibly have known that in the fi rst half of the twentieth century, mainstream Protestantism was a much more common choice than Catholicism for American Jews wishing to conceal their origins, because Protestants occupied a higher social and economic rung than Catholics in the American class hierarchy.* This book is titled Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion precisely because most histories and personal accounts of conversion have been written by believers in the supernatural, who understandably view changes of faith mainly in terms of their spiritual origins and signifi cance. William James (1842'1910), in his extensive discussion of conversions in The Varieties of Religious Experience, presents a psychological exploration of the conversion experience that holds up well, for the most part, even though his famous lectures were delivered more than a century ago at the University of Edinburgh. The important exception is James's avoidance of external social infl uences on conversion. With his rare combination of medical and philosophical training, as an intellectual of the fi rst generation exposed to both Darwin and Freud, James nevertheless viewed conversion almost entirely as an individual rather than as a social experience? and he never quite made up his own mind about what goes on in the minds of ardent converts. 'Were we writing the story of the mind from the purely naturalhistory point of view,' he acknowledged, 'with no religious interest whatever, we should still have to write down man's liability to sudden and complete conversion as one of his most curious peculiarities.' Then he observed, in a cagey fashion that stopped just short of contradicting his earlier statement, that such conversions often produce 'an altogether new level of spiritual vitality, a relatively heroic level, in which impossible things have become possible, and new energies and endurances are shown.' Through such conversions, James argued, 'personality is changed, the man is born anew, whether or not his psychological idiosyncrasies are what give the particular shape to * This story is told in greater detail in my 2000 memoir, HalfJew: A Daughter's Search for Her Family's Buried Past (New York: Scribner), recently published as an eBook by Vintage Books.
Introduction xv his metamorphosis.'* Translated from early medicopsychological language that had not yet evolved into modern psychobabble, what James seems to be saying is that a man who goes to bed believing in one god or no god at all and wakes up believing in a new form of divine truth may be mentally or emotionally unstable (or at least highly unusual) by ordinary standards, but the weirdness of the process can nevertheless lead to a positive personality transformation. This ambiguous attitude toward conversion refl ects the inconsistencies in James's own form of religion, which involved the troublesome intellectual compromises required of a man who came of age as a liberal nineteenthcentury Christian while trying to make room for a psychological explanation of emotional experience that did not fi t comfortably into the realm of either faith or reason. I would never deny that an intense emotional desire to believe in something true? to see 'face to face,' as Paul, Christianity's fi rst great proselytizer, put it? motivates many conversions and plays an important role in their outcome. But so do other, more earthly needs and longings, which bear only a tangential relationship, if any, to what theologians and many philosophers (including James) call the soul, consciousness, or the spirit. All of the factors that entered into conversions in my family? the desire to improve one's class status and economic prospects, to fi t in with the majority, to please a mate's family and smooth the way for a mixed marriage, to gain admission to a desired social group? tend to be left out of narratives that view conversion almost entirely as a search for truth and exclude social motivation from consideration. Skepticism about conversion, especially in postEnlightenment societies that have long eschewed physical force in matters of religion, tends to come mainly from minorities, like Jews, in which every loss of a believer to another faith diminishes the religious strength of a small group already attenuated by historical persecution and modern secularism. In the West, the normative conversion narrative? certainly when written by nonJews? has basically been a proChristian narrative. There are exceptions, the most notable being Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in which he portrays the triumph of Christianity as an important factor in the erosion of Roman * See Lecture IX, 'Conversion,' in The Varieties of Religious Experience.
xvi Introduction power. It is a fair criticism? one made by many historians? that Gibbon is too secular (or too antiChristian and too inclined to believe in pagan society's tolerance) in attributing as much importance as he does to one element in the slow collapse of a mighty, farfl ung empire with a great many economic and social problems. Nevertheless, powerful new religious ideas certainly do have powerful social consequences? especially when the religion is welded to political power and, to a greater or lesser degree, forced on others. This certainly did happen at various points in late antiquity, in ways fueled by many of the same secular discontents and longings that lead to conversion not only in socially unstable, decaying empires but in more democratic societies undergoing rapid and unsettling social change. ? My mother's family offered the perfect example of socially infl uenced conversion at a time when the United States? especially in its large cities? was experiencing immense cultural upheaval as a result of immigration. In 1919, my Lutheran grandmother, the daughter of German immigrants who settled in Chicago, converted to Catholicism when she married my Irish Catholic grandfather. This switch from one branch of Christianity to another seems unremarkable in today's America, in which approximately half of the adult population has changed religions at least once since age eighteen, but it was considerably more unusual when my grandparents married.* My grandmother was required to take months of instruction in the faith and to promise that any children would be raised as Catholics before she could be married at the altar of the parish church. Had she not converted, she and my grandfather would have had to settle for the secondclass status of a wedding in the rectory. Gran took a completely pragmatic, nontheological stance toward her adopted religion. 'It made your gramps's mother happy,' she told me fi fty years later, 'and it didn't make any difference to me. After all, it's the same God whatever church you go to.' Gran had taken roughly the same stance in 1944, when my father, after asking my mother to marry him, felt obliged to reveal what he * The statistic comes from the Pew Research Center, considered the gold standard of research on American religious practices and trends today.
Introduction xvii still considered the shameful secret of his Jewish origins to her parents. It is undeniable that a marriage between a Christian and a Jew (secular or religious) in 1944'at a time when antiSemitism was a far more powerful social force in the United States than it is today? would have been more of a shock to the average American family than a marriage between two different kinds of Christians. 'When your dad told Gramps and me there was something about him we didn't know, my fi rst thought was maybe he had been married before,' Gran recalled. 'I was so relieved when he said he was Jewish, and I told him, 'Is that all? You can always convert if you want to, and if you don't, that's fi ne with us too.' ? My grandfather, a benevolent patriarch whose familial power was only enhanced by his lack of sternness, was equally unconcerned. He was happy because he fully accepted the stereotype that Jews don't drink, don't beat their wives, and don't ignore their fi nancial responsibility to their families? and that they therefore make good husbands. (This conviction was based largely on Gramps's friendship with a rabbi who played poker with him but never drank a beer, whether he was winning or losing. Also, my mother had previously been married to a Catholic alcoholic? a union that was eventually annulled by the Catholic Church? so the stereotypical abstemiousness of Jewish men was a particular point in my dad's favor.) My father did not convert to Catholicism until I was seven years old, and my grandparents had nothing to do with his decision. At the time, he explained his conversion in simple terms: it would be a good thing for the family to attend Sunday Mass together, and we could all go out to breakfast afterward. Nothing to it. My entire family's attitudes toward both religious conversion and religious belief can only be described as laissezfaire, and my upbringing at home was markedly at odds with what I was taught in Catholic school about the indisputable monopoly on truth held by the church. One might well ask why my parents, whose attitudes toward changes in religious affi liation seemed largely opportunistic to me when I was young (an opinion I never had any reason to revise as an adult), sent their children to schools that tried to imbue every child with the conviction that Catholicism was the One True Church? or, as anyone brought up Catholic in the 1950s will recall, 'the only the Church.' My mother never explained her reasons to me, although she stopped attending church in her seventies and, before she died at age ninety, told
xviii Introduction me she did not want a priest to conduct her funeral. (The willingness of my mother to jettison the religion of a lifetime is yet another family mystery, now beyond the reach of daughterly or writerly inquiry.) ? I am certain that my lifelong interest in the phenomenon of religious conversion derives in part? a very signifi cant part? from my childhood in a family that sent decidedly mixed messages about the importance and meaning of religious loyalty. In the Catholic universe, the model of religious conversion was of course Saul on the road to Damascus: blinded by error, a man is vouchsafed a revelation from God, loses consciousness, and awakes to the light of divine, unalterable truth. That none of the converts in my immediate family ever claimed to have been swayed by a visitation from the Almighty occurred to me when I was quite young, and my sense that something other than divine grace might be at work was undoubtedly reinforced by the experience, at age seven, of grilling my father on the Baltimore Catechism when he was preparing for his conversion. There just wasn't much spiritual mystery surrounding a conversion explained by the desire to go to Mass as a family so we could all go out together to the local pancake house for a postsacramental breakfast. What this casual, almost fl ippant explanation omitted? what I did not learn until I began asking questions ten years later? was the vast importance of real and perceived antiSemitism in my father's emotional makeup. He and his siblings had known they were Jews while they were growing up; my brother and I, raised in a suburb where few Jews lived, did not. There was so little of what later came to be known as 'Jewish consciousness? in our town that it never seemed to occur to anyone that 'Jacoby? was ordinarily (if you went back far enough, always) a Jewish name. Despite its evasiveness, my father's explanation contained its own truth. His conversion was quintessentially American in its pragmatism, based on the civic assumption that choosing one's religion is as much an American right as choosing one's place of residence. As a people, we have always believed in the possibility and, in many instances, the desirability of personal reinvention. What could be more of a reinvention than living out the idea that choosing another god, or, at the very least, a radically different way of life under the aegis of