Review: ‘Strange Gods’ by Susan Jacoby

Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion. Susan Jacoby. Pantheon. 512 pages. $29.95.
Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion. Susan Jacoby. Pantheon. 512 pages. $29.95.

As Columbus prepared to embark on his first transatlantic crossing, he witnessed a sorry sight: boatloads of Spanish Jews setting sail into exile. The “Most Catholic Majesties,” Ferdinand and Isabella, had given these loyal subjects a choice: accept Jesus or find a new home. Such stark ultimatums were commonplace in pre-Enlightenment Europe, Susan Jacoby writes in her new book, Strange Gods, an illuminating but tendentious appraisal, from a cold-eyed unbeliever’s vantage point, of the erroneously romanticized phenomenon of religious conversion.

With converts one expects road of Damascus moments, those highly personal experiences, triggered by a sense of emptiness or misplaced priorities, that lead lost souls to a meaningful path. But history paints a grislier picture.

Conversions in the past, Jacoby argues, were generally due to “shifts in political power,” which allowed a majority to impose its ideological will on a subjugated minority. Almost all faiths have been at one time or another guilty of forced conversion, but Jacoby’s arch-villain is the Catholic Church. Its alliance with the Roman Empire ushered in an unprecedented wave of persecution against pagans and Jews.

For centuries the Vatican promulgated a fairy tale: “Christianity won out solely by changing free hearts and minds and conveying a spiritual truth that the majority of the Roman Empire accepted naturally and voluntarily once they were exposed to the Gospels.” The way Jacoby portrays it, however, it was more like a hostile takeover.

Countless books burned, philosophers torn apart by mobs, dissident voices ruthlessly suppressed. “When the blood of people is running in the streets,” Jacoby asks, “its communities being destroyed, and its possessions confiscated, how is it possible to speak of truly ‘voluntary’ conversion?”

Antipathy toward the church came to a head in the 16th century, but the “reform” in Reformation did not include tolerance. Jacoby devotes a chapter to the theocracy John Calvin established in Geneva, which would pass muster with Iran’s mullahs. This is how bad it got: circumcising a Christian baby — an act of “Judaization,” in the eyes of the Calvinists — could result in the death of the entire family.

Freethinkers like the Spanish physician Michael de Servetus, who fled the Inquisition over his rejection of original sin, found a fiery Protestant stake awaiting him in what he had hoped would be a Swiss sanctuary.

Jacoby’s book is full of stories of forced conversions: the French Huguenots, who were virtual prisoners in their native land; the Puritans, whose operating principle was “freedom of conscience for me but not thee,” as Ann Hutchinson learned to her detriment in the New World; and the notorious case of Edgardo Mortara, the Jewish boy who was kidnapped by Vatican troops and raised by Pope Pius IX, despite an international outcry. And there were the slaves in the American South, who quickly discovered that liberty and baptism were mutually exclusive terms.

Strange Gods will warm the hearts of atheists, but the faithful may recoil at its anti-clericalism. Christians who come out looking good here are the Quakers, and that is probably because they aren’t particularly aggressive proselytizers (they call conversions “convincements”). Jacoby has nice things to say about the Convivencia, the period of Muslim influence in Spain when different faiths lived together in relative harmony; but at the end she appears to blame Islamic terrorism on Islam (although she rejects the idea that “all or most Muslims are terrorists or sympathize with terrorists”).

When she discusses 20th century converts, people who were not compelled to come in, to quote from Luke’s gospel, Jacoby still finds problems. Would Edith Stein, the German Jewish intellectual who became Sister Teresita Benedicta, have joined a convent if her gender and ethnicity had not blocked her from getting a teaching position commensurate with her qualifications? Maybe not, Jacoby suggests. Stein’s conversion didn’t save her from the Nazis, but what added insult to atrocity was the church’s appropriation of her: she was canonized as a martyr of the faith. Of course she was killed for being a Jew, not a Catholic.

As offensive as this book may be to some, it arrives at a crucial moment, when belief systems that demand blind adherence are once again on the rise, jeopardizing rationalist gains that have broadened human possibilities.

Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.