Strange Gods

Strange Gods

A Secular History of Conversion

Book - 2016
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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 Don≠ 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.)
Publisher: New York : Pantheon Books, [2016]
Edition: First edition
Copyright Date: ©2016
ISBN: 9780375423758
Characteristics: xl, 464 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm


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Sep 05, 2017

Strange Gods was one of the books I picked up in passing - and I am glad that I did. This discussion of religious thought and conversion, mainly in the western world, is an interesting perspective on religion, people, and motivations. Jacoby's work is well documented (about 40 pages in endnotes) and relatively easy to read. Her notes at the bottom of pages help to explain terms (like Catharism) with which the reader may not be readily familiar. Although the last quarter of the book is dedicated to religious conversion and religious thought in the U.S., it does provide an eye opener to the religious right and the pandering to its agenda. The conclusion is from a purely American point of view and does go off the rails somewhat, but many of Jacoby's arguments here also provide insight to the American perspective.

ArapahoeHollyR Aug 22, 2017

An innovative history of "conversion" in the West from an avowedly secular perspective.

While I respect Jacoby for taking a strong position and making bold arguments, I think her points would be strengthened even more if she were more open to exploring alternative views.

If you liked this book, be sure to check out Jacoby's "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism," a book I enjoyed much more than "Strange Gods."


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