"What's an atheist doing writing about religious conversion?" is usually the first question I am asked about my new book, Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion
. The answer is straightforward. No one knows better than an atheist that freedom to worship God in whatever way one chooses is inseparable from the freedom to reject worship of all gods, and both are tied to secular democracy.
Less than four centuries ago, Protestants and Catholics were torturing and killing each other on the continent of Europe over competing beliefs about, say, the Holy Trinity. And freethinkers — who had the temerity to question the existence of any absolute, divine truth — were anathemized by all of the religions anathemizing one another. Today, in unfortunate regions of our planet, radical Islamic theocrats are equal opportunity persecutors of atheists, Christians, and other Muslims with minds not stuck in a pre-Enlightenment past.
After years of studying religious change — from the Jew Saul into the first Christian proselytizer Paul, through the forced conversions of Jews and Muslims by the Inquisition, to the voluntary pluralistic American "religious marketplace" — I feel a renewed pride in the fact that the United States was the first nation in the world founded on the premise that government has no business interfering with the religious — or nonreligious — convictions of its citizens. The religious Right is entirely wrong when it claims that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. Although the revolutionary generation was composed largely of Protestants, the founders said, "You do not have to be a Christian or a believer in any religion to be an American."
I come from a family encompassing...