"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 many religious converts as well as a number of atheists — spanning four generations on both my mother's and father's side — and part of my interest in conversion is certainly rooted in my eclectic background.
My father was born in 1914 into a nonobservant Jewish family whose ancestors had immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1849. In the early 20th century, my Jacoby grandparents sent 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 on the faculty in the early 1900s, married an Episcopalian and did convert, dropping his undeniably Jewish first name and becoming a well-known popularizer of science. As an undergraduate at Columbia, he was listed as "Levi Harold," but by the time he became a member of the faculty, he was plain Harold.
There was a profound sadness underlying this conversion, based on a persistent sense of inferiority. Such sadness is never expressed in joyous accounts of conversion as a purely spiritual awakening.
My father and his elder brother and sister took another path in the middle of the 20th century by marrying Irish Americans 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 Episcopalianism.
This book is subtitled "A Secular History of Conversion" precisely because most accounts of conversion have been written by believers in the supernatural, who view changes of faith mainly in terms of their spiritual significance. Although I would never deny the profound spiritual change involved in many conversions — regardless of what faiths, and denominations within faiths, are involved — I am concerned mainly with the secular social context in which religious switching has occurred throughout Western history.
Most of the secular factors entwined with conversions in every era were present in my own family. These include social discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities; the economic advantage of switching to the majority religion; and, above all, interfaith marriage. Opposition by orthodox defenders of every faith has never been able to stop young people of different religions from falling in love, marrying, and, in many instances, converting to please a partner.
My mother's side of the family also offered a perfect example of socially influenced conversion at a time when the United States was experiencing immense 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 half of the adult population has changed religions at least once, but such conversions were far 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. "It made your Gramps's mother happy," she told me 50 years later, "and it didn't make any difference to me. After all, it's the same God."
Gran expressed the same pragmatic view in 1944, when my father, after asking my mother to marry him, felt obliged to reveal what he considered the shameful secret of his Jewish origins to her parents. I asked Dad why he tried to hide his Jewish background, and he replied, "I never wanted you and your brother to think that if you didn't get something you wanted in life, it was because you were Jewish." There was a profound sadness underlying this conversion, based on a persistent sense of inferiority. Such sadness is never expressed in joyous accounts of conversion as a purely spiritual awakening.
The concept of being reborn through faith in Jesus is as old as Christianity itself, but the idea of changing one's essential identity by changing faiths might have been made for, if not necessarily in, America.
Neither of my maternal grandparents cared about my father's background, though anti-Semitism was a much more powerful social force in the United States in the 1940s than it would become only two decades later. My grandfather, a benevolent patriarch, was happy because he accepted the stereotype that Jews don't drink, don't beat their wives, and don't ignore their financial 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.)
My father did not convert to Catholicism until I was seven years old. 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 at the local pancake house afterward. Nothing to it.
I am certain that my lifelong interest in the phenomenon of conversion and my slow realization, as a teenager, that I was an atheist derive in significant measure from my childhood in a family that sent mixed messages about religious loyalty. In the Catholic universe, the model of conversion was of course Saul on the road to Damascus: blinded by error, a man is vouchsafed a revelation from God, falls off his horse, and awakes to the light of divine, unalterable truth. That none of the converts in my family claimed to have been swayed by a visitation from the Almighty occurred to me when I was young, and my sense that something other than divine grace might be at work was reinforced by the experience, at age seven, of grilling my father on the Baltimore Catechism when he was preparing for Baptism.
Despite Dad's almost flippant reply about converting so we could all go out for pancakes after Mass, his explanation did contain its own truth. His conversion was quintessentially American in its pragmatism, based on the 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 the same God, amounts to being "born again"? The concept of being reborn through faith in Jesus is as old as Christianity itself, but the idea of changing one's essential identity by changing faiths might have been made for, if not necessarily in, America.
Yet the modern American notion of religion as a purely personal choice could not be further removed from the complicated historical reality of mass conversion. Conversions that change entire societies, like the shift from paganism to Christianity in the late Roman Empire or the rejection of Catholicism by entire countries during the Protestant Reformation, always take place within a social context that either confers advantages on converts or imposes serious disabilities on those who refuse to go along to get along.
We still await the day when freedom of religious and nonreligious choice is recognized as a universal human right, and "forced conversion" becomes nothing more than a hideous oxymoron from a past that embodies the worst angels of human nature.
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is the author of 11 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 Half-Jew: A Daughter’s Search for Her Family’s Buried Past
. Her newest work is Strange Gods
. Her articles have appeared frequently in the op-ed pages of The New York Times
and in forums that include The American Prospect
, and The Daily Beast
. She lives in New York City.