Book Review: Strange Gods
by Susan Jacoby
It’s a wise and apposite choice, to put Caravaggio’s The Conversion of St. Paul on the cover of Susan Jacoby’s new book, Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion. The painting shows Saul of Tarsus flat on his back, blindly groping upward, stunned by the blinding white light that’s confronted him on the road to Damascus. Saul had been on his way to Damascus in order to find and apprehend Christians practicing there, and from inside the blinding light that stops him, Saul hears a question, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” From the ground, Saul asks, “Who art thou, Lord?” And he receives an immediate and explicit response: “I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest.” Saul’s instant reaction is to ask Jesus how he might serve, and why wouldn’t it be? He had not only been presented with an incontrovertible demonstration of power but also with a prompt and precise identification of that power’s source. Properly speaking, this wasn’t really even a conversion – it was an arrest and sentencing.
Christians have been persecuted by countless men as dedicated as Saul over the last two thousand years, and yet there have been no other blinding white lights halting persecutors in their tracks, no other politely unambiguous identification of an intervening deity. Certainly the 20th century, drenched in the blood of murdered Christians, has never seen such executive fiat – and it hasn’t just been Jesus who’s been absent, of course: Greece dwindled into a ghetto nation without a single thunderbolt from Olympus; the Aztecs were devastated despite what we must infer were the wishes of Huitzilopochtli; and was ever a deity so devastatingly elsewhere as Yahweh during the Holocaust? The gods are silent.
The gods are silent, and so humans switch their religions almost as a matter of course – providing what Jacoby refers to as “ an irresistible subject for a secularist or an atheist, precisely because so much human energy, throughout recorded history, has been expended on persuading or forcing large numbers of people to replace belief in one supernatural mystery with another.”
One of the strongest observations of Jacoby’s book is that persuasion and force as factors for changing somebody’s faith began to become sidelined as a result of the Enlightenment, after which, even among the faithful, organized religions inched away from revealed codas and closer to sets of ideas – although Jacoby, very appealingly, is always sympathetic to the very real personal allure those sets of ideas could have:
To argue that there is a critical, often overlooked social component to most conversions is not to downplay the emotional component – whether one believes that absolute truth is both discoverable and essential to the decent and examined life, or whether one rejects the very idea of a truth that always was, always will be, and always remained the same. “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” Who among us, however skeptical, is immune to the pull of these words?
Her book engagingly looks at the phenomenon of conversion throughout Western history, pausing for terrific specific examinations of famous cases, from Saint Augustine to John Donne to Muhammed Ali, 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 (including even her brilliant 2008 The Age of American Unreason, which certainly pulled no punches). Her main concentration in these pages might be on the changeability of religious creeds, but she never loses sight of how toxic those creeds can be, and how important it is to be honest about that:
Secular liberals … tend to emphasize “tolerance.” Because freedom of conscience is such a deeply held secular value, some well-meaning but intellectually confused secular thinkers have trouble separating legitimate criticism of fanatical religion from “hate speech.” The easiest course for anyone – religious or secular – who is uncomfortable criticizing any aspect of religion is to avoid making careful distinctions, pretend that this violence has a purely political or economic explanation, and deny that crazed faith – perish the thought – has anything to do with such terrible acts. It is undeniable that extreme fundamentalist forms of religion, with their emphasis on martyrdom and rewards in the afterlife, tend to flourish in societies affording little opportunity in this life, but it is equally undeniable that retrograde religion itself fosters social, educational, and economic deprivation in a vicious cycle.
The subtext of Strange Gods is of course too obvious to need belaboring: if religions can be changed for worldly reasons (as they all have been, without exception – including Saul, who had the most wordly reason of all), religions can be abandoned entirely, also for worldly reasons – the neat entendre of the book’s title.