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Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion
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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group 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 Donne; 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.)
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Street Date:
02/16/2016
Language:
English
ISBN:
9781101870969
ASIN:
B00XSSYRBO
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APA Citation (style guide)

Susan Jacoby. (2016). Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Chicago / Turabian - Author Date Citation (style guide)

Susan Jacoby. 2016. Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Chicago / Turabian - Humanities Citation (style guide)

Susan Jacoby, Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2016.

MLA Citation (style guide)

Susan Jacoby. Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2016.

Note! Citation formats are based on standards as of July 2022. Citations contain only title, author, edition, publisher, and year published. Citations should be used as a guideline and should be double checked for accuracy.
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      • bioText: SUSAN JACOBY is the author of eleven 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 articles have appeared frequently in the op-ed pages of The New York Times and in forums that include The American Prospect, Dissent, and The Daily Beast. She lives in New York City. For more information, visit www.susanjacoby.com.
      • name: Susan Jacoby
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publishDate
2016-02-16T00:00:00-05:00
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title
Strange Gods
fullDescription
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 Donne; 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.)
reviews
      • premium: False
      • source: Rebecca Goldstein, author of Plato at the Googleplex
      • content: "Susan Jacoby turns her feisty brilliance on the history of religious conversions, famous and infamous, simultaneously giving us a history of religious intolerance. Her combination of intellectual rigor, vigor, erudition, and integrity makes Strange Gods wonderfully lively and enlightening."
      • premium: False
      • source: Richard Dawkins, author of Brief Candle in the Dark
      • content: "The modern wave of secularist books has seen no author more historically erudite than Susan Jacoby. Immensely learned, yet with a lightly witty style, she smoothly surveys the whole phenomenon of religious conversion, from ancient times to our own. The section on slavery in America is especially moving, giving the lie to the myth that abolitionism was primarily motivated by religion. And--a blessed bonus--she has no truck with that pretentious gimmick favoured by so many historians, the historic present tense."
      • premium: False
      • source: Louis Begley, author of The Dreyfus Affair
      • content: "Susan Jacoby's Strange Gods is an astonishing work: an audacious attack on idées reçues about conversion, an exposure of a legion of hypocrisies, a spirited guidebook to religions and heresies one remembers at best dimly, and a passionate defense of the right to reason and choose. Jacoby is a supremely intelligent and brave writer. It is impossible to praise her book too highly."
      • premium: False
      • source: Alan Wolfe, At Home in Exile
      • content: "Rare is the person who can combine deep scholarship with powerful narrative abilities and a capacity for autobiographical detail. Susan Jacoby's Strange Gods does all of these things, and in the service of a fascinating subject. Those who change their religion, those who do not, and those who could care less will all find much of value in her book."
      • premium: False
      • source: James Shapiro, author of The Year of Lear
      • content: "One of America's most astute cultural critics, Susan Jacoby writes more intelligently and insightfully than any author I have read on the vexed issues of religious identity, freedom, ideology, and the collision of secular and theological forces."
      • premium: False
      • source: Kirkus Reviews *starred review*
      • content: "In a work blending culture, religion, history, biography, and a bit of memoir (with more than a soupcon of attitude), the author of The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought returns with a revealing historical analysis of religious conversions....The author...impressively combines thorough research and passionate writing. Jacoby draws the first detailed maps of a terrain that has been very much in need of intelligent, careful cartography."
      • premium: True
      • source: Publisher's Weekly
      • content:

        Starred review from December 14, 2015
        Jacoby (The Great Agnostic and Freethinkers) has spent 15 years writing this fine secular inquiry into the history of religious conversion in the West. Beginning with the famous Damascus road conversion of Saul to Paul and then moving on to Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions, Jacoby travels through 14th-century forced conversions in Spain, 20th-century “socially-influenced conversions” resulting from mixed marriages, and today’s headlines about ISIS’s brutal religious persecution. From her atheist viewpoint, she attempts to remove the religious and psychological elements of conversion, leaving only the sociopolitical forces. She writes, “The modern American notion of religion as a purely personal choice, nobody else’s business... could not be further removed from the complicated historical reality of conversion on a large scale.” Missing from Jacoby’s overall argument are the ways that religious belief, practiced in the public square, can contribute to the common good in a democracy. Without this, her tour de force risks marshaling history to serve her own ideological agenda. Her analysis of the dangers of a religious belief beyond personal conviction may be challenging for many readers of faith, but it’s well-argued and illuminating.

      • premium: True
      • source: Library Journal
      • content:

        February 1, 2016

        Starting with the apostle Paul and ending with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), Jacoby (The Age of American Unreason) explores the myriad cultural and social aspects of religious conversion throughout the history of the Western world. This approach is in contrast to the many accounts that trace conversion solely to spiritual or supernatural origins. People throughout history have converted for a host of complex and multilayered reasons. Many have been forced, pressured, or coerced. Others have chosen to convert in order to improve their social or economic status, to marry, or to fit in with the majority. Covering a broad swath of contexts such as the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition, and Nazi Germany, and including portraits of individuals such as Augustine, Edith Stein, and Muhammed Ali, Jacoby passionately and thoroughly examines the multiple meanings of conversion. Throughout, she heralds the necessity of freedom of conscience as a human right. VERDICT Jacoby's thoroughly researched narrative is impressively detailed, making this a fine book for a somewhat limited audience. Recommended to those interested enough in the topic to avoid getting bogged down in the specifics. [See Prepub Alert, 8/24/15.]--Brian Sullivan, Alfred Univ. Lib., NY

        Copyright 2016 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

      • premium: True
      • source: Booklist
      • content:

        February 1, 2016
        Religious conversions serve as turning points throughout history. Though conversion narratives are popular, the social and cultural situations that surround them often receive less attention than the personal stories. Conversions do not occur in a vacuum, and Jacoby's book traces the religious lives of famous (and some less famous) converts and seeks to firmly anchor their narratives in particular places and times. Beginning with the rise of Christianity and the conversion of Augustine of Hippo, and tracing historic conversions up through the twentieth century, Jacoby highlights historical figures including Edith Stein and Muhammad Ali, painting a parallel portrait of the massive cultural changes surging around them. Jacoby clearly has a point to prove, and she paints a vivid picture of the ways in which conversions happen and the myriad reasons behind their happening.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2016, American Library Association.)

      • premium: True
      • source: Library Journal
      • content:

        September 15, 2015

        Best known for the New York Times best-selling The Age of American Unreason, Jacoby tackles the issue of conversion, often seen as an individual's decision to embrace a fitting spirituality but, as Jacoby argues, just as often a result of complex sociopolitical forces. Sometimes forceful indeed: consider the Spanish Inquisition, the conversion of American slaves to Christianity, and the persecution of presumed infidels in modern Islamic theocracies.

        Copyright 2015 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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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...
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