by Danny Stout
According to Susan Jacoby, there are reasons for religious conversion beyond spiritual ones. In a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, she says, “I wanted to see how much of conversion is forced, through family, or through the social or economic gains.”
Her 2008 book about anti-intellectualism, The Age of American Unreason, was a New York Times best seller. Jacobi is an atheist and secular humanist; her goal isn’t to push an atheist agenda nor discredit believers. She does, however, feel that secularists have been ignored and mistreated as exemplified by the fact that political candidates do not recognize, and therefore ignore “secular voters.”
Unlike the new atheism that takes an incendiary stance toward religion, attributing many of life’s ills to denominations, Jacoby’s book is refreshingly tolerant while retaining her defense of secularism. Works such as The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris
and Richard Dawkins’ fiery The God Delusion, argue that religion diverts the individual from the scientific worldview, therefore delaying social and cultural advancement. One should actively campaign against it. The late public intellectual Christopher Hitchens strongly advocated this position. Jacobi, on the other hand, respects religionists that find peace and truth in their convictions; she is critical, though, of proselyting and the implication that secularists have an inferior position. Atheism is not a religion; it lacks rituals. It shouldn’t be looked at as an inferior religion, she says.
Governmental adoption of religious slogans such as “In God we trust,” are not egalitarian, and indicate that religions are too close to the state. On NPR she quoted presidential candidate Ted Cruz: “Nobody should be president that doesn’t begin the day on his knees.” Such a statement ignores secular values, Jacobi insists. President Jimmy Carter is a devout Baptist, but respects secular people.
Perhaps a more dominant theme in Strange Gods, is that religious conversion is complex and pragmatic, a result of many factors none of which have to be belief-centered. Her father was a secular Jew that converted to Catholicism. When Jacobi asked him why he didn’t raise her as a Jew, he said, “If you didn’t get something in life, I didn’t want it because you were a Jew.” His own conversion was about accommodation and acceptance by the larger society. Her point is that religionists and secularists may have more in common than we think.
“My family is genuinely an American story. Jews migrated, converted to Lutheranism and my German uncle converted to Episcopalianism. Some stayed as Jews. Some married Irish Catholics. My mother was Irish Catholic.” If you join a religion that claims absolute truth, dissent is difficult, “so you stay,” she says. In less rigid faith communities, people move around. Half the U.S. population has changed religion at least one or more time, Jacoby asserts.
Her family members are generally accepting of conversion if it solves a problem. Her mother thought Catholicism was the answer to her husband’s gambling, and it helped. President George W. Bush sought out Evangelicalism to deal with his drinking problem. He also had success.
Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion is a plea for mutual respect between believers and secularists. Jacobi’s argument that secularists are second-class citizens is convincing. Bernie Sanders is a secular Jew, she points out. He says, “I feel culturally Jewish.” He is openly secular, but Jacobi laments many understand what that means. It’s even worse that few care.
The book ends on an optimistic note. There is a changing, more positive reaction to secularists, she believes. “I can say I’m an atheist without shame.” Her message for religionists, and that would include Latter-day Saints, is that if one is commanded to love all people, this should also apply to secularists.