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'Strange Gods' Chronicles The History Of Secularism And Conversion


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Susan Jacoby, is an atheist, but members of three generations of her family were converts from one religion to another. Her father was a secular Jew who converted to his wife's religion, Catholicism, several years after they were married. Susan didn't even know her father was from a Jewish family until she was a teenager. She wrote a memoir about her family's buried past about seventeen years ago. She's also the author of a book about the history of American secularism. Now she's written a new book, called, "Strange Gods: A Secular History Of Conversion." She also recently wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times about how the population of nonreligious Americans, including atheists and agnostics, is at an all-time high this election year, yet political campaigns typically ignore the growing number of secular voters.

Susan Jacoby, welcome to FRESH AIR. So why did you write a book about the history of conversion? Now, I know some of the answer to that has to do with the history of conversion in your own family - which we'll get to in a bit - and some of it has to do with the fact that you are an atheist - which we'll also get to in a little bit - but, just historically, what did you want to know?

SUSAN JACOBY: I wanted to know how much of conversion was forced - that is, forced in the sense that the Inquisition forced people to choose - forced Jews, let's say, and Muslims to choose conversion to Christianity or death. I wanted to see how much of conversion historically was forced in that way and how much of it was really a kind of persuasion. Whether through intermarriage, which is the most common reason for conversion historically, or the desire to gain social advantages, economic advantages, jobs which are closed to one person rather than another if the person is a member of a minority religion. I wanted to find out what are the things - apart from the blinding flash on the road to Damascus, the light that comes out of the sky, the voice of God - I wanted to find out what are the earthly forces? Politics, economics, imperialism, slavery. In other words, to look at conversion as more than a spiritual journey but also as a material earthly journey in this material world.

GROSS: So in keeping with what you've been talking about - about how there many different kinds of conversions, many different reasons for conversion, some of the mass conversions that you write about were really a part of imperialism. You conquer the territory and you change the people's religions to the religion of your state.

JACOBY: Of course, and the biggest religious wars and persecutions in history occur when religions, each claiming their own absolute truths, come into conflict. If during the Reformation you were a Catholic who lived in a part of Germany in which Lutheranism was the ascendant religion and the ruler of the province or the region was Lutheran, to stay a Catholic, you either had to be a dissenter or you had to leave. And one of the reasons there are largely Catholic and largely Protestant regions of Germany today is that people did sort themselves out geographically. So not only imperialism in the sense of conquering other peoples but also theocracy in the sense of - in the sense of churches, you know, having a very close relationship if not an absolute union with the state.

GROSS: And talking about religion and comparing America to other parts of the world, you write about how, you know, conversions, interfaith marriages, are much more common in the U.S. than in most other places in the world in part because there has been no state religion here. People have been free to choose their religion and free to change their religion if they want to, and many people have taken advantage of that freedom. Do you want to elaborate that - on that a little bit?

JACOBY: Yes. I think very few people realize how much the separation of church and state has to do with the fact that Americans are not only more religious than a lot of other people in the world but that conversions are much more common here. More than half of Americans have changed religions at least once in their adult lifetime. This is - the rate of religious conversion here is much, much higher than it is anywhere in Europe, for example. People there tend - if they don't practice the default religion, they often slide into secularism, but it's not a conversion in the sense of you don't find very many Lutherans converting to Catholicism or Judaism in Sweden, for example. But you do find all sorts of people converting to all sorts of religions here. Now, part of that is our secular constitution in which - for so long in Europe before the 20th century, before the middle of the 20th century, a decision about religion was also a decision about politics. In other words, if you chose a particular religion, you were siding with the government religion of whatever region you were in. That's never been true in America, but also, the United States also has so many more immigrant groups which also tends to imply more religious diversity right away.

GROSS: Islam and Christianity have long histories of conversion. Judaism doesn't. It's a religion where you're born into it. And conversion to Judaism, I think it's really only in modern times that that's even been accepted, and I'm not sure it's still accepted by all branches of Judaism.

JACOBY: No, Terry. I'm going to correct you on that. People think that, that conversion to Judaism is just a modern phenomenon. But there was an era in the late Roman Empire Judaism was not a proselytizing religion. It didn't go out looking for converts, but it accepted converts. And one of the interesting things is is that Judaism was very attractive to the Roman aristocracy. Now most of the conversions that actually occurred were probably the result of mixed marriages of Roman women marrying into Jewish families. But it isn't true that there weren't conversions to Judaism then. As I said, they didn't proselytize, but they accepted and in that respect, not so different from conversions to Judaism resulting from mixed marriages today. The Roman Empire was fairly tolerant of religious choice as long as you made a point not of thumbing your nose in public at the Roman gods.

GROSS: So why was conversion accepted then but not after?

JACOBY: Well, very simple, the Christian church became ascendant in the Roman Empire. The Roman emperors became Christians. Constantine was the first, of course, but soon afterwards. And once the Roman Catholic Church in the West became the church most closely connected with the state, the Roman Catholic Church did not recognize the validity of any religion other than its own. So that it was not only Jews were a thorn in their side because Jews in general refuse to convert, but pagans converted and masked to Christianity. It was the thing to do. If you were ambitious, if you wanted to get along, that's what happened, not so different from anything else. But the short answer is that the Christian religion did not tolerate heresy.

GROSS: When you were in Catholic school, the most famous conversion story that you were taught was the story of Saul on the road to Damascus. What did that story mean to you?

JACOBY: (Laughter) Well, the funny thing was is they tried to teach it, and - but they didn't place much stress on the fact that Saul was originally a Jew, although, he had to have been, that Saul had been a persecutor of Jesus, a persecutor of Christians. And he had seen the light on the road to Damascus was what we were told, that he realized he'd been wrong to oppose Christianity. But the nuns were very vague about what it was he was opposing Christianity from. I assure you, we weren't taught at St. Thomas Aquinas School a kind of theology of Jesus the Jew in which you're taught at a good religious university today. So that - what the story of Saul just meant to me was this man who had hated Jesus, but exactly why he hated Jesus and Christians wasn't made all that clear. You know, he just - he fell off his horse, and God spoke to him, and, you know, he straightened up and flew right.

GROSS: So in writing about the history of conversion, you write about your family's history of conversion as well. Can you just give us an overview of the three generations of converts in your family?

JACOBY: Yes, my family is a genuinely American story. My great-grandparents came over from - my great-grandfather came over from Germany after the revolution of - unfailed revolutions of 1848. They remained Jews, he and his wife, but their children - they had three children - one of them married a German baron and went back to Germany and converted to Lutheranism to marry the German baron. One of them, my great uncle Harold, who was professor of astronomy at Columbia University in the first part of the century at a time when there weren't very many Jewish-tenured professors, but he also wasn't a Jew by then. He married an Episcopalian and converted to the Episcopal Church, which was a fairly common thing for German Jews who converted and were moving up on the social ladder. His story is exemplified by the fact that his real name is Levi Harold Jacoby. He's still Levi Harold in the freshman class book at Columbia, but he becomes just plain Harold when he becomes a professor. He's a well-known popularizer of science. My grandfather, Oswald, did not convert and, in fact, married a Jew, but they were completely nonobservant. And they sent their children to Lutheran Sunday schools in Brooklyn. The kicker ending to all of this is that my father and his two siblings all married Irish Catholics and eventually converted.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Susan Jacoby. She's the author of the new book "Strange Gods: A Secular History Of Conversion." She's also the author of a memoir about conversions in her own family and author of the book "Freethinkers: A History Of American Secularism." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Susan Jacoby. She's the author of the new book "Strange Gods: A Secular History Of Conversion." She wrote an earlier book that's a memoir about the history of conversions in her own family. And she's the author of "Freethinkers: A History Of American Secularism."

So in keeping with the theme of conversion in your family, your father was a secular Jew. Your mother was Irish Catholic.

JACOBY: Yes, that's right.

GROSS: But her mother - your maternal grandmother - was brought up Lutheran and converted to Catholicism because your grandfather was Catholic. Do I have that right?


GROSS: OK. So there was - so what was your grandmother's reaction - being a convert herself - to her daughter marrying a Jewish man?

JACOBY: She was completely approving. And she even told my father that it was perfectly all right with them whether he converted to Catholicism or not. Eventually, he did convert seven years later, but not because of any pressure from my grandparents. And my grandfather, who was an Irish Catholic - my mother's father - he also was very favorable toward the marriage because he believed stereotypically that Jewish men make good husbands because they don't drink and they don't beat their wives. He was very happy and this happiness, since everyone is now dead, I can say was due partly to the fact that my mother had a first marriage to a Catholic alcoholic, which was annulled. So my father - my grandfather was thrilled that she was marrying someone he considered a sober and abstemious Jew (laughter).

GROSS: Funny thing, though, your father ended up being a gambler - having a gambling problem.

JACOBY: Well, my grandfather didn't know that (laughter) at the time. And indeed my father - one of the reasons for his conversion was he had a terrible gambling problem, and my mother was going to leave him if he didn't get control of it. He thought since he knew nothing about Judaism - he'd been brought up in a completely nonreligious Jewish home - he thought just practicing a religion might help him overcome his gambling problem.

And this too is a theme in so many conversions, whether it's alcoholism or gambling, the desire to overcome some personal fault which the person feels he or she cannot do on his or her own. Look, President George W. Bush is a born-again Christian, which I do consider a conversion, and I should say that I define a true conversion as any conversion that requires a real change in the way someone lives.

And so my father's conversion was sincere, even though he didn't believe all of the technical points of Catholic doctrine, just as I'm sure George W. Bush's conversion helped him overcome his problems with drink. And this is a theme in so many conversions that just transcends any individual or any family.

GROSS: Your father converted when you were 7, but you didn't find out that he'd converted from Judaism to Catholicism until considerably later in your life. When he told you that he'd converted, what he first told you was it was just kind of more of a family thing, that that way the whole family could go to church and then the whole family could go out for breakfast afterwards.

JACOBY: Right. That was absolutely it.

GROSS: So was that just a cover story?

JACOBY: Yeah. Well, what was really weird was he said he'd converted from Episcopalianism (ph) (laughter). And by the way, I live in...

GROSS: Oh, because he hadn't told you yet that he was Jewish. He was still hiding that from you.

JACOBY: No, no, he was still hiding that.

GROSS: So how did you find out your father was Jewish?

JACOBY: Oh, I asked him when I was about 17 or 18. I said, you know, Dad, I think that our family must be Jewish. I'd met the relatives in New York and, you know, I'd learned about their history, and there was also just this sort of big gaping hole in all of the stories about how they got there. My Aunt Edith was also a Catholic convert, and my Uncle Ozzie, who was a famous Oslo Jacoby - a famous bridge champion - was another - a sibling of my dad's who's a Catholic convert. And I just figured it out, and I said, Dad, I think your family must have been Jewish and he said it was.

And I said, why didn't you tell my brother and me? And he said - and this is a voice out of a different America. He said - and this would be, you know, around 1963 - he said, I didn't want you and your brother to think if you didn't get anything you wanted in life it was because you were Jewish. Isn't that sad? And it speaks back to a different America which had a different attitude about minorities and to pain from childhood. Later, I learned about a lot of things that he was beaten up and called all of the epithets that people call Jews if they're anti-Semites. And he just wanted to erase that part of his past.

GROSS: You know how you said your father converted primarily because he wanted to give up his gambling problem and he knew if he didn't he'd basically lose his family...


GROSS: ...And so he needed help and he thought, you know, converting to Catholicism would help him. And, as you point out, that's a reason why a lot of people convert because they need - they need to feel that there's a power greater than themselves that can guide them and help them and also that there's, like, a discipline that will help them.


GROSS: Did it help him? Did the conversion help him give up gambling?

JACOBY: I think it did. I actually think it did. For one thing, the Catholic Church in particular has this one thing - confession - in which you could go, confess to a priest and obtain absolution of your sins. And there was a routine and a ritual and I think - I think that it did help him, yes.

GROSS: And did that affect your view of faith when you found that out?

JACOBY: No. I'd be the last person in the world to deny that there are many people for whom faith is - can be a great sustaining force. You know, people often wrongly think that atheists want to convert other people to atheism (laughter). I am completely uninterested in that. And atheism, by the way, is not a religion. One of the things, in fact, that atheism lacks are the kinds of rituals that religion does provide and I would be the first to say that.

I don't, for example, ever participate in debates about the existence or nonexistence of God because I can't imagine why anyone would be persuaded one way or the other by such things. And so I don't deny that religion is very healthful to a lot of people. And as long as they don't try to convert me, I have, you know, nothing - and to interfere with the rights of people to believe other religions or to not believe in any religion at all - as long as they mind their own religion - perfectly all right with me, in the case of my father, as well as any other religious convert I know.

GROSS: My guest is Susan Jacoby. Her new book is called "Strange Gods: A Secular History Of Conversion." After we take a short break, she'll tell us why she doesn't like it when political speeches end with the statement God bless America. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Susan Jacoby, author of the new book, "Strange Gods: A Secular History Of Conversion." One of her earlier books is a memoir about the history of religious conversions in three generations of her own family. Jacoby is also the author of "A History Of American Secularism." She describes herself as an atheist.

You wrote a recent op-ed in The New York Times that was headlined, "Sick And Tired Of God Bless America," and this was about how you were tired of hearing political speeches end with God Bless America. What's your problem with that?

JACOBY: They didn't used to, you know. God Bless America started to become an almost ritualistic incantation at the end of political speeches really with Ronald Reagan. It appears occasionally before, but it was not that common. And of course since it was a song that wasn't written by Irving Berlin until the 20th century (laughter), none of the 19th century presidents said God Bless America at the end of speeches, either. I think that the symbolism which suggests that everybody is religious and that even presidents who believe in church and state feel obliged to do this...

GROSS: Believe in the separation of church and state.

JACOBY: Who believe in the separation of church and state feel obliged to do this. And not only, some presidents are more careful than others to make it an inclusive God, but there is also plain talk about Jesus, as we've heard in the campaign recently. It's not simply God they're talking about, it's a particular kind of God, and also I think a longing for a more Christian America.

GROSS: I assume you've been following the Democratic and Republican primary campaigns. Are there statements you've heard candidates make pertaining to religion that you have found troubling in a multicultural country that includes a lot of people like you, who are secular?

JACOBY: The most troubling statement is, is that - made by Ted Cruz - which is, nobody should be president who doesn't begin his day on his knees. I find that what he's saying is no nonreligious person has the right to be president of the United States. I find that deeply troubling. I find it troubling that religious people don't find it troubling. You know, a person can be religious and still respect secular values and not talk about Jesus all the time as though every American believed in Jesus. President Jimmy Carter is a very good example of that. A devout Baptist, he left the Southern Baptist convention in which he was raised because of disagreements among other things with its views about women, but he's still a devout Baptist in his own way. But who, by the way, in the tradition of the first Baptists who joined with freethinkers to ratify a constitution that makes no mention of God, Jimmy Carter is that kind of Baptist. That kind of religious person who respects not only other religions but secular people is fine, but the kind of person who talks on the campaign trail as if to be a decent person or a decent public official, you have to have deep faith in God and practice a religion and that there's something second-class about people who don't, that is deeply troubling to me.

GROSS: Bernie Sanders is interesting in terms of what we've been talking about because he's Jewish and, you know, if he was elected, he would be the first Jewish president, but he's also secular. As far as I know, he's either not or not very observant, and presidential candidates tend to not talk about being secular very much. They tend to talk more about their religious biography - at least nowadays. So what are some of your observations about how religion is being addressed or not addressed in the Sanders campaign?

JACOBY: While Bernie Sanders is not known to belong to a synagogue, he has consistently, throughout his career, kind of avoided questions like that. And in fact, has done so in this campaign. When Jimmy Kimmel asked him whether he believed in God, he came out with something very unlike his usual statements in which he talked about his spirituality and how we're all in this together. He didn't answer the question of whether he believed in God or not. So even Bernie Sanders, who is probably the most secular candidate - or, openly secular. I should say openly secular - we've ever had, is not about to go there. Now, I don't see why any president has to talk about his belief in God.

GROSS: So we've talked about how you are secular, how you are an atheist. But you write, if I believed in any God, it would be the God of the Jews, if I could be consoled by any prayer, it would be the Kaddish. The Kaddish is the prayer for the dead in the Jewish religion. So why do you say that, that if you were religious, it would be Judaism that you'd turn to?

JACOBY: I wrote that almost 17 years ago now. I think that was a rare occasion of my being sentimental. I feel Jewish in the sense of culturally Jewish, I suppose the way Bernie Sanders feels Jewish, but not Jewish in a religious sense. And I would say that I wouldn't write that sentence today. I don't consider this a flip-flop, by the way. I simply think that I'm looking at religion now less through the eyes of a daughter who loved her father very much and felt terribly sorry that he grew up ashamed of being Jewish, and I think that's what those words came out of. But in truth, I no more believe in the God of the Jews than I believe in any God.

GROSS: Why do you feel that you are culturally Jewish? Since your mother was Catholic, your father denied his Judaism and then converted to Catholicism, you didn't even find out he was Jewish until you were in your teens. So in what sense do you feel like you were culturally Jewish since you were so not exposed to Judaism? You grew up in a town where there were very few Jews.

JACOBY: Yes, but I moved to New York and have spent the last 44 years of my adult life in New York, and I am very interested - as you know in my new book, I spend a lot of time talking about why Jews and their stubborn attachment to their religion, even when they weren't religious Jews, posed a - something that European culture felt obliged to reject. And particularly, I am attached to the better part of the American Jewish story and wish that my father had been able to see his Jewish heritage as a positive thing rather than as the negative thing he always saw it was. So I would say that I feel culturally Jewish because of the way that I have lived my adult life, and I do know a lot about Judaism now, but I wouldn't write that sentence again because I think my non-belief in God has only grown stronger over the years. And I did say if I could be consoled any God. I still do find the prayers of the Kaddish quite moving, and I just substitute in my mind nature, although that's what the founders did in a lot of their documents, too. They substituted nature or providence for God. I think that's what I do in my head with Jewish God.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Susan Jacoby. Her new book is called "Strange Gods: A Secular History Of Conversion." She's also the author of a memoir called "Half-Jew" about the history of conversion in her own family, and she's the author of "Freethinkers: A History Of American Secularism." Let's take a short break here then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Susan Jacoby. She's the author of the new book "Strange Gods: A Secular History Of Conversion." Her memoir, "Half-Jew," which was published several years ago, is about conversion in her own family. And she's also the author of "Freethinkers: A History Of American Secularism."

Your second husband had Alzheimer's and he died about eight years ago.

JACOBY: He wasn't my husband.

GROSS: Oh, he wasn't your husband.


GROSS: OK, so your partner.


GROSS: Your partner, did he practice any religion, if you don't mind my asking?



JACOBY: No, and actually, you know, when we were talking about conversions, this is one thing I don't understand. I don't have any children, but if I did - and I know that many people in mixed marriages have to negotiate this - but I believe that whether one believes in God or not is - it's very central to who I am. I actually cannot imagine raising children or doing the things you do - other things you do with a partner who disagreed with me on something so fundamental. To me, it's fundamental. I completely can't understand people, for example, of different faiths who say that their children will choose when they grow up. I think that if you believe in a religion, most people believe that it's right.

If you believe in what I do, which is secular humanism, I would find it extremely difficult to live with someone - not to love someone - but to live with somebody and build a life of someone who disagreed with me on something so fundamental. And when my partner was dying of Alzheimer's, we discussed this. And he said, you know - you know, after I die you'll be the only custodian of our memories, meaning he believed as I do, that death is the end. There's no solace for us in the idea of life after death because we didn't believe in it.

I cannot imagine a long relationship with anyone who didn't agree with me on something so fundamental. And again, I'm not in any way saying that religious people are wrong about this. I'm saying that I think people who love each other and live together and have children together need to agree on the things that are most important in life. I cannot imagine, for example, being married to a devout Catholic or an Orthodox Jew.

GROSS: OK. And that sense of being on the same page is part of why people in your family converted when they got married or after they got married.


GROSS: So if you fell in love - this is a hypothetical - if you fell in love with somebody who practiced a faith, would you want them to convert (laughter) to atheism?

JACOBY: Well, of course not. I can't imagine falling in love with a devoutly religious person. Now, that - I will fully acknowledge many people could call that a failure of imagination on my part, but it is important to me. To me, it would be like falling in love with someone who thinks a woman's place is in the home, and I know that women have fallen in love with men like that. But it's something fundamental to me, human rights that people are equal under law simply because they are human beings. And I can no more imagine falling in love with someone who believed, for instance, as Orthodox Jews do, that women are unclean during their menstrual periods. I can no more imagine falling in love with someone who believed that than I can imagine falling in love with someone who believes that blacks shouldn't be able to vote and are inferior to whites.

GROSS: It seems to me in some ways you are more committed to secularism and atheism than some Christians and Jews and Muslims are committed to their faith in the sense that there's a lot of Christians and Jews for sure who are just kind of, like, nominally Christians and Jews. Like, they identify it - they identify themselves that way. Maybe they go to synagogue. Maybe they go to church.

JACOBY: High holidays.

GROSS: High holidays, yeah. But it doesn't strictly define their world view or their day-to-day life.

JACOBY: My atheism doesn't define my day-to-day life at all. But I realize - and maybe it is because, unlike people who sort of stay comfortably in a religion, I had to do a lot of thinking and reading before I realized that I was an atheist. But it's not that I'm committed to it, please understand, in the sense of wanting to spread it. In other words, I don't think by saying that I would find it difficult to build a life with someone who didn't share my beliefs about this, I'm not saying that I think atheists are better than other people. God, no. What I am saying is I do feel that this an integral part of who I am. And it's not something that I could comfortably think of not sharing with the person I loved most in the world.

GROSS: In the years that you've been writing about atheism, has the reaction that you've gotten changed?

JACOBY: There's more positive reaction than there was at first, which I think is a reflection of the changing population of the United States. There are, of course, many critical things and some of them are very interesting and very respectful criticisms. I have received many touching letters and emails from people who live in the most religious parts of the country, in places like rural Texas, saying it is so good to see someone be able to say I am an atheist without shame.

I have never been able to say that in my community, one woman wrote, because my children would be bullied in school. And these things touch me that they make people like that feel less alone. But I also thinks it's a grave reflection on our country that someone wouldn't be able to say that they're an atheist, if they are, when asked the question what church do you go to because they're afraid their children would be beaten up in school. That's as bad as my father being called anti-Jewish epithets in Brooklyn in 1916, in 1917, in 1918.

GROSS: Susan Jacoby, thank you so much for talking with us.

JACOBY: Thank you. It's been wonderful.

GROSS: Susan Jacoby is the author of the new book "Strange Gods: A Secular History Of Conversion." After we take a short break, Lloyd Schwartz will review the album that just won the Grammy for best opera recording. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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