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Strange Gods

  • Paperback $17.00

    Mar 21, 2017 | 512 Pages

  • Hardcover $29.95

    Feb 16, 2016 | 512 Pages

  • Ebook $12.99

    Feb 16, 2016 | 512 Pages

Product Details

Praise

“In book after book [Jacoby] has been a paradoxically effective religion teacher, and this new book, her most ambitious yet, is no exception. Atheists as self-conscious and purposeful about their irreligion as she are a small minority in America and a tiny minority in the world at large, but her improbable strength is that she makes the subject of religion, a subject she can never be done talking about, contagiously interesting….True to her calling as a heroine of free thought, she fights the good fight for irreligion as she goes, treating her reader to many a saucy aside, many a laugh-line for the baptismally decertified….Jacoby’s book is a page-turner, not so much because it tells a single, forward-rushing story but because, in the manner of a good teacher each of whose classes leaves you eager for the next, any two of her chapters will leave you ready for a third.” Jack Miles, Los Angeles Review of Books

“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.” —Rebecca Goldstein, author of Plato at the Googleplex

“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.” —Richard Dawkins, author of Brief Candle in the Dark

“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.” —Louis Begley, author of The Dreyfus Affair

“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.” —Alan Wolfe, At Home in Exile

“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.” —James Shapiro, author of The Year of Lear

“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.”Kirkus Reviews *starred review*

“This militantly secular history of religious conversion reconsiders famous converts, from Augustine to Muhammad Ali, to reveal the complex web of political, economic, and social forces that can lead to individual conversions….Its conclusion—that religious coercion inevitably “produces a false uniformity that collapses as swiftly or slowly as social conditions permit”—is powerful.” —The New Yorker
 
“A vivid picture of the ways in which conversions happen and the myriad reasons behind their happening.” —Booklist

“Neither a scathing New Atheist tract nor a dry academic history, Jacoby’s sweeping account of religious conversion, from Augustine to Muhammad Ali to the horrors of medieval Spain and modern-day Raqqa, finds an essential new angle of approach. An ardent secularist but a child of multiple American converts, Jacoby chooses to focus not on spiritual or psychological motives but on the social forces that drive religious change. Strange Gods may be off-putting to believers, but it’s a likely story and, in her hands, a lively one.” Vulture.com

“[Jacoby’s] 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 Muhammad 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.” —Open Letters Monthly

“‘Strange Gods,’ with its scope (Augustine of Hippo to Muhammad Ali), insight, and carefully assessed judgments, emerges as an engaging rumination on—if not quite a history of—this tricky and multifarious subject.” —Christian Science Monitor

“Illuminating….[This book] arrives at a crucial moment, when belief systems that demand blind adherence are once again on the rise, jeopardizing rationalist gains that have broadened human possibilities.” —Miami Herald
 
“Jacoby 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….A plea for mutual respect between believers and secularists….Convincing.” —Mormons into Media
 
“In “Strange Gods,” Jacoby turns a respectful yet skeptical eye on a series of conversion dramas. For much of human history, she argues, converts switched religion under social or political pressure; more recently, it’s nearly always a result of intermarriage. Among the most fascinating stories are those that don’t fit either narrative: that of Edith Stein, a German Jewish philosophy student who became a Catholic nun in 1933, which didn’t save her from being killed at Auschwitz; or Muhammad Ali, whose 1964 decision to join the Nation of Islam confused and even enraged white sportswriters and boxing fans. Half a century later, Jacoby points out, Ali is beloved — in part, she argues, because of a choice that represented ‘our most cherished traditions exalting freedom of conscience.’” —Boston Globe



From the Hardcover edition.

Table Of Contents

CONTENTS
 
A Note on Language · ix
Prologue · xi
Introduction · xiii
 
PART I Young Christendom and the Fading Pagan Gods
1 Augustine of Hippo (354–430) · 3
2 The Way, the Truth, the Life, the Empire · 30
3 Coercion, Conversion, and Heresy · 57
 
PART II From Convivencia to the Stake
4 Bishop Paul of Burgos (c. 1352–1435) · 71
5 Impureza de Sangre: The Crumbling of the Convivencia · 87
6 The Inquisition and the End · 99
 
PART III Reformations
7 John Donne (1572–1631) · 115
8 “Not with Sword . . . but with Printing” · 134
9 Persecution in an Age of Religious Conversion · 146
 
PART IV Conversions in the Dawn of the Enlightenment
10 Margaret Fell (1614–1702):
11 Religious Choice and Early Enlightenment Thought · 178
12 Miracles Versus Evidence: Conversion and Science · 196
13 Prelude: O My America! · 209
 
PART V The Jewish Conversion Question: Where Christianity Stumped Its Toe
14 Heinrich Heine (1797–1856): Convictionless Conversion · 239
15 The Varieties of Coercive Experience · 260
16 Edith Stein (1891–1942): The Sainthood of a Converted Jew · 277
 
PART VI American Exceptionalism: Toward Religious Choice as a Natural Right
17 Peter Cartwright (1785–1872): Anti-Intellectualism and the Battle for Reason · 297
18 Remaking the Protestant American Compact · 317
 
INTERREGNUM: ABSOLUTISM AND ITS DISCONTENTS
19 True Believers · 337
 
PART VII The Way We Live Now
20 “The Greatest”: Muhammad Ali and the Demythologizing Decade · 359
21 American Dreaming · 379
Conclusion: Darkness Visible · 394
 
Acknowledgments · 417
Notes · 419
Selected Bibliography · 433
Index · 439

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