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 (2013, etc.) returns with a revealing historical analysis of religious conversions.
Jacoby’s introduction uses the prism of her own family history of conversions to cast color on the topics she will cover. Then she begins her chronological pursuit of her story with Augustine, a pursuit that ends with the Islamic State and the enduring attempts to coerce conversions. Throughout, the author writes candidly about her own atheism and allows herself at times to snap at ferociously religious people; near the end, she mentions the “goofy religious myths” that allow groups of people to feel superior to others. In some sections, Jacoby uses key individuals to introduce and/or illuminate a topic or historical period. There are chapters on John Donne, Margaret Fell, Heinrich Heine, and—perhaps a surprise for some readers—Muhammad Ali, whose conversion to Islam was “inseparable from the contemporary social upheaval.” Jacoby argues that conversion is a far more complex issue than other writers have acknowledged. She spends lots of time on coercive conversions—from the early Roman Catholic Church to modern radical Islam—but she also shows how other factors cause conversions, including intermarriage and personal security. She celebrates the United States, which, from its beginning, refused to endorse a state religion—the founders had seen the consequences of this in the bloody European religious wars—noting that our vast geographical space also allowed various religious groups to establish their own communities and havens. The author, whose political and religious views will no doubt alienate some readers (not to mention her slashing comment about adult fans of Harry Potter!), 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.