Open thread: Susan Jacoby talks about people who go through religious conversion

by Grania

There’s an interesting interview with Susan Jacoby over on Fresh Air (NPR) about her new book Strange Gods: A Secular History Of Conversion. Susan looks at people in history as well as current examples, and examines reasons why people choose to exchange one god for another.

Interestingly, the answer is very rarely, as she calls it, the Road to Damascus-style epiphanies. The answer is almost always intermarriage.

She also notes, quite tellingly that rates of religious conversion also depend quite strongly on the level of religiosity within the country lived in.

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.

Sh also talks about “mixed” marriages in which people of differing religions or none have to decide to raise children together. It’s probably a situation that a lot of people find themselves in. How do partners come to an agreement about it? I know in my own family, my mother “won” and raised her children to be Catholics (with varying degrees of success as it turns out). But I wonder whether this very difficult question ever breaks relationships. Personally I don’t think I could raise children with someone who is deeply religious; our conflicting personal philosophies would cause too much of a divide. Jacoby appears to feel the same way.

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.

People also change. What happens if you are moderately religious at the start of a relationship; but non-religious ten years later?

Listen to the full interview here:

Have you ever had to face these questions in your life? How did you deal with them?


  1. GBJames
    Posted February 24, 2016 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    I think mothers usually “win”. My dad’s mother was Catholic, his father was (I think) a freethinker and the kids all were raised Catholic. My mom was raised Lutheran so they modified my Catholic grandmother by baptizing me that way. But they ended up having me confirmed as a Lutheran. (It never “took”, though.)

    • TJR
      Posted February 24, 2016 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      Its often said that you get language from your mother, so you would expect religion to be similar.

    • Posted February 24, 2016 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      Maybe it’s the Catholic’s who win. My mom was Baptist and my dad was Catholic, and my brothers and I were raised Catholic.

      Speaking of, one day when my parents were casually talking with our priest (we were pretty active with the church), they mentioned how they’d been married in a Lutheran church. The priest was aghast that they’d never actually been really married. So, my mom had to convert to Catholicism so they could have a proper wedding.

      Now that my brothers and I are all adults, two of us are atheists, our discussions have brought our mom around at least to agnosticism, while the Church’s own misdeeds have been enough to make my dad a non-practicing Catholic. Only one brother still regularly goes to mass.

      • GBJames
        Posted February 24, 2016 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

        Catholics didn’t win in my case since my mom was Lutheran and we kids got confirmed as Protestants. Ultimately neither of them won in my case, of course.

      • Posted February 24, 2016 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

        I think it would be interesting to see if there’s any difference in the number of children who wind up unassociated when they are raised by parents of differing beliefs versus having both parents agree on faith. I would think that with even two moderately religious parents, the difference in belief systems would be obvious from the start and start planting the seeds of doubt.

      • eric
        Posted February 25, 2016 at 7:41 am | Permalink

        My guess is that many parents are looking for a way to allow their kids to operate in both faith traditions, and so to do that they “officially” join the more restrictive one – the one that *won’t* accept the baptism/whatever of the other one. Its a way of keeping the kid’s options open. We kinda did that

        My kid has extended family that includes ELCA Lutherans, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, passive nones, and vocal atheists. His mom and I frankly don’t think a little kid should be pushed to make any sort of ideological commitment at a young age – we are both wary of even imparting our own beliefs on the subject to him (including atheism). So the main lessons we are trying to impart to him right now are (a) its okay that different family members believe different things, we treat them with love and respect regardless, and (b) you don’t have to believe something just because an adult in your family believes it. Use your own brain.

        This strategy seems to be working out pretty well for us.

        • GBJames
          Posted February 25, 2016 at 7:44 am | Permalink

          The most important part: “Use your own brain.”

      • John Scanlon FCD
        Posted February 25, 2016 at 10:02 am | Permalink

        “Maybe it’s the Catholics who win” – they have traditionally tried to enforce a one-sided outcome, whenever they had the power to do so. I’m not sure if this is a correct interpretation of canon law on the subject, but at least in Australia (say, 50 to 150 years ago) priests would conduct mixed marriages on the strict condition that ALL resulting children would be baptised Catholic, and it seems their heretical partners and families (despite Anglicans holding nearly all the political power in the country) mostly accepted it. At first.

        My maternal grandparents – he catholic, she presbyterian – had two daughters raised catholic, but their youngest son ended up in his mother’s sect; I don’t know whether that was by initial parental agreement, or a later choice of his.

    • Dan
      Posted February 24, 2016 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

      There were some interesting results from a Swiss study a few years ago that seemed to indicate that the father’s religious practice had the strongest influence on the children’s future religious practice.

      • GBJames
        Posted February 24, 2016 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

        Interesting numbers.

  2. Craw
    Posted February 24, 2016 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Rodney Stark has done a lot of research on this, and written a book on it. His conclusion is similar: it is usually a social event, driven by a close relative or spouse.

  3. Craw
    Posted February 24, 2016 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    And why isn’t conversion castigated as cultural appropriation?

    • TJR
      Posted February 25, 2016 at 8:30 am | Permalink

      Indeed. And of course Christianity is cultural appropriation of Judaism, and Judaism is cultural appropriation of Mesopotamian religion.

  4. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted February 24, 2016 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    I am the son of a Buddhist mother and a liberal Christian (now agnostic) father. Things were OK mainly because of shared ethical values and both take a very “minimalist” approach to the creeds of their respective religions.

  5. Randy Schenck
    Posted February 24, 2016 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    I cannot speak to the conversion business personally because I have always been this. Never a member of any religion and only recall being exposed to it a very few times when very young. Apparently had no interest.

    It is a bit odd maybe that Susan is very non plus about others who are religious as long as they don’t go after her or push it. Yet she is certain she could never get married or even connected with someone who is religious. That is probably a good way to be. But so many of the religious do want to become involved in you business, it is kind of what they do.

  6. Matt
    Posted February 24, 2016 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    I converted to a person who puts the toilet seat down, for marriage. Took months but it was worth it.

    • Posted February 24, 2016 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      I didn’t have to change when I got married (my cats took care of that previously). In fact, right after I got married, I was the only person in the house who put the lid down … 🙂

      • Diane G.
        Posted February 24, 2016 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

        Yes, the same way in our household. Before kids it was for the birds, then it was for the toddlers, then it was for the cats…It’s always something! 😉

        And by now, my husband prefer the closed look in a bathroom. (As does my son, though he grew up with it so many not count.)

    • DrBrydon
      Posted February 24, 2016 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      So did I, but I am still damned if I can see the issue.

      • Posted February 24, 2016 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

        I personally think that if someone is worried about the seat being dirtied, it should be left in the up position as the default. In practice, I’m now in the habit of putting both the seat and the lid down, due to the influence of having young children in the house and trying to avoid mishaps with them falling into the toilet bowl, which actually did happen once to my 4 year old, much to the amusement of everyone except for him.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted February 24, 2016 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

          We leave it down, it looks tidier that way.

          But since staying at our daughter’s, where there is a brand new toilet with a ‘soft-closing’ seat and lid, I’ve bought and fitted a similar one to our old toilet. So now it’s even easier, just give it a flick and watch it gently lower itself.

          I can see it getting a lot of use till the novelty wears off.

          (Oh, the main question? My wife’s religious, gives Big J his orders for the day every morning. I’m not. We’ve dealt with the issue quite successfully for 30+ years by ignoring it. Our daughter (my stepdaughter actually) is probably nominally religious for social reasons like most Cook Islanders, but not strongly so. So far as I can tell).


          • Posted February 24, 2016 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

            Despite my wife’s nominal faith, I’m not aware of her putting in any orders with the big guy in the sky. But, as you point out, there’s more important things in life; if both people in a relationship don’t put religious belief particularly high in importance, it’s pretty easy to ignore disagreements.

            The only time we usually discuss religion is when one or both of us is criticizing a family member for insisting that prayer is actually going to be useful or filling up our Facebook feed with those godawful “Amen” requests.

  7. rickflick
    Posted February 24, 2016 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    A very nice interview. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I love Susan Jacoby. One area I disagree with her about is that she is not enough of a New Atheist. I think New Atheists generally feel that the world would be better off without religion. Jacoby seems quite happy with the world as it is. She says she doesn’t wish to see the religious convert to atheism and secular humanism. At least she says she wouldn’t want to convert anyone that way. She must think that it’s just fine that there are wildly religious Supreme Court justices making wildly religious decisions, and such (I assume). Maybe she means she’s not confrontational about it, but would feel good about a more secular shift generally.

    • GBJames
      Posted February 24, 2016 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think you are hearing her right. She’s clearly annoyed (pissed off) at the way religion operates in the world and isn’t at all happy about the world as it is. Her position is simply that people who keep their faith to themselves and don’t push it on others are people she can live with.

      • Randy Schenck
        Posted February 24, 2016 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

        I think we have to say she is not an activist about atheism. I do not think she ever has been. But she does not hide it.

        • rickflick
          Posted February 24, 2016 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

          That’s true, she is a clear advocate for atheism. She just isn’t willing to confront the issue like Coyne, Harris, or Dawkins. She deals with the social issue analytically and fairly dispassionately, usually.

          • Diane G.
            Posted February 24, 2016 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

            She also details with it by writing whole books about it. And for several years she wrote an atheist bl*g-column for WaPo.

            • rickflick
              Posted February 25, 2016 at 7:34 am | Permalink

              Yes. I’d like to see her debate the issue with some apologists, but I don’t think she would. I respect her feelings though.

              • eric
                Posted February 25, 2016 at 8:15 am | Permalink

                Ask and you shall receive.

                Rick I would stop making claims about what Jacoby doesn’t think/do that she should. You’re 0 for 2 so far. 🙂

              • rickflick
                Posted February 25, 2016 at 11:51 am | Permalink

                Ha! She did debate! I guess I had her figured wrong. 0 for 2 and I’m sunk. She’s just wonderful.

                Thanks for the link. It should restore my faith a little going into the weekend…er…I mean, restore my evidence.

              • Diane G.
                Posted February 25, 2016 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

                eric, thanks so much for that! I amazed myself by actually listening to the whole thing, albeit often in the background while double-tasking. As is often the case, I found the Q&A to be especially interesting and Jacoby was extremely successful during it.

                I enjoyed her throughout, liked her voice, diction, humor, comfort level (high!) and most of all her ability to think on her feet. She has so much history at the tip of her tongue, ready to be summoned to meet whatever need.

                Now I’m disappointed that I don’t hear of her doing more of this sort of thing, even though I’m basically against debates as a whole.

  8. Posted February 24, 2016 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Many religionists are not dyed-in-the-wool believers, but are cultural/social. Many others of us change over time, with more information and thought, from believers to nonbelievers, or vice versa. I wish I had introduced my children to many different religions, and none, as they were growing up
    so they could decide for themselves when grown. Having been raised as a fundamentalist Christian, I developed such a strong aversion that I couldn’t make myself go to any church, even for my kids. What I think we were successful in doing was providing a home environment that had a large library, valued education and open discussion. There was no topic that was taboo.

    • Posted February 24, 2016 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

      I agree with your sentiments with regard to attending church. What a monumental waste of time. My kids have still done the rites of baptism and the older one did Communion. My wife still believes in God as far as I know, but whatever belief she has falls a hell of a lot closer to Unitarianism than anything. In her family, these rituals are more a cultural thing anyway, an excuse to bring the family together and have a party.

      As my own taste for religion has soured further during my marriage, I think she has trended that direction with me, in no small part thanks to several batshit crazy religious family members. She may finally be at the point where we forego any more of this nonsense, even for cultural celebrations. This week, we’ll step foot in a Church for the first time in about a year for the funeral of a family member. Inevitably, there will be some people there talking about God’s purpose and why he’d take a 33 year-old father away from his three young children. Any time you regret not being able to force yourself to Church, think of these types of heinous justifications religion uses. I’m sorry, but there is nothing good or purposeful about cancer taking a young man with a family during the prime of his life. If I did believe such a God existed who would allow these things to happen, he is manifestly unworthy of our time, nevermind worthy of commanding our worship.

  9. Posted February 24, 2016 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Woody Allen, back during his standup-comedian years, had a bit about how he broke up with his girlfriend over a “tremendous religious conflict. She was an atheist and I was an agnostic. We couldn’t decide which religion not to bring the children up in.”

    Don’t forget to tip the waiter.

  10. DrBrydon
    Posted February 24, 2016 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    When I was in my 20s, I had a girlfriend who became more religious after a relative died. My atheism became problematic for her when looking at a long term commitment. I also knew a man who was a Jewish atheist. His wife was Jewish. When they had a child, it became an issue for them. Friends tell a story from our time at UC, though, where there was an elderly couple that would go to Bond Chapel (the Catholic chapel) every Sunday. She would go in, and he would wait outside for her.

    • GBJames
      Posted February 24, 2016 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

      I think I mentioned this before on WEIT, but I sat next to an atheist woman at an FFRF convention who was a former Jehovah’s Witness. She quit when she had a child and didn’t want to bring him/her up without blood transfusions as a life-saving option. Her husband remained a JW. How they managed that is beyond my ability to understand, but somehow they did.

      • Posted February 24, 2016 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

        I’m willing to bet it’s because even though most religious people pay lip service to saying they love God above all else, like most people they really love their immediate families more than anything, and so religion takes a back seat to their marriage.

        • GBJames
          Posted February 24, 2016 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

          I don’t know… an uncle of mine had his marriage/family shattered when his wife became a JW. Some of the kids stayed as Witnesses and other’s left. Now adults in their senior years, they still aren’t allowed to talk to the each other. Faith has shattered many families.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted February 24, 2016 at 9:00 pm | Permalink


          Yep. My wife is a Cook Islander, and so for her family (by that I mean extended family) and personal relationships outrank religion any day.

          She’s religious, I’m not, we just ignore any inconsistencies. There are always other much more significant things to decide.


      • Posted February 24, 2016 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

        God really does work in mysterious ways. 😉

  11. Randy Schenck
    Posted February 24, 2016 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    I would say it’s not a good idea to do a mixed religious marriage…such as catholic and Jewish. It certainly happens but it’s just one more damn thing. Same with ideas on politics, money, kids, the things that might be a good idea to learn prior to the plunge. Not an expert but I’ve been doing it for forty years.

    • Posted February 24, 2016 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      Or morning person vs. nightowl!

  12. Christopher Bonds
    Posted February 24, 2016 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    I myself was never “converted” even though I joined a church after marrying my first wife. But in the 1960s a high school friend got fired up about Jesus after reading Lloyd C. Douglas’s novel The Robe. He began speaking in tongues and going to various full-gospel fundamentalist faith-healing etc churches. He’s now an atheist. I think in his case women, real and fictitious, played a role in his conversion, but it was science that played a role in his deconversion.

  13. Posted February 24, 2016 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    “What happens if you are moderately religious at the start of a relationship; but non-religious ten years later?”

    Well, that’s what my wife has had to deal with. I was actually more than moderately religious when we got married, but became an atheist a few years later (having to raise a daughter actually galvanized me take a lot closer look at religion when other issues made me start to have doubts). The worst part is that she was already questioning religion and on her way out when we met, and I was the one who made her open to religion again. It has caused some strains, but we made it through. I’m not sure how it would have worked out if she wasn’t of the mindset to question religion to begin with.

  14. Posted February 24, 2016 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    I was actually more than moderately religious when we got married, but became an atheist a few years later (having to raise a daughter actually galvanized me take a lot closer look at religion when other issues made me start to have doubts).

    I can relate. After my first child was born in 2007, I largely remained mildly to perhaps moderately religious for a couple of years. However, my father’s decision to pursue becoming a deacon in the Catholic Church combined with my son growing up, also urged me to take a closer look. The sexual abuse scandal had already soured me on the Church for some time, but I made the decision that I wanted to really know whether the Church’s claims are in fact true. It is a frequent justification used by the Church that while the scandal may make them sinners and hypocrites, it does not affect the validity of their truth claims. They’re right. It doesn’t. Hypocrites or not, they’re wrong.

  15. Michael Garner
    Posted February 24, 2016 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    My first wife, whom I had two children, was Reform Jewish. She felt strongly that the children should be raised a Jews, and I went along, although I would have preferred to raise them without faith. I had been raised in a sort of non-denominational Protestant household, but I had become a doubter then a non-believer as a teenager.

    Although my transition from faith was difficult, I felt that my children would be able to find a path suited for them as they stumbled through life. My first marriage would fail, but not because of our different beliefs.

    My second wife was also Jewish with her own two boys from her first marriage. They were also being raised Jewish. I never criticized what they were being taught, but I would answer honestly when questioned about my beliefs, or lack thereof.

    The kids are all adults now, most with kids of their own. My daughter is very observant of the Jewish traditions and rituals. She teaches at a private Jewish day school.

    My son, now 42, struggles with his life and his faith. The marriages of my two stepsons seem to be succeeding without involving themselves or their children in superstitious nonsense.

    Is there a lesson here? I don’t know. We’re all just doing the best we can.

  16. Posted February 24, 2016 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that when a person converts to their spouses religion, the first step would be a visit to the clergyman to ask “what do I believe now that’s different from what I believed before?”

    But how anyone could ask that question without doubting their own rationality is beyond me.

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 24, 2016 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

      And me!

  17. frednotfaith2
    Posted February 24, 2016 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    My mom converted to active Catholicism, at age 55, after marrying my stepfather. Her father was a Baptist minister, but he died when she was 10 years old and during my childhood my family only rarely went to church and she was essentially a non-practicing Protestant. My stepdad, Charles, had been an excommunicated Catholic when they married — his 1st wife left him for another man and his 2nd wife died the year before he met my mother, who was herself recently divorced from my father. Charles had been divorced from his first wife over 30 years before he got that marriage annulled and he was reinstated as a Catholic and my mom then joined the church and they had a Catholic wedding ceremony, 14 and a half years after their secular marriage in Reno.
    BTW, in the atheist meetup group I belong to in Jacksonville, occasionally we’ll be asked to discuss our religious background, if any, and most of the members turn out to be ex-Catholics.

  18. Posted February 25, 2016 at 1:13 am | Permalink

    I’m the gifted here. Lol. My father is a communist and mother is a Buddhist. I end up pure atheist naturally. The Buddhist virtuals we have in my place make me think of a alternate religion. That,s where I found the all al mighty the most knowing FSM.

  19. Larry
    Posted February 25, 2016 at 1:29 am | Permalink

    I moved to Taiwan from the U.S. ten years ago, and am a witness to the widespread belief in numerous spirits and gods. The ubiquity of temples devoted to local gods, Daoism, and Buddhism easily equals that of any conservative American community. It is my experience though, that Taiwanese tend to be much more accepting of philosophical diversity than monotheists. And certainly for some, the Chinese version of manifest destiny (especially on the mainland) is more important than religion.

    I’ve met a few here who adopted xianity (either Protestantism or its competitor
    Catholicism), and became quite devout. And, unfortunately, missionaries long ago infiltrated the aboriginal areas (as they have throughout much of the Pacific), converting many. But again, the vast majority here in Taiwan are not monotheists. I express these things because when it comes to marriage, I believe Taiwanese/Chinese are less concerned with religious differences (except for Muslims in the far west of China) than are Euroamericans.

    Maybe monotheists have a particular tendency for judging the desirability of marriage partners based on religion, even though they supposedly believe in the same god.

    With regard to Susan Jacoby, she is an extremely good writer. She has written what I consider an excellent book on American secularism – Freethinkers: A History of American Freethought. She brought Robert Ingersoll to the attention of many who had never heard of him, in The Great Agnostic, and discussed the American versions and trends of irrationality in The Age of American Unreason. She is a fine writer, who is tireless in the support of rationality, secularism, and atheism.

  20. Ryan
    Posted February 25, 2016 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    I’m especially lucky on the marriage front as both my wife and I were pretty devout Catholics when we met, and then we managed to make the transition to atheism/agnosticism together, mostly due to reading similar non-religious books (starting with general science books and then moving on to Dawkins and other specifically atheist writers) and discussing ideas together. Not sure which of us formally “deconverted” first, but there was never a time when one was praying for the soul of the other, and now we’re both happily heathen. I don’t know if things would have worked out so well if one of us remained Catholic, it would be very hard to share your life with someone who believes the total opposite of you, I think.

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 25, 2016 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      How ideal! Congrats to the both of you.

      I’m with you, Grania, and a few others here; I’m pretty sure that I couldn’t be married to and certainly couldn’t raise a family with a religionist.

      And I always find it disturbing that those who do seem to be mostly male; I wonder what it says about traditional sex roles, etc.

  21. Posted February 25, 2016 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Anecdotal information

    This couple had one son. The mother was a singer and had done a lot of choral music, most of it classical religious music. As the boy was growing up, she routinely sang as a soloist and as a church chorister. The boy also sang briefly in church and was paid to do so. He even beat his mother out of a solo. The father wound up singing in a church choir for a while as well. Despite this, neither the mother nor the father were religious. They did not believe most of what churches teach. The boy never became religious either, although he came to study the history of religion in college as part of a broader academic program. So here is a case where inherently secular parents exposed their son to religion on a pretty regular basis but still the boy wound up just as secular as they were. This is perfectly consistent with the observation that religious beliefs – or the lack thereof – are correlated with family membership.

  22. Mary Sheumaker
    Posted February 25, 2016 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    While my father was a non-practicing Lutheran turned agnostic, my mother raised us 4 kids Catholic. Problem is, they also raised us to be rational and to think for ourselves, so I don’t think it took for any of us.

  23. Posted February 27, 2016 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    Surely we’d have to classify it as a secular marriage, if not a secular life for the child or the ‘ruling’ parent.

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