Strange Gods by Susan Jacoby

book cover based on painting of the conversion of St. PaulStrange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion by Susan Jacoby (2016)

Really well written, all 465 pages. Jacoby is also the author of other books including The Age of American Unreason that is a good book too. So I thought I would just take a flip through this book to start and found the few photographs in it that illustrate all too well the problem of adherence to religious dogma. The first picture was of a terracotta statue “believed to represent the Alexandrian philosopher and mathematician Hypatia (c.350-415) who was literally torn to pieces by a Christian mob for the dual offense of being a female intellectual and expounding classical pagan philosophy as Christianity triumphed throughout the Roman Empire.” I had heard of her before, so was gratified to see her story mentioned.

It was funny too because yesterday I was listening to a book by Ann Coulter (yes, the conservative crazy one, who is unfortunately smart and stupid simultaneously, but really knows how to get her guest spots when people want a conservative mouthpiece whose opinions are presented as facts without any particular credentials for them (she is a lawyer).  She then pretends to present her beliefs and interpretations of situations as “hyperbole” but moments later says some of the [shit] she says is what she really believes. (interview on The Young Turk on YouTube). Anyway, her book, Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America, was extremely well read by Elizabeth White (I think) with such poisoness venom, intense mockery, condescending sneering, that, while perfect for the book and probably exactly represented every nuance of Coulter’s viciousness of bald-faced lies, that I could not help but think of her version of reality (that the LIBERALS were the mobs) when reading the blurb about Hypatia. Especially having endured daily stories of actual Trump thuggish mob violence on the nightly news for months. The first five minutes were funny because of the utter hypocrisy and, by substituting the word “conservative” for every “liberal” and “Republican” for every every time she said “Democrat” it actually read as true! But despite repeated moments of trying to carry on, I just could not tolerate the words, particularly as read, so I turned it back in to the library. It was not funny after all because she is a major public voice (and that is her goal I think, aside from sucking up to Trump now, angling for some position should the nightmare of his election become real) and people actually believe the things she says — EVEN OUTRIGHT LIES. Though I likely will get a hard copy so that I can do another post on it here with some of the most outrageous cases of transference I have ever heard.

Now you are probably wondering why I brought up a book that would, on the face of it, seem unrelated since it is about politics and Strange Gods is about religion. Unfortunately, with the likes of her in the world, the two have intersected in such a way that a modern day Hypatia would be as likely to be torn apart by Christians today as well.

So I ended up starting on page 150 because that was the paragraph on the left page from the Hypatia. And, with a dark sense of humor, I saw that it discussed my favorite “Christian” (sarcasm): John Calvin (1509-64). Oh, but before I forget, this business of conversion, from Catholic to Protestant, and other variations, also reminded me of another book I read (before I started writing about my reading) that was the true story of a 6 year old Jewish boy that upon an errand for his father, left the Jewish ghetto to go to the Catholic Bishop or whatever in charge of the town. (Jews were confined by walls and not allowed out at night.) This was in the 1600s I think. Short version, the Catholics kept the boy, baptized him, and thus he was said to no longer be Jewish, and therefore could not return home to his family who were Jews. It was a cause celebre in it’s day, and the Rothschild family tried to intervene, as did many others, to beg them to let the boy return home, but he never saw his family again. And, of course, he became a priest. Not to digress too far from fact, but given the scandalous Catholic priests doing vile pedophile acts contemporaneously, one has to wonder if this boy was so abused as well. The book did not address this possibility.

Back to Calvin:

The most intolerant of the major founders of the Reformation was, without question, John Calvin (1509-64). Born Jean Cauvin in France, he would eventually flee the Catholic monarchy. After many false starts and twists and turns of political as well as religious fortune, Calvin was able to create a REPRESSIVE religious polity in Geneva that the Catholic Church, for all the HISTORICAL INTRANSIGENCE of its ABSOLUTE TRUTH claims, had never quite been able to manage, even in the territory of the Papal States. Calvin cared not only about doctrine — especially PREDESTINATION — but about STRICT SOCIAL DISCIPLINE, maintained not only by CIVIL magistrates and ecclesiastical pooh-bahs but by a NETWORK OF NEIGHBORHOOD INFORMERS united in their determination to ferret out ANYONE who did not subscribe to STRICT Calvinist practices and beliefs about EVERYTHING from the BASIC SINFULNESS of humanity to any PLEASURE that might be derived from such inventions of the devil as colorful clothes, music, sweet foods — in short, anything that might please any of the human senses. Having been kicked out of Geneva by city fathers who considered his ideas of discipline too strict (and too threatening to secular power), Calvin returned for good in 1541 as the political and ecclesiastical winds shifted. Pastors of individual churches were approved both by the city council and the Calvinist  clergy (there would be no such rebels as emerged from the Grossmunster Church in Zurich). Excommunication from the church was to be enforced by a combination of civil and ecclesiastical authority. All gambling, card playing, and dancing were banned; fornication was added to the usual crimes of murder, assault, and theft as grounds for civil penalties and excommunication. Witchcraft and sorcery, as might have been expected, were capital offenses. Homes of loyal Calvinists were SEARCHED once a year, just in case they possessed BOOKS or any signs (such as a pack of playing cards) of dissent from the moral and civil order.” (p. 150, 159)

I knew some of this level of scrutiny existed before; that Catholics were not the only Inquisitors in this sense. All monotheism religion seems to me to be about control, in particular, denying basic human sexual impulses or joy or anything other than fear of hell and tithe to whatever religion was in control where you grew up. Another photo featured was of a stamp of a woman, Edith Stein, pictured in the old nun habit (kind of like a burka now that I think about it). She was a Jew (born 1891) who converted to Catholicism (why oh why?) and became a catholic nun. The stamp was issued in 1983 to honor Stein, who would “later be canonized by the church in a move that offended many Jews.” What miracles did she perform you might ask. She died in 1942. Or rather, she was exterminated at Auschwitz “BECAUSE SHE HAD BEEN BORN A JEW.”  So that is a bitter twisted tale. Killed for being Jewish despite conversion, whereas the boy mention previously was no longer considered Jewish because he had been been baptized. [Technically, he wasn’t even baptized by a priest but rather an ignorant servant girl who, when the child was desperately ill, thought he might die, and she didn’t want him to go to hell for being a Jew, so she baptized him while he was so very sick. The Catholics had some odd rules about why this baptism of a Jewish child by a non-churchman was even legitimate, but obviously interpreted it as valid.] Continuing on page 151:

A legal enforcement agency called the Consistory, including representative of both the Geneva city council and the church, was established, and the city’s residents (Geneva then had a population of about fifty-thousand) were to REPORT VIOLATIONS RANGING FROM FORNICATION TO THE SKIPPING OF SERMONS, as well as to practices, such as naming children after saints, that might indicate some atavistic attachment to Catholicism. Like the Spanish inquisitors, authorities in Geneva kept METICULOUS RECORDS of denunciations [Nazis like good record-keeping too]. We know, for instance, that in 1550 exactly 160 cases of sexual immorality were reported. [I will check the footnote to see if it identifies percentage of WOMEN to MEN who were found to be immoral.] Since this meant a report was filed by someone at least every other DAY, it certainly betokens a high level of Christian neighborly surveillance.

I am going to insert a break here just because I need the visual relief. The author has all of this in one long page.

The array of prohibitions covering the most MINUTE ASPECTS of daily life was seemingly endless. Women’s dresses were checked to make sure the skirts were neither too long or too short.

Okay, another break because I have to scream: AND WE ARE STILL MEASURING GIRLS SKIRT LENGTHS TODAY – nearly 500 years later!!!!!!!

There were limits to the number of rings a woman (or a man) could wear on his or her fingers, and a prescribed number of shoes allowed each citizen. [!!!! Will have to check if this is before or after Savonarola.] Even the AMOUNT OF MEAT that could be eaten at any specific meal was regulated by law.

Time for another scream: AND RELIGIOUS LAWMAKERS ARE STILL TRYING TO CONTROL WHAT PEOPLE MAY EAT! Witness the Oklahoma food stamp restrictions preventing poor people from buying steak or fish! No soda pop for you, parasites.

Almost anything with the taint of pleasure was forbidden, INCLUDING FAMILY DINNERS to which more than twenty people were invited. (Perhaps the authorities felt that twenty was the magic number for producing too much sinful laughter. How could so many people get together in one room without telling jokes?)

Although I suspect the authorities were more worried about too many people getting together and saying this religion sucks, lets kill the preachers and eat all the sweets we want!

PASTRIES AND CANDIED FRUITS were SPECIFICALLY prohibited. The Geneva Consistory, like the office of the Holy Inquisition in Rome, gave an IMPRIMATUR TO BOOKS; woe unto the household where books without the imprimatur were found.

No independent thinking permitted. Talk about thought police! Again reminded of Nazi book burning and rejection of “degenerate art” but of course books have been subject to much burning as were libraries through the many centuries. (The Germans burned down one in Brussels in the first World War, and it was rebuilt, so Hitler made a point of burning it again when the Nazis marched on Belgium.)

During the first five years after Calvin’s triumphalist return to Geneva, ten people were BEHEADED [see, Christians like to do it too], thirty-five burned [alive] at the stake [and Calvin made sure it was green wood so it would take longer and increase suffering], and seventy-six driven from their houses after their property had been seized. [Nazis again!] Prisons were so crowded with citizens being prosecuted for HERESY that the wardens had to tell city officials that there was no more room.

Calvin was the one who burned to death a man of science (maybe Galena ?), as I recall from another book, he was an anatomist, strictly forbidden, but he discovered the circulatory system. So if the various religions had had their way, we would have no modern medicine or surgeries. Funny that way, that all human progress seems to depend on violating religious dictates.

No one has described Calvin’s regimen with a more scathing accuracy than Stefan Zweig, who wrote in 1936 that, after Calvin returned to Geneva to stay, “it is as if the doors of the houses had suddenly been thrown open and if the walls had been transformed into glass. From moment to moment, by day and by night, there might come a knocking at the entry and a number of ‘spiritual police’ [Sharia anyone?] announce a ‘visitation’ without the concerned citizen’s being able to offer resistance.” [Welfare urine checks? Panopticon!]

This also makes me think of Nazis with the spying of neighbors reporting on others, and giving up resistance fighters and so on. I still actually find it hard to believe that we won WWII because of the presence of death at every moment for the slightest transgression — or none at all!

Calvin had inaugurated ‘a Protestant orthodoxy in place of a papistical one; and with perfect justice this new form of dogmatic DICTATORSHIP has been stigmatized as bibliocracy.’ Zweig also argues that any ‘reign of force which originates out of a movement towards liberty is always more strenuously OPPOSED to the idea of liberty than is hereditary power. Those who owe their position as governors to a successful revolution become the most obscurantist and intolerant opponents of further innovation.’ Zweig, an Austrian Jew who left his country in 1934 and committed suicide in Petropolis, Brazil, in 1942, offered his opinion of Calvin in a world living between the two poles of revolutionary repression represented by Nazism and Stalinism. He knew all about living in a house suddenly turned to glass.

Well this just covers about 3 pages of text in the chapter on “Persecution in the Age of Conversion” and the rest of the book also seems to be both a good read and complete with more details about the reality that people have forgotten about the effects of religious dogma and what it really can be like. We have been spoiled in our lovely secular America to think that “it can’t happen here” (Also the title of an excellent book by Sinclair Lewis on how easily America could become fascist, a possibility that does not seem as far-fetched as it did even 12 years ago.) With candidates like Ted Cruz proclaiming God is a higher authority, the prospect of sheeple choosing to be enslaved by religious dogma is terrifying too possible.

So I will leave this with a quote at the top of chapter 19 “True Believers” and the initial few sentences of what the author meant by including the quote by Arthur Koestler from “The God That Failed” (and I have read another of his books but don’t recall the title at the moment, but a touch academic as I recall, and as this quote illustrates.

From the psychologist’s point of view, there is little difference between a revolutionary and a traditional faith. All true faith is UNCOMPROMISING, radical, purist; hence the true traditionalist is always a revolutionary zealot in conflict with pharisaian society, with the lukewarm corrupters of the creed.”

Here is the author’s following discussion of the quote.

If I were to be granted one wish, in fairy-godmother fashion, it would be that Arthur Koestler’s analogy between secular and traditional faith-based ABSOLUTISM, made at the midpoint of the twentieth century, remained true today only in a personal and psychological sense. To put it another way, I wish that absolutist religion and absolutist CONVERSION no longer possessed any public, or political power anywhere in the world. (p. 337)

ME TOO!!!! After a bit he continues with:

However, the new religio-political HORRORS that have marked the opening decades of the twenty-first century, and their relationship to the UNDEAD PHENOMENA of ABSOLUTE TRUTH claims and FORCED CONVERSION, have ensured the continuing relevance of Koestler’s observation.

One more good sentence or two from page 338:

. . . when the clash between totalitarian and democratic values eventually engulfed most of the earth and its inhabitants. That organized secular totalitarianism was characterized by the same IMPERVIOUSNESS to EVIDENCE as absolutist traditional religion was recognized by only a small minority of congenital skeptics.

The problem as I see it is that today we face an even more terrifying possible future where the authoritarian and absolutism of fascism is united with theocracy. Each deadly on their own, together would cause millions and millions of deaths, all in the name of one true God.




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