Reviews — From the March 2016 issue

Beginning to See the Light

Religious conversion across the ages

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Discussed in this essay:

Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion, by Susan Jacoby. Pantheon. 512 pages. $29.95.

Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism, by Maajid Nawaz. Lyons. 296 pages. $26.95.

Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue, by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz. Harvard University Press. 144 pages. $17.95.

When I attended Swarthmore College, in the mid-Seventies, it had an active religious life. The school was founded by Quakers, and its on-campus Friends meetinghouse was filled most Sundays. Religion classes were taught by ordained ministers. Orange-clad denizens of the local Ananda Marga ashram sat in the student center chatting up would-be recruits, and Jesus Freaks sat outside the dining hall clutching denim-bound Good News Bibles and handing out get smart get saved buttons, ready to tell anyone who would listen that Jesus was the first hippie.

Like the outside world, the campus was a burbling, bustling bazaar of belief, and we — with our duck-and-cover childhoods, our Vietnam adolescences, our nuclear families gone critical, our mendacious politicians, and our ravenous, pillaging beast of an economy — were the perfect market, set up for the one-two punch William James noted in the course of describing the “uniform deliverance in which religions all appear to meet”:

1. An uneasiness; and

2. Its solution.

1. The uneasiness, reduced to its simplest terms, is a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand.

2. The solution is a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers.

A few of my cohort wandered back to religion, temporarily or permanently; one friend even ran off with the Get Smart people. But despite our shared uneasiness, most of us were content with solutions that required less of us — silent hand-holding around the dinner table, vague nature worship, psychedelic drugs. All were sincerely pursued, and all seemed to offer salvation from whatever was wrong about us.

It took a woman to show me that my wrongness demanded a more concentrated form of connection with the higher powers. Mostly she did this by withholding sex, on the grounds that her guru advised chastity. He also frowned on smoking pot, eating eggs, and thinking unkind thoughts, demanding instead early mornings, quiet evenings, and meditation twice a day. In return, he promised access to the Divine Light and Sound of God, which did not seem as attractive as weed, omelets, and calumny, but then again nothing seemed as attractive as my chaste friend, especially not when she lay in bed next to me resisting my entreaties.

Saint Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne. Courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Saint Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne. Courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Occasionally, the guru would journey from India to the United States, and his followers would pile into cars to meet him. Which is how I found myself in a suburban D.C. living room, seated on the floor with twenty or so others in front of a bearded, turbaned man with dark, deep-set eyes who was explaining in a sibilant Hindi accent how the Science of the Soul could be grasped not theoretically but only through a Living Master like him.

The room was darkened for meditation. I assumed the position I’d learned from my friend during our bedroom training sessions — blankets over heads, fingers (or earplugs, for those who had come prepared) in ears. I don’t know if it was the presence of so many meditators all knocking on the same heavenly door, or that of the Master himself, seated in front of us, serene and even radiant, urging us to our deepest inner reaches, but within moments I was overtaken by exactly what I had been told to expect but had never yet seen or heard: light, stars that stippled the darkness, whirled into a galaxy, and then exploded in supernovas behind my eyelids; and sound, vague and chaotic at first, like an orchestra tuning, that slowly congealed into harmony and finally became a single blaring note, a blast from Gabriel’s horn that threatened to never end. Tears streamed down my face. I was ready to throw myself prostrate at the Master’s feet. I was ready to be chaste and kind and vegetarian and even drug free. I had made the proper connection. I had been saved from my wrongness.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry.

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