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Why Religion?: A Personal Story

4.04  ·  Rating details ·  573 ratings  ·  126 reviews
Why is religion still around in the twenty-first century? Why do so many still believe? And how do various traditions still shape the way people experience everything from sexuality to politics, whether they are religious or not? In Why Religion? Elaine Pagels looks to her own life to help address these questions.

These questions took on a new urgency for Pagels when dealin
ebook, 256 pages
Published November 6th 2018 by Ecco
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Clif Hostetler
Nov 16, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: religion
This memoir in addition to be of an account of overcoming personal tragedy, adds the unique dimension of insights of a respected historian of religion. Elaine Pagels is not only knowledgeable of the historical circumstances under which early scriptures were written, she found personal solace in those ancient words by identifying with the emotions and feeling that may have motivated those early writers. This book tells the story of how her personal and academic life combined to provide a unique r ...more
Ron Charles
Nov 06, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A rare lung disease killed Elaine Pagels’s 6-year-old son, and then about a year later her husband fell to his death while mountain climbing. After that Job-like run of tragedies, no one would have blamed Pagels if she had decided to “curse God and die.”

But she held on. Through rage and terror and despair so overwhelming that it made her faint, she held on.

“I had to look into that darkness,” she says at the opening of her new memoir, “Why Religion?” “I could not continue to live fully while refu
Canadian Reader
In 1945, two years after Elaine Pagels was born in northern California, an Arab farmer on the other side of the world made a stunning discovery. In a cave near the village of Nag Hammadi in Egypt, he found a six-foot-long jar containing 52 secret texts. They were gospels in Coptic Egyptian, which presented mystical sayings, beliefs, and ideas of Jesus that were quite different from those found in the New Testament. Deemed heretical at the time of their transcription, the scripts were apparently ...more
Mεδ Rεδħα
Jan 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophie, politics
A rare lung disease killed Elaine Pagels’s 6-year-old son, and then about a year later her husband fell to his death while mountain climbing. After that Job-like run of tragedies, no one would have blamed Pagels if she had decided to “curse God and die.”

But she held on. Through rage and terror and despair so overwhelming that it made her faint, she held on.

“I had to look into that darkness,” she says at the opening of her new memoir, “Why Religion?” “I could not continue to live fully while refu
(3.5) Pagels is a religion scholar best known for her work on the Gnostic Gospels of the Nag Hammadi library, such as the Gospel of Thomas. She grew up in a nonreligious Californian household, but joined a friend’s youth group and answered the altar call at a Billy Graham rally. Although she didn’t stick with Evangelicalism, Christianity continued to speak to her, and spirituality provided a measure of comfort in the hard times ahead: infertility, followed by the illness and death of her long-aw ...more
Elaine Pagels is fairly well-known for her writing about early Christianity, especially the Gnostic Gospels and the Gospel of Thomas. This memoir doesn’t so much answer the question of “Why have religion?” as it does the question her not-yet-husband asked her with the two title words, which was “Why study religion, of all possible subjects?”

Pagels was brought up in an atheist family. But she was drawn into evangelical Christianity as a teen when she attended a Billy Graham rally (where he preac
Dec 20, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018-reads
I've been reading Elaine Pagels since 1990, the summer after my sophomore year in college. I remember stealing little reading breaks while canvassing for Greenpeace in Kansas City. I'd sit on the grass and read 10-20 pages of The Gnostic Gospels, and feminist theologian Carol P. Christ's Laughter of Aphrodite, and Catherine Keller's From a Broken Web. A few weeks later I'd begin Adam, Eve, and the Serpent - I was finding such intellectual excitement in these books! At school, I recalled hearing ...more
Mary Novaria
Nov 23, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Elaine Pagels is clearly more comfortable addressing her chosen field of study than she is writing about her own personal struggles. While she outlines the horrific tragedies of losing her young son and husband within a year of each other, she never does a deep dive into her agony and any ramifications it may have had on her own religious experience or faith.

To say it's "A Personal Story" is only partially true. She gives us the physical details but, unlike most successful memoir, there's too mu
Peter Mcloughlin
You might be put off by the authors focus on her biography in the beginning. It may come off as boomer navel-gazing that may annoy some readers. Be patient. The book gets much better as it goes on it explores some deep philosophical and religious ideas as she goes on with her journey. I assure you she is a deep thinker and she is seasoned with much life experience. She understands a great deal about human psychology and how religion expresses some deep things in it and how it is a driver in our ...more
Dec 11, 2018 rated it liked it
This short book may have deserved an extra star. I felt I was handicapped by not having read any of her works. Book is both a personal and academic memoir -- Pagels, coming from a non-believing family, is a historian of religion, Harvard educated and one of the experts (and translators) of the Gnostic gospels. She talks about what religion has meant to her, particularly as she struggled with Job-like tragedies (losing her 6 year old son to heart defect and her husband in a climbing accident in a ...more
Dec 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir
Although I may not agree with all of Elaine Pagels' beliefs, I completed this book with a deep respect for the author and her probing and questioning mind. Her personal story is told with tenderness, honesty and openness. She has my admiration on many levels.
Aug 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
Elaine Pagels is a well known writer about religion. In this book, which is in many respects a memoir, she examines her own religious life as a jumping off point to look at what purpose religion serves and why people still turn to religion. She examines her own religious experiences, her skepticism about religion, her religious research, and how she experienced religion during the traumatic loss of her son as a young child followed by the unthinkable death of her husband only a year later. 

I fir
Dec 15, 2018 rated it really liked it
A very moving and well written memoir that doesn’t even come close to answering the title question
Megan Tristao
I went back and forth about whether or not I should even assign a star rating to this book, but I don't think I'm going to. What I was expecting was vastly different from what this book offered, and I once read you should review a book based on what it was, and not what you wanted it to be (thanks, Pamela Paul), and my star review would not be favorable.

That being said, here were my issues: I realize the subtitle is "A Personal Story," but I did not expect the book to be SO much personal memoir.
Dec 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book is part memoir and part scholarship. It works mostly and doesn’t work at times. I actually preferred the parts where she goes into her scholarship on ancient scripture and I plan to read her other books. The tragedies of her life make the book real and heartbreaking. I don’t think the book is an answer to its title, but it’s still a worthwhile read
Paul Womack
Nov 15, 2018 rated it really liked it
This gentle book combines personal story, theological reflection, and a fine summary of her academic work. The questions she asks are familiar, as are the answers she finds. Her scholarly work has informed my own thinking, although the life experiences which prompted my questions were deeply existential and quite unlike her own life and work. This is a book I recommend to my clergy colleagues and seekers of all kinds.
Elaine Pagels shares her life's connections with religion beginning with going to a Billy Graham crusade at the age of fifteen; she was "born again" that day. Her father, hating religion, was very angry, believing in Darwinism, and her mother just wanted to keep the peace at home. Pagels describes her life growing up as "flat" and emotionally devoid, so she was drawn to the emotive world of spirituality. Later, when a friend dies in a car accident and Christian friends tell her that he will not ...more
Jan 17, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is the first Elaine Pagels book I've read, and I am aware of her other books and general philosophy.

For most of the book I struggled with the title "Why Religion" because the book was about tremendous loss in her life with a bit of history of some of the books she'd written. I kept wondering when she was going to answer the question.

By the end of the book, I realized that she had been looking for something in her beliefs to help her make sense of the tragedies that befell her young son and
Nov 07, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I've been a fan of Elaine Pagels ever since I stumbled across The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans and Heretics a couple of decades ago. It took me years of rereading to really "get" that book, because even though I had been immersed in the Bible for most of my life, I had no knowledge of ancient history outside the Bible. Pagels' books were intimidating but also invigorating because they made me look at the Gospels with fresh eyes.

Since then, I've read all of her scholarly
Jennifer Kepesh
Dec 10, 2018 rated it liked it
This is the first of Elaine Pagels books that I've finished. I have bought many of her previous books, which are an academic's explanation of some of the important religious texts (especially ur-texts to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and her area of expertise, the Gnostic Gospels and other manuscripts that didn't make it into the bible as it was constructed by early Christian leaders). She chooses fascinating subjects, but the books require either more attention/intention than I am willing to ...more
Jane Ginter
Dec 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
Enjoyed this book. Couldn’t stop reading it once I started.
Dec 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Unsurprisingly, I loved Elaine Pagels’ book Why Religion? given I’ve loved most of her other works. I will say that as a memoir goes, it is not for everyone. Unfortunately, I think “memoir” gives people license to critique the book on the basis of how emotive the author is or is not. I read some reviews where people felt she could not adhere to that standby “show, don’t tell” and that readers were unable to fully feel the pain Pagels felt at the loss of her child and then husband, but the thing ...more
Michael Austin
Dec 19, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2018
“The work of culture is to make suffering sufferable.” --Clifford Geertz

Elaine Pagels invokes this quotation from noted anthropologist Clifford Geertz in perhaps the most painful part of the book--a description of her attempt to go on living after her six-year-old son, Mark, died of a rare pulmonary condition. She aggressively rejects the idea that we are supposed to "find meaning" in such a tragic death. At best, we can create some meaning after the fact, but there is no inherent meaning to be
Robin Kirk
Nov 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I've loved Elaine Pagels since some brilliant college professor (whose name I've forgotten) assigned The Gnostic Gospels: A Startling Account of the Meaning of Jesus and the Origin of Christianity Based on Gnostic Gospels and Other Secret Texts to my class. I was pretty atheist -- no, like radically anti-religion -- but examining these lost and heretical texts gave me new insight into why religion matters and why people fight over the interpretation of religious texts. Pagels has the rare gift o ...more
B. Rule
I really like Pagels and reading her account of the deaths of her child and husband in quick succession is anguishing. She tells her life story in a placid, almost prim reportorial style that belies the impressive breadth of her accomplishments and the titanic depths of existential questing that led her to them. She's not really one for bragging, and you get lulled into a rhythm where of course everyone goes to Harvard to study religion after being accepted into five Ph.D programs in widely vary ...more
Dec 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Since I discovered Dr. Elaine Pagels, I have regarded her as a role model based on her academic work as I came to appreciate it through her books. But this book is different. It is intensely personal. She shares the nightmares of she and her husband suffering through the death of their 6 year old son Mark to an incurable disease and then her suffering over the death of her husband Heinz a short time later in a climbing accident.

So how has her lifetime of study of religion helped or not helped i
Dec 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: memoir

I will expand on my review later. One of the best memoirs I've read in a long time, in part because it is half memoir and half cultural/religion history on how the biblical myths/stories so deeply embedded in our Western culture whether we are Christian or not affect how we experience suffering, love, the loss of loved ones, etc. Pagels is a brilliant historian of religion and expert on the Gnostic Gospels. One wonders how the the course of Christianity and Western culture would have been differ
Jan 08, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: memoir
Elaine Pagels’ “Why Religion” like Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking” is not a book I would recommend for your summer vacation. Sad! Beautiful but too darned sad.

Both authors try to cope with the death of husband and child, in Pagel’s work, a very young child. There is the survivor’s guilt, the extraordinary loneliness, the problems rejoining life, and what seems to be the worst, the utter lack of meaning behind why life at all if we are destined to perdition.

How Pagels climbs out of her d
Dec 15, 2018 rated it really liked it
The description on the cover says very concisely and accurately what this book is about.

Elaine Pagels grew up in a non-religious family. She decided to study religion in graduate school, not as a believer but as someone who was curious about why people believe. While a student at Harvard, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and she happened to be one of the team who set to translating them. Her controversial book, "The Gnostic Gospels" made her famous.

Her child's death, at the age of six, fo
Jan 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I couldn't sleep last night, and it may have been this book I have to blame. It is stellar--I couldn't put it down! It is written with such profound insights about life, death, and religious meaning. I will be surprised if any other book I read in 2019 will grab me as this book has. It is as if the author were in the room telling me her life story (a perfect memoir) while at the same time distilling a lifetime of study devoted to church history and imparting the meaning of it all to a fellow see ...more
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Elaine Pagels is a preeminent figure in the theological community whose scholarship has earned her international respect. The Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, she was awarded the Rockefeller, Guggenheim & MacArthur Fellowships in three consecutive years.
As a young researcher at Barnard College, she changed forever the historical landscape of the Christian r
“I did not want to die, but desperately wanted to be anywhere but there; the pain was unbearable. Yet in that vision, or whatever it was, I felt that the intertwined knots were the connections with the people we loved, and that nothing else could have kept us in this world.” 2 likes
“Times of mourning displace us from ordinary life.” 1 likes
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