Why Religion?
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 dealing with unimaginable loss—the death of her young son, followed a year later by the shocking loss of her husband. Here she interweaves a personal story with the work that she loves, illuminating how, for better and worse, religious traditions have shaped how we understand ourselves; how we relate to one another; and, most importantly, how to get through the most difficult challenges we face.Drawing upon the perspectives of neurologists, anthropologists, and historians, as well as her own research, Pagels opens unexpected ways of understanding persistent religious aspects of our culture.A provocative and deeply moving account from one of the most compelling religious thinkers at work today, Why Religion? explores the spiritual dimension of human experience.

Why Religion? Details

TitleWhy Religion?
Author
ReleaseNov 6th, 2018
PublisherEcco
ISBN-139780062368553
Rating
GenreAutobiography, Memoir, Nonfiction, Religion, Spirituality, Biography, Biography Memoir, Death, History, Faith, Christianity

Why Religion? Review

  • Clif Hostetler
    January 1, 1970
    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 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 reservoir of spiritual wisdom when facing the death of her 6-year-old son followed a year later by the death of her husband while mountain climbing. Elaine Pagels participated in the translation of the Nag Hammadi library and provided insights into them with her books, The Gnostic Gospels (1979) and Beyond Belief (2003). Her other books, including Adam, Eve and the Serpent, The Origin of Satan, and Revelations, have contributed additional understandings of early Christianity and highlighted common issues shared by people of both ancient and current times.This book, as indicated by the subtitle, is very much a candid “personal story,” but it is also a quick review and tour of much of the interesting religion scholarship over the past forty years. It can perhaps serve as an extended synopsis of her other books for those readers who don’t have time or motivation to read all of her other books.Pagels draws on a wide array of religious influences including the Gospels, letters of Paul, Gnostic writings from the Nag Hammadi library, Buddhism, and Trappist monks. It is clear that her spiritual journey has not been confined by the strictures of orthodox Christianity.Why Religion?—Was that question answered? It was a question that was asked of her when she applied for graduate school. She came from a family that was opposed to religion of any sort, and when she applied to graduate school she applied to five different schools in five different disciplines. Because of her background and scattered interests up to that point in her life, "Why Religion?" was a logical question to ask. I got the impression that she selected religion because it was Harvard University, though the quota of women had already been filled the year she applied so she had to wait a year to begin her studies. (view spoiler)[She has a "me too" story from her graduate study years at Harvard that would cause the dismissal of a professor from his job if it happened today. But it happened in the late 1960s, and things were different then. (hide spoiler)]Other than the above, the question in the book's title is not explicitly answered. However, her life as recounted in this memoir provides the lived answer.
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  • Ron Charles
    January 1, 1970
    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 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 refusing to recall what happened.”Pagels acknowledges that “no one escapes terrible loss,” but as the country’s most popular historian of religion, she brings a unique reservoir of spiritual wisdom to bear on the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. A MacArthur “genius” and a professor at Princeton University, she has long been one of those rare bilingual academics capable of speaking to lay and scholarly readers. Her foundational work, “The Gnostic Gospels” (1979), revolutionized our. . . .To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:https://www.washingtonpost.com/entert...
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  • Rebecca
    January 1, 1970
    (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 (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-awaited son, Mark, who underwent heart surgery as an infant and died of pulmonary hypertension at age six. Little more than a year later, Pagels’s physicist husband Heinz fell to his death on a hike in Colorado.The author doesn’t gloss over the horror of these events, the alternating helplessness and guilt she felt, or the challenge of continuing in her normal life as a Princeton University academic and mother (to their two adopted children) in their wake. Nor does she suggest that religion was what got her through. It’s more that she sees religion’s endurance as proof that it plays a necessary role in human life. She also had experiences that she couldn’t explain away as coincidences, including dreams, moments of consolation, a vision of the connectedness of life while on LSD, and the continued presence of her husband and son after their deaths. These are more successfully conveyed than in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God.Along with her continued scholarship on the Gnostic Gospels, Pagels has published works on the Adam and Eve myth, the origin of the concept of Satan, and the book of Revelation. There is more about her academic output than I expected from a memoir, and less than I expected about what happened in the 30 years since these major bereavements. I wanted to know more about how she rebuilt her life, but the book sticks doggedly to loss and its immediate aftermath, and focuses on Pagels’s intellectual development, sometimes to the exclusion of her emotional journey. It’s comparable to Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own in that respect. Potential readers should keep the title in mind and ponder whether they’re interested enough in the question to read a whole book about it – it really is all about religion. (Releases November 6th.)
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  • Eilonwy
    January 1, 1970
    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 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 preached a fiery socialist message that sounded very different from what evangelical Christian leaders seem to preach these years). She then lost her specifically Christian faith after the death of a close Jewish friend, when her Christian friends insisted that he could not enter Heaven on account of having the wrong religion. But she never lost her fascination with why people have religion at all. Then, with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi scrolls in Egypt and their delivery to Harvard when she was studying in the divinity school there, her curiosity was fueled as to how modern Christianity came to be the particular collection of books that it is, when there were so many gospels to choose from 2000 years ago. Around these intellectual concerns, she married and gave birth to a doomed son, whose heart defect at birth led to fatal pulmonary hypertension. (If you would rather not know what it’s like to care for a child who has no hope of ever reaching adulthood, do not read this book. It will tear your heart out.) She also had several mystical or psychic experiences: the feeling of the presence of her deceased friend and the awareness that a group of friends was praying for her while she was giving birth, among others. Then her husband also died, only a year after their eldest son, leaving Elaine to care alone for two small children. This is a memoir about grief as much as it is about religion. And while it doesn’t really answer the question “Why religion?” -- at the same time, it does. In Pagels’s experience, at least, religion mitigates grief. It provides a hope that we may know our lost loved ones again, even as we miss them with all of our hearts every day that we are here and they are not. It provides comfort, whether it seems like a “rational” comfort or not. This book is beautiful, moving, and thoughtful. I’m glad I read it, but at the same time, parts of it left me so sad that I’m hesitant to recommend it. Judge for yourself whether you want to experience this vivid recounting of love, loss, and continuing onward.
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  • Peter Mcloughlin
    January 1, 1970
    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 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 personal, social and political lives. See my updates for notes but this is a really good book if you can get past the tone at the beginning.
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  • Holly
    January 1, 1970
    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 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 that Pagels's husband, Heinz, a renowned physicist, had died in a tragic hiking accident. I wondered about her story.This is sort of two types of memoir in one: Pagels describes her family, youth (she hung out with with Jerry Garcia in the Bay Area as a teenager), early attraction to evangelical Christianity, academic career, marriage, and she explains what inspired her to research each of her books and then short synopses of the book topics - but readers most interested in the scholarship don't really need to read this (read the books instead). The other memoir here is of her heartbreaking, life-shattering losses, and this is what I can't forget. Her story of her grief is as truthful and sad to read as anything by Joan Didion or Isabel Allende (in Paula). I cried for her as I read.I was surprised to learn that Pagels is herself quite spiritual - not religious - but spiritual and rather mystically-minded. When I was majoring in religious studies my peers and I, and most of our teachers, tended to assume that the academic study of religion eventually made us LESS religious (if we began that way at all) and less capable of spiritual experience. (This is a whole topic of its own that I don't want to write about today.) But Pagels's question of "why religion?" is not just a book title for her - she seems to be continually searching in some way for meaning, and like any religious scholar she is fascinated why human beings have turned to religion for answers. Unlike the New Atheists she knows that to understand human culture we must study religious history as well as religious experience.
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  • Charlene
    January 1, 1970
    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 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 one year span), and also about her academic scholarship, translating and studying many of the early Coptic gospels as they became available, and writing well known books on the Gospel of Thomas, on the history of the idea of Satan, and Eve & women in Christianity. Pagels's husband was an award winning physicist and she muses at times about the theories of chaos and randomness in physics and how religion, throughout history, has sought to make sense of human life. Pagels is in her late 70s now, she attended Harvard when her Ph.D. program limited the number of women and had to wait an extra year for a "female" slot to open up. Book reminded me a bit of a shorter version of Jill Ker Conway's books about her academic/professional and personal life. Now I've added her book about the Gospel of Thomas, her favorite, to my list of "to read one day, I hope".
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  • Deyanne
    January 1, 1970
    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.
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  • Jo
    January 1, 1970
    A very moving and well written memoir that doesn’t even come close to answering the title question
  • Danielle
    January 1, 1970
    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 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 first read Elaine Pagels during a course in college when I was questioning my own religious beliefs, so it only seems fitting that her personal story of faith resonates with me. There is very little in our lives that mirrors each other, but I can certainly identify with seeming push and pull she experiences with her intellect and all the hateful things done in the name of religion telling her one thing but her personal faith experiences telling her another.
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  • Megan Tristao
    January 1, 1970
    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. 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. The marketing begins: "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?" I did not feel this book answered any of these questions. Even in the second half when Pagels talks more about religion, I felt she was debunking Biblical myths rather than talking about "why religion" from a larger social context. However, I don't know how much control authors have over the marketing blurbs for their books, so I don't want to punish her for the misleading material.I almost didn't finish this audiobook after the first few chapters, and having finished the whole (because it was so short), I probably should have abandoned it.
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  • Charles
    January 1, 1970
    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 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 works, which in turn have contributed more to my understanding of the Bible and Biblical history than any other writer (with Karen Armstrong being a close second). From those books, I know Pagels only as a straight-forward, fact-based historian. If she steps way out on limbs with her suppositions, she piles enough historical facts and supporting scholarship to ensure that the limbs are sturdy enough to hold their weight.In contrast to those works, this book gives a surprisingly personal account of Pagels' spiritual journey. Her earliest attraction to evangelicalism and initial disillusionment includes a fascinating juxtaposition of Billy Graham and Jerry Garcia. After that fun bit of trivia, her life seems marked by extremes--professional successes on one hand and personal tragedy on the other. She relives these events in excruciating detail, and reveals a side of herself that we don't see in her other books. Rather than the fact-based historian I knew from earlier books, she reveals herself here as a seeker on a very personal spiritual quest; one that includes meditating with monks, humoring well-meaning evangelicals, and experiencing visions of angels and demons that brought terror and comfort.This memoir will probably stand up well on its own to people who haven't read Pagels' earlier works. But its real value for me comes from the stories of how she used her professional work, not only to cope with tragedy, but to understand the reasons religion would continue to exercise such a hold over well-meaning people for so many centuries.
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  • Mary Novaria
    January 1, 1970
    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 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 much "telling" and too little "showing." We understand the events and can imagine their devastation, but that's all we can do is imagine because Pagels keeps the reader at arm's length. We are not drawn into her raw emotion on a deep, personal level. We are moved because of our own empathy and not because she strips herself bare and invites us in.We learn nothing of the childhoods of the two children she adopted and suddenly we're at the end of the book with a lengthy, scholarly discussion on reframing the gospel narrative. The question of Why Religion? never quite dovetails with her own journey.She writes: "My own experience of the 'nightmare'--the agony of feeling isolated, vulnerable, and terrified--has has shown that only awareness of that sense of interconnection restores, equanimity, even joy." So this is what Pagels tells us, but she never shows us what that isolation, vulnerability, terror and joy look or feel like. I think fans of Pagels earlier work (The Gnostic Gospels, for example) will love this book. Others, who are looking for a memoir along the lines of Mary Karr's Lit, Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle or, more recently Tara Westover's Educated and Julie Barton's Dog Medicine will be sorely disappointed.
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  • Paul Womack
    January 1, 1970
    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.
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  • Age
    January 1, 1970
    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 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 about memoirs over fiction is that it must be the person’s voice we hear, and Pagels should not have to perform or even write emotions in a way that does not feel authentic to her. Her methods for coping or describing her pain are unique to her, and in many ways the realism and simplicity with which she describes these losses rang truer to me than if she had included overwrought description of pain and suffering. She’s an academic writer, first and foremost, and that shows – even in her memoir, but I did not find it distracting or unexpected. Eddie Izzard’s memoir was funny and repetitious and out of order at times, much like his standup. John Barrowman’s had a winking, flirtatious feel. Memoirs mirror their authors, so expecting Pagels to sound different in another format seems like an odd thing to expect or ask for. Also, the book is not simply about the losses she suffered. It is also about religion, her study of the subject, the way her research helped her grapple with the questions her losses left her with, and the spirituality that exists in her own life. She mentions again and again that for her religion is less about belief and more about “approaches to spiritual practices”and that some people need different spiritual “food” (206). For Pagels, it seems that she is willing to accept that some things exist that cannot be explained. From her experiences and feelings at the death of her child to the odd dreams she had throughout her life, she doesn’t discount their potential spiritual significance, but she also does not assign to them a purely religious source. I was lucky enough to see her at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and she went on to say these experiences are things she cannot explain and that while she may not subscribe to a particular practice, she feels comforted by the music and ritual of an Episcopalian service, the quietness she experienced with Trappist monks, and the calmness of a session of yoga. It could probably said that research is a spiritual practice for her as well as it helped her confront the pains she endured. Around details about her personal life and history, she mentions the events that led to some of the work she published before like The Origin of Satan and Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. It was interesting to me to see how life experience impacted her professional, academic work. One observation she makes that rang particularly true for me is that “we use stories to ‘think with,’ we also use them to ‘feel with – that is, to find words for what otherwise we could not say”(168). Her study of the Gnostic Gospels gives her something to look on and think about, making her academic research at once a professional pursuit as well as a personal one. While she’s fully capable of viewing the works within the historical context from which they arose, she has to acknowledge their impact now as well, and this goes for canonical texts, too. While she talks about the comfort excerpts like “the kingdom of God is within you, and outside of you. When you come to know yourselves then…you will know that you are children of God” (176) bring her, she also acknowledges how works like John’s Revelation have helped perpetuate hateful rhetoric and wars for hundreds of years. It seemed to me she deftly juggles the dangers of religion with the comforts religion is capable of providing for some. Overall, I loved how the material was handled. Pagels doesn’t preach, quite possibly because she’s not beholden to any particular practice, but she also doesn’t belittle those who are not as knowledgeable about early Christian history and writings as she is. She’s a privileged person. Reading her life story, it is more than apparent that she had opportunities that many did not have at the time nor have now. She notes it, but doesn’t have any pretensions about it. I came out of my reading feeling glad that I actually liked the author as much as I liked her work, which I can’t always say. Sometimes, you don’t wan to “meet your heroes” because they let you down in some fashion. Fortunately, Pagels presented herself well. She seemed open-minded when she remarked that works like the Testimony of Truth “invite us to uncover hidden continents of our own cultural landscape. And when we do, we gain perspective on reflexive attitudes that we may have unthinkingly inherited, just at a time when countless people are exploring a much wider range of gender identity, letting go of the assumptions that gender difference, as our culture defines it, is built into our DNA” (56). She also displayed a pragmatism and honesty I appreciate when she discussed the sexual harassment she experienced in higher education. This memoir had a narrow focus. So while some may have questions about her other children, I’m curious whether they wanted their story told. I’m also not sure if Pagels has plans for another memoir in the future. For now, it seems this was meant to address a series of extreme events she experienced and how they influenced her work, and it did that handily. Lastly, some will say she fails to address the question of the book “Why religion?” But is there any answer? For any of these questions, I can think of no single answer on which everyone will agree: “Why does she study religion? Why religion?” Or “Why do we need religion?” I don’t think there is an answer. There are ANSWERS though, and she gives some of them. Religion offers some comfort in times of tragedy. Religion offers a reason to hate or love others, depending on one’s purpose and interpretation of these biblical texts. Religion provides a pathway to self-knowledge. All of this is brought up in this book, so if one does not feel she satisfactorily answers the question, well I am not sure what the expectation was but I think it is definitely an impossibility to fully address why humanity has created, needed, or perpetuated religion. She couldn’t possibly have done that, so instead she provides possibilities. And as she often says, it isn’t about belief; it is about the spiritual approach. You may not find the answer to “Why religion?” But searching for it will provide much more than a single answer could.
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  • Michael Austin
    January 1, 1970
    “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 “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 plucked from a child's death. But creating meaning happens much later. The crucial thing for human beings is to make suffering sufferable--to figure out how to live.This is the answer to the question in the title of Pagels' new book, Why Religion? Pagels, of course, is one of the most recognizable scholars of religion--and especially Christianity--in the country. She is a Princeton professor whose first book for a non-academic audience, The Gnostic Gospels won a National Book Award and lead to her receiving a MacArthur "Genius Grant" Fellowship. She followed this book up with books on, among other topics, Genesis, the origins of Satan, and the Book of Revelation.Why Religion? is not very much like those books, though it does reference them quite a bit. But this is a memoir of the twin tragedies that defined the author's adult life: the death of her son in 1987 after a long illness, and the death of her husband a year later in a sudden accident. In telling the story of these events, Pagels opens up the curtains of her life and shows us what she was personally struggling with when she was writing the books that she is best know for. And she shows us the connection between her suffering and her turning towards religion, both academically and, to some extent, personally. I say "to some extent" because it is clear from the book that her relationship with religion has long been, and remains, squarely in the "It's Complicated" category. She was born to secular, academic parents (her father was a well-known biologist at Stanford University), whom she deeply disappointed by converting to Evangelical Christianity as a teenager. She soon left that religious tradition and became, instead, a scholar of religion.During her graduate years at Harvard, she saw herself largely as a secular academic studying religion. But when she got a chance to study and write about the Nag Hamadi scrolls, which had recently been made available for scholarly research and translation, she experienced a deep attraction to the gnostic tradition of Christianity. Through the early part of her career, she associated with many religious people and considered herself somewhere within the general orbit of Christianity.There is no "Road to Damascus" moment in the book--no point at which she sees a vision or feels an overwhelming sense of peace and comfort after the death of her son and husband. There are a few moments of magical thinking, a lot of grief and anger, and longing to believe "that we live in a morally ordered universe, in which someone, or something--God or nature?--would keep track of what's fair" (p. 167). This never becomes knowledge, or even faith, but it does remain the underlying hope of the book--along with the implied argument that sometimes hope is all we have access to and that it can sometimes sort of work.But she does place the central concerns of her books in a context that helped me to see why she wrote them. She has never quite been the standard-issue neutral academic who disinterestedly peels back layers of knowledge. I have always felt a personal urgency in her books, and this makes much more sense now that In know the backstory. And though I would like to have seen a little bit more direct engagement with the book's central question--why does religion persist into the 21st century when most people have the tools to see how irrational it is?--I do appreciate the glimpses to an answer that we get from her attempts to forge a life after two deep tragedies.This, perhaps, is the most important takeaway from the book: Religion has not survived because it helps us make sense of the world, or resolve the deep questions that plague us. It has survived because it tells us stories, and creates human connections, that can help us live on, even when we don't want to live on, even when we are crushed by grief and sadness. As she concludes in the final words of the book, "Sometimes hearts do heal, through what I can only call grace" (p. 210).This is why religion survives.
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  • Jennifer Kepesh
    January 1, 1970
    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 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 give, or less. By this, I mean that to do the works justice, I always feel I should go read the texts in translation and read other treatments of them, and I just don't have that kind of interest; on the other hand, if I just gloss the book, I lose interest. Anyway, Why Religion takes a different approach; it is a much more personal story of her life events and how they shaped her work. She answers the title question about humans, with herself as an example. She always chooses to speak to the reader as a narrator, rather than interacting/challenging the reader to examine the issues personally; a lecturer rather than a conversationalist. It is a memoir of her life's events, but it still holds back on the fundamental question as it relates to her...I am not sure whether she is a "believer," even when she tells of her intense dreams, visions during traumatic times, etc. This is her prerogative, but it makes the tone less engaging and the purpose a bit confusing. Does she ultimately answer her own question for herself, other than "I'm interested in it academically?" I don't know. Does she ultimately answer the question for humans? I think she does, though not as thoroughly as I would hope. Is her life story compelling? Yes, indeed. I am moved to find some of the texts she discusses and read them with care.
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  • Robin Kirk
    January 1, 1970
    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 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 of being able to place her scholarship in a personal frame and make really complex and nuanced thought accessible to a non-specialist audience. My one caveat is that she did live a life of incredible privilege and that is never really acknowledged. Mentally, I was tallying up the Manhattan apartment, the flights, the private schools and wondering how on earth even a dual-income couple could afford it all. But overall, a deep dive into a number of fascinating issues around the Bible, religion, and how this can inform a life of achievement, accomplishment, and no little tragedy.
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  • B. Rule
    January 1, 1970
    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 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 varying fields after briefly dabbling in modern dance with Martha Graham, it's just what you do. Then you're jolted, the aw shucks scales fall from your eyes, and you realize, holy crap, this is one of the most preeminent popular scholars of gnosticism and early Christianity currently living. That plainspoken, retiring tone is so admirable, yet remained a major impediment to my appreciation for this book. Pagels is talking about the biggest, hardest things in life, the keening, howling void of loss that can consume a person forever. The horrible in-breaking of grief into everyday life and moments that should be given over to untrammeled joy. Wrestling with questions of god, the universe, agency and theodicy. And she confronts all of that. But it's in such a measured tone that it never feels quite real, quite immersive. I loved the way she incorporated analyses of gnostic texts, the Bible, William James, Augustine, and others into her memoir. I could tell that intellectual curiosity is how she processes her anguish, and it was really interesting to bounce from personal memoir to academic analysis on the same page. I found her stance as an agnostic with a passionate interest in religion to be very relatable. But the admixture somehow never became more than the sum of its constituent ingredients. Further, the concluding chapter really rushes the bulk of her life after such careful, painful attention to detail on the years of her great losses. I kind of get that given the subject of the book, but it also feels like a major distortion of how that grief and trauma got processed and turned into some version of a successful life. Also, it made me wonder how her two adopted kids felt about being bit players in the story of mom's life. Thus, while this was far better than many lesser authors could produce, I have to rate it relatively low on the Pagels scale.
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  • Mary
    January 1, 1970
    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 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 in her survival and remarkable ability to thrive as a scholar and mother?Reading this book the pain of those deaths of two people so dear to her is evident. Her struggle to survive is helped by many kind and caring friends. The point she makes in this book is that there are many beliefs about a supreme divinity, but really the impetus is to find within yourself connections to others and to learn to love and care for them.
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  • Sam Mace
    January 1, 1970
    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 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 different had the Gnostic Gospels not be literally buried by some Christian leaders in the first century and had been woven into and embraced in Christian thought. This is not a "religious" book. I'm a non-Christian agnostic who embraces spirituality. If I was putting together my dream gathering over dinner and breaking bread, Elaine Pagels would be on the invite list. Would love to know this lady.
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  • Peter O'Kelly
    January 1, 1970
    Some related resources to consider:https://www.npr.org/2018/11/05/664347...http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/1...https://www.washingtonpost.com/entert...https://www.worldreligionnews.com/ent...
  • Jane Ginter
    January 1, 1970
    Enjoyed this book. Couldn’t stop reading it once I started.
  • Cai
    January 1, 1970
    Curious about Elaine Pagels (renowned history of religion professor and MacArthur Award winner), I picked up an Advance Readers’ Copy of WHY RELIGION? at a booksellers’ tradeshow and devoured it in one sitting on the plane on my way home. I am not a particularly religious person, but I was riveted by this book which is more memoir than it is a history of religion. She tells the story of her somewhat drab, emotionally restrained non-religious suburban upbringing, her transformative encounter with Curious about Elaine Pagels (renowned history of religion professor and MacArthur Award winner), I picked up an Advance Readers’ Copy of WHY RELIGION? at a booksellers’ tradeshow and devoured it in one sitting on the plane on my way home. I am not a particularly religious person, but I was riveted by this book which is more memoir than it is a history of religion. She tells the story of her somewhat drab, emotionally restrained non-religious suburban upbringing, her transformative encounter with Billy Graham when she was a teenager. But the book gains real momentum when she narrates her experience of falling in love with physicist Heinz Pagels, their subsequent marriage, the birth (after frustrating infertility) of their son Mark, and the devastating news that Mark had a congenital heart condition and a resulting lung problem that was incurable. Mark died at the age of five then, in a scene that brought me to tears, a year later while the couple and their two adopted children were in Aspen (where physicists go in the summer) Heinz was on a hike and plummeted from a cliff to his death. All of these events are told straightforwardly, without any self-pity, and the effect is devastating. Needless to say, her experience informs all that she writes about religion thereafter. This was a surprise read for me, as I had heard little about the book beforehand, and I was mesmerized.
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  • Erica Pulling
    January 1, 1970
    Pagels is Princeton’s most famous religious scholar and over her long career she’s offered extraordinary insights on early Christian texts (Dead Sea Scrolls, Nag Hammadi papers) that have challenged traditional notions about the intersection of culture, religion, gender, and sexuality. But this is both a scholarly AND personal book - one that documents her own waxing and waning religious faith, particularly after the death of her six year old son, and, then, just one year later, the death of her Pagels is Princeton’s most famous religious scholar and over her long career she’s offered extraordinary insights on early Christian texts (Dead Sea Scrolls, Nag Hammadi papers) that have challenged traditional notions about the intersection of culture, religion, gender, and sexuality. But this is both a scholarly AND personal book - one that documents her own waxing and waning religious faith, particularly after the death of her six year old son, and, then, just one year later, the death of her husband Heinz Pagels (himself a noted scholar of physics) in a hiking fall. In considering why religion continues to persist, even in a world where knowledge and reason reign, she uses her own experience of excruciating pain and suffering to sort through this question. Semi-spoiler: she comes up with no easy answers. To this day she says she finds no “higher meaning” in the deaths of her beloved son and husband. Only the realization that death and suffering are as natural and unavoidable a part of life as birth and joy. And, as in her previous books, she dismisses the notion that suffering is a punishment from God - in her view the idea of a punishing God is a human way of trying to control the uncontrollable. If we believe floods, disease, death, and fire is somehow a punishment for sin, then we create rituals, and present offerings, that -we hope- might appease an angry God, and thus give us some small measure of control over what we most fear. Instead, she seems to see God and her faith as a means to live a life of acceptance and an open-heartedness, one that brings her into communion not just with God, but with her fellow human beings. You can see her how her interest in Buddhism shapes her faith, and it’s fascinating to follow her journey from rage, grief, and brokenness to peace, acceptance, and compassion for others. It’s a wonderful, eye-opening read - highly, highly recommended!
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  • Brian V
    January 1, 1970
    Memoir of her life, losses, grief, and struggle over death of son and husband. She intertwines the bio of her losses with her search for peace, and the religious paths she followed."Why Religion" offers Joseph Campbell insights in a more personal and less developed way. The genesis of her other books are included that give a personal context to them. The bio-narrative peters out and threads are left up in the air (i.e., what happened to her son?) and the "Why Religion" is indirectly and rather t Memoir of her life, losses, grief, and struggle over death of son and husband. She intertwines the bio of her losses with her search for peace, and the religious paths she followed."Why Religion" offers Joseph Campbell insights in a more personal and less developed way. The genesis of her other books are included that give a personal context to them. The bio-narrative peters out and threads are left up in the air (i.e., what happened to her son?) and the "Why Religion" is indirectly and rather thinly addressed and less satisfying that her other books. Because I like her (personally & her work), I was interested in this, but I was a bit disappointed that it was lacking in both personal completeness and the theological richness.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 dealing with unimaginable loss—the death of her young son, followed a year later by the shocking loss of her husband. Here she interweaves a personal story with the work that she loves, illuminating how, for better and worse, religious traditions have shaped how we understand ourselves; how we relate to one another; and, most importantly, how to get through the most difficult challenges we face.
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  • John Everard Griffith
    January 1, 1970
    I found the interplay between personal story and the way religion provided a way for healing engaging. Elaine Pagels is a skilled writer, finding the words to express her yearning to learn, grow, explore and move deeply into her own life experience. Never settling for easy answers to difficult questions, asking difficult questions, living with challenging, life threatening experiences of grief and loss, and finding a foundation for her life in the depths where she could find new information that I found the interplay between personal story and the way religion provided a way for healing engaging. Elaine Pagels is a skilled writer, finding the words to express her yearning to learn, grow, explore and move deeply into her own life experience. Never settling for easy answers to difficult questions, asking difficult questions, living with challenging, life threatening experiences of grief and loss, and finding a foundation for her life in the depths where she could find new information that was nurturing for her. But also, was disconcerting for traditional Christianity. She was and is on the leading edge of an explosive faith that continues to provide a way forward, often in the darkness. I am living with an exploration of "peace" in the second week of Advent as I read this book and wrestle with Jesus saying, Peace I leave with you,my peace I give you.. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14:17) and also saying in Matthew 10:34, "Do not suppose I have come to bring peace to the earth, I did not come to bring peace, but a sword."Elaine Pagels life story is lived out in the tension between these two statements: both true. In the midst of grief she continues to wrestle with the easy answers of faith that do not connect with reality. They become the basis of books that were born out of research to find the truth and the peace that passes all understanding. I found this book compelling and a celebration of life and faith. Why faith? Indeed
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  • Theresa
    January 1, 1970
    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 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, followed soon by her husband's accidental death, changed the 'why religion' from an academic to a deeply personal need to cope with her anger, rage, guilt and fear. Having reached a point of 'no place left to go', Pagels accepted the responsibility to stop asking about the meaning of life and to 'do what life expects of us' (Frankl), and in so doing to find an answer to life's problems.Pain and death are as natural as birth, woven inseparably into our human nature. We long to find meaning, and in the end, we need to create meaning from our experience. Her memoir is filled with references to the cultural trove of people's attempts to do just that--from folk tales to biblical stories, to the many non-canonical gospels and books of revelations, rituals, music, images, and practices that come to our conscious/unconscious down through the ages.The book is beautifully composed. The final sentence : "However it happens, sometimes hearts do heal, through what I can only call grace."This is Pagels's memoir of her hard-won, personal response to "Why Religion?"
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  • Tad
    January 1, 1970
    I am familiar with Elaine Pagels and her scholarship as I read some of her articles in grad school. However, I did not know much about her or her life. And this book really shines an intimate light on her life and her work. I enjoyed her in depth exploration of the Bible and religion and how and why they have endured over the centuries. I appreciated her attempts to relate it to her own life and her struggles. As a religious scholar myself, I wanted a bit more of the analytical stuff. That's my I am familiar with Elaine Pagels and her scholarship as I read some of her articles in grad school. However, I did not know much about her or her life. And this book really shines an intimate light on her life and her work. I enjoyed her in depth exploration of the Bible and religion and how and why they have endured over the centuries. I appreciated her attempts to relate it to her own life and her struggles. As a religious scholar myself, I wanted a bit more of the analytical stuff. That's my own personal preference, though. I did like that she was willing to explore grief and all its aspects. That was engaging and intense and felt very personal. Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I think it might be a bit too academic for the average person. For me, it wasn't quite academic enough but I think most people might be put off by the academic stuff in here. I'm still highly recommending it, though. Her personal story is powerful and I felt so empathetic for her. I hope I never have to experience the kind of loss that she has. I can't even imagine how someone gets through that. But she did. And she chose to write this book about it. For that, I thank her.
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  • Mbgale
    January 1, 1970
    This book is very dense with ideas and written in a scholarly tone, which is why I gave it 3 stars instead of 4. Some readers will probably become frustrated as it is definitely not a "Dummies guide to religion." Life is complicated, and so is religion and its history. The author shares her painful story and expresses the view that human suffering is not a punishment but an element of human existence. The author suffered 2 tremendous losses and she doesn't skimp words about the horror she went t This book is very dense with ideas and written in a scholarly tone, which is why I gave it 3 stars instead of 4. Some readers will probably become frustrated as it is definitely not a "Dummies guide to religion." Life is complicated, and so is religion and its history. The author shares her painful story and expresses the view that human suffering is not a punishment but an element of human existence. The author suffered 2 tremendous losses and she doesn't skimp words about the horror she went through. Throughout history, people have looked for ways to heal the broken heart. Human connection is a big part of healing, as well as prayer and meditation. We can find a connection with people throughout history in stories found in the Bible of others pain and distress. Pagels doesn't explicitly answer the question, why religion? She implies that we yearn for connection with other sufferers to help us through the inevitable hard times. Suffering and death is the cost of human life and religion tries to answer the need for healing.
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