Cover image for Why religion? : a personal story
Why religion? : a personal story
Why religion? : a personal story
First edition.
Publisher Info:
New York : Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, [2018]
Physical Description:
xv, 235 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm
Introduction -- Why religion? -- Love and work -- A lifetime -- Going on -- Unimaginable -- Life after death -- Wrestling with the Devil -- Listening to thunder.
The author of "The Gnostic Gospels" draws on personal experiences and the perspectives of neurologists, anthropologists, and historians to illuminate the enduring capacity of faith in explaining and meeting the challenges of the twenty-first century.
Personal Subject:


Call Number
Material Type
248.8 PAGE New or Popular Book Adult Nonfiction
248.8 PAGE New or Popular Book Adult Nonfiction
248.8 PAGE New or Popular Book Adult Nonfiction

On Order



New York Times bestseller

One of PW's Best Books of the Year

One of Amazon's Best Books of the Month

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.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this beautiful memoir, Pagels (The Gnostic Gospels), professor of religion at Princeton Univ. and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, addresses the titular question by recounting her life story. Raised in an intellectually atheist household, she "came to Christ" at a Billy Graham Crusade in the late 1950s. While her traditional Christian beliefs tempered over time, that conversion unlocked her spiritual imagination. With haunting echoes from the Book of Job (which she unpacks with skillful clarity), Pagels tells a story of love, marriage, and family life alongside a vibrant academic career. Her 1979 bestseller, The Gnostic Gospels, launched her to academic fame. Nearly a decade later, her six-year-old son, Mark, died of a heart problem, and her husband of 20 years, Heinz, died in a hiking accident. In her deepest grief, Pagels's body was covered with boils, like Job's-an acute stress reaction. She writes of feeling empty but fighting to remain strong in order to care for her two young children ("When we confront the unknown, any interpretation is provisional, necessarily incomplete"). Pagels treats readers to the examined life behind her intellectual feats with extreme grace and depth. This luminous memoir strips religion to its elementary particles: love, suffering, and mystery. (Nov.) c Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Why is religion still around in the twenty-first century? is the provocative question Pagels, Princeton professor and distinguished historian of religion, poses in this memoir cum meditation. It's offered in the context of the almost unimaginable tragedy that befalls her when, first, her six-year-old son dies and then her husband, too, a year later. She is unsparingly honest in reporting and examining the conflicting emotions, especially anger, that visited her life in the wake of these events. Earlier she describes the conditions that inspired her first interest in religion when, as a girl, she attended a Billy Graham crusade and became intrigued by Evangelical Christianity. After receiving B.A. and M.A. degrees from Stanford, she went on to earn a doctorate in religion from Harvard. Meanwhile, she met the physicist Heinz Pagels, and they married. She goes on to write fascinatingly about her burgeoning interest in the Nag Hammadi library, discovered in Egypt, which led to the writing of her landmark book, The Gnostic Gospels (1979), the focus of her final chapter in which she explicates various texts, hoping that they will open up more than a single religious path, engaging both head and heart. The same might be said of this brilliant book, which stimulates intellectual curiosity and thought while giving equal weight to Pagel's emotional life. It is a felicitous mixture that will excite both those familiar with her work and those for whom this volume will be an intriguing introduction.--Michael Cart Copyright 2018 Booklist

Library Journal Review

This latest work from renowned religion historian Pagels (Harrington Spear Paine Fdn. Professor of Religion, Princeton Univ.; The Gnostic Gospels) is much different than her previous books, providing readers with both a personal and professional memoir that shares the experiences and relationships that have shaped the contours of her career and how loss has offered an opportunity for new interpretations of familiar texts. Pagels relates her intimate relationship with religion and the role spirituality has played in her life, particularly as she attempted to make sense of her grief. Readers are given insight into the origins of the author's scholarly works and the questions that influenced her journey, as she also addresses why religion is necessary and discusses its historical and present-day psychological, cultural, and sociopolitical impacts. VERDICT Both fascinating and heart-wrenching, Pagels's highly personal account presents behind-the-scenes glimpses into the inner workings of a brilliant scholar's mind. [See Prepub Alert, 5/7/17.]-Amanda Folk, Ohio State Univ. Libs. © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Note on Translationsp. xi
Introductionp. xiii
Chapter 1 Why Religion?p. 1
Chapter 2 Love and Workp. 35
Chapter 3 A Lifetimep. 59
Chapter 4 Going Onp. 93
Chapter 5 Unimaginablep. 107
Chapter 6 Life after Deathp. 137
Chapter 7 Wrestling with the Devilp. 165
Chapter 8 Listening to Thunderp. 185
Acknowledgmentsp. 213
Notesp. 217
Indexp. 225