Why Religion? A Personal Story

WHY RELIGION? A Personal Story,
by Elaine Pagels, November, 2018
Hardcover and Paperback editions now
selling for $32.00 CAD, 235 pages.
ISBN #978-0-06-236853-9
Publisher’s Promo:

One of Publishers Weekly’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 perspectives of neurologists, anthropologists, and historians, as well as her own research, Pagels opens unexpected ways of understanding persistent religious aspects of our culture.


Author’s Words:

(at an Academy of Sciences conference) I was once asked “Are you religious?” “Yes, incorrigibly,” I responded, although I grew up among people who regarded religion as obsolete as an outgrown bicycle stashed in a back closet.

Some people ask “What do you believe?” as if looking for someone to tell them what they should believe or not believe – questions I can’t answer, since I’m not a theologian who talks about God. I’m a historian who talks about human beings and the cultures we create. Some will ask me “Is this just an intellectual exercise for you, or are you engaged – and if so, how?”

I ask one of my own questions “Why is religion still around in the twenty-first century?” Throughout the seven years of writing this book I’ve been grateful to talk with many social scientists, artists, poets and countless other people. While I have woven many conversations into this book, the writing became intensely personal, showing how exploring the history of religion connects with the experiences in my own life.

(Twenty-five years ago when my my young son and my husband died within a year of each other, I never thought that I would write about it because I was a scholar and historian by profession.)

Finally, though, I have to look into that darkness, since I could not continue to live fully while refusing to recall what happened, realizing that no one escapes terrible loss… so I have woven this personal story with the work I love, acknowledging such connections helps us understand the past, and illuminate the present.

Many of us have left religious institutions behind and attempt to identify as “spiritual, not religious”. (I have also both joined and left religious institutions, trying to understand what happened).

What matters to me more than whether we participate in institutions or leave them is how we engage the imagination – in dreams, art, poetry, music – since what most of us needs, and what we can engage, obviously differs and changes throughout our lifetime.

What fascinates me most are the experiences that shape, shatter and transform those who initiate or engage them – experiences that precipitate us into new relationships with ourselves and with others.

For that, and for you, I offer this writing.

– from the Introduction (somewhat edited)

Author’s Bio: 

Elaine Pagels is a preeminent academic whose impressive scholarship has earned her international respect. The Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, Pagels was awarded the Rockefeller, Guggenheim, and MacArthur Fellowships in three consecutive years. She is the author of The Gnostic Gospels, Beyond Belief, and Revelations.

Wikipedia Bio:

Review by Wayne Holst

My Thoughts:

In the more than thirty years that I have read Elaine Pagels books about Gnosticism and early Christian literature I have always respected her as a most helpful scholar and academic.

In reading her latest book ‘Why Religion?” I respect her as a spiritual guide and mentor for engaging life in these most dismaying but potentially fruitful times. I like the way she integrates scholarship and spirituality into a most unusual piece of writing.

You do not have to be an academic to appreciate this book. You just need to realize that it will be a very valuable and meaningful experience for you if you choose to invest yourself in it.

Pagels’ reputation as a top scholar  over many decades gives her writing credibility. But it is her honesty and authenticity as a person that makes reading this book worthwhile.

Vaclav Havel is supposed to have said: “Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity.”

This statement, it seems to me, helps to summarize the faith journey of Elaine Pagels. She has not been afraid to confront those times in her life when she felt she was without the spiritual grounding that religion can offer. Out of that situation, she have been able to develop new meaning and purpose in life.

Religion as a guardian of the human imagination is one of the most valuable insights to be gleaned from this book. It provides fertile ground for much personal growth.

I heartily recommend this book to you. It is one of profound meaning, borne out of meaninglessness.


PW Interview with Elaine Pagels
The Author Talks About Survival

Publisher’s Weekly
November 8th, 2018

Buy the book from Amazon.ca:



Wayne Holst

Wayne A. Holst was a Lutheran pastor (ELCIC) for 25 years. He taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary for a quarter century and co-ordinates adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.
Colleagues List, Vol. XIV. No. 19. November 18, 2018

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