Why Religion?

A Personal Story
Narrated by: Eunice Wong
Length: 7 hrs and 7 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (169 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

New York Times best seller

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 21st 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.

©2019 Elaine Pagels (P)2019 HarperAudio

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Great story but...

I am familiar with Elaine Pagels’ philosophy and research and have listened to her first person interviews (on NPR etc. ) - she never has the ‘angry or bitter tone this narrator used. Which is unfortunate as that tone carried throughout and eclipsed the compassionate heart of the true storyteller - Elaine Pagels.

7 people found this helpful

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Fantastic Memoir and Listening Experience

I was drawn to this title because years ago I read and admired Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels. This audio version, narrated by Lynde Houck, was a fantastic listening experience. Houck creates just the right tone for the content.

Pagels tells her life story from how she first became interested in Christianity, to her graduate studies and early career, to the death of her son and a year later the unexpected death of her husband, physicist Heinz Pagels. These tragedies both compelled and shaped her scholarly interests. The relationship the Pagels shared seems like such a true partnership and a beautiful intertwining of their love and intellectual interests.

One of the things I admired about this memoir is how Pagels seamlessly weaves together her interest in religion and her love for Heinz and their children with her work. I can't recall reading a memoir that so deftly and relevantly entwines the writer's work, love, and life. Perhaps this is due to the nature of Pagels' work in religion. She also brings in anthropology, philosophy, and science to look at issues of emotional pain, loss, and mourning. Pagels' work in religion after these tragedies was an exploration of how others have dealt with death and grief. She blasts traditional Christian platitudes around pain and death (e.g., God doesn't give us more than we can handle).

An excellent read (and listen) for those interested in a scholar's journey, religious studies, and dealing with the pain of death.

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An Angry and Polemical Life

I regret that I cannot say anything characterizes the author's life more than her polemic against Christianity, specifically the Bible and Evangelical expressions of faith. This was an odd feature of her story, and while I knew from her work that she was no traditionalist, I did not expect so much mudslinging.. From her teenage years, to her professional work, to the way she grieved the loss of her child and husband - one way or another she always found a way to focus her angst against ecclesial authorities and those who take the Bible seriously. She reports at one point that even her husband remarked that, as she wrote against the western church's belief in "original sin," that she was "writing with blood" due to the bitterness of her tone. There are other characteristics to her life that deserve mentioning, such as her triumphs over sexist treatment at Harvard University and her close relationship with her family.

I am concerned that many of the polemical claims she simply presents as facts will be perceived as such by the non-scholar simply due to her academic background. For example, in her attempt to portray the New Testament as anti-Semitic, she notes that it is no accident Jesus' betrayer is named "Judas," a variant of the word for "Jew." What she does not tell her audience is that the name "Judas" (or Yehudah in Hebrew) was an extremely common name in first-century Palestine, and that Jesus has a second disciple named Judas who is not portrayed negatively. As a scholar she undoubtedly knows this. Such facts need not contain this author when she is on the grind, however, as war is her goal - not accuracy.

Apart from a few mispronunciations, such as the word "Essenes," the narrator does an excellent job capturing the tone of the book.

I wish I could leave a more positive review, but her unfortunate departures from academic consensus, as well her open bias against certain forms of religious expression, simply dominate her story. I walked away from the book feeling that a life of talent and opportunity had largely been consumed in the throes of bitterness.

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Misleading Title

I found this book to be extremely disappointing. First of all, there's the title. I would expect a work entitled "Why Religion?" to do one of two things: Either explain why the author is a religious practitioner, or why anyone in the modern world would turn to religion. Pagels did neither. Though she talked quite a bit about religion, she said little to nothing about her own religious beliefs and/or practices. Nor did she discuss why anyone would practice any religion.

She did talk quite a bit about gnosticism, but failed to back up her broad statements with any evidence that the works she referred to originated during or shortly after the life of Jesus. And references she made to discoveries regarding the Apostle Paul were clearly so far removed from the actual apostle as to be laughable. In addition, she made sweeping accusations of anti-semitism against the canonical gospels, but failed to address the virulent anti-semitism found in the gnostic gospels and in gnosticism in general. If she is a scholar with the credentials she claims, couldn't we expect just a wee bit of scholarship from her?

The main point of this work seems to have been to settle scores against those who have wronged or slighted her throughout her life. People who have experienced difficulty in life do indeed have a right to write about it. Most, however, do not do so under the guise of research and scholarship. Though this is what Pagels attempted to do, she failed miserably.

The narration was average—no glaring problems, but nothing extraordinary either.

1 person found this helpful

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A Quest for Meaning

I highly recommend Pagel's book especially for those who, like her are looking for meaning after adversity has knocked on our doors. In that sense if you have experienced the loss of a beloved one it is a balm, but if you have not, it will prepare you to deal with it creatively when the moment arrives.
Elaine is a great scholar of religions and in this book you understand why she is at the same time so intimate, personal and honest, which are principles very scarce in the social sciences. She belongs to the Ernest Becker's tradition that invite us to be brave, if we really want to declare ourselves lerners of the human condition.

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moving, emotional work

Elaine's story spoke to my heart, echoing many feelings I myself have felt while dealing with tragic personal loss. thank you, Elaine, for sharing these pieces of yourself with the world.

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A STUDY IN GRIEF WOULD BE A BETTER TITLE

I have always enjoyed Elaine Pagel's earlier works and thought reading about her personal life and why religion was relevant to her would be of interest. However, the book was really a powerful study in personal grief with religion relegated to a secondary stautus. She does a wonderful, but angry job of telling how grief can be deeply debilitating and take years before coming to peace. I was curious as to why a Harvard scholar of religion talked as if Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the actual writers of the gospels when most scholars of religion claim that the gospels were written by followers, but not the actual disciples who lived at the time of Jesus. Overall, an interesting listen.

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Waste of time.

Children and husbands have been dying for thousands of years. The morning and pain you have gone through is not particularly interesting for anyone else.

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Thank you Elaine

Thank you for sharing your story and your insight and your studies that helped you gain insight. I heard this book in audible. I will have to buy this book either on Kindle or hardcopy as I will have to highlight, ponder/meditate on what you have written. Just know that I have been moved, that I have shed tears, and want to seek a better understanding of the insight you’ve gained through your experiences and your studies. I have not lost a child, but I have lost my husband, the love of my life.

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Why Religion?

I truly enjoyed how the author weaved her religious experiences and teachings with her remarkable and painful life. Eunice Wong is a wonderful narrator.