Why Religion? Book Summary - Why Religion? Book explained in key points
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Why Religion? summary

Elaine Pagels

A Personal Story

3.8 (46 ratings)
28 mins

Brief summary

'Why Religion?' by Elaine Pagels is an exploration of how religion can provide a sense of meaning and purpose in the face of suffering and loss. It delves into the history of religion and its evolution over time, arguing that we can learn from different religious traditions to find common ground.

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    Why Religion?
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    Religion offered the author a means of expressing feelings that her family suppressed.

    When the author, Elaine Pagels, was 15 years old, she was offered a new life. Not that this offer was extended to her alone. Indeed, it happened in a stadium in San Francisco, where over 18,000 people had gathered to hear the evangelical preacher Billy Graham deliver one of his sermons.

    Unlike most of the attendees, Elaine was there out of mere curiosity. She’d been invited along by a friend, whose father drove them from their hometown of Palo Alto, California, to listen to this charismatic Christian. She had no idea what to expect.

    But despite her initial ambivalence, Elaine was touched and thrilled by Graham’s invitation to religious rebirth. In the end, she came forward, along with thousands of others who’d decided to accept Jesus into their hearts. The crowd cheered, and the choir sang. Now they were “born again.”

    Elaine found it impossible to resist this invitation for one reason: her family.

    She’d been brought up in a household that enshrined rationalism and suppressed emotion. Her father, a research biologist raised Presbyterian, became a staunch evolutionist after reading Darwin in college, dismissing Biblical stories as a bundle of nonsense that could appeal only to people unfamiliar with science.

    But beneath her father’s calm, rational exterior, rage simmered, always ready to erupt. Elaine’s mother endured his outbursts in silence and was extremely sparing with expressions of maternal tenderness; to petitions from her daughter for motherly understanding, she’d invariably reply, “You shouldn’t feel that way.”

    Neither parent encouraged physical closeness or expressions of emotion.

    So, for Elaine, Billy Graham’s words were an invitation to a new way of living. For her, becoming a born-again Christian meant freeing herself of her earthly father, who knew little about her, and adopting a heavenly father, who knew everything about her and loved her unconditionally.

    To the 15-year-old Elaine, the right decision seemed clear enough, and she accepted Jesus into her heart.

    Unsurprisingly, her parents were appalled when they found out – her father because he hated religion in general, and her mother because Elaine’s choice had upset her father. These reactions frightened Elaine, but also pleased her, because they seemed to confirm that she’d discovered a new, better world, a place where emotions could be expressed freely and love reigned supreme.

    What she couldn’t have known then is how little time she’d spend there.

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    What is Why Religion? about?

    Why Religion? (2018) is a personal answer to the question its title poses. Rather than explaining why anyone should adopt or eschew religious belief, Elaine Pagels’s moving memoir shows how her life experiences led her to the study of religion, and how that study has helped her cope with the difficult events of her life.

    Why Religion? Review

    Why Religion? (2018) by Elaine Pagels explores the complex relationship between religion and human culture, offering fresh insights and thought-provoking ideas. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • Packed with fascinating historical context, it sheds light on the origins of religious traditions and the impact they have had on society.
    • Through meticulous research and compelling storytelling, Pagels unravels the complexities of religious beliefs, encouraging readers to question their own assumptions.
    • The book provides a perspective that is both scholarly and accessible, making it a compelling read for anyone interested in understanding the role of religion in our world.

    Best quote from Why Religion?

    I longed to turn to my mother for comfort, but she didnt have enough for herself, let alone any to share.

    —Elaine Pagels
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    Who should read Why Religion??

    • Atheists who were once religious
    • Students wondering how study can affect life
    • Bereaved individuals trying to cope with loss

    About the Author

    Elaine Pagels is a renowned religious scholar. Currently a professor at Princeton, she received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1981 and was awarded a National Humanities Medal in 2016. Her previous books include The Gnostic Gospels, The Origin of Satan and Adam, Eve, and the Serpent.

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    Why Religion? FAQs 

    What is the main message of Why Religion??

    The main message of Why Religion? is to explore the enduring power and significance of religion in human history and culture.

    How long does it take to read Why Religion??

    The reading time for Why Religion? varies depending on the reader's pace. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Why Religion? a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Why Religion? is a thought-provoking book that offers insights into the role of religion in society. It's definitely worth reading to gain a deeper understanding of this complex topic.

    Who is the author of Why Religion??

    Elaine Pagels is the author of Why Religion?

    What to read after Why Religion??

    If you're wondering what to read next after Why Religion?, here are some recommendations we suggest:
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