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Why Religion?

A Personal Story

By Elaine Pagels
18-minute read
Audio available
Why Religion?: A Personal Story by Elaine Pagels

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.

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

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?

A Personal Story

By Elaine Pagels
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 11 key ideas
Why Religion?: A Personal Story by Elaine Pagels
Synopsis

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.

Key idea 1 of 11

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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