Why Religion? Rating 3 Stars
By Elaine Pagels

In all honesty, I am conflicted in what to make of this book. To be critical seems mean-spirited in light of the author’s painful experiences, and to heap excessive praise upon the work doesn’t seem warranted, either. What to make of the book was part of my reading experience, and since I prefer more straightforward conclusions, I found myself out wandering in the woods on this one.

Pagels studies the history of religion and is brilliant. She is a scholar who understands both the world of academia and the grind of daily living. She grew up in a nonreligious household in San Francisco with a scientist father who didn’t appreciate religion. Yet, it was a Billy Graham crusade that brought her into the faith as a teenager. She walked forward to accept Jesus into her heart like thousands of others at the crusade. Although that moment captured her attention, it was unable to hold her attention, for it couldn’t withstand the scrutiny of her keen mind and scholarly activities. She left that limited view of religion for a broader, more reasoned approach to God and religion.

This book is a memoir of sorts and details her personal story, particularly around her painful experiences and her publishing endeavors. She lost her six-year old son to a rare lung disease and a year later lost her husband in a mountain climbing accident. These tragedies would be enough to rock anyone’s world. Many would become bitter, curse God, and live with intense anger. Pagels, however, chose a different route. Her pain, we discover, is dealt with straight on as she confronts her new reality in honest and straightforward ways. One can feel the pain she is going through, and it is this part of the book that is inspiring, for it touched my heart and I wondered whether I could have garnered the same courage had I been in her shoes.

Pagels discusses her research and publishing endeavors such as her books The Origin of Satan, and Revelations, and it was this part of the book that seemed disjointed. She is trying to connect her research and writing to her understanding and processing of painful experiences. But for me, it felt like we had downshifted into low gear and the connection between the two was not a smooth transition.

I kept trying to connect the title of the book Why Religion? with the message of the book and struggled to do so. Pagels asks why religion is still around in the twenty-first century, but doesn’t seem to actually answer the question, at least, not to my satisfaction. She conveys experiences where she encounters an evil spirit, describes coincidences that don’t really seem to be coincidences, and senses the presence of her son and husband after their passing. Are human experiences such as these why religion is still around? Quite frankly, I am still trying to figure out what she is trying to say in this regard.

To sum it all up, I am not quite sure what to think or how to feel about this book. In one sense, I love her openness in dealing with difficult situations and admire her courage in plowing ahead. I appreciate her keen mind, especially as she describes the contents of her publications. However, when the two are joined together the book seems to lose momentum. I walked away both perplexed and appreciative. I yearned to be led to a final destination, but was left wandering. Am I just too dense to “get it” or is the book a little disjointed and difficult to follow? Because of this conundrum, I give the book a three star rating. -TSW Copyright © T. S. Wise 2019

Why Religion?, Elaine Pagels, Harper Collins Publishing, New York, NY, 2018