Elaine Pagels, Why Religion? A fine but flawed book

Elaine Pagels, Why Religion?  A fine but flawed book.

A recent (2018) book by Elaine Pagels, Why Religion?, has garnered great reviews.   It’s a brave book, telling the story of the death of her six-year-old son from a long illness, and then her husband in a hiking accident, both in the space of about a year.  It’s been almost thirty years since these tragedies, and the reader gets the sense that it took her this long to tell the story.  Or rather, to weave her story of loss together with the place of religion in her life, and our collective lives.

I admire the book, but I have a problem with it.  She seems unaware that people who are not well-off and famous might have a different experience of loss.  She aims to be realistic about the politics of religious belief, but perhaps there is also a politics of loss, or better a political economy of loss.  About this she says not a word. 


Pagels grew up in the upscale suburbs of Palo Alto, California.  Hers was an angry, sterile family, hostile to religion.  At fifteen she went with some religious friends to a Billy Graham Crusade for Christ.  Why was this irreligious teenager so overwhelmed that when Graham called members of the audience forth, she went to the front of a huge stadium to dedicate herself to Christ?  Thinking back on it, Pagels says the answer is all about meaning.

First, the language spoken in that Crusade for Christ was not spoken in my home — an evocative, emotionally charged language that opened up worlds of possibility, to include legions of angels and archangels, armies of demons, Jesus’s bloody sacrifice, a divine someone who heard and understood even the secrets I ferociously protected.  (p 18)

In all its permutations, this remains the appeal of religion: it makes the world richer, fuller, and more meaningful than the world of everyday life, the world of science, technology, commerce, and the isolated nuclear family.  Obviously, this statement applies to some societies and cultures more than others, but only because other societies have already integrated religion into everyday life.  This is the attraction not of any particular religion, but all religion. 

First practice, then belief

Pagels went on to study religion at Harvard, and came to recognize that the question “What do you believe?” is actually a political question.  What most Protestants’ believe, or are supposed to believe, is laid down in the Nicene Creed, which was enforced by the political power of the emperor Constantine and his successors in the fourth century.  What you believe is the result of the political power of bishops and rulers to suppress other Christian doctrines, often summarized as gnostic. 

At Harvard, says Pagels, they had been told that controversies over heresy were arguments over conflicting ideas.  Pagels figured out, and this is her great contribution, that behavior and tradition come first, beliefs second.  Beliefs aren’t the cause of what people believe, but a way of maintaining traditional social and political practices.

From now on, instead of writing primarily about ideas, I’d have to show how ideas are inseparably woven into actual social codes, and so into behavior. Although no one, so far as I knew, had ever read these sources that way, now I had to, and so began the research that eventually would lead to the book I wanted to write. (p 46)

What so many people, including her father, had dismissed as “science for dummies,” stories that primitives tell to explain the creation of the world did not have a scientific purpose.  Instead, creation stories create the cultural world, by transmitting traditional values (p 52). 

Creation stories, such as found in Genesis, or the Book of Job, claim to tell how the world was meant to be, or how it should be, how it was in the beginning.  The practice and the tradition come first, then the myth or story in order to justify it.  Myth is the theory of the practice, enforced by power (pp 52, 54). 

Is there a moral order?

Pagels tells us little about her religious beliefs, but it is clear her experiences of loss changed her.  Realizing she still wanted to believe in a morally ordered universe, she understands that this remains the purpose of religion, “like those old Bible stories I’d heard, that suggest that doing good ensures well-being and doing wrong brings disaster.”  She wonders if she herself is “a relic of Western cultural tradition that moralizes history.” (p 167) 

The manifest unfairness of life and death should make us immune to such stories.  For many these experiences only strengthen belief, often along the lines of ‘It’s part of God’s plan that humans simply can’t understand.’  This is what Job concluded after all his sufferings (Job 42:1-42:5), but it is not what Pagels concludes.

And by the way, it is not just the Western tradition that moralizes history.  The Buddhist concept of karma, what goes around comes around in this life or the next, is also a moral balancing act.

But it is not Pagels’ view, and not Pagels’ path.  Heinz was a physicist studying chaos theory.  There is a fundamental randomness to the universe, he told her, and it is in this direction that she turned (p 168).  In a word, there is no moral order to the universe.  Pagels is a fine scholar of religion, but neither her studies of how people come to believe, nor her life, seem to have made her more religious, but less.

The political economy of loss

Pagels writes that once, when her husband saw her in anguish over her son’s deadly diagnosis, he said “Everyone’s life has something like this in it.”  Angrily she snapped back, no, not this, a child with a terminal illness.  No, replied Heinz, not this, but something like it. (p 207)

I don’t know if Heinz was right or not, but I think there is something less dramatic but no less bad: the slow-moving horror of a dreadful way of life, such as never knowing where the next meal is coming from, or if you and your kids are going to be thrown out of your crummy motel apartment because you can’t make the weekly rent.  For some this becomes a way of life.  Perhaps they get used to it, but it’s no less horrible for that reason. 

It’s really impossible to compare sufferings like this, and I won’t.  I’ll only say that Pagels had more resources than most, such as a five-year MacArthur “genius award” that came at the time of Mark’s original diagnosis, giving her extra time to be with Mark during the five years it took for him to die. 

At the time Heinz died she was teaching at Princeton, and was readily given a paid leave from teaching to help her recover (p 98). 

There is no reason Pagels should not have had these advantages.  I think everyone should, but most don’t, and she shows no awareness of how religion might play a different role in the lives of those without these and other advantages.  I’m sorry she had to sell her second home in Aspen after her husband died, but I’m sorrier for those who lose their only home.

Pagels had the time, wealth, and support to contemplate the randomness of the universe in the years after her losses.  Perhaps religion plays a different role in the lives of those who lack these advantages.  Perhaps meaning itself takes on a different meaning when there is no leisure to think thoughts like these.  Perhaps traditional religion is a comfort, and for this reason no less real.  

For all her brilliant work on the politics of religious belief at the beginning of the Christian era, she has not a moment for the political economy of belief in today’s world.  


All page references refer to Pagels’ book unless otherwise noted.

Joyce Carol Oates, A Widow’s Story: A Memoir.  HarperCollins, 2011.

Elaine Pagels, Why Religion: A Personal Story.  HarperCollins, 2018.

4 thoughts on “Elaine Pagels, Why Religion? A fine but flawed book”

  1. My thoughts exactly. I have great sympathy for her having to suffer such losses, but I find nothing to like about her as a person. I love her and pray for her as a sister in Christ but would not wan t to have coffee with her.

    1. Dear Mary Jo, I think I am more ambivalent about Pagels than you, mostly because I don’t know her. She does seem insensitive to those of us who don’t have fancy vacation homes to give up in the first place. Still, I imagine she has other virtues, certainly intellectual ones, and would like to have coffee with her. Seems unlikely though. Fred

  2. I have enjoyed reading your many works, and I have read nearly all of them, including your personal statement of faith.

    A few years ago, while writing a biography of Emile
    Cailliet, a Princeton Seminary professor of philosophy,
    I considered contacting you for a brief chat during our
    time at Princeton,. However, I am not a coffee drinker,
    but would like to have a chi with you. I did have a
    contribution or two to make about your fine writings.

    My background is much different than yours. I was the poor kid that turned my life around, have written
    64 or 65 books, largely in criminology theory and
    practice. I also have been an expert witness in death
    penalty cases (always on the defense). Have been a
    student of New Testament Greek ever since college and am particularly fond of New Testament studies ‘and history..

    Enough! I have bored you long enough.

    Clemens Bartollas,
    Professor of Criminology and Sociology

    1. I’m pleased and privileged to have such an educated and thoughtful reader, but I’m not quite certain if you are writing to me or Pagels. In either case, any further comments would be welcome. Fred

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