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Author Elaine Pagels explores why humans rely on religious belief

Why do people have faith in what they cannot see? Author Elaine Pagels explores the concept of religious belief, and shares her own experience with finding faith in the face of tragedy, in her new book, “Why Religion?” Jeffrey Brown caught up with Pagels at this year’s Miami Book Fair.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    Why do people with faith believe? And how can they hold onto that faith?

    Jeffrey Brown recently spoke with Princeton University Professor Elaine Pagels at the Miami Book Fair about her new book, "Why Religion?" — a personal story of faith overcoming tragedy.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What is this book? How do you describe it, because you are a well-known for scholarly books. This is something different.

  • Elaine Pagels:

    This is something I never thought I would do. And I don't think there is a genre for it. Some people call it memoir because a lot — it is first-person, but it really isn't just that. I didn't want to do just that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Elaine Pagels:

    I wanted to interweave the life and the work and show how the work comes out of very specific issues, and just talk in a very much more personal way.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That's why I ask, because it is memoir-like.

  • Elaine Pagels:

    Very much so.

    I have always have written history. And I love to do that. I mean, it has been really fun. And I am still doing it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Elaine Pagels:

    But this was an attempt to go back and deal with issues that I had to deal with personally, you know…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Elaine Pagels:

    … personal losses that had come up so intensely, that I couldn't deal with them at the time, and the way that they are really a part of the story.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Part of the story in your early years is of you coming from a more secular background…

  • Elaine Pagels:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    … but discovering religion in an old-fashioned, traditional way, through Billy Graham, right, going to hear him speak.

  • Elaine Pagels:

    Well, that will surprise people. There are some evangelical groups who have called me Elaine Pagan.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Right.

  • Elaine Pagels:

    Because they think I don't really engage that kind of thing.

    But the tradition, my parents — well, it was kind of culturally Protestant, but my father had no use for religion. And we sometimes went to a church that was essentially boring. But the encounter with a Billy Graham crusade was powerful emotionally.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Elaine Pagels:

    And, also, it was very challenging. So I found it like a breakthrough. I sort of plunged at that point, at the age of 14, going on 15, into an evangelical group briefly because it was powerful experience, and then I left it after a year, and just thought, well, I am done with that.

    And years later, maybe four or five years, I felt, wait a minute, what was it about that that was so powerful? So I went back and I wanted to find out how the Christian movement started and who was Jesus.

    And then, of course, the story gets much more complicated and interesting, because all of these secret gospels we never knew about emerged.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes, which is the subject that you came out to the world with, and we got to know you.

  • Elaine Pagels:

    Yes. And it does make us all aware, much more critically, of the kind of teachings you find in various churches, because now you know that that is only a small stream of Christianity from a much wider range of sources.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Another part of the personal story, though, that comes along the way is the up-front sexism in the university you encountered, you know, the criticism, of course, even disdain, for some of the original work.

  • Elaine Pagels:

    It is a minor note in the story, but it is part of what anyone would have encountered at that point in graduate school, any woman.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Elaine Pagels:

    Let me correct that, any woman would have encountered. And many did.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Right.

  • Elaine Pagels:

    So, it is just — it's not that it is unique. It was just typical.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, in the most personal sections of the book, the tragedy of the loss of your son…

  • Elaine Pagels:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    … born with a rare condition, so that you knew he would die early only.

  • Elaine Pagels:

    Mm-hmm. We did — well, from the age of 2. I mean, he was born with a heart condition. We thought that was repaired. But from the time of 2, we knew that he wouldn't live long.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Elaine Pagels:

    And that's very hard to live with. He was our only child.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    How hard was it to go back and write?

  • Elaine Pagels:

    Excruciating. That's why it took me 28 years to do it. I never thought I would.

    But, you know, there is something about those experiences that they don't just go away, unless you engage them and allow them to emerge. So, finally, when my children were out of the house, because we adopted two children, I had to go back and look at it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Soon after your son's death, your husband is killed in an accident.

  • Elaine Pagels:

    Yes. It was just…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Climbing.

  • Elaine Pagels:

    … a mountain climbing accident. And he had climbed for all the 22 years we were married, so never thought about it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Elaine Pagels:

    But it was — it was traumatic.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You are writing about at that time not feeling so close to any sense of particular faith that might help you, but you clearly had to look for what could help you.

  • Elaine Pagels:

    I was thinking of William James and his famous book "The Varieties of Religious Experience." And he writes in that book of how he went into a deep depression.

    I wasn't in a — that kind of depression. At a certain point, he would cling to sayings like, the lord is my refuge, he said, like a drowning man in the ocean clinging to a log. He said, I didn't believe it at the time, but it sort of kept me from drowning.

    And I had to keep exploring. And the work became a kind of yoga that I love and that I engage in now in so many ways.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Well, what did you learn? And how long did it take you to learn it?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Elaine Pagels:

    Well, I wouldn't have written the book if I could answer that in a sentence.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Right.

  • Elaine Pagels:

    But one of the things that just amazes me is how resilient human beings are, the people things live through, that they think they can't.

    And what happened here is unusual, but what happens to many other people is even more, you know, excruciating, when they deal, for example, with violence, which I didn't.

    So I am amazed at how we do those things. And the question is how. I mean, how do we heal? And that is what this book is about.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Do you buy the idea of getting past the grief, or is it living with the grief?

  • Elaine Pagels:

    People say, how did you ever get over it?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Elaine Pagels:

    And I say what, makes you think I am over it?

    I think you get through it. That doesn't mean it is over. But it also means that you are not clinging to it or stuck. And that is a big help.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You probably have people often asking you for advice, like, what should I do, what should I practice, what should I — what do you tell them, though?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Elaine Pagels:

    Well, I think they should go to some practitioner of this — of these various traditions.

    I mean, I think about the Gospel of Thomas, which says, if you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

    I don't think there is a single answer to that. Some people find their home in some deeply orthodox traditional, like Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, or Ethiopian Orthodox. And others would find that stifling and would rather be Christian Scientists. I mean, I think — or Jews, or whatever.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What do you hope people will take from your book as they read your more personal story?

  • Elaine Pagels:

    Two things.

    One is that we can live through a lot more than we can possibly imagine we can survive. I never thought I could survive what happened. I wasn't sure I wanted to. But it is amazing to be able to do that.

    And, second, that these religious traditions may have some deep values, that you don't have to throw it all away because you disagree with certain ideas, because you don't believe in X, Y, and Z, not that I advocate that so much.

    But I do think, for me, it is enormously important to have a sense of a spiritual dimension in life.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, the new book is "Why Religion?: A Personal Story."

    Elaine Pagels, thank you very much.

  • Elaine Pagels:

    Thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And you can find all of Jeff's conversation during the Miami Book Fair online. Search Book View at PBS.org.

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