The best books on why religion—and spirituality—are still around in the 21st century

Who am I?

“And what do you do?” someone asked at a crowded reception at the NY Academy of Science. “Write—comparative religion.” Startled, he backed away, asking suspiciously, “Why religion? Are you religious?” Yes, incorrigibly—although I grew up among people who regarded religion as obsolete as an outgrown bicycle stashed in a back closet. While many of us leave institutions behind, identifying as “spiritual, not religious,” I’ve done both—had faith, lost it; then began exploring recent discoveries from Israel and Egypt—Dead Sea Scrolls, Christian “secret gospels,” Buddhist practices, asking, Why is religion still around in the twenty-first centuryWhat I love is how such stories, art, music, and rituals engage our imagination and illuminate our experience.

I wrote...

Why Religion? A Personal Story

By Elaine Pagels,

Book cover of Why Religion? A Personal Story

What is my book about?

I wrote this short, intensely personal, book  to sort out a question: after growing up in a secular, scientific post-religious family, in high school, went with some friends to an evangelical “Crusade for Christ,” and, to my own surprise and my parents’ shock, I fell right in: got “born again.” To my surprise, that opened up a new dimension of experience that I’d previously met in music, dance, poetry—until, a year later, the “Christian friends” at the evangelical church told me that a close friend who’d just been killed in a car crash was “going to hell” because he was Jewish. Shocked, I asked, "Wasn’t Jesus Jewish?" That didn’t seem to matter: I left immediately, and never went back. 

The books I picked & why

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Man’s Search for Meaning

By Viktor Frankl,

Book cover of Man’s Search for Meaning

Why this book?

I love this book, written by a secular Jewish psychiatrist: a brilliant, short autobiographical account of his experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz. Frankl tells what he observed there—how some people survived the worst kind of situation imaginable. While not himself a participant in religious tradition, Frankl came to the conviction that “finding meaning” is a fundamental human need. What’s original—and illuminating—is his insight that such meaning cannot be some generalized cliché. Instead, it must engage each person’s own situation, and the specific kind of meaning found in our own life. And when there’s none to “find,” he powerfully demonstrates how we can—and often must—“create meaning.”

How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others

By T.M. Luhrmann,

Book cover of How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others

Why this book?

This book instantly drew me in, since Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann asks a question I’ve always wondered about: how the mind—and imagination—work. Here she documents her work with groups that range from Wicca, Evangelical Protestants, Hasidic Jewish communities, to Santeria and hallucinating patients in mental hospitals. Through her research, she explores a kind of “imaginative play” that enables people “to experience the world as responsive and alive.” The book is a page-turner, offering amazing insights about cognition, anthropology, and about why—and howcountless people still powerfully engage religious traditions.

A Confession

By Leo Tolstoy, Aylmer Maude (translator),

Book cover of A Confession

Why this book?

This is a riveting read for people (like me, maybe you) impatient with second-hand dogma, driven to search for what resonates as authentic. Here the famous author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina tells his own story: how even enormous creative success, wealth, family, and worldwide fame, could not prevent a midlife crisis. Tolstoy tells how he narrowly escaped his inclination toward suicide, then began to discover a spiritual dimension in his own life. After first resolving to rejoin the Orthodox Christian church, he rejected that option, “since I couldn’t believe all they said,” then engaged in his own—unconventional—process of spiritual discovery. 

The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature

By William James,

Book cover of The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature

Why this book?

This book is full of stories, using case studies that include the lives of Walt Whitman, Saint Augustine, and Russian writer Leo Tolstoy—that I found fascinating. Here psychologist William James challenges what he—and I—were both taught: namely, that religions are primarily childish fantasies (the view of Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, in The Future of an Illusion). But after James, as a young man, experienced a terrifying depression, he describes his surprise at what felt to him like a spiritual breakthrough that enabled him to recover. James skips questions about dogma and belief, instead identifies a range of different “varieties of religious experience” that, far more than “belief,” can give rise to spiritual insight. 

God: A Biography

By Jack Miles,

Book cover of God: A Biography

Why this book?

What kind of person is God—the God of the Hebrew Bible—and how does his personality change through time?  Here scholar and former priest Jack Miles explores with wit and insight, how God, seen as a literary character, has been constructed by various writers of the Hebrew Bible. This book brings the Bible into focus as a collection of writings that come from various times and places, each envisioning the creator whose story begins in the Garden of Eden in different ways—humanizing the texts in ways that offer new and enjoyable insights—makes reading the Bible intriguing and fun—a discovery of cultural history!

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