When Someone Leaves Paganism

I’ve always believed that all positive paths “lead to the center.” Paganism is not going to work for everyone, just like Buddhism isn’t. In their wisdom the gods created many roads that reach towards the divine. Many of those roads have been abused over the years, but that doesn’t diminish the wisdom religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam contain. (And they do contain wisdom, but like any faith recorded by humans, some folly as well, c’est la vie.) As a Pagan I’ve never sought to convert anyone to my religious path, nor do I worry about the souls of those who have not and will never embrace our Great Mother. People are free to be Pagans or not be Pagans, and I’m usually OK with all of it.

Years ago I was friends with a young woman named Sarah. She has just gotten out of a lousy relationship and along the way had abused a lot of drugs and alcohol. She wasn’t a junkie or anything like that, she’d just let drink and pills get the best of her on a few occasions and was looking for a new start in her life. She was curious about Paganism so I invited her to some rituals and gave her some books to read, but it was obvious my path was not for her. After a few months I introduced her to my friend Chuck, who led a Christian group at the local university.

Sarah took to that group like a fish to water, became born again, and was nearly swallowed whole by her new relationship with Christ. Her new faith was a big help to her; she quit the drinking and no longer appeared sad and downtrodden. As the months went on she got her life back on track and made a lot of new friends. Eventually I was no longer one of them, and the last time I saw her she called me a “snake” and warned her new Christian friends not to talk to me (never mind that I had set her conversion process in motion by introducing her to Chuck).

I was saddened by the way my experience with Sarah ended, but I was 99% happy for her. The religious choice she made was an honest one, and it enhanced her life. I never thought we were going to be friends for decades anyways. I basically just want people to be happy, and for them to leave me alone enough for me to be happy. (If you don’t agree with my religious choice, that’s fine, just shut up about it.)

I’m generally happy for people when they find a spirituality that works for them, but there’s a part of me that’s never entirely comfortable when it’s a Pagan leaving Paganism. I know it’s stupid, I know it’s wrong; people have to be free to go where their gods (or God) call them to go, but I can’t shake the feeling. I’m not an overly exuberant just born-again Pagan who wants to shout out about his love of the Horned God from the nearest mountain top (or probably more convenient roof), but I still have a genuine excitement for my faith. Twenty years of Paganism have not changed that, and if someone leaves the fold I can’t help but think they weren’t lucky enough to experience the things I have.

I’ve known lots of people who have left greater Pagandom, and the majority of them were new adherents to the path. It’s easy to flirt with a lot of different religions in your twenties and thirties, and many of those flirtations just don’t turn into lasting relationships. Some of those folks drifted back and forth between Paganism and other faiths, before perhaps eventually settling on one or the other. Not surprisingly most of those people are no longer an active part of my life, either they’ve dropped out entirely or become “ghosts” on my Facebook feed.

I’m always wary of Pagans who have only been on the path for a few years. Not wary in a way where I don’t trust them, but just cognizant of the fact that many of them won’t be sticking around long term. Being a Pagan is tough sometimes. It often requires a conversion from a previous faith (difficult for many) and can mean estrangement from friends, family, and traditions. I’ve met a whole bunch of Pagans who were super-excited in year two, teaching workshops in year three, and were back in the bosom of the Christian Church by year five. It happens, a lot. That’s why becoming a High Priestess or High Priest takes years and years, the candidate has to prove they are going to stick with the program.

There’s no betrayal when someone leaves the Pagan fold. We don’t renounce any gods before stepping onto the path and don’t pledge eternal loyalty to any gods when we step on it (secrets are another matter for some of us though). That doesn’t stop me from feeling the emotion sometimes, and I know it’s irrational. When a teacher or national Pagan figure steps away from our path I’m bothered for selfish reasons, and I fear the public relations fallout.

Let’s cover the selfish reasons first. To put it simply, I’m most likely destined to lose a friend or an acquaintance. If someone’s teaching and writing and I respect those endeavors I will miss them, because that journey is obviously going to evolve in a way that won’t be as relevant to me anymore. Yes, I have lots of non-Pagan friends, and sometimes we talk religion. Sometimes I even learn things from them but the immediacy of conversation between Pagans always hits closer to home. My best friends over the last ten years have generally come from Paganism. There, that’s my selfish reason.

The second reason is something that I’m not sure has been considered by a lot of people. When a prominent Pagan leaves the fold I worry about that exodus being used for gain by others. “Look here Pagans! This person you thought of as prominent is no longer one of you! What does that say about the falseness of your religion!?” Someone leaving Paganism doesn’t affect me on a personal level (nothing is going to change this horned heart), but I worry that it could be used against greater Pagandom or perhaps subject some of us to ridicule or criticism from “concerned” friends and family. None of that would be the fault of the “leave-e” (and generally I find that people who have left Paganism tend to still be supportive of it), but it’s still a point of concern.

In the end though, when someone leaves Pagansim all we can do is be supportive. It’s their road, it’s their journey, and for some people Paganism is just a rest stop along the way and not the final destination. It’s fine to worry about a friendship diminishing or about losing a spiritual comrade in arms, but if you really care about them you’ll wish them well on their new (or rediscovered) path. And even after reading all of that and knowing it to be true, it’s still OK to feel a little bit confused and hurt by the change, we are only human after all.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • http://threeshoutsonahilltop.blogspot.com/ gorm_sionnach

    It is an insightful perspective, to be sure.
    On the topic of the zeal of the newly converted, I suppose it merits pointing out that the brightest flames tend to be the ones which burn out the fastest. I think one of the most, while not disconcerting, problematic perhaps, aspects inherent in retaining converts is how deeply one adopts the world view.
    To elaborate, the nature of that world view is also pertinent. If one adopts and embraces a dichotomic or binary perspective, rejecting and readjusting to a broader perspective is quite difficult. On the other hand, if one adopts or is coming from a more pluralistic perspective, flexibility and permeability are inherent. It is far less surprising for a Pagan to revert back to their former perspective, than say a Born-Again Christian, precisely because of the attitudes and views each fosters in their adherents. In keeping with a point you brought up, it is very rare for a former Pagan to actually become one of those so called “Ex-Pagans” trotted out by those faiths hostile to all but themselves. Or for a former Pagan to turn about and reject Paganism in general.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

    I tried writing on this topic yesterday, got about a page and a half and threw it away. I’m in general agreement with you: someone leaving Paganism is sad, but it happens, and it doesn’t reflect a failure on our part. In our wider culture, people try on various religions – sometimes they fit and sometimes they don’t.

  • Natalie Reed

    Thanks for this – I have been feeling this way too and it helps to know I am not the only one. I must admit, I am a bit disturbed that his comments are turned off. I kind of feel like I am being talked “to” now instead of “with”. And that can have a tendancy to feel preachy.

    • Guest

      I felt that way too. I get that people come in and out of various paths. I have a very close friend who has been my pagan sister for years who is now questioning where it fits in her life. However, he (TB) went from making a ton of noise to telling us about how he was going to move to a very christian area to insisting that he didn’t mean to go to a christian service (my feelings when I read that one were “Yeah right”, to a post saying he was rejoining the church. I mean, fine, but the way it was written made me feel talked down to especially when I noticed comments were turned off.

  • Amanda Kulek

    I once went threw the confusion stage a Friend of mine who was pagan for many years decided she was going to be a Jehovahs witness …she seems very happy there,, we are no longer friends either but it still but in a odd loop of what huh how where are you sure kinda feelings lol

  • Vision_From_Afar

    My problem isn’t necessarily the leaving, it’s the apparent attempt to straddle the two comfortably. If you want to leave Paganism for any of the “Big Three”, go ahead with my blessing. But don’t linger around, telling me just how much synchronicity there is between your new path and my current one. You are moving from persecuted minority to dominant majority. Maybe this is too much “Us Vs Them (TM)” for most, but any attempt of “I’m still one of you, just a little different” makes me twitchy.

    • http://sablearadia.webs.com/ Sable Aradia

      You know the one that bothers me? It’s the general “New Age / Metaphysical” type people who came from the Pagan fold. They generally tell me something like “oh well, the Law of Attraction is the same thing as magick, and you don’t really need all that training and symbolism and tools and so forth, you just need to wish it and think positive.” These people also generally have a belief that if something rotten happens to you in your life, you must have done something to deserve it, either through your actions or lack of action. I keep waiting for life to happen to them and see how well that theory holds up . . .

      • Vision_From_Afar

        Nothing feeds superiority like a loose grasp of science. I know exactly what you mean.

  • Gaddy

    ” I’ve met a whole bunch of Pagans who were super-excited in year two, teaching workshops in year three, and were back in the bosom of the Christian Church by year five. It happens, a lot. ”

    If there is one statement in this well thought-out post that drives home my frustration with situations like this, it’s THIS one.

    In our decentralized array of religious practices that fall under the umbrella of Pagan, it’s just sooo damned easy for someone with a slick website, a full social calendar of festivals and lectures, and a tiny sliver of Charisma to prop themselves up as an “Authority”. The eyes of thousands of other Pagans are on the blog-o-sphere and these so-called BNPs can spread their opinions wide, if not deep.

    It’s my hope that these types of influencers have limited effect on the minds of others given the short amount of time, relatively speaking, that they’ve been disseminating their opinions. But I’m not so sure. modern Neo-Paganism is so young, and it’s tenents so… diverse… that it’s impossible to know who’s opinions are really important to whom.

    • JasonMankey

      What a great comment! We should be picky with our teachers and those we grant influence.

      • Josh the Pagan

        Agreed. This is why my greatest teacher is my own intuition and my experiences. It is what led me to Paganism in the first place, and not a book or a compelling teacher.

    • Wytchfawn

      ^^^This… so much this. The greater Pagan population is always looking for the newest tradition, leader or ‘voice’. What they don’t realize is he who is loudest is not always the wisest. There are so many untapped resources in the Pagan community who don’t get the kind of attention most “flavor of the months” get… but in the long run, they are the ones missing out and that makes me kinda sad.

      • Gaddy

        Thank you, Wytchfawn. I’d also like to add something else, now that my rancor has been raised a bit:

        This fellow, Teo Bishop (I guess this is who this post is really about, not merely Jason’s old acquaintance “Sarah”) was able to make a very loud noise in a relatively short amount of time, with very little substance behind his spiritual musings, due to his proximity to “FAME” in the most banal and secular sense of the word.

        If anyone is upset over this, they really only have themselves to blame. You cannot set a person up as some sort of tin-god and expect to be taken seriously when that person fails to live up to your expectations.

        Teo Bishop is following his own path. May his god go with him…

        When a elder Wiccan High Priestess, an Archdruid of the ADF or a Grand Master of the OTO decides to publicly quit their post and join the Christian church, THEN I’ll take notice of the reasons and take some time to process what, if any, consequences such an act will have –but a guy who “didn’t finish the Dedicant Path because [he] was unwilling to speak out loud the final Oath”?

        Why is this even an issue? Oh riiiight… Fame.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    I must admit, my major concern with anyone leaving Paganism (or quasi-leaving, in the case of so-called “Christo-Paganism”) is your second reason. When someone becomes visibly a member of a group, it can easily damage that group when they leave.

    I’m guessing that this was mostly inspired by Teo Bishop’s recent announcement. What confused me about that is why he felt the need to make it. I mean, his words made it sound more like he was making room in his life for another god, not cutting a load out. I may have misread that, though.

    On a side note, Why do people feel the need to use the term “Christo-Pagan”, anyway? Are there also “Dagda-Pagans”? If someone believes in numerous gods, why should a single one get preferential treatment in the label?

    • Vision_From_Afar

      Dagda (I don’t think) doesn’t have a rule on the books that says “Just me!”, and the other guy does. Christianity, whatever it’s origins/roots, has become so domineering in it’s monotheism, that wedging it into a NeoPagan paradigm creates something not quite Pagan, not quite Christian, hence it’s nomenclature.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        But adding the Christian pantheon to an existing collection of gods is polytheistic.

        Also, there has been interpretation of the scripture to say “no other god before me”, which means other gods are allowed, so long as YHWH gets pole position.

        It just seems intellectually dishonest, to me. A very definite case of having one’s cake and eating it.

        • Vision_From_Afar

          “It just seems intellectually dishonest, to me. A very definite case of having one’s cake and eating it.”

          QFT

    • JaneGalt

      If she’s referring to Bishop then she read my mind. This month he has a HUGE spread in Witches and Pagans magazine, and then he goes and announces he’s turning Christian. Seems like really crappy timing for sure.

  • http://sablearadia.webs.com/ Sable Aradia

    Thanks for an excellent article, Jason. I feel pretty much the way you do about it. It’s a hard thing and I can’t help but be disappointed when it happens; Paganism has brought me so much enlightenment (I hope) and joy. But I imagine those who embrace other faiths feel the same way. I posted the link to my personal blog.

  • Diare Turtlemoon

    I appreciate the commentary here. Living and worshipping outside the major paradigm is always difficult if not dangerous, as pagans each of us has experienced that. When someone who has put themselves in the spotlight makes that choice, there is lots of support from the Christian community for returning to the fold. And, I have seen it used to belittle our pagan community.
    I can tell this has been coming for awhile for Teo Bishop. Living in Denver, I remember his commentary about Pagan Pride in Civic Center Park. He felt very uncomfortable doing ritual in public. I see a strong connection between his comments about pagan activities and his recent decision. For that reason, I am not likely to read his commentaries on the Wild Hunt, because he does have a discomfort with our practices. I do hope that Jason takes this into consideration if he continues to use him as a contributing writer.
    I do wonder why the comments section was removed from the Wild Hunt for that piece.

    • Vision_From_Afar

      Teo turned them off, just like he did on his blog. He seems to be funneling all his feedback into just Twitter and FB, rather than the blogspace.

  • kenofken

    One of the reasons we see this happen with some frequency is because we do offer people a safe place to test things out spiritually. A lot of people who come to paganism initially are not drawn to it as much as they are running away from something else. They don’t want dogmatic theology, or overbearing leaders. They want some way to tap into the divine feminine and nature. We have cool clothing and jewelry. Drumming. Hot hairy hippie girls! :)

    More than anything, we validate the personal nature of a spiritual journey, and we offer some good tools and company for doing that deep work. We provide an environment in which many people undertake this sort of inventory for the first time in their lives. It would be very unusual if some of them didn’t discover their calling lay elsewhere. I don’t have a problem with that at all. The only sort of ex-pagans that chap my hide are the “ex-witch” evangelists who claim to speak authoritatively about us. Lots of these folks claim to have been big fish in the movement for years when in fact they never were, or just hung around at the periphery of some coven for a while.

    I didn’t see Mr. Bishop’s move coming, exactly, but neither is it surprising in hindsight. He very often expressed misgivings and disappointments about paganism as a movement and as a source of answers to theological problems which deeply troubled him.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      “A lot of people who come to paganism initially are not drawn to it as much as they are running away from something else.”

      That, right there is what I dislike most about the Pagan movements. Faith should be sincere, not an act of rebellion.

      • kenofken

        If not for acts of rebellion, there would be no Pagan movement at all. For that matter, all of the religions people run to us from got their starts as acts of rebellion or radical departures from previous ideas – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism in it’s insistence on monotheism etc. Rebellion can be a starting point on a sincere spiritual journey, or just a phase.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          Not necessarily. If the faith is sincere, then rebellion becomes an act of faith.

          • kenofken

            “Faith” has a different connotation to me as a pagan than most Christians or Abrahamics in general. To them, faith is something we must believe as a discipline. They’re told the destination, the answer, and spend the rest of their lives trying to make the journey align with that, and cling to faith until it becomes knowledge (or even if it never does). As a pagan, I find my faith is in the journey itself and its power to reveal answers.

            That bit of philosophy aside, I wrestle with the issue of sincerity in paganism versus anywhere else. I don’t much care for people who come to us insincere from the start, who come looking for a cool lifestyle accessory or rebellion, or free love or power. On the other hand, there are plenty who come with sincere intentions, embark upon the journey, and learn that the answers are not what they thought, or what we might hope. I can’t know for sure, but my sense is that Teo falls into the latter category. I don’t know that paganism is especially beset with insincere people. We have more people who come out of insincerity, perhaps, but the big religions have more who stay out of insincerity.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Look at the high ‘turnover’ rate of Pagan adherents.

            A lot of people flirt with paganism in the same way they flirt with other, counter-cultural, movements. These people tend to come from a certain age demographic known for rebellious phases.

            Beyond that, a lot of people I have spoken about Pagan faith decry orthodoxy and dogma as that is why they left Christianity, in the first place.

            As someone who left because of the gods, it can grate.

    • http://spinningofthewheel.wordpress.com/ Áine Órga

      This. As someone who skirts the fringes of Paganism, you could say that my initial foray into Paganism/Wicca led me elsewhere, too. It did everything that you outline above for me. In my case, what I have (at least for now) settled down to is something that can be called Paganism, but it’s a far cry from where I started.

  • John W. Morehead

    As a scholar of religion the processes of religious affiliation, disaffiliation, and reaffiliation have always been of interest. In particular there is a body of academic literature by scholars of new religions on “the politics of apostasy,” the various elements related to those leaving a particular religion and how this effects the prior religion and the one that the individual is entering. You’ve mentioned some of the related concerns in your essay, especially how this is used for evangelistic propaganda.

    I have focused my study of this in the context of Evangelical-Mormon faith journeys. I’ve noted that unfortunately when the migrations take place either direction that family members, friends, and religious institutions often make this journey even more difficult. While we may not like the choices and end destinations for these religious immigrants, a compassionate response that does its best to help with the journey seems like the better way forward.

  • Andrzej Mężyński

    I agree with all what’s written there even though I’m not a pagan, you describe, as I follow the Hellenic tradition, not the “formalised general paganism” with high priests and such. But it’s problematic, when you live in a strong catholic country. Where even a thought – that you are not catholic can lead to problems in society.

    It’s getting less problematic, with now the younger generations, but I’m not sure if “militant atheism” is the answer, and when saying that you believe in something, makes you ridiculed (but that’s another topic).

    It’s hard on friendships and relations. Some of the dates I was hoping to last, ended after I admit to be pagan, so I learned not to say anything about the faith. I know it’s not right, but when you want to avoid troubles in neighborhood or work, you say nothing, not even to family. It’s actually now easier to do “sexual coming out” than “religious coming out”.

    The other thing is that there are too few of us and we are so scattered, that common religious practices are impossible.

  • PhaedraHPS

    On a slight tangent, quite a few years ago Gordon Melton pointed out the flaw in the the “we’re the fastest growing religion!” trope: while it’s true a good many people are coming in the front door, a awful lot of people are going out the back door at the same time. We’re not growing, we’re flowing :-)

    On positive side, even if someone decides it’s not the path for them, a neutral-to-positive experience might create an ally, and thus help towards the cultural normalization of the Pagan experience. Although, it would be unfortunate if it were perceived to be normal but “just a stage.”

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      There is another flaw in the ‘fastest growing religion’ claim. Statistics.

      If a Christian denomination has 1,000,000 adherents, and loses 50,000 of them, it has suffered a loss of 5 percent. Now, if those adherents all became English Heathens, of which there are roughly 1,000, then English Heathenry would see an increase of 5,000%. That then gets pared down to a nicely spun PR story.

    • kenofken

      In some sense, this stream of people out the back door is THE quintessential cultural normalization! That’s a hallmark of religion in the U.S. and really much of the modern West. We would have no movement at all if that were not the case. When you consider our growth and retention in light of several factors. We don’t proselytize. We don’t bar or discourage inter-faith marriage. We don’t baptize at birth or otherwise rope young people into an identity. We don’t generally pressure or guilt them into staying in the family faith, and we have no real social or financial benefits for people to maintain an “in-name only” tie to our religion. For all that, and decades of vicious marginalization, we’re doing rather well. In any case, I try not to attach any significance to numbers. I don’t care if our movement has 10 people or 100 million, IF they’re people who are here of their own true will and calling.

  • Ambaa

    I know exactly what you mean! Though I’m not a Pagan, I have very similar thoughts on religious paths and the freedom people do and should have to follow their hearts. It also saddens me when I see someone give up on the path that has brought me so much joy. And I also hate to see that natural flow of people in or out used for propaganda on either side. Well said, all around!

  • g75401

    Hmmm……I just read Teo’s missive. He says he will continue his blog. I will not be reading them. I know this is not a charitable opinion but, with the Crusades, the Inquisition, the collaboration with the Nazis, the justification of slavery and colonialism in the Americas and Africa, the Christian church leaves a lot to be desired in “doing good”. Sure, your church may sponsor a well in Africa but would that African village need a well dug if their society hadn’t been deeply disrupted by colonialism? I call “christopagans” one thing-christians. Either you support the earth or you hang out with folks who believe their god gave us the earth to exploit and degrade. You can’t do both. As Ann Coulter so aptly summarized “God gave you the earth. Take it and rape it”.

  • Ash McSidhe

    Each person has their own Path to the Divine; if their path happens to coincide with someone else’s for a time, that’s is wonderful and they should be able to enjoy the companionship while it lasts. At some point, those paths will likely diverge – and though neither one is lost, the parting may have sadness with it.

    I learned this past week that two long-time pagans of my acquaintance had left Paganism and returned to Christianity; one was facing a terminal illness, I don’t know the circumstances of the other, but it has left many mutual acquaintances wondering “what went wrong?”

    Everyone and everything are where they are supposed to be, according to their Fate/Wyrd/Dan/Predestination. Nothing went wrong.

  • Annika Mongan

    I can understand how Teo’s announcement can be triggering to those of us who have a troubled Christian background. The challenge is to disentangle the story woven of our own fears from Teo’s journey.

    Here’s my open letter to Teo:

    http://www.witchesandpagans.com/Cross-and-Pentacle/an-open-letter-to-teo-bishop.html

  • http://nigheananbrighde.wordpress.com/ Erin

    I have recently had someone I became quickly close with leave polytheism for born-again Christianity and while I still love her, I miss the closeness we had and no longer have due to divergent paths and acquaintances. So I get the personally sad thing. I have also seen pagan leaders convert back to Catholicism and decide to find ways to infiltrate the pagan organizations for conversion purposes, rather creepy. I just learned about Teo Bishop. It does feel unsettling, when a well-known figure makes such a change. I wish all people well, generally, with their personal pursuits, but it feels like a bit of a betrayal, to have had this leader figure sort of turn on the community like this. It’s very unsettling when known personalities make such drastic changes, because we have to change too, and we often have to adjust faster to the at new reality than they did as they spent time mulling it over. Interesting topic to blog about. Clearly readers have some feelings about it. Thanks for sharing.

  • Pixie

    Is this only applicable for Pagans leaving for Christianity? I’m having a lot of internal struggle personally because my level of involvement in Hinduism makes me wonder if I’m still a Pagan.

    • http://sablearadia.webs.com/ Sable Aradia

      I am no judge, I don’t think: but my sister-in-law married a Hindu man and I had a great tete-a-tete with the priestesses performing the ceremony. For them, once my husband and I had spoken about our comparative beliefs, “Pagan” was a synonym for “Hindu”; and it seemed we had far more in common than not. In a way I think you could look at Paganism as a shiny new incarnation of HInduism, and Hinduism as Paganism minus the “Neo” prefix. Certainly they’re close enough that I think they can co-exist well.

    • JasonMankey

      I’d suggest looking at Niki Whiting’s blog . . .

      http://myownashram.com/


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