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.