How to Cope with a Crisis of Faith
Faith — a tedious, if not downright hideous part of other people’s lives, for many. For me, it is absolutely necessary. I’m one of those people who strongly believe in divinity and believe in the importance of religion for our personal and communal existences. This is my second crisis of faith and if I’m being honest…I would actually say that it’s going pretty well. I was raised a Lutheran Protestant on the outside, with nothing on the inside. My first crisis of faith happened when I was about thirteen years old, with my confirmation approaching. I had actually gotten something out of the services I was forced to attend in order to be eligible, so as someone who held deep beliefs I didn’t want it to be the same for me as it was for every other teen, a money grab. I agonised over it for ages, trying to reconcile my Christianity with another emerging faith that felt just as real. Eventually, my efforts to line them up with one another failed and started to sound more and more delusional. Shortly after my confirmation, setting aside any undeserved financial boosts I might have received, I became a Wiccan. It didn’t remain teenage naiveté, though. It was my religion up until very recently, in my late twenties. I was approaching faith from a place of education and healthy skepticism. Yet, I turned my back on Wicca, for multiple reasons. Now, I don’t quite know what I am. I want to practice bioregional animism, but I’m far from being an active practitioner to the degree that I want to be. I wouldn’t know what to call myself, either. I’m still working on my magic, but witchcraft and religion are two separate things. This is okay. I will work it out in time. I’m here to tell you how I was able to cope with the initial loss and doubt and start the journey I’m currently on.
At first I felt a lot of negative emotions. I was angry with myself for believing in something that now seemed stupid. I felt abandoned by the deities I had believed in, yet at the same time I felt guilty for not worshipping them anymore. The choice to stop following a certain religion doesn’t immediately wipe away all your faith, it feels like you’re doing something that’s very wrong. I felt hopeless, because I was starting from scratch once again. I felt lonely, because this is not a thing that you can talk about with everyone or ask advice for readily. When it came down to it, I felt empty. I had gone from praying every night to not praying at all. From celebrating a recent holiday wholeheartedly, which I didn’t manage for all of them as a solitary practitioner, to a completely unreligious life, with lots of moments where there was usually a little connection, a spare thought, now flat and dead, the former meanings echoing through a violently disinterested mind.
It took me some time to realise that it was okay to grieve. Monumental changes were afoot, and my brain needed to catch up just like it did the first time. The end of a relationship with the divine, just like one that involves another person, hurts you to your core. It is a chaotic time, with different feelings coming up every day, maybe even every hour. I needed to take a moment to process and be incredibly sad and guilt-ridden, even though part of me was eager to move on immediately. This emptiness can even be quite productive. It allowed me to really map out my emotional landscape and examine parts of me that tied into the need for religion. I’m not saying that I believe for psychological reasons, mind, but my particular brand of religion (since I’m staying in the realm of Paganism) relates to opinions and experiences, needs and desires that have been recurring and formative for a very long time. This also bears a striking resemblance to what many people are preaching about learning to spend time with yourself — sitting with that emptiness, confronting your innermost being is no easy feat, but it holds valuable information and teaches you self-soothing that is especially important for religious people who might otherwise rely on divine help or community support. Only then can you start to fill that emptiness again, honing in on what it is that you’re looking for.
Having gone through that grieving period, I found it a lot easier to dive head-first into my research without being utterly desperate for something new to cling to unquestioned. Granted, there was some unprecedented fervour in my research and my first devotional acts, but I knew going in that I would have to learn to be patient. I kept telling myself that I was a beginner once more, and even though I could and did still make profound discoveries, I would not find the apex of my new faith within days of starting the search. I took the fear of starting all over again, the feelings of stupidity and reminded myself that in order to avoid another complete overhaul down the line, I would need to remain very critical always. I know now that I want to allow small changes to happen, keep an open mind, and not follow other people too much. I’d thought I’d had that skepticism before, but I can see now that it was too shallow. Since what I’m craving at this point in time is a much more direct relationship with the divine, I will have to put my own work and my own experience above others’, even if, by virtue of their knowledge or superiority in any other area, they seem like the experts. I will have to become able to discern signs and genuine communication with the divine from wishful thinking. It’s all about the authenticity of my practice and its results.
Even as I thought critically about many different aspects of my faith, its repercussions, implications, and its role in my life, I never even considered atheism. This is due to the aforementioned inherent belief, which is a gut feeling mingled with a few experiences, supported by a rich spiritual life. Religion and spirituality are not the same, but they can be great partners. I don’t want to diminish it, but spirituality can fulfil the great role of having something meaningful and unique to fall back on, and it can help you see what kinds of rituals, as in repeated actions, you may want to observe. I’ve used them interchangeably here for the sake of variety, but as far as I’m concerned, faith doesn’t equate to religion, either. While faith, to me in this instance, is something you hold to be true deep inside yourself, religion is the expression of that, it is what your faith commands you to do. As I’ve said, I have other factors that limit the kinds of things it could command me to do, and the same will be true for everyone. It is very helpful to be grounded in some type of faith. To feel that even as you’re turning your back on what your iteration of the divine was, you are not alone. To know that there’s something out there, you just have to find it. I quite identify with this role of the seeker, for now. Religion and faith alike are often so passively absorbed. You learn about it in school, from your family, from institutions and books. You join a community. You’re initiated. You participate. You are given rites. All of these things are perfectly fine, but I find comfort in actively pursuing the divine on my own terms, however long it may take. In that sense, I am also connected to, but not controlled by, everyone who believes in something, which can be a very nice thought. The sense of loss is lessened when it feels like rather than giving something up, it is being transformed, it’s evolving, taking new shapes that come from a more, forgive the semantics here, enlightened place.
In the midst of these feelings of loss, confusion, disillusionment, guilt, and abandonment, it’s easy to forget your mundane life. But there are still hobbies to capture your attention, activities to derive pleasure from. There are relationships to tend to, and most important of all, you have to take care of yourself. Religion is very important, but it’s not everything there is to life. I made sure to carve time out every day to do my religiously-motivated research, but I kept strict boundaries around it. I made a game plan, I saved resources for later. There is no shame in keeping your life from falling apart when you’re going through such a change. You need every bit of support during this time, and being healthy and feeling good, staying connected to your support system and going through a daily routine all promote that. They provide a sense of normalcy, and it often helps to focus on the body rather than the mind or the spirit when the latter are so preoccupied. Maybe you have other, secular goals or plans that you’re working on, as well. Good! I’ve just gotten back into working out, which is a tremendous help in taking my mind off things. I’m growing plants, I’m baking, I’m writing. Even if you’re someone for whom these things play second fiddle to faith, you can and should still have a rich, stimulating life outside of it.
I’m by no means claiming to be spouting universal truths, here. I’m not even saying that this will work for you if you’re an ex-Wiccan or transitioning from one neo-Pagan faith to another. However, this is what got me through it, and these tips contain coping mechanisms and thought processes that are applicaple to other areas of life, as well. In some cases, there can be a lot of trauma involved in leaving a religion, and I would like to acknowledge that. I had thoughts of hell and damnation when I first left the church, but as far as I remember I overcame them quickly, turned them into spite (and awful poetry), and this time around I’m in the lucky position to be well aware that whatever Gods may be are not out to smite me at the slightest misstep. Do not go through this entirely on your own if you’re struggling with something that’s bigger than yourself, whether that be doubt inside your mind or the very real threat of current members harrassing you. There are resources out there, and there are people willing to listen.
Let me leave you with this: You are not alone and you will be okay. For those of us who are looking, something will always present itself sooner or later. You’re not to blame for looking in the wrong places or following the wrong people. If anything, you’re to be commended for being discerning and of faith, critical but steadfast. I’m trying to enjoy this path, leading with curiosity rather than impatience or a hunger for the absolute truth. Wherever I end up will be a place that will feel like home more than anything else ever has.