Beliefnet
"Paganism is a religion of experience, not faith. It's not about what you believe. It is a path based on what you do, not what you think."

I first encountered this description of modern Paganism back in 1990, at a beginner's class on Goddess spirituality. Since then, it is the one comment I've heard most consistently made about Pagan religion. Druids, Wiccans, and other Pagans often regard dogma as a dangerous concept that leads not to intelligible truth, but merely foments conflict and division. Instead of doctrine, Paganism offers a variety of tools and exercises that enable its adherents to decide for themselves what, if anything, is worth believing. Even the most conservative, traditionalist Pagans still tend to insist that their teachings represent only one of many possible approaches to truth.

One of the reasons I embraced nature spirituality is because I found this rejection of dogma to be deliriously alluring. Christianity teaches, "You will know the truth and it will make you free." By contrast, Paganism seems to say "Assert your freedom, and only then can you find truth." This was an offer I couldn't refuse.

When I became a Pagan, I immersed myself in a vast intellectual playground. My new spirituality inspired me to study world religious history, shamanic and magical practices, Celtic mythology, and ecofeminism. I applied my non-dogmatic mind to mastering the elements of Pagan ritual, from solitary Wiccan circles to intricate Indo-European "reconstructionist" ceremonies. I explored guided meditation, the invocation of spirits and deities, and the practice of spellcraft. Meanwhile, no one told me what to believe. I chose to study with several teachers over the years, not because I was "supposed to" but because I could see that they had something to offer me. But as soon as a teacher no longer met my needs, I quickly moved on.

In addition to my studies, I helped establish a Druid grove and a Pagan meditation group, and eventually began teaching Celtic spirituality to a steady stream of enthusiastic students. I was a professional writer before embracing Paganism, so it's only natural that I wrote several books that explained earth-based spirituality for beginners and non-practitioners-and even a book on how to integrate Goddess spirituality with Christianity! Soon I was receiving invitations to speak at Pagan gatherings. I was living a dream life as a "full-time" Pagan, thanks to my teaching and writing.

And then it all fell apart.

"Little by little, Pagan spirituality stopped working for me"
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Despite what Pagans may say, a religion without dogma or doctrines does not render faith unnecessary. Faith is just as vital to Paganism as to any other religion-only not a proscribed, top-down faith. "Faithful" Pagans place trust in their personal experience. Since no one will tell Pagans what to believe, they must be confident regarding what they accept as true. If that confidence is shaken, it can lead to an ever-increasing spiral of doubt.

In the excitement of my demanding schedule as a writer and teacher, I fell into that spiral of doubt. Little by little, Pagan spirituality stopped working for me. The goddesses and gods who had once filled my rituals with power and purpose gradually fell silent and seemed absent. Magical workings became a chore, rather than a source of meaning and joy. Even meditation eventually lost its luster; what had been a reliable source of inner peace became a tormented forum in which I struggled against feelings of spiritual boredom and restlessness. I began to profoundly question Paganism's capacity to make a positive difference in my life.

Christianity has a simple, yet effective prayer for those who doubt: "I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24). Christians often view doubt as a problem to be solved through prayer, counseling, or study. But my Pagan doubt seemed more than just a transitory problem-it threatened my entire religious identity. Since Paganism relies on experience, what does it mean to experience profound doubt? If I dismissed such experience as "wrong," that would just lead to questioning all of my spiritual experience-even my happier "magical" experiences. Once mired in doubt, I found nothing to fall back on-no faith, no belief, no dogma. The very quality of Paganism that initially appealed to me seemed to leave me ill equipped to face my inner questioning.

Thankfully, I had two wise teachers to whom I turned with my spiritual crisis. But they had little to offer me aside from exhortations to keep meditating, keep studying, keep trying. Paganism became an endurance test: could I soldier on through my doubt, hopefully finding some sort of resolution where my faith could be restored? But faith in what?

Adherents of any faith-not just Paganism-can become lost in a crisis of doubt. Such a crisis hopefully leads to some sort of resolution-either a renewed commitment to one's religion, or a decision to change paths. I'm sure that many Pagans can turn a period of doubt into a time of growth as a Pagan, particularly if they have the benefit of an experienced spiritual guide. But in my case, my crisis has led me to a different religious path.

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