Religious Leave-Taking as Asking Different Questions

When I left the Mormon church in 2000, I had to figure out a short way to explain to people why I left.  I knew nobody wanted to hear my Mormon version of Luther’s 95 Theses.  I think the most succinct (if not the most satisfactory) explanation I came up with was this:

I started asking different questions.

As I started to move away from Mormonism, I realized that Mormonism doesn’t just claim to tell you what the right answers are–it claimed to tell you what the right questions are.  I think this is true of all of Christianity, and maybe all of Western religion.

Maybe that’s what being a part of religious community means–not necessarily having the same answers, but having the same questions.

When I was Mormon, my questions were: How do I get closer to God? How do I deal with the feeling of guilt my sins? Is the Mormon church “true”? Does the Mormon prophet speak for God? Is the Book of Mormon historical?

Mormons claim to know the answers to all these questions.  And every Sunday at the Mormon church is an exercise in affirming collectively what the answers to those questions are.  Sometimes people are seen to doubt the answers, but no one ever seems to doubt the questions.

My departure from the Mormon church started with my doubting the answers, but it ended with me rejecting the questions.  Over a period of about several years, the questions Mormonism asked became less and less relevant to me, and I started to ask new questions.

Within a few years after my formal leaving-taking, I could no longer muster up the energy to even argue about the question of whether the Mormon church was “true”.  Similarly, after experiencing a saving moment of grace, I longer found questions about Jesus to be interesting in anything other than an academic sense.  I continue to have a passing interest in all things Mormon.  But I rarely look beyond the headlines.

Now, I find the same thing happening with Paganism.

I am still drawn to my altar, which looks very pagany (whatever that means).  A while back, I took it down but found myself longing for it, so I put it back.  And I still am drawn to my irregular morning and evening devotionals, which also look and sound very pagany.  And I still call myself “pagan”–albeit with a small “p”.

My blogroll is still filled with Pagan writers.  I still peruse the Pagan Community Notes column at the Wild Hunt.  And I still read the titles of John Beckett’s posts at least.  But I feel a growing disinterest with all of these.  I think this is because my questions are changing again.

The questions that obsessed me not very long ago are becoming less relevant for me.  I am no longer interested in bridging the gap between Pagan belief about the sacredness of the earth and actual Pagan practice.  I am no longer interested in the resolving the tension between the Pagan desire for legitimacy and respect, on the one hand, and the anti-institutionalism and insularity of contemporary Paganism, on the other.  I am no longer interested in the tension between Pagan hyper-individualism and the Pagan belief in our interconnectedness.  I am no longer interested in what the growth of literalistic theism means for contemporary Paganism.  I am no longer interested in the persistence of belief in supernatural phenomena among Pagans.

Other questions now consume me …

I’m interested in what a truly spiritual activism looks like, and the corresponding question of what an activist spirituality looks like. I want to find a way to integrate ritual praxis and political action in way that retains the power of religious ritual without alienating those who are put off by religion.

I also am interested how the in the various kyriarchies–from patriarchy to capitalism to racism to anthropocentrism–overlap and weave their way insidiously into our individual and collective psyches.

And I am interested in practices for cultivating an immediate and sensual relationship with the land I stand on and the other-than-human (as well as the human) beings that fill the world around me.

And I’m increasingly curious about something I’m learning about called “enchanted materialism”–a “third way” between the Scylla and Charybdis of a reductive materialism and an alienated supernaturalism.  It’s also been called the “new materialism, the “new vitalism”, “interanimism”, “naturalistic animism”, and “agential naturalism”. Some of the people writing about this are David Abram, Jane Bennett, Eduardo Kohn, as well as Mathieu Thiem and Émile Hart.

As I understand it so far, enchanted materialism strives to recognize the agency of the more-than-human world without anthropomorphizing nature.  It is an attempt to break down the boundaries between the human and the other-than-human, the self and the other, subject and object, person and thing, culture and nature.

There is some overlap with with the animist thought in the contemporary Paganism, but it seems to be on its fringes and not at its center, which is where I had thought to have found it.  The questions which seem to circulate at the center of Paganism have to do with belief in literal, anthropomorphic deities and literal, practical magic, neither of which I am interested in any longer.

There are some self-described Pagan writing about the same questions I have  But, by and large, the central concerns of contemporary Paganism seem to be different.  And that no longer really bothers me, since I no longer feel bound to the Pagan community.

It is disappointing to have lost a connection to yet another religious community.  I feel like I’ve been through all the stages of grief in my relationship with Paganismdenial, anger, bargaining, depression–maybe several times over.  Now I’m finally accepting it: I may be “Pagan-adjacent”, but I don’t belong anywhere near the cultural center of contemporary Paganism.  Paganism’s questions aren’t mine anymore.

I have new questions now.

7 thoughts on “Religious Leave-Taking as Asking Different Questions

Add yours

  1. Hey John,

    I love your blog; I have been following and reading it for a few months now. Your experience detailed here is similar to what I have been going through recently as well. I had a falling out with Neo-Paganism and all the new-age trappings that came with it, such as what may be seen with crystals working. It was at this point that I found humanistic paganism, and even further, atheism. Thankfully, letting go of the beliefs that no longer serve me has been less cumbersome than what it may be for most people.

    I am a Comparative Religions major, and I think you and I share a similar value for academia from what I have read here. Studying various traditions and religions have put my mind at ease in this in-between period, where I can search for the place that I feel best suited. I hope you feel similarly, and I trust from your down-to-earth frame of mind that this will be an enjoyable journey for you, myself included.

    -Jay

  2. All of your current questions seem like pagany ones to me; they’re certainly more salient for my pagany practice than the first set of questions you described. The first set of questions seems to be about the integrity of other people’s practices, while the second set is about the integrity of your own practice as it’s developing. I wish you all the best, all ways, always in your continuing practice, under whichever label or tradition that might be.

    1. Thanks for your support Anna!

      I agree with your observation about the two sets of questions. It’s interesting because I did come into Paganism with another set of questions and over time I became more concerned with the questions about other people’s Paganism.

      I think my original questions included: What does a more embodied spiritual practice look like? How do I “let go” in ritual and let my more-than-rational self speak? How do I distinguish the gods of my conscious imagination from those potencies which reside deep within me? What is the connection between my deep self and the natural world? What is the connection between those agencies of my unconscious and the other-than-human agencies that fill the world around me?

      I still have those questions, actually. I just keep getting distracted from them by other things going on in the online and offline Pagan world.

  3. Yes I agree with Anna and Mark. I don’t care about most of the questions you described as pagany ones; I do care about the new ones. I also don’t care if that makes me a peripheral Pagan. I am what I am. Personally I can’t let go of the label Pagan – I tried doing that and it hurt too much. I will keep asking those questions from within the Paganosphere.

    But you are what you are, so you have to do what you have to do, and I wish you well.

  4. Anna above said it far better than I could. I think your new questions are still relevant to a Pagan (or “pagan” or “*pagan”) worldview, if not more so than the first set, and away from the endless internet shouting galleries, there’s a goodly number of Pagans who are much more concerned with the second set of questions.

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