Sara Winn over at Pagan Godspell posed an interesting question yesterday about Pagans and crises of faith.
I started to comment on her post, but as usual got so long-winded I decided just to ramble about it here. I suggest reading her post, as well as the comments, so you'll have a better idea what I'm on about.
Sara is absolutely right in noting that crises of faith are not something Pagans talk about. In fact, if you go by the available literature, we're living lives of incredible prosperity, love, and awesome sex--just look at all the spell books! Truth be told, we're just as screwed up as anyone else, and have many of the same kinds of problems.
Hardly anyone writes about the downsides of Wiccan belief: alienation from the mainstream; total responsibility for your own life; a community that isn't much of one, half the time; and then there are the problems that everyone encounters regardless of religion, such as trying to live your beliefs and hold onto some hope and joy in a world determined to crush the life out of both.
I've been a Wiccan for 13 years and have had several crises of faith, usually caused by a traumatic event that led me to question not the reality of Deity's existence, but whether or not Deity gave a damn about me, and whether I had the power to actually change anything in a universe so vast and complicated that seemingly random disaster could befall me just as easily as it could befall someone who believed in nothing.
I consider my spirituality integral to my being just like many Pagans, but I don't think that eliminates the possibility of a crisis of faith--humans are fallible, and every once in a while those intellectually rigorous enough to periodically re-examine their beliefs will be led to ask, "Am I fooling myself? Is any of this even real?" (My conclusion is that in the end it doesn't matter if it's "real" or not. As long as it enriches your life and doesn't hurt anyone you can worship Spaghetti Monsters or Tolkien characters or Klingons and it's every bit as valid, to you, as any other path. You just have to be prepared to be laughed at if you show up to a public ritual and start intoning in interstellar Esperanto.)
Depending on the circumstances, this questioning can either just be hypothetical, or it can lead to a full-on crisis of faith. It doesn't mean the practitioner is any less devout than someone who never feels the need to reevaluate her direction in life. I think that these crises, while unbearable at the time, end up being just the catalyst we need to evolve spiritually, provided we come out of them stronger and not embittered.
What I've observed is that in Paganism most people don't hit a crisis and become atheists, they hit a crisis and question what their role is in the universe, what exactly Deity is, and most often, whether magic is real. The other major crisis I've encountered is community crisis--a lot of people lose their zeal for Wicca, for example, when they have to deal with actual Wiccans. If they get out into the community and meet the creeps/weirdos/perverts/assholes/flakes among us too soon (and they always do, for some reason, I guess an empty barrel makes the most noise), they are driven from the faith entirely or end up solitaires for life.
I found a lot of resonance with Serenity's story, actually--it sounds similar to my own experiences. There have been times I've said to myself, "It would be so much easier just to be Christian again. There would be ministers and books and support groups and television stations to turn to when life sucks like this." In the end, though, I realized that turning to another religion would be living a lie, and that true spiritual growth isn't meant to be easy.
Again, our youth is a stumbling block. As one of my commenters said a while back, just go and try to find "Pagan grief counseling" or similar in your phone book. The world at large is not set up to support our beliefs, and that can make it even harder to come back from a crisis of faith. It's especially hard for those who practice alone.
My own experiences have solidified and tempered my faith rather than leaving it weakened. At some point in everyone's life, things are going to go spectacularly to pieces. It's how you glue the bits back together that counts.