The HPedia: Polytheism, hard and soft

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In the Contemporary Pagan community, there is a general distinction between soft and hard polytheism.

Soft polytheism encompasses views of the gods as figurative to some extent, whether that means they are metaphors for aspects of nature, or metaphors for some greater transcendent divine power (which may or may not go beyond what a naturalist usually considers “nature”) that is difficult to grasp except through human-created imagery.  To that extent, different deities may be seen as aspects of one another.

In contrast, hard polytheism asserts deities are distinct entities, usually as causal agents with their own independent wills and personalities.  The fullest account of this view is probably John Michael Greer’s A World Full of Gods.  The view is described in brief by Celtic Reconstructionist Seren:

I believe that the gods, spirits and ancestors are as distinct as much as they can be closely intertwined: Sometimes the gods might be seen as spirits, or as ancestors, or both, or neither of these things. They are timeless, and they are Otherworldly. They are in this world and outside of it.

It’s also described by Star Foster:

As a hard polytheist I believe in distinct, sentient Gods that move within nature’s laws.

The claim that deities “move within nature’s laws” is worth remark.  Janet and Stewart Farrar agree with regard to magic: “magic does not break the laws of nature”, as does Starhawk: “No magic spell will work unless channels are open in the material world.”  These claims point to the complicated issue of what constitutes “nature” within Pagan discourse.  An article on that complicated issue is available here.

It is also worth noting that Star capitalizes her “G”, whereas many others do not.  HP adopts the editorial policy of not capitalizing the g, with the intention of distinguishing against the classical monotheist “God”, which is traditionally capitalized because it is a name.  No disrespect is intended.

Naturalism, wherever it includes multiple deities that do not transcend nature as defined by reliable scientific evidence, might overlap with soft polytheism or be considered a subset of it.  Otherwise, it may be considered a third alternative.

See also “Deity.”

Check out other entries in our HPedia.

5 Comments on “The HPedia: Polytheism, hard and soft

  1. The terms hard and soft in polytheism do need to be addressed a little better. Growing up in a christian home and turning pagan my self i try to keep an equal definition for all god(s). In the soft term would be far away, disembodied, or aspects of a faith. They give advice and guide. In the hard term we have close up, very real, law givers. They are to be obeyed without question. For me it is a question for just respecting a god(s) or worshiping them.

    Moving on to the classical use of “G” in God. God is a title/station not a name. Even in the Abrahamic religions (Jewish/Islam/Christian) who choose to say their is only one God we must remember that God has a name, Yah-weh.

  2. While I think it’s good to include this entry in the HPedia, I have found that this distinction between hard and soft polytheism really fails to take into account the diversity of belief regarding the ontological nature of the gods. I think the defining issue is the question of the relationship between the human mind and the gods. Some “hard” polytheists believe that there is no relationship, while others believe that the gods are creations of our minds to take on an independent life of their own. Some “soft” polytheists believe that the gods are entirely creations of our minds and are “just metaphors”, while others (like myself) take a somewhat more nuanced view that the gods are creations of our unconscious minds and do not exist independently, but they are not under our control in the way that your metaphors are. And then there is the naturalistic polytheism described by Alison Leigh Lilly, which I still don’t know how to characterize.

  3. I really don’t see how polytheism plays a part in Naturalistic thinking.I also don’t understand the necessity of gods psychological or otherwise.If we are working from a purely scientific and or Naturalistic POV there is no need for even using polytheism.

    • William: For me at least, it’s a question of the limitations of language to express experiences that transcend the mundane. I think some of us feel that scientific discourse, while useful and accurate, is a bit anemic when it comes to trying to express the grandure and wonder of some of our encounters with nature. God-language, while potentially misleading, seems to some of us to be able to better express the emotions associated with our experiences.

  4. Pingback: One God or Many? | A record of thoughts

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