There’s an abundantly annoying claim in polytheist circles which accomplishes essentially nothing. The frivolous claim puts forward that there are two types of people who call themselves “polytheists” based on two beliefs regarding the divine:
- Hard polytheism: The unequivocal belief that there are many distinct, separate and real deities who are independent of humanity; rather than psychological archetypes or personifications of natural forces.
- Soft polytheism: A multitude of reductive approaches to the divine. It might be a form of archetypalism that associate the divine with human conditions/beliefs, or functionally atheistic pantheism. More often than not, it comes with an inbuilt assumption of agnosticism or even outright atheism, because the term itself was primarily conjured for so-called “humanistic pagans.”
There is a reason why this armchair terminology is useless: It distinguishes nothing.
What “hard polytheism” describes is simply just polytheism. It’s the belief that there are numerous discrete, real existing Gods with independent agencies. End of story. This can mean anything from three to a thousand, all the way to a near-infinite amount. What polytheism is isn’t negotiable.
Soft polytheism, on the other hand, is essentially something that is not polytheism. The various ideas that “soft polytheism” is usually used to describe already have names; none of which are “polytheism” because what is being described is not polytheistic (a belief in independently existing entities). It doesn’t exist for any other reason but to reduce the Gods down into a neat package, because it’s inherently messy. One either believes in many Gods, or does not. (e.g., if you believe in archetypal symbolic representations, you do not believe in multiple Gods. Jungian Archetypalism is about human psychology and a “collective unconsciousness” that is synonymous with nature, not about the existence of independent entities with agency.)
We can see that the term causes more issues the good it provides. With “soft polytheism,” you have two significant problems:
Firstly, because the term is so vague in itself without a concrete definition, people will often misunderstand what is being said and thus cause miscategorization. The term “soft polytheism” has been used to describe anything from functionally atheistic archetypalism and pantheism, to things that are separate but more than compatible with polytheism such as monism and panentheism, to merely forms of polytheism that incorporate historical elements of syncretism. The term is so muddy that it can put a pious Stoicist or Platonist, with a full belief in independently existing Gods but who hold a panentheistic understanding of the divine, in the same category as an atheistic archetypalist or some vague pantheist. As such, in the words of my friend Hrafnblod, the “soft polytheism” distinction provides a convenient door for secular atheists (e.g., “Humanistic Pagans”) to adopt the facade of a religious tradition without requiring any actual belief nor effort from them, as well as to undermine, subvert and stifle actual development of polytheist theology (and polytheistic practitioners themselves) by presenting a “more rational” alternative, which leads into my second point.
Secondly, it doesn’t exist for any other reason but to produce an “us vs. them” mentality and muddle the landscape of polytheistic theology. The argument of “soft polytheism” intends to convey that actual polytheism is to be characterized as an “extreme” fundamentalist relative to some “moderate” position. As such, it attempts to whitewash polytheistic theology, which is inherently subversive to Monotheist Abrahamic-centric ethos and makes it more tolerable to people who view polytheism as ultimately a dangerous, aberrant form of worship. “Soft polytheism” isn’t merely incompatible with polytheism; it is also hostile and damaging to it.
Ultimately, the major problem with the two terms is that it’s an either/or dichotomy, and polytheism absolutely isn’t an either/or theological quality. Polytheism is just “hard polytheism,” and there is a clearly defined line between what polytheism is (worship of many Gods) and what it is not.
Hrafnblod, Reddit post “Against the dismissal of archetypes”, Nov 18, 2017 (2:22:59 a.m. UTC), accessed November 26, 2017, https://www.reddit.com/r/pagan/comments/7dnh84/against_the_dismissal_of_archetypes/dpzksxu/
TheLettuceMan. “Baggage and Reactionary Definitions.” Of Axe and Plough. August 16, 2016. Accessed November 26, 2017. https://thelettuceman.wordpress.com/2016/08/16/baggage-and-reactionary-definitions/