“Hard Polytheism” and “Soft Polytheism”: A Non-Distinction

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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.

 

Hard Polytheism

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

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.

 

Conclusion

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.

 

(Special thanks to TheLettuceMan and Hrafnblod)

 

Bibliography

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/

About HeliosTheDemiurge

Proud Pagan and polytheist. Reconstructing Late Antiquity-Early Medieval Hellenism based on the teachings of Julian the Philosopher and Iamblichus, referred to as "Julian Hellenism."
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4 Responses to “Hard Polytheism” and “Soft Polytheism”: A Non-Distinction

  1. Ashley Yakeley says:

    We know quite a bit about the nature of ancient Roman and Greek religious belief, thanks to scholars such as Denis Feeney, Thomas Harrison, Henk Versnel. It turns out they had anything but “unequivocal belief” in anything to do with the gods. Since I have it on hand, I’ll just quote this bit from Feeney [Literature and Religion at Rome, pp14-15] to give you a taste:

    “[Veyne’s] marvellous phrase ‘balkanisation des cerveaux’ (‘brain-balkanisation’) captures the capacity of educated Greeks and Romans of the post-classical era to entertain different kinds of assent and criteria of judgement in different contexts, in ways that strike the modern observer as mutually contradictory. These people are involved in very different activities when they sacrifice outside a temple, talk to the custodian of a temple, read the aretalogy inscribed outside the temple, read the scholar Apollodorus’ book On the Gods, listen to hymns, read Homer allegorised or Homer rationalised, read an epic on Heracles, or read about Heracles the supreme commander in a history. Expressions of scepticism are always potentially part of the procedure, for the participants’ assent may be provisional, self-consciously in tension with dissent.”

    These people were obviously polytheists, but I don’t think we can restrict them to “hard” polytheism by your definition. Their notions about the gods were too variable for that…

    Liked by 1 person

    • At this point I would point more so towards the fact that classical Hellenism (and even current) was an orthopraxy. Even though they believed in many Gods (and many Gods they would believe), that didn’t stop there from being multiple ways to view the divine. This relates more to schools of thought and philosophy than polytheism itself. The existence of many Gods was incredibly obvious to the ancient world. The word “polytheism” itself, though stemming from Greek words, only was coined later on by Abrahamics, specifically Philo of Alexandria if memory serves, often to describe people that wasn’t them.

      Epicureans, Stoicists and Platonists, for an example, were all polytheists, but did they agree on many things? No. I actually love Cicero’s “De Natura Deorum,” a philosophical dialogue about this, because it basically shows this by comparing the views of the Epicureans with that of Stoicists and Sceptics. (E.g., On the form of the Gods. Cicero writes in the Epicurean view that of course the Gods are anthropomorphic because many people see them as such, and in response the sceptic writes back regarding the many different local cults varients of the Gods and that if so, then the Egyptians would also be right since they anthropomorphize their Gods as animals.)

      The main thing is that though there are tons and tons of views and beliefs centered around the Gods, that the belief in many divinities tends to remain. Variability can and did exist, but nothing is taking from the core that polytheism is the belief in many Gods. In the proper understanding of the anceint world, polytheism is simply theism.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Further I should say, outside of Julian Hellenism (since Julian was specific to combine philosophy and religion) and more so with Hellenism as a whole, there was a distinction between religion and philosophy in the Ancient World, hence why this “brain balkanization” could occur.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have some thoughts about this.

    I can appreciate where this sentiment comes from, in terms of many not appreciating the potential erasure of actual theism that this sort of soft polytheism may be committing, intentionally or otherwise.

    I also have some quibbles about the definitions in play here.

    In the past, I have heard soft polytheism defined as the belief in ultimate deities, of which the various deities are multiple facets of the ultimate. This concept comes into play both in some forms of Hinduism, which is one of our longest-lived and continuous polytheistic religions, and in the modern Goddess Tradition. In the latter, while this view is held to, and the term archetype is widely used, this in no way diminishes the reality of the goddesses in the eyes of its adherents, as they are each acknowledged as real, prayed to, and worshiped under their own names and identities. In these cases, the belief in archetypes and ultimate deities still functions like the practice of hard polytheism, so there isn’t much conflict on a practical level.

    In this case, I wonder about soft polytheism now being used to describe archetypalism as in, psychological archetypes only, and essentially functioning as humanism. I find this odd because it seems that we already have the term Humanism to apply, so does not need repackaging or redefining. it’s already a thing. Similarly, pantheism is already a thing, not needing a new term. Personification of natural forces is more a technique than a tradition, and is evident to some degree in most traditions, since the gods are often not humans, so have no need to resemble us, and are often equated with natural phenomena, so this one isn’t much of a leap, and its use serves the important purpose of fostering connection. It isn’t then really a form of soft or hard polytheism per se, just a tool that some traditions use to some extent for their relational purposes.

    So where soft polytheism here is defined as so nebulous as to practically have no actual definition, I think it becomes hard to quantify and qualify, or even adequately juxtapose it with something else in a meaningful way. It has to have a meaningful definition in place first.

    Speaking of which, your comment in which you (accurately) point out that it was monotheists who coined the term polytheism to juxtapose it with their orthodoxy leaves me wondering if it is even helpful or meaningful to use the term ourselves. Like, why use a term to self-describe which was meant to ‘other’ us? Is it to reclaim the term, as has been done with pagan and witch? When you point out that there were historical names for the various schools of thought and religious practices, I wonder if it might make more sense to simply use those instead. In the case of traditions lacking historical names (or the names no longer remaining to us), adherents can coin names. This then too can allow for what was also noted above, the different approaches each takes, with the understanding that conformity among them all is not to be expected, and diversity is inherent to a polyvalent worldview. In this way, we can sidestep the debate over the definitions and uses of polytheism altogether, as each named tradition can self-define its own internal orientation and practice.

    Thoughts?

    Liked by 1 person

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