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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.”
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