Tag Archives: Polytheists

On Paganism as a Religion, Not a Faith


You may have seen something of a debate going on over at Pagan Square and elsewhere in Pagan Blogistan between what are sometimes called “hard” vs. “soft” polytheists. One blog says that:

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 [that] deities are distinct entities, usually as causal agents with their own independent wills and personalities.

I’ve avoided jumping in because, Sun in Pisces and Geminii rising, I’ve got both signs in the Zodiac specifically designed to see all sides of every situation. It makes me a good lawyer, but leaves me disinclined to proclaim the one, true, truth. My answer to these either/or questions is almost always an unqualified “Yes.”

Also, the whole “Someone is WRONG on the internet” thing just gets old after a while. If one person finds fulfillment in worshiping Isis as Isis, a real and true entity, that’s fine with me, and if someone else finds fulfillment in worshiping Isis as a thought-form related to all mother Goddesses, related to Gaia, related to Nature, that’s fine, too, as far as I can tell. I’m willing to bet you’d find similarly diverse notions about the specific nature of divinity in the membership of any Catholic church, Buddhist temple, or Jewish synagogue. And part of the appeal of Paganism, from my perspective, is the willingness to accept that your Goddesses and Gods can be yours without that requiring me to do or accept anything.

Christopher Penzack has a post up about this debate that says, and says well, some important things.

I would say I’m not a person of faith or belief. My religious experience is of a mystery tradition, of a more mystical nature than sheer belief. I believe in experience, and feel there are many ways to define the experience, but the experience in consciousness is what really attracts me to this path. I find the different ways of describing it interesting, but become concerned when those in Magickal, Pagan, Wiccan, Witchcraft, Heathen, Theosophical, and related paths adpot terminology and attitudes that remind me of my previous Christian experiences.

* * *

I tend to focus on technique, rather than decide theology and then seek experiences to support it. I’d rather have experiences, and see what ideas fit those profound moments. I think that is what most people do, at least initially on our path, regardless of where they fall in this debate. We simply have different experiences, and find different ideas to fit them.

While I whole heartedly believe the gods are as real and individual as you and I, I also don’t believe that we are all that real or individual. Much like the simple summations of quantum physics, there are times when it behaves as a particle, and time when it behaves as a wave. I think that philosophy applies not only to the subatomic world, but to gods and spirits, as well as people and all of nature.

Penzack’s point about not being a person of faith or belief, but rather a person who has experienced the mysteries, is one of the reasons why I’m always begging Pagans not to say “faith” when they mean “religion,” not to say “faith community” when they mean “religious community,” not to say “interfaith work” when they mean “inter-religious work.” Using “faith” when you mean “religion” adopts monotheism’s framing and encourages the notion that the only real religions are ones that are faith-based. Even the hard polytheists that I know have had mystery experiences of their Goddess and Gods; they don’t believe that they should have “faith” in Brigid or Apollo and that faith alone will “save” them.

Sometimes, the Goddesses with whom I work are very real, discrete, individual entities and sometimes they are so gigantic and overwhelming that it seems to me that for me to pretend to understand who and what they are would be like the mitochondria in my cells assuming they know all about who I am. I don’t need, or want, it to be any different — for me.

Picture found here.