Browse the Stylebook by letter


Pronounced “BRAH-maa.” In Hinduism, the name used for God when functioning as creator of the universe. God is referred to as Vishnu when God’s role as preserver is emphasized and as Shiva when the emphasis is on God’s role as lord of time and change. While God has different roles in Hinduism, the divine is always understood to be one. See Shiva and Vishnu.

Posted in Hinduism


Pronounced “BRAH-mun.” The name of God or the supreme deity in the Vedas. Brahman is described as being beyond all dualities, such as gender or form; the transcendent and immanent absolute reality; the all-pervading energy; and the Supreme Being or primal soul.

It also refers to a member of a Hindu varna (caste) whose traditional family occupation was priestly or scholarly. Traditionally considered by some to be the “highest” caste in India’s caste system, it is also spelled Brahmin.

Posted in Hinduism

bread and wine

Primary elements of the Christian service of Holy Communion. This is based on Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, in which he blessed bread and wine, saying, “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” Some Christians, especially Catholics and Orthodox, believe that the consecrated bread and wine are literally transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ, although they continue to look and taste like bread and wine (known as the doctrine of transubstantiation). Other groups believe the representation is purely symbolic, while many take a middle course, believing that Jesus is somehow spiritually present in the blessed bread and wine (known as the doctrine of consubstantiation). Never use the word symbol in reference to the bread and wine unless you know that the church you are covering uses that word. In situations involving Catholics, you can refer to the bread as the host, the consecrated wine as the cup, and to either or both elements simply as Communion. See Communion and Eucharist.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy

brit milah or bris

The ritual circumcision of a male Jewish child on the eighth day of his life or of a male convert to Judaism — acts that are considered to continue the covenant God established with the Jewish people. Bris is the Yiddish term; brit, the Hebrew word, is also used. Brit milah literally means “covenant of circumcision” in Hebrew. There are no mandated rituals for newborn girls. However, many honor the custom of the Simchat Bat (pronounced “SIM-hot Bot”), a naming ceremony at home.

Posted in Judaism


A man who has taken vows in a Christian religious, particularly Catholic or Anglican, order but is not ordained. Also, a monk or friar who is in seminary preparing for priesthood is called brother if he has taken his vows. In many traditions, especially evangelical, brother is used as a generic, friendly title. Capitalize before a name but not otherwise. On first reference, generally identify the religious community, for example Franciscan Brother John Smith. On second reference, use the first name if the person is known that way, such as Brother John. Otherwise, use only the last name on second reference.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Religious titles


Pronounced “BUD-dah” (first syllable “u” as in “put,” not a long “oo” sound). The Buddha, meaning “the awakened one,” refers to Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. A Buddha is anyone who has attained enlightenment. There are human Buddhas of the past, present and future as well as celestial Buddhas who are venerated in some Buddhist schools for their ability to help those on the path to liberation.

Posted in Buddhism


Buddhism, the fourth-largest organized religion in the world, was founded in India sometime between the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, or the “awakened one.” Buddhism teaches that meditation and the practice of moral behavior (and, according to some schools, rituals) can lead to the elimination of personal craving and hence the release of suffering and the attainment of absolute peace (nirvana). This is gradually achieved through successive cycles of rebirth (although some schools say such liberation may be obtained as quickly as within one lifetime). Although Buddhism is frequently described as a nontheistic tradition since the historical Buddha did not claim to be divine and there is no concept of a divine absolute God — the vast and complex tradition of Buddhism includes an intricate cosmology of beneficent and wrathful deities as well as transcendent Buddhas and bodhisattvas who can be propitiated to help Buddhist practitioners on the path to enlightenment.

There are three major forms or “vehicles” of Buddhism:

  • Theravada, found in most of Southeast Asia, focuses on individual realization, with practices particularly directed to monastic life;
  • Mahayana stresses the universality of Buddha-nature and the possibility of enlightenment for all beings. It developed into many variant schools in China, Japan and Korea;
  • Vajrayana, or Tibetan Buddhism, is found in Tibet, Nepal and Mongolia. Vajrayana developed from the Mahayana tradition but is often considered separately as a third “vehicle.”

See Buddha, Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path and Siddhartha Gautama.

Titles for Buddhist teachers or masters are capitalized when used with a name but lowercase otherwise. The title of lama generally precedes a name; rinpoche, sensei and roshi generally follow the name, but practice varies, especially in the United States. (For example, a well-known Japanese Zen teacher is always referred to as Maezumi Roshi; a well-known American Zen teacher is Roshi Bernard Glassman.) To determine how to refer to a particular Buddhist teacher, ask or try looking up the name through a database or other Web tool.

Posted in Buddhism, Religious titles


A form of covering for women who are Muslims, most frequently found in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is an all-enveloping outer garment with a net-covered opening for the eyes or face to allow the woman to see. See abaya, hijab and niqab.

Posted in Islam

Byzantine Rite

A term for one of the five main ritual groupings into which the Eastern Catholic churches are divided. The label still has some currency, but the churches stopped referring to themselves as “rites” in the 1980s. See Eastern Catholic churches.

Posted in Catholicism


See A.D.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, Religion and culture


Pronounced “KAY-luhf.” Successor or representative of the Prophet Muhammad, and the political leader of the Ummah, or Islamic community. A dispute over who should succeed Muhammad after his death prompted the Sunni-Shiite split that continues today. According to Sunnis, who make up the vast majority of Muslims, the first four caliphs were Abu Bakr As-Siddiq, Omar ibn Al-Khattab, Othman ibn ‘Affan and ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. These four are known collectively as the “Rightly Guided Caliphs.” Shiites believe that Muhammad’s relatives should have succeeded him. Another term for caliph is khalifah.

Posted in Islam


Pronounced “KAY-luhf-ate.” The lands of the Islamic state ruled by the caliph. In 1517, the Ottomans claimed the caliphate and held it until 1923, when the secular nation of Turkey was created. The terrorist Osama bin Laden spoke of restoring the caliphate.

Posted in Islam


According to the New Testament, the hill outside of Jerusalem where Jesus Christ was crucified. The location is also known as Golgotha, or the place of the skull. A common error is misspelling Calvary as cavalry.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism

Calvin, John

A French lawyer who once studied for the priesthood, he settled in Geneva in 1536 and was a major force in the Protestant Reformation. Calvin wrote Institutes of the Christian Religion, which spells out his key doctrines.

Posted in Christianity, Protestantism


The theological doctrine of 16th-century French Protestant reformer John Calvin. It is most often associated with predestination, the belief that each individual’s eternal fate — salvation or damnation — is predetermined, but many contemporary Calvinists have backed away from that. Calvinism emphasizes the sovereignty and holiness of God, the pervasiveness of sin, the powerful grace of Christ and the authority of Scripture. The Presbyterian Church (USA) and Congregationalist churches trace their roots to Calvinism.

Posted in Christianity, Protestantism


The process in the Roman Catholic Church by which an individual is declared a saint. When a cause for canonization (as the process is known) is opened, the candidate is formally known as a “Servant of God,” such as Servant of God John Paul II. Three major steps follow: a declaration of heroic virtues, beatification and canonization. Candidates in those stages are called by the titles, respectively, of “Venerable,” “Blessed” and “Saint,” all uppercase, as in Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. The Catholic Church says that all those in heaven are saints. Canonization is a solemn affirmation by the church to the faithful that a particular person is in heaven and that that person’s life and virtues are especially worthy of emulation and veneration. Canonization is also practiced by the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Posted in Catholicism, Orthodoxy


In Judaism, a synagogue official who leads the musical part of a service. Capitalize before a name, but lowercase otherwise.

Posted in Judaism, Religious titles


A title of honor given to certain Catholics, nearly always archbishops, who are chosen as special advisers to the pope. Their primary function in today’s church is to elect a new pope, but they are assigned to serve as advisers to important offices in the Vatican bureaucracy. Some have a great deal of behind-the-scenes influence. Most cardinals are archbishops of “cardinalatial sees” — archdioceses that traditionally have a cardinal. However, the heads of important Vatican offices are usually also named cardinals, and occasionally the pope will name a respected theologian who is past 80 and thus ineligible to vote for a new pope. Cardinals are not required to be archbishops, bishops or even priests. In the U.S., Jesuit theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles is not a bishop. Cardinals should be referred to conventionally, as in Cardinal Avery Dulles, not Avery Cardinal Dulles. On second reference use only the cardinal’s last name.

Posted in Catholicism, Religious titles


A Roman Catholic contemplative order founded by hermits at Mount Carmel in Palestine in the 12th century. It is associated with St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, two mystics who lived in 16th-century Spain. The order’s reformed branch, the Discalced Carmelites, included St. Theresa of Lisieux. Carmelites disavow ownership of personal or communal property.

Posted in Catholicism

caste system

The traditional social, economic and religious structure of Indian society, which divided people into four broad groups, or castes (“varna” in Sanskrit), and multiple smaller groups, or subcastes (“jati”). While it is believed that the system was once simply a division of labor and guild system, determined by skills and aptitude, it became a rigid hereditary hierarchy in which restrictions were placed on one’s social mobility, job opportunities, marriage prospects and even whom one could eat with. Although caste discrimination is illegal in India and most Hindu leaders stress that it is not sanctioned in Hinduism, it is still practiced among followers of all religions throughout South Asia. An additional group, the untouchables, was created from the lowest caste for people who performed tasks considered “polluting” in a physical or spiritual sense. Since the early 20th century, the Indian government has called this group the “Scheduled Castes.” See also Dalit, Harijan, jati, untouchable and varna.

Posted in Hinduism, Religion and culture


The central church of a diocese in a denomination with an episcopal hierarchy, such as the Roman Catholic Church or the Anglican churches. It serves as the seat of the bishop.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity

Catholic, catholic

When capitalized, the word refers specifically to that branch of Christianity headed by the pope, the Roman Catholic Church. In lowercase, the word is a synonym for universal or worldwide, as in the catholic church. Most Roman Catholics are Western or Latin Catholics, meaning they follow church practice as it was formulated in Rome. But the Roman Catholic Church also includes 22 Eastern Catholic churches, whose practices closely resemble those of the Eastern Orthodox, including venerating icons, allowing a married priesthood and giving the three sacraments of initiation – baptism, First Communion and confirmation – to infants. Never refer to Eastern Catholics as Orthodox or vice versa. Use Roman Catholic if a distinction is being made between the church and members of other denominations who often describe themselves as Catholic, such as some high-church Episcopalians and members of some national Catholic churches that have broken with Rome (for example, the Polish National Catholic Church and the Lithuanian National Catholic Church).

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy


One who conducts a religious rite, especially a Christian priest.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Religion and culture


The official organization of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement of Judaism, which is based in Crown Heights, N.Y. Chabad-Lubavitch is a branch of Hasidism, a movement within Orthodox Judaism founded by 18th-century mystics. Chabad emphasizes reaching out to nonpracticing Jews. The term Chabad comes from an acronym of the Hebrew words for wisdom, understanding and knowledge. See Lubavitch.

Posted in Judaism

Chaldean Catholic Church

Pronounced “kal-DEE-uhn.”  An Eastern church retaining autonomy within the Catholic Church while remaining in full communion with the pope in Rome. Chaldeans are found primarily in Iraq. There has been a large migration of Chaldeans to the United States, particularly to Michigan.

Posted in Catholicism

charismatic Christianity

A form of Christianity that emphasizes supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit, particularly speaking in tongues and healing. Branches of mainline Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches have absorbed charismatic teachings. See Pentecostalism.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity


The word means anointed one or messiah in Greek. For that reason, Christians refer to Jesus of Nazareth as Jesus Christ or simply Christ.

Posted in Adventism, Amish/Mennonite, Anglican/Episcopalian, Baptist/Southern Baptist, Catholicism, Christian Science, Christianity, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, Protestantism, Quaker

Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

The words in parentheses are part of the formal name. The church’s central belief is that the Bible should be the only basis for faith and conduct and that each person can interpret the Bible for himself. All clergy in the denomination may be referred to as ministers. Pastor applies if a minister leads a congregation. On first reference, use the Rev. before a cleric’s name. On second reference, use only the last name.

Posted in Christianity, Protestantism

Christian Coalition

A group of political conservatives who generally also represent conservative theological views. It was founded in 1989 by televangelist Pat Robertson and is considered the successor to the Moral Majority, founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell in 1979. See Moral Majority.

Posted in Government and politics

Christian Science

A denomination founded in 1879 based on interpretations of the Bible found in the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy, who wrote Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. The church’s official title is the Church of Christ, Scientist. Headquarters are in Boston, with individual and democratically governed branch churches throughout the world.

Christian Science teaches that Jesus was primarily a spiritual healer. It embraces the original Christian teaching and practices of healing sin, sickness and death based on the church’s understanding of the divine principles of Jesus’ teaching and healing. Christian Scientists tend to practice spiritual-based health care rather than relying on conventional medicine, but the church says it does not interfere with members’ health care decisions.

Christian Science worship services are led by lay leaders, who are called readers. The faith also has practitioners, who are self-employed healers. Capitalize these titles before a name and on second reference use only the last name. Do not use the Rev. in any references.

The Church of Christ, Scientist, is not recognized as Christian by the Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox churches for a number of doctrinal reasons, including its rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity. In stories where this is relevant, journalists should explain the Christian Science beliefs and why other groups say those beliefs do not accord with traditional Christianity. In stories where different faith groups are mentioned, journalists should avoid judging which groups are Christian. For example, say Baptists, Christian Scientists, Presbyterians and Jewish groups took part in relief efforts rather than Baptists, Presbyterians and non-Christians, including Christian Scientists and Jews, took part in relief efforts.

The terms Christian Science Church or Churches of Christ, Scientist, are acceptable in all references. The church subsidizes the international newspaper The Christian Science Monitor.

Posted in Christian Science, Religious titles


The world’s largest religion is based on the life and teachings of Jesus as described in the New Testament. Believers, called Christians, consider Jesus the Son of God, whose crucifixion served as atonement for all human sins and whose resurrection assures believers of life after death. The original Christians were Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah promised in the Hebrew Bible; other Jews disagreed, however, and eventually Christianity became distinct from Judaism as the Apostle Paul and others spread the faith to gentiles.

Posted in Christianity


Western Christians celebrate Christmas, which marks the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, on Dec. 25. Most Orthodox Christians, using the Julian calendar, celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7. Armenian Christians celebrate Christmas on Jan. 6, except in Jerusalem, where it is celebrated on Jan. 19. Never abbreviate Christmas to Xmas or any other form.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


Has multiple meanings. It can mean a building, a gathering of people, a civilly incorporated body, the sum total of all Christians on the planet, or an idea in the mind of God. When reading formal documents of the Catholic Church, it is especially important to figure out which one of these definitions is operative. Capitalize as part of the formal name of a building. Lowercase in phrases where the church is used in an institutional sense, as in separation of church and state.

Posted in Amish/Mennonite, Anglican/Episcopalian, Baptist/Southern Baptist, Catholicism, Christian Science, Christianity, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, Protestantism, Quaker

Church of Christ, Scientist

See Christian Science.

Posted in Christian Science, Christianity

Church of England

See Anglican Communion.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian

Church of God in Christ

The largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States. The majority of its members are African-American, in contrast with the Assemblies of God, the second-largest Pentecostal denomination, in which a majority of the members are Anglo. COGIC is acceptable on second reference.

Posted in Pentecostalism

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Members of the church are called Mormons or Latter-day Saints; either is acceptable. It is preferable to use the church’s entire name, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on first reference. The LDS church has asked not to be referred to as the Mormon Church but does not object to adherents being referred to as Mormons. Mormon, LDS and Latter-day Saint can all be used as adjectives, as in Mormon beliefs or LDS practices.

The church was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, a farm boy in upstate New York. Smith said he was directed to a set of golden plates that contained a record of ancient inhabitants of the Americas who had migrated from Jerusalem. Smith said he translated this record with divine help and published it as the Book of Mormon. The book tells of a visit by the resurrected Jesus to these inhabitants in the Western Hemisphere, which is why its subtitle reads “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.”

Mormons believe that Smith had a vision of God and Jesus Christ and that the church he founded is the restoration of true Christianity. In the 19th century, Mormons were persecuted for their beliefs and eventually fled to Utah, where they could practice their faith in peace.

Because of their extra-biblical scriptures and beliefs about God and Jesus (they reject the Nicene Creed, for example), Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches do not regard Mormons as Christian. In stories where that is relevant, journalists should explain why Mormons regard themselves as Christian and why other groups say their beliefs do not accord with traditional Christianity. In stories where different faith groups are mentioned, journalists should avoid judging which groups are Christian. For example, say: Baptists, Mormons, Presbyterians, Seventh-day Adventists and Jewish groups took part in relief efforts rather than Baptists, Presbyterians, Seventh-day Adventists and non-Christians, including Mormons and Jews, took part in relief efforts.

The church has headquarters in Salt Lake City and is highly structured. All worthy males, 12 and older, can be ordained to the priesthood; women are not ordained but can serve in leadership and other positions in the all-volunteer clergy.

The top authority is the “prophet, seer and revelator,” a position held by the most senior apostle, who has the title of church president. He is joined by two counselors, who constitute the governing First Presidency. When the president dies, the First Presidency is dissolved and the senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles becomes the new president. Under the First Presidency is the three-member Presiding Bishopric, which governs in temporal affairs. There is also the First Quorum of Seventy, which oversees missionary work and other aspects of church governance.

The church is divided into territories called stakes, and each stake is headed by a president, two counselors and a stake high council. Individual congregations are called wards. The leader of a ward holds the title of bishop. The only formal titles in the LDS church are president for the head of the First Presidency, apostle, bishop and elder. Female leaders are called sisters. Capitalize all formal titles before a name on first reference, and only use the person’s last name on second reference. The terms minister and the Rev. are not used.

Posted in Christianity, Mormonism, Religious titles

Church of Scientology

Also referred to as simply Scientology. A religious group founded by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard and based on his book Dianetics, published in 1950. Scientologists believe that the individual is first and foremost a spirit, or thetan, and that thetans can be cleared of negative energy through a process called auditing. The spiritual counselors who provide this service are called auditors. In part because members are charged fees to receive auditing, Scientology’s tenets have been challenged and its practices investigated by governmental agencies around the world. The Church of Scientology’s nonprofit status in the U.S. was the subject of legal wrangling for many years, but currently, the Internal Revenue Service accepts the church’s tax-exempt status.

Posted in Christianity, Scientology

church planting

A term that refers to the process of starting a new church. It is most commonly used in Protestant traditions.

Posted in Christianity, Protestantism

Churches of Christ

There is no central headquarters or organization for the Churches of Christ, as each congregation is autonomous. Members have traditionally regarded their churches as a restoration of the New Testament church. They typically do not use instrumental music in worship because, they say, the New Testament does not command it, and whatever is not commanded is forbidden. Baptism by immersion is generally regarded as essential for salvation. The minister of a congregation is addressed by members as Brother. Do not use the honorific the Rev. for Church of Christ ministers. Do not refer to the space for worship as a sanctuary; auditorium is usually preferred. Do not refer to the Communion table as an altar; use Communion table.

Posted in Christianity, Protestantism, Religious titles

city upon a hill

A phrase made famous in 1630 by future Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop, who told Puritans sailing from England that the colonies would serve as a model, a “city upon a hill.” The phrase has come to encapsulate the idea, cited by politicians from John Adams to John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton, that America has special blessing from God as well as a special responsibility.

Posted in Christianity, Government and politics, Protestantism

civil religion

The phrase, first noted in 1762 in Jean Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, has come to mean a collection of sacred beliefs Americans hold about their country – beliefs that transcend any particular faith or institution of religion. It was popularized by a 1967 essay by sociologist Robert Bellah.

Posted in Government and politics

civil union

A civil ceremony that gives same-sex couples some of the rights married couples have in the areas of tax benefits, medical decisions and estate planning. In 2000, Vermont became the first state to allow civil unions.

Posted in Government and politics, Religion and culture

clergy, cleric

Priests, ministers, rabbis and others who are ordained by specific religious bodies to perform official duties. Most denominations have specific requirements for education, training and the selection process. The singular form is cleric.

Posted in Religious titles

College of Cardinals

The collective term for Roman Catholic cardinals when they meet to advise the pope or to elect a new pope. See cardinal.

Posted in Catholicism


See devout.

Posted in Religion and culture


Most frequently refers to the commemoration of the meal that, according to the New Testament, was instituted by Jesus on the night before the Crucifixion. Other terms include Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper and Eucharist, the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” Eucharist is commonly used by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and High-Church Anglicans, though some Protestants use it as well.

Belief and practice vary widely. Catholics and Orthodox Christians uniformly see the Eucharist as the central rite of Christian worship, and it is celebrated at least in every Sunday service. Some Protestants also celebrate at least weekly; others do so every other week, monthly, quarterly or less frequently. Catholics and the Orthodox, as well as some Anglicans, believe that the consecrated bread and wine themselves become the body and blood of Christ. They speak of Christ’s “real presence” in the Eucharist. Catholics and other Western Christians refer to this teaching as transubstantiation. Most Orthodox do not use the term because they believe it reflects Western ways of thinking that are foreign to Orthodoxy. Meanwhile, even some Protestants who do not believe in transubstantiation nonetheless speak of Christ’s “real presence.” Many others see the Lord’s Supper as a simple memorial meal in which bread and wine (or grape juice) remain unchanged and are no more than symbols. Do not use the word symbol to refer to the bread or wine unless you are sure that the church you are writing about considers Communion a purely symbolic act. When in doubt, use Communion, a term that has currency in just about every Christian tradition. Mass is the usual Roman Catholic term for a Eucharistic service. Eastern Catholics and the Orthodox typically speak of the Divine Liturgy. Some Protestant churches do not use the term sacrament and may rather refer to the Lord’s Supper (as well as baptism) as an ordinance.

Communion also can refer to a grouping of churches that share the same beliefs and practices, as in the Anglican Communion. For this usage, capitalize on first reference as part of the full name, but lowercase the word when used alone on subsequent references.

Lowercase the phrase communion of saints.


Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism

Community of Christ, the

Previously known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The current name was adopted in 2001. Although holding some of the same beliefs (including use of the Book of Mormon as scripture) as the much larger Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Community of Christ also differs markedly. For example, it does not baptize ancestors by proxy, it has always rejected polygamy, and it has ordained women since 1984. Do not refer to it as a Mormon church.

Posted in Christianity, Mormonism


In the Roman Catholic Church, when members of the College of Cardinals gather to elect a new pope.

Posted in Catholicism

confess, confessed, confession

An integral part of historic Christian practice. Confession can mean either to admit one’s sins or to profess the Christian faith. In the Roman Catholic Church, individual confession is part of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, in which a baptized person admits his or her sins to a priest, who can then absolve the person in the name of Christ through the power conferred through ordination. Absolution is granted if a penitent displays genuine remorse and a commitment not to repeat the sin. A penitential act may be attached to the absolution, such as an exhortation to pray or do good works. Anglicans confess their sins communally in church, and a private rite is available to them. In Eastern Orthodoxy, individuals confess their sin to God before an icon and a priest; however, the priest does not act as an intermediary to God. A confession also refers to a statement of faith, such as the Westminster Confession. In Nazi Germany, the Confessing Church was an underground church that resisted Adolf Hitler, and its name has been taken by a wide variety of Protestant groups since then, often when they are in opposition to their own denomination’s policies.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


A reaffirming of faith in Christ. It is a sacrament in the Roman Catholic Church, typically conferred in the early teens, although it may be received as young as 7. Eastern Catholics confer it with infant baptism. Other churches, particularly those that practice infant baptism, consider it a formal rite of passage that includes education in the faith. Some Protestant churches, particularly those that require believer’s baptism, do not practice confirmation.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


A philosophy developed by Confucius, an influential Chinese teacher and scholar who lived in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. His teachings, collected in the Analects, emphasize social harmony and moral obligation. Confucianism is a philosophy, not a religion.

Posted in Confucianism


Chinese teacher and philosopher whose teachings are the foundation of Confucianism. See Confucianism.

Posted in Confucianism

congregationalism, Congregationalist

Congregationalist churches are autonomous Protestant congregations that trace their roots to 16th-century England. The Puritans were Congregationalists. In modern America, the United Church of Christ denomination is the most prominent example of the Congregationalist tradition (though not all of its churches call themselves Congregationalist). A more general term, congregationalism, refers to a form of church governance practiced by many Baptists and others. When used this way, the term is lowercase.

Posted in Christianity, Protestantism

Conservative Judaism

A branch of Judaism that usually takes a more centrist position on worship and religious behavior than liberal Reform Judaism and the more traditional Orthodox Judaism. It is the second-largest branch of Judaism in the United States, behind Reform Judaism. See Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism.

Posted in Conservative, Judaism


The doctrine that Jesus becomes spiritually present in the bread and wine when it is blessed by an ordained minister during Communion. It is followed by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church and other denominations. Consubstantiation contrasts with transubstantiation, practiced by the Roman Catholic Church, which teaches that the bread and wine miraculously become the body and blood of Christ during the Eucharist. Other churches believe the bread and wine are symbols of Christ’s body and blood. See Communion, transubstantiation.

Posted in Christianity, Protestantism

Coptic Orthodox Christianity

According to tradition, the Apostle Mark established the church in Egypt in the middle of the first century. It is one of the Oriental Orthodox churches and its leader is the pope of Alexandria and the Patriarch of the Holy See of Saint Mark. Coptic Christians are most numerous in Egypt, Ethiopia and Eritrea but are found throughout the world.

Posted in Orthodoxy


A movement to reaffirm, reform and clarify the doctrine and structure of the Catholic Church that climaxed with the decisions at the Council of Trent. The Counter-Reformation was partly in reaction to the growth of Protestantism, but there is evidence that it began before Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517. The Counter-Reformation was aimed at protecting Catholic institutions and practices from heresy and Protestantism. But it also was committed to reforming the church from within to stem the growing appeal of Protestantism.

Posted in Catholicism


A gathering or association of witches. A medieval Scots word meaning a gathering, its first recorded use in connection with witches was in 1662 at a witch trial in Europe. The word was used in association with Wiccans in the early 20th century. See Wicca.

Posted in Paganism/Wicca


In Hinduism, the cow represents values of selfless service, strength, dignity and ahimsa (nonviolence). Hindus respect and honor the cow but do not worship it in the same sense they worship a deity. Also, the avatar Lord Krishna was a cowherd and protected cows. For these reasons, Hindus traditionally respect and honor the cow and abstain from eating beef. Since Hindus understand God to exist in all, animals are deserving of respect and compassion.

Posted in Hinduism


In the United States, creationism usually refers to the belief that the Bible’s account of creation is literally true and accurate. That generally means Genesis 1-2:4a, where God creates the Earth and all its life forms in six consecutive 24-hour days less than 10,000 years ago. (Genesis also tells a second creation story, in 2:4b-24, in which man is created before the Earth’s vegetation, and specific days are not described.) See intelligent design.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Baptist/Southern Baptist, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, Protestantism, Religion and culture


A statement of religious belief or faith that encapsulates official teaching. Most have developed over time amid religious and political debates. The word creed is based on the Latin word credo, which means I believe. The most common creeds in Christianity are the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, Religion and culture


A universal sign of Christianity associated with Jesus Christ’s Crucifixion by the Romans. Making the sign of the cross with the hands is a ritual of Christian devotion for Roman Catholics, Eastern Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans and some Methodists and Presbyterians. A cross is different from a crucifix, which has an image of the crucified Jesus.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


A term that has come to be associated with religious groups far outside the mainstream that have overly controlling leadership or dangerous practices. For that reason, journalists should use it with the greatest care and only when they are certain it fits. On rare occasions, cult is an appropriate description. Two groups whose members committed mass suicide are examples: the Peoples Temple (Jonestown in Guyana, South America, 1978) and Heaven’s Gate (1997, California). Another example is the Branch Davidians, whose founder, David Koresh, died along with 75 followers in a 1993 standoff with government officials.

Posted in Other faiths, Religion and culture


Shortened and acceptable form for the Roman Curia, the Roman Catholic Church’s central administrative offices. Also used for diocesan administrative offices. Capitalize when used as part of a formal name for diocesan offices. Lowercase in other uses.

Posted in Catholicism


Inviting others to Islam; missionary work.

Posted in Islam

Daily Office

Set times of daily Christian prayer dating to ancient days. Various forms of the Daily Office are observed widely in the liturgical traditions, especially Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Anglicanism.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy

Dalai Lama

The title of the leader of Tibetan Buddhism and the spiritual and (now exiled) political leader of the people of Tibet. Dalai Lama is a title rather than a name, but it is all that is used when referring to the man. Capitalize when referring to the person who currently holds the title; lowercase when referring to the title in general. Each dalai lama is considered to be the reincarnation of the last; the current, 14th Dalai Lama left Tibet in 1959 after China’s invasion and resides in Dharamsala, India. Tibetan Buddhists address him as Your Holiness and refer to him in writing as His Holiness.

Posted in Buddhism, Religious titles


Pronounced “DAH-lit.” A term used primarily as a label of self-identity by those from the Scheduled Castes, or lowest subcastes, who no longer identify themselves as Hindus, be they converts to another religion or no longer of any religious affiliation. The term was coined in the 1800s but did not come into popular usage until the 1970s, when it was adopted by Scheduled Caste members who wanted to separate themselves from both the caste system and from Hinduism altogether. Dalit should not be used to refer to all Scheduled Caste members – only non-Hindus who self-identify that way.

Posted in Hinduism

David, Star of

The six-pointed star that is a symbol of Judaism. The star appears in the center of the Israeli flag. It is sometimes referred to by its Hebrew name, Magen David.

Posted in Judaism


In liturgical churches, such as the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican, a deacon is ordained and operates as a subordinate and assistant to priests or ministers. In other churches, deacons are drawn from the laity to carry out worship and/or administrative duties. Uppercase before a name. The Catholic Church reconstituted its diaconate as a permanent order at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The office had a significant role in the early church but gradually fell out of use in Western Christianity. Permanent deacons, as they are known, are not lay people. They can celebrate the so-called “life-cycle” sacraments, such as baptism, marriage and funerals. They cannot celebrate the Eucharist, as a priest can, or hear confessions. In contrast to permanent deacons, transitional deacons are in the process of becoming a priest.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy

Dead Sea Scrolls

Refers to tens of thousands of fragments of biblical and early Jewish writings that were found in caves in Qumran near the Dead Sea between 1947 and 1956. Scholars dispute their importance but agree they shed light on the culture and beliefs of Judaism between the third century B.C. and the dawn of Christianity in the first century.

Posted in Christianity, Judaism


In Catholicism, the beads of the rosary are separated into five groups of 10, called decades. Each decade represents a mystery or event in the life of Jesus Christ. There are four sets of mysteries for a total of 20. See rosary.

Posted in Catholicism


Another name for the Ten Commandments, which is the preferred term. See Ten Commandments.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Judaism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


A belief in God based solely on natural reason and morality and rejecting revelation, prayer and supernatural acts, such as miracles. Deists believe that God exists as creator of the world but left it to run on its own. The belief emerged in the 17th century and spread during the Enlightenment; many of America’s founders were deists.

Posted in Religion and culture


A god or goddess; having a divine nature.

Posted in Religion and culture


A word that can be applied to any Christian body, though some traditions object strongly to its use. For example, the Catholic and Orthodox churches object to its underlying philosophical assumption that they are just various brand names for a single Christian tradition. Baptists (especially Independent Baptists), the Churches of Christ and some strongly congregational groups strenuously object to the notion that they are in any way an organized bureaucracy. They like to think of themselves as “fellowships.” Christian bodies can be substituted to avoid any potential controversy.

Posted in Baptist/Southern Baptist, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy


Pronounced “DEE-vee.” In Hinduism, the female aspect of the divine. For some, she is the power of Brahman, the unqualified absolute. Typically translated as “goddess.”

Posted in Hinduism


The word devil is lowercase, but capitalize Satan.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Religion and culture


Using the word “devout” is problematic in reference to all faiths. It’s one thing for individuals to call themselves that, but it’s another for a reporter to attach the description. It’s a subjective term without a precise meaning to all readers. Words like “serious” or “practicing” or “committed” have similar problems. All these terms mean different things to different people.

When journalists use words like “devout” it implies that the person it is applied to somehow adheres more to a faith’s teachings and practices than others of that faith. And it can too often be viewed as code for fanaticism or extremism or something out of the norm.

Since journalists do not have a direct line into the soul to discern a person’s faith, it is far better to use precise descriptions of a person’s religious practice and observance. For example, “Joe Smith attended Mass every day” or “Jane Smith received a church annulment from her marriage to Joe Smith.” Or “Joe Smith attended worship every week, even when ill.” Or “Jane Smith contributed $200,000 to Trinity Church, where she worshipped.”

Posted in Religion and culture


Pronounced “Dhahm-muh-PAA-dah.” One of the most widely known verse texts of the Buddha’s teaching, it means “the path of dharma” and is part of a collection within the Sutta Pitaka.

Posted in Buddhism


Pronounced “DAHR-muh.” The mode of conduct for an individual that is most conducive to spiritual advancement. It includes universal human values as well as values that are specific to persons in various stages of life. In Hinduism it also refers to individual obligations in terms of law and social law. In Buddhism it is the teachings of Buddha from which an adherent molds his conduct on the path toward enlightenment.

Posted in Buddhism, Hinduism


Pronounced “THIK-er.” The remembrance of God, especially by chanting the names of God to induce alternative states of consciousness. Also sometimes spelled zikr.

Posted in Islam


Describes Jews who live outside of the state of Israel. It was first used to describe how Jews were forced to scatter after the Babylonian exile in the 6th century B.C. Do not capitalize unless referring to the Jewish Diaspora.

Posted in Judaism

diocesan bishop

A diocesan bishop has jurisdiction over a diocese and is sometimes known as the Ordinary. This person may be assisted by other bishops, known as bishops suffragan. In addition, bishops who retire or resign from their diocese may assist in another diocese in some capacity; the church variously refers to them as assistant bishops, bishops assisting or assisting bishops.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity

diocese, diocesan

An administrative unit of the Catholic, Anglican or Orthodox church. It is overseen by a bishop and usually covers a defined geographical area. Capitalize diocese when part of a proper name. See archdiocese.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy


Posted in Christianity, Orthodoxy, Religion and culture

Divine Liturgy

The Eucharistic service in the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches. It consists of three parts: the Prayers of Preparation; the Liturgy for the Catechumens, or those preparing for baptism; and the Liturgy of the Faithful.

Posted in Catholicism, Orthodoxy


Pronounced “dee-VAH-lee.” The Hindu “festival of lights” is one of the most celebrated in the Hindu diaspora. It symbolizes the victory of dharma, and good over evil. The word is a variation of the Sanskrit word “Deepavali” and refers to the rows of earthen lamps celebrants place around their homes. Hindus believe that the light from these lamps symbolizes the illumination within the individual that overwhelms ignorance, represented by darkness. Diwali commemorates the return of the avatar Lord Ram (the incarnation of Lord Vishnu), his wife Sita and brother Lakshman to their capital, Ayodhya, after 14 years of exile. The residents of Ayodhya, overjoyed at the return of their beloved king, lit lamps in his honor. Thus, the entire city looked like a row of lights.

Posted in Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism


The systematized principles or beliefs of a religious faith.

Posted in Religion and culture

Doctrine and Covenants

One of four books of scripture for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is a collection of divine revelations and inspired declarations from church founder Joseph Smith and his successors in the church presidency. Mormon scriptures also include the Book of Mormon, the Bible (King James Version) and the Pearl of Great Price.

Posted in Christianity, Mormonism


In religions such as Christianity and Islam, dogmas are considered core principles that must be adhered to by followers. In Roman Catholicism it is a truth proclaimed by the church as being divinely revealed. Dogma must be based in Scripture or tradition; to deny it is heresy.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Islam


A Roman Catholic order of priests founded by St. Dominic in Spain in the early 13th century. They focus on preaching and teaching and take vows of poverty. There is also an order of Dominican nuns.

Posted in Catholicism


The social practice of a woman bringing money or valuables to her marriage is still prevalent in South Asia and other parts of the world. It is not a part of Hinduism.

Posted in Hinduism


See religious titles.

Posted in Religious titles


Pronounced “DO-uh.” The Islamic term for individuals’ personal supplication to God. In Arabic it means calling.

Posted in Islam


Pronounced “DOOR-gaa.” In Hinduism, one of the principal feminine forms of the divine and associated, in particular, with the power to overcome evil. She is the consort of Lord Shiva. See Shiva.

Posted in Hinduism


The major Christian holy day. It marks Jesus Christ’s Resurrection from the dead three days after his Crucifixion. Western Christian churches and Orthodox Christian churches usually celebrate Easter on different dates, sometimes as much as five weeks apart. Both observe Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the March equinox. However, the Western church uses the Gregorian calendar and the Orthodox church and many Eastern Catholic churches use the Julian calendar. They also use different definitions of a full moon and an equinox. The two Easters are observed on the same day about a quarter of the time. Orthodox Christians refer to Easter as Pascha, derived from the Hebrew word for Passover.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism

Eastern Catholic churches

Eastern Catholic churches are self-governing churches within the Roman Catholic Church. They have their own codes of canon law. They stopped referring to themselves as “rites” in the 1980s. In their traditional lands in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, married men are ordained to the Eastern Catholic priesthood, but in 1929 the Latin bishops of the United States persuaded the pope to forbid the ordination of married men for Eastern Catholic churches in North America. Several Eastern Catholic churches in the U.S. are trying to persuade Rome to re-establish the married priesthood, and some send married candidates overseas to be ordained. There are five major groupings of Eastern Catholic churches: Alexandrian, Antiochene, Armenian, Byzantine and Chaldean.

Posted in Catholicism

Eastern Orthodox

A group of Christian churches that do not recognize the authority of the pope in Rome, but, like the Roman Catholic Church, have roots in the earliest days of Christianity. The Eastern Orthodox churches split from the Western church in the Great Schism of 1054, primarily over papal authority and whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (as the Orthodox believe) or from the Father and Son (as the Catholics believe). Included in the Eastern Orthodox churches are the Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox, as well as other, smaller churches based on the nationalities of various ethnic groups such as Bulgarians, Romanians and Syrians. Eastern Orthodox clergy comparable to Catholic archbishops are known as patriarchs or metropolitans. They recognize the patriarch of Constantinople, now Istanbul, as their leader. He has the power to convene councils, but he does not have authority over the activities of the other archbishops. The patriarch of Constantinople is known as the ecumenical patriarch. Working with the archbishop are other archbishops, bishops, priests and deacons. Archbishops and bishops frequently follow a monastic tradition in which they are known only by a first name. When no last name is used, repeat the title before the name in subsequent references. Archbishop may be replaced by the Most Rev. on first reference. Use the Rev. before the name of a priest on first reference. On second reference use only the cleric’s last name. The churches have their own traditions on matters such as married clergy; for example, a married man may be ordained, but a priest may not marry after ordination. In the United States, the largest Eastern Orthodox church is the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, followed by the Orthodox Church in America.

Posted in Orthodoxy, Religious titles


A book of wisdom in the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament whose author represents himself as King Solomon. Some of its phrases, such as To every thing there is a season, have become part of Western culture.

Posted in Christianity, Judaism


A modern theological and social term referring to the effort to promote understanding and cooperation among diverse Christian groups. The adjective, ecumenical, refers to interaction between Christians of different traditions. It is also linked to a 20th-century religious movement to bring a variety of denominations under a single Christian umbrella, such as the World Council of Churches.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Interfaith, Protestantism

Eid al-Adha

Pronounced “EED-uhl-ad-ha.” Known as the Feast of Sacrifice, it concludes the annual observance of the pilgrimage to Mecca known as hajj. Muslims everywhere observe Eid al-Adha with community prayers and a feast, whether or not they are on hajj. Eid al-Adha shifts dates every year because Muslims use a lunar calendar that only includes about 354 days. Eid al-Adha commences with the sighting of the new moon. See hajj.

Posted in Islam

Eid al-Fitr

Pronounced “EED-uhl-FIT-uhr.” A joyous Islamic holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. It is observed with communal prayers, donations to charity and special meals. Fasting is forbidden on this day. Eid al-Fitr shifts dates every year because Muslims use a lunar calendar that only includes about 354 days. Eid al-Fitr commences with the sighting of the new moon. See Ramadan.

Posted in Islam

Eightfold Path

In Buddhism, eight practical steps taught by the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, to end craving and thus eliminate suffering. The steps are right understanding, right intent, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. Together with the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path constitutes the foundation of Buddhist thought; also referred to as the Noble Eightfold Path.

Posted in Buddhism

emerging, emergent church

A late 20th-century movement within evangelical Christianity that emphasizes youth, small communities, a drive to make Christianity relevant in a postmodern world, frustration with traditional church structures, social justice, and embrace of culture. Congregations are highly decentralized, with many preferring not to be called churches. Some refer to the emergent church as a conversation instead of a movement. Emergent Christians, who are predominantly evangelical and mainline Protestants, are found primarily in North America and Western Europe. See postmodern.

Posted in Christianity, Protestantism


Literally a “circular letter,” an enyclical is generally addressed to the whole church by the pope on matters of moral, doctrinal or disciplinary concern. Since Pope John XXIII (who died in 1963), popes have periodically addressed encyclicals to all people “of good will.” An encyclical does not carry the weight of an infallible or ex cathedra statement, but it is the most common use of a pope’s ordinary authority. As such, Catholics are expected to assent to its teachings, even though there can be debate on exactly how the teachings in an encyclical are to be applied. The title of an encyclical, which is almost always written in Latin, comes from the letter’s opening words, which describe its theme. The first encyclical of John Paul II was Redemptor hominis, “On the Redeemer of Man.” A new pope often issues an encyclical within a year of his election, and it is sets the tone of the pontificate. There are several other types of papal documents of lesser authority, such as an apostolic exhortation or a motu proprio, which is Latin for “on his own (the pope’s) initiative.” Such documents can be newsworthy but tend to address a more specific matter than an encyclical.

Posted in Catholicism


The goal of life in both Buddhism and Hinduism. For Hindus, it is union with God and self-realization. For Buddhists, it is realization of the truth about reality, achieved by following a system of practices (which may especially include meditation), in accordance with the particular school to which an adherent belongs. See Four Noble Truths.

Posted in Buddhism, Hinduism

Episcopal Church

The Episcopal Church is part of the Anglican Communion. Officially called the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. Episcopal Church is acceptable in all references. Two bodies govern the church nationally — the permanent Executive Council and the General Convention, which meets every three years. One bishop holds the title of presiding bishop. The General Convention determines national policies, and all acts must pass its House of Bishops and House of Deputies. Under the council are provinces, dioceses or missionary districts, local parishes and local missions. A province is composed of several dioceses and has a synod made up of a house of bishops and a house of deputies. Within a diocese, a bishop is the principal official and is helped by the Diocesan Convention, which is made up of all clergy in the diocese and lay representatives from each parish. A vestry, composed of the rector and lay members elected by the congregation, governs the parish or local church.

Among Protestant churches, the Episcopal Church has titles that are particularly challenging. Capitalize titles before a name but lowercase otherwise. Note that some positions have more than one title or honorific. Because some U.S. congregations have broken ties with the Episcopal Church and affiliated with Anglican bishops, be sure to make clear in stories about such disputes whether a bishop is Anglican or Episcopal.

The presiding bishop is the chief pastor and primate who leads the national Episcopal Church. She is addressed as the Most Rev.

All other bishops use the title the Rt. Rev. before their name. Priests and deacons use the title the Rev. Priests who head a chapter, or governing body of a cathedral, are called deans and are addressed as the Very Rev. Archdeacons are addressed with the honorific the Venerable, as in the Venerable Jill Smith. Women and men in religious communities are called brother or sister and may be ordained.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Religious titles

episcopal, episcopacy

A form of church government in which bishops have some kind of authority over clergy and/or congregations. Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican/Episcopal, Methodist and some Lutheran churches are all episcopal in this sense

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


A member of the Episcopal Church. Episcopalian is a noun and Episcopal is an adjective. It is improper to refer to the church as the Episcopalian Church or to refer to one of its members as an Episcopal.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian


Pronounced “AE-roov.” A symbolic enclosure in which observant Orthodox Jews are permitted to perform tasks that would otherwise be forbidden, such as carrying items on the Sabbath and other holy days from one “domain” to another. (The area surrounded by the eruv is considered to be a single “domain.”) Dictated by Jewish law, eruvin (the plural form) are unbroken boundaries rabbis erect by attaching strips of plastic or cloth to public utility poles. They occasionally have been the subject of lawsuits by non-Jews.

Posted in Judaism


Pronounced “es-kuh-TAH-lah-gee.” The theological study of end times, when the fate of individual souls and all of creation will be decided. It is often associated with doomsday predictions, but Christian eschatology also focuses on eternity, paradise, resurrection of the dead and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The Book of Revelation and the prophecy of Daniel are considered eschatological or apocalyptic.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, Religion and culture

Establishment Clause

One of two clauses in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that address religion. It reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …” The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the clause to mean that the federal government is prohibited from declaring and financially supporting a national religion, preferring one religion over another, or even religion over non-religion. Religious conservatives argue that the specific wording of the Establishment Clause does not prohibit the federal government from engaging in certain religious activities, such as promoting prayer in public schools or posting the Ten Commandments in public spaces. On the other side is the argument that the Establishment Clause carries a broader meaning as set out in the writings by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison that suggest “a wall of separation” between church and state. See Free Exercise Clause.

Posted in Government and politics


A term commonly used by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians and High-Church Anglicans for Communion, but some Protestants use it as well. In the Holy Eucharist, the Lord Christ is contained, offered, and received in the form or presentation of bread and wine. See Communion.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


By definition, all Christians are evangelicals. The word evangelical is derived from the Greek evangelion, which means “good news” or “gospel.” But the term evangelical has generally come to mean Protestants who emphasize personal conversion; evangelism; the authority, primacy — and, usually — inerrancy of the Bible; and the belief that Jesus’ death reconciled God and humans. Evangelicals tend to be conservative theologically, but the terms evangelical and conservative Christian are not synonymous, though they both may apply to the same people. Fundamentalists, who generally separate themselves from what they see as a sinful culture, are distinct from evangelicals, who tend to embrace culture and use it to build up the church. In the early 21st century, religious identification surveys show that between a quarter and 40 percent of the U.S. population claims the evangelical label. Many, though not all, also identify with a specific tradition or denomination, ranging from mainline Protestant denominations to the Roman Catholic Church. In Europe, evangelical is a generic word for Protestants. Uppercase only when part of a formal name.

Posted in Christianity, Protestantism, Religion and culture

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

The largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S. ELCA is acceptable on second reference. Do not confuse it with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which is smaller and more conservative. See Lutheran.

Posted in Protestantism


The act of conveying the gospel message of Jesus Christ. The word evangelism is derived from the Greek evangelion, which means “gospel” or “good news.” Styles of evangelism vary from direct appeals at large public meetings to practical deeds done in the name of Christ.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


A Christian whose particular mission is to bring people to faith in Jesus Christ through preaching and teaching. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – the purported authors of the Gospels of the New Testament — are called the four Evangelists. Capitalize when referring to them, but lowercase in all other references.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism

ex cathedra

Latin for “from the chair,” in reference to the chair or throne of a bishop that sits near the altar of his principal church (known as a cathedral). It is from this chair that bishops in the early church would issue solemn teachings or decisions. In modern times the phrase is generally confined to papal pronouncements of the highest authority. Thus the term ex cathedra is in practice used in the same context as papal infallibility and faces the same high threshold of application. Used by itself, the noun cathedra can refer to the bishop’s throne in any cathedral. See papal infallibility.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism


The movement, mostly found in conservative Christianity, that purports to change the sexual orientation of people from same-sex attraction to opposite-sex. It is also referred to as reparative or conversion therapy. It is highly controversial. Several major medical associations have rejected such therapy when it views homosexuality as a mental disorder or sickness, or assumes that homosexuals’ sexual orientation is something that must be changed. Ex-gay should never be used without explaining the term and the controversy associated with it. See gay.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Gender and sexuality, Judaism, Mormonism

exorcise, exorcism

The ritual of ridding a supposedly possessed person or thing of demons. Popularly associated with the Roman Catholic Church, which has a formal exorcism ritual, with each diocese allowed to designate a priest as an exorcist. However, the church’s use of the ritual has diminished due to a greater understanding of medicine and psychology. Some Christian churches, such as Pentecostals, also perform exorcisms, although the rituals are not as elaborate and formal as the Roman Catholic ritual. Islam also has traditions that speak of exorcisms.

Posted in Catholicism, Pentecostalism


One who performs exorcisms.

Posted in Catholicism, Pentecostalism


Term that came into popular use when President George W. Bush established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in 2001. Generally, the adjective faith alone is preferred, as in faith groups instead of faith-based groups.

Posted in Government and politics, Religion and culture


Use the Rev. in first reference before the names of Episcopal, Orthodox and Roman Catholic priests. On second reference use only the cleric’s last name. Use Father before a name only in direct quotations.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Religious titles

Fathers of the Church

Important teachers and theologians from the first few centuries of Christianity whose writings came too late to be included in the canon of the New Testament.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


Pronounced “FAHT-wah.” A ruling, or legal opinion, on Islamic law issued by an Islamic scholar.

Posted in Islam


Pronounced “fik-h.” Islamic jurisprudence, based on study of the Quran and other sacred texts.

Posted in Islam

First Amendment

Written by James Madison, the First Amendment guarantees basic freedoms and is the root of disagreements over church-state issues involving the complicated relationship between the government and religious organizations. It went into effect with the Bill of Rights on Dec. 15, 1791. It states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” See Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause.

Posted in Government and politics

Five K’s, Five Kakaars

Pronounced “ka-CARS.” The five articles of the Sikh faith. They are: kara, a steel bracelet; kanga, a comb; kirpan, a ceremonial dagger; kachera, undergarments; and kesh, long uncut hair that men and some women wrap in a turban. Most Sikhs wear some of the articles, while Sikhs who have received amrit sanchar (Sikh initiation) wear all five. Nearly all people who wear turbans in America are Sikh. See amrit sanchar and Khalsa.

Posted in Sikhism

Five Pillars

The fundamental aspects of Islam that direct the private lives of Muslims in their dealings with God. All branches of Islam accept them. The First Pillar is the Shahada, or profession of faith, that there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet. The Second Pillar is salat, or the five daily or canonical prayers for remaining constant in the faith. They are performed at prescribed times with a prescribed ritual. The Third Pillar is zakat, charity for the poor. The Fourth Pillar is fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. The Fifth Pillar is hajj, or the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. Every Muslim who is physically and financially able is required to make the journey once.

Posted in Islam

Five Precepts

In Buddhism, principles for conduct that are followed by lay adherents. They are: Do not kill; do not steal; do not lie; do not be unchaste; do not take intoxicants. These precepts have broader, metaphorical as well as literal applications; for example, “Do not steal” means more broadly, “Do not take what is not given.”

Posted in Buddhism

Four Books, the

The fundamental teachings of Confucianism.

Posted in Confucianism

Four Noble Truths

The fundamental truths that the historical Buddha realized in meditation and then taught to his followers: Life is suffering; the cause of suffering is craving; suffering can be eliminated by the extinguishing of craving; there is a way to achieve this goal (by following eight principles of conduct). See Eightfold Path.

Posted in Buddhism

Free Exercise Clause

One of two clauses in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that address religion. It reads, “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise (of religion).” As interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court through several decisions, a person’s right to believe in any religion – or none at all – is absolute, but the government can place limitations on free exercise. The court has ruled that any law that specifically targets a religion violates the First Amendment. The situation is much murkier when a law that is religiously neutral or generally applicable has the effect of interfering with a religious practice or belief. Through a series of rulings in the 1950s and 1960s, the high court determined that governments had to show a “compelling interest” for passing any laws that had an unintended effect of interfering with religious practice or belief. The burden of proving that compelling interest was heavy. But in 1990, the Supreme Court narrowed the scope of “compelling interest,” lightening the government’s burden and requiring little justification as long as the law was not aimed at a specific religion or religious practice. See Establishment Clause.

Posted in Government and politics


This can be either a reference to Quakers or a term that Jehovah’s Witnesses commonly use for each other. Capitalize when referring to Quakers. The formal name of the Quakers is the Religious Society of Friends. See Quakers.

Posted in Jehovah’s Witnesses, Quaker

fundamentalism, fundamentalist

A Christian religious movement that began in the U.S. in the late 19th century and early 20th century to counter liberalism and secularism. It emphasized the inerrancy of the Bible. In recent years, fundamentalist and fundamentalism have become associated with any religious reactionary movement, such as Islamic fundamentalism. The words also have been used as pejoratives. Journalists often, and erroneously, label all conservative Christians, including conservative evangelicals, as fundamentalists. It is best to avoid the words unless a group applies the terms to itself.

Posted in Christianity, Protestantism


Pronounced “guh-NAYSH.” The beloved elephant-faced representation of God honored by Hindus and followers of other Indian religions, Ganesh is the remover of obstacles. He is revered for his great wisdom and is invoked before any undertaking. He is the son of Lord Shiva and the goddess Parvati. Also spelled Ganesha.

Posted in Hinduism


Term used to describe men who are sexually attracted to other men. For women, lesbian is the preferred term. When referring to both, say gay men and lesbians, though gay is acceptable for referring to both in headlines. Avoid references to a gay, homosexual or alternative “lifestyle.”

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Baptist/Southern Baptist, Catholicism, Christianity, Gender and sexuality, Mormonism, Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, Protestantism


In Judaism, anyone who is not a Jew. It is usually a reference to Christians.

Posted in Judaism


Advanced degree of a Tibetan Buddhist scholar, much like a Ph.D.

Posted in Buddhism


Pronounced “glos-uh-LAY-lee-uh.” A form of speaking in tongues. Mentioned as a practice in the New Testament, and a hallmark of contemporary Pentecostal and some charismatic Christians. It is most commonly viewed as a private, heavenly language given by the Holy Spirit to communicate with God. Xenoglossia, also called zenolalia, is another form of speaking in tongues; it involves uttering a foreign language previously unknown to the speaker. Some conservative Protestant groups believe that the gift of tongues ceased after the first century and that current practices are a spiritual counterfeit.

Posted in Christianity, Pentecostalism, Protestantism, Religion and culture

Gnosticism, Gnostics

It has become a blanket term for various, mostly mystical religions and sects. Comes from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis. Also refers to pre- and early-Christian teachings that there is a higher understanding that can be possessed by only a few. Generally, Gnostics believed that all matter was evil, but that humans carried a divine spark that fell from the Source from which all things came. Through esoteric or secret knowledge, the divine spark could be reunited with the Source. There is debate among biblical scholars about how much influence Gnosticism had on the New Testament. In 1945, a cache of fourth-century Gnostic texts was discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Protestantism


Capitalize in reference to all monotheistic religions. Also capitalize such references as God the Father, Holy Ghost and Holy Spirit. However, lowercase personal pronouns, such as him and he. Many Christians consider God to be beyond gender, so be sensitive to the context of the story and avoid gender-defining pronouns when appropriate. Orthodox Jews write G-d to avert the sin of erasing or defacing God’s name. Journalists should respect these Jews’ practice by using G-d in quotes of written material, but otherwise should refer to God.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Baptist/Southern Baptist, Catholicism, Christianity, Judaism, Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, Protestantism, Religion and culture

gods, goddesses

Lowercase the words god, goddess, gods and goddesses in reference to polytheistic religions and when referring to metaphorical gods, as in gold was his god. However, capitalize the proper names of specific deities, such as Zeus or Odin, and capitalize Goddess if a monotheistic religion’s believers worship the feminine divine as God.

Posted in Religion and culture

golden rule

Variations on this precept, which can be succinctly stated as “Treat others as you wish to be treated,” are found in the texts of every major religion, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Posted in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Religion and culture

Golden Temple

The holiest Sikh temple, located in the city of Amritsar in the Indian state of Punjab. The temple was built in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. In 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi responded to a security threat by ordering an attack on the Golden Temple, destroying parts of the temple complex, which has since been rebuilt. Also known as Harmandir Sahib and as Darbar Sahib; the latter is the name preferred by Sikhs. See Darbar Sahib.

Posted in Sikhism

Good Friday

In Christianity, Good Friday commemorates the day on which Jesus Christ is traditionally believed to have been crucified. It falls just before Easter Sunday, on which Christians celebrate his Resurrection. Part of the Christian Holy Week.

Posted in Christianity

Gospel, gospel

The word derives from the Old English word Godspell, or “good news.” It is a translation of the Greek word evangelion. This refers to the “good news” that Jesus Christ came as the Messiah, was crucified for the sins of humanity, died and then rose from the grave to triumph over death. Of the many gospels written in antiquity, four came to be accepted as part of the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Capitalize when referring to each or all of the first four books of the New Testament. Lowercase in all other references.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


Generically it means “free gift.” In Christianity, grace is the unmerited love and favor of God toward mankind, but different traditions sometimes use the word differently, which can lead to confusion. Evangelicals tend to equate grace with salvation. Catholics often use the plural, graces, to refer to any gift that they believe God has endowed the church with — including saints, bishops, the pope and the sacrament of penance. Thus, when Catholics say that other Christian traditions are lacking in grace, they do not mean that they are outside salvation. Grace also refers to a prayer of thanks before a meal.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Protestantism

grand mufti

The most supreme religious leader. One can be a grand mufti of a city, region or country. It is a title used mostly by Sunnis. Capitalize when used before a name.

Posted in Religious titles, Sunni

Great Awakening

A period of sweeping religious fervor, revival and renewal that has occurred three times in U.S. history, leading to social and political as well as religious change. The first Great Awakening occurred with religious revivals in the American colonies in the early 1700s. The second is generally defined as occurring in the early- to mid-1800s, and the third at the turn of the 20th century.

Posted in Christianity, Protestantism

Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

The largest Eastern Orthodox church in the United States, it is composed of an archdiocesan district made up of New York and eight metropolises — New Jersey, Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Boston and Denver. It is governed by the archbishop, and a synod of bishops that oversees the ministry of the metropolises. There are 540 parishes and 800 priests. It is directly under the authority of the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople in Turkey, and is not administratively related to the Church of Greece. See Eastern Orthodox.

Posted in Orthodoxy

Greek Orthodox Church

One of the churches loosely organized as Eastern Orthodox Christianity. It follows the Byzantine Rite.

Posted in Orthodoxy


Pronounced “GUR-dwahr-uh.” A Sikh place of worship that houses the Sikh scripture, Guru Granth Sahib.

Posted in Sikhism


Pronounced “GOOR-pur-ab.” A Sikh holiday that commemorates the birth or death of a Sikh guru. The most significant gurpurab is the birthday of Guru Nanak, the first Sikh teacher, celebrated in November.

Posted in Sikhism


Pronounced “GOO-roo.” Broadly used to refer to a teacher of any subject, but especially of spiritual matters. In Hinduism, one’s spiritual guru is seen to be a representative of the divine, through whom one is given the teachings and practices necessary for enlightenment.

Posted in Hinduism, Religious titles, Sikhism

Guru Granth Sahib

Pronounced “goo-ROO grunt sah-EEB.” Holy book of the Sikh religion.

Guru Arjan, the fifth Sikh guru, compiled the text in its original form in 1604. Before dying in 1708, the 10th Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh, appointed the text as his permanent co-successor (along with the Khalsa). The name Guru Granth Sahib does not take the definite article.

Guru Granth Sahib is a compilation of the devotional poetry of Guru Nanak, other Sikh gurus and saints of other religions. Sikhs consider it the supreme spiritual authority and living guide of their religion. It is installed under a canopy in every Sikh gurdwara (house of worship), where Sikhs sing, recite and meditate on the scripture. Guru Granth Sahib is also called Adi Granth, but Guru Granth Sahib is the preferred name. See Adi Granth and Khalsa.

Posted in Sikhism

Guru Nanak

Pronounced “goo-ROO NAN-ek.” The founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak was born in the mid-15th century in Punjab, now North India and Pakistan. He is said to have disappeared by the river for three days and emerged with a revelation: “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim.” In other words, beneath all husks and labels, humanity is one. He wandered the countryside with Muslims and Hindus as companions, singing devotional (bhakti) poetry in wonder of One Formless God. His teachings became the foundation of the Sikh religion and were later recorded in Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book and living guide.

Posted in Sikhism


Pronounced “ha-DEETH.” A report or reports about a saying, action or tradition of Muhammad and his closest companions. Can be used as both a singular and a plural noun. Hadith are viewed by Muslims as explanations of the Quran and are second only to Islam’s holy book in terms of guidance and as a source of Shariah (Islamic law). The two most reliable collections are by Bukhari and his student Muslim, both ninth-century Islamic scholars.

Posted in Islam


Pronounced “hahj.” In Islam, a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad. It is the fifth of the Five Pillars of Islam. Every Muslim who is physically capable and financially able is expected to make the hajj at least once. Hajj takes place during the 12th month of the Islamic year, and specific rites take place during a five-day period. Because Muslims follow a lunar calendar, the dates move each year. The festival of Eid al-Adha occurs at the end of hajj. A hajji is a person who has undertaken the pilgrimage. See Eid al-Adha.

Posted in Islam


Pronounced “ha-la-KHAH.” Jewish law, or the set of rules and practices that govern every aspect of life. They are defined by Jewish scripture and teachings. Jews believe that the law was given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai and that it has been interpreted for each generation by respected and learned rabbis.

Posted in Judaism


Pronounced “ha-LAL.” In Arabic, something that is lawful and permitted in Islam. It is often used to refer to Islamic dietary laws, which prescribe ritual slaughtering of beef and poultry, among other things.

Posted in Islam


Takes place in the U.S., Canada and Great Britain on Oct. 31, the day before All Saints Day. The day traces its roots to pagan celebrations, predominantly among the Celts in the British Isles. In recent years, some U.S. Christians have opposed Halloween celebrations and created alternative celebrations, claiming the day is satanic.

Posted in Christianity, Protestantism


An Islamic political party in Palestine. An armed wing of the party uses the same name.

Posted in Islam


The Jewish Festival of Lights. It usually falls in early or mid-December. The eight-day holiday celebrates the Maccabees’ victory over the Syrians in the second century B.C. The Maccabees were a first- and second-century B.C. Jewish family that brought about the restoration of Jewish religious and political life. They also made several unsuccessful attempts to overthrow Roman rule in Judea. Hanukkah is the preferred spelling. See Jewish holidays.

Posted in Judaism


Pronounced “HUN-oo-maan.” In Hinduism, an incarnation of Lord Shiva and the embodiment of devotion. Hanuman is generally depicted in a monkey form but can assume any form. He is most popular among devotees of the avatar Lord Ram and others following a devotional path. There are more temples and roadside shrines to Hanuman than any other deity in all of North India. For Hindus, Hanuman is one of the finest exemplars of a life of love and service of God.

Posted in Hinduism


Pronounced “ha-RAHM.” In Arabic, something that is forbidden or prohibited in Islam.

Posted in Islam


Pronounced “HAR-em.” In Arabic, a sanctuary or sacred territory in which all things are considered inviolable. Mecca and Medina both have this designation.

Posted in Islam

Hare Krishna

Pronounced “HA-rey KRISH-na.” This Hindu term can refer to a worshipper of Krishna or a mantra to him. It also can refer to a member of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), which was founded in 1966 by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and is a sect that focuses on the worship and understanding of God as Krishna.

Posted in Hinduism


Pronounced “HA-ree-jun.” The term literally means “people of God” and was popularized by Mahatma Gandhi to refer to those in the untouchable subcastes. Today, Hindu members of these jatis identify themselves by their sectarian affiliation or with the terms Harijan or Anasuchit Jati (“Scheduled Caste” in Hindi). See caste system.

Posted in Hinduism


Pronounced “hah-SHEM.” The word some Jews use in the place of the word God, which is considered to be too holy to utter. It literally means “The Name.”

Posted in Judaism


A social and religious movement in Judaism founded in 18th-century Poland. It stresses the importance of devotion in prayer and serving God in ecstasy amid day-to-day life. Hasidic Judaism is usually structured around a “rebbe,” or revered spiritual teacher whose interpretations of Jewish law govern the community. Its followers, called Hasidim, are among the most traditional of U.S. Orthodox Jews. Hasidic is the adjectival form.

Posted in Judaism


Lowercase in all references.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Baptist/Southern Baptist, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, Protestantism, Religion and culture


The language in which the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, was first written. Its ancient form consists only of consonants, although later scholars added “vowel points” under the letters to aid pronunciation. Jewish children preparing for their bar or bat mitzvahs learn Hebrew so they can read portions of the Torah in the synagogue. Biblical Hebrew differs from modern Hebrew, which is the language of the state of Israel. The term Hebrew is also an outdated way to refer to Jews and should not be used.

Posted in Judaism


Lowercase in all references.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Baptist/Southern Baptist, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, Religion and culture


Pronounced “hur-muh-NOO-tiks.” The theory and principles of interpretation often associated with scriptural texts.

Posted in Religion and culture


A Shiite Islam political party in Lebanon. An armed wing of the party uses the same name.

Posted in Shiite

High Church

A description used in the Anglican tradition as well as more generally in Protestant traditions to describe churches that emphasize liturgical formality, which often includes formal vestments, the chanting or singing of parts of the service (beyond hymns), incense and the ringing of small bells. Lowercase when used for non-Anglican traditions.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian

High Holy Days

The High Holy Days are the 10-day period beginning with Rosh Hashanah, which marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year, and ending with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Posted in Judaism


Generally used to describe the scarf many women who are Muslims use to cover their head, but it can also refer to the modest dress, in general, that women wear because of the Quran’s instruction on modesty. Shiites are more likely to wear hijabs than Sunni Muslims, but women decide whether to wear one based on the dictates of their mosque, community and conscience. See abaya, burqa, niqab.

Posted in Shiite


Pronounced “HIJ-ra.” In Arabic, to flee in pursuit of sanctuary; the term refers to the flight of Prophet Muhammad in 622 from Mecca to Medina, and marks the start of the Islamic calendar. Also spelled hijira.

Posted in Islam


Pronounced “hi-nuh-YAA-nah.” A term meaning “little vehicle” that was originally used by Mahayana Buddhists to refer to early Buddhism. It is generally considered pejorative; use Theravada instead. See Theravada.

Posted in Buddhism


India’s most popular religious and cultural system and the world’s third-largest religion (after Christianity and Islam). Most followers live in India, but there are large populations in many other countries. Its oldest scriptures are the Vedas.

Hinduism, also known as Sanatana Dharma (“the eternal natural law”), is one of the world’s most ancient religious and spiritual systems and encompasses a broad spectrum of philosophies, ranging from pluralistic theism to absolute monism. Followers believe that God (Brahman), the ultimate reality or truth, can be understood in various ways and often use the two terms interchangeably. This not only reflects the diversity of practice and perspective in Hinduism, but also the belief that this infinite reality is beyond the comprehension of undisciplined minds. Therefore, Hindus celebrate God’s various attributes through different representations. Most Hindus believe in one God, who is all-pervasive, though he or she may be worshipped in different forms, in different ways and by different names. As such, Hinduism can be described as monotheistic and henotheistic: monotheistic in its belief in one God and henotheistic in that any one God can be worshipped without denying the existence of other forms or manifestations of God.

A basic belief in Hinduism is that the soul does not die but is reborn into another life form when the body dies. Under Hinduism’s rule of karma, every act and thought affects how the soul will be reborn. This cycle of birth and rebirth continues until the soul achieves spiritual perfection and is united with the Supreme Being.

Hindus believe that all living beings have souls, and some are revered as manifestations of God. These beliefs have evolved over several thousand years and are embedded in ritual, mystical and ascetic practices. There are many regional variations in Hindu practice.

Hindus have no formal clergy but do have spiritual teachers, or gurus. Capitalize guru before a name on first reference, and use only the last name on second reference. Swami is a title of respect and reverence conferred on a religious teacher and, in particular, one who has taken vows of celibacy and renunciation; it, too, should be capitalized before a name. See Vedas.

Posted in Hinduism


Always capitalize when referring to the murder of 6 million Jews and others during World War II. Lowercase in other uses.

Posted in Judaism

Holy Bible

See Bible.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Protestantism

Holy Communion

See CommunionEucharist and sacrament.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism

Holy Father

Refers to the pope. However, the preferred form is the pope or the pontiff, or to give the individual’s name. Use Holy Father only as part of a quotation.

Posted in Catholicism

Holy Ghost

See Holy Spirit.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism

holy orders

See sacrament.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism

Holy See

A term of reverence for the Diocese of Rome, it is used to refer to the pope and his Curia, the Roman Catholic Church’s administrative offices, when official church actions are taken. The Holy See refers to an entity that is distinct from the city-state of the Vatican, although the two terms are often used interchangeably.

Posted in Catholicism

Holy Spirit

The third entity of the Christian Trinity of God, Son and Holy Spirit. Christians believe the Holy Spirit leads people to belief in Jesus and dwells in each Christian. The Holy Spirit is depicted in Christian art as an ascending dove bathed in light or as a flame. Once called the Holy Ghost, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the term Holy Spirit came into use. It is now the preferred term.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Baptist/Southern Baptist, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism

Holy Thursday

The day before Good Friday, when Jesus had his Last Supper with his disciples, washed their feet and instituted Holy Communion. In the Catholic Church, Lent ends whenever the Holy Thursday service begins in any given parish. Also called Maundy Thursday.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism

Holy Week

In Christianity, the week that begins with Palm Sunday and concludes with Easter Sunday. Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and Easter commemorates his rising from the dead. Also includes Holy Thursday, which commemorates the Last Supper (Jesus’ final meal with his disciples), and Good Friday, the day of Christ’s Crucifixion. The Roman Catholic Church has redesignated the period as Passion Week, but Holy Week is still the generally used and preferred term.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


Pronounced “hah-muh-LET-iks.” The art or study of delivering sermons or homilies.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


A person attracted to someone of the same sex. The preferred terms are gay and lesbian.

Posted in Gender and sexuality

house church

A small group of Christians who gather in a home for worship and fellowship, eschewing traditional church. They strive to reproduce the practice of the earliest churches formed after Jesus died. Also called home churches.

Posted in Christianity, Protestantism


Be cautious in using this word because it can imply that something is a false god. For example, do not use idol to refer to the representations Hindus use in worshipping. The correct term to use is murti. For similar reasons, idol worship is also inaccurate.

Posted in Hinduism, Religion and culture


Pronounced “IJ-tee-haad.” The process of reasoning and interpreting the Quran, hadith and other sacred texts to uncover God’s rulings. Religious scholars effectively terminated the practice five centuries ago, but a need seen by some Muslims to reinterpret the faith for modern times has revived the practice. It is disputed whether ijtihad is reserved for scholars, or open to all Muslims with a basic degree of religious knowledge.

Posted in Islam


Pronounced “ee-MAHM.” In everyday use, any person who leads a congregational prayer. Traditionally, only men have been imams, although women are allowed to serve as imams for other women. To lead prayers, one does not have to be a cleric. In a more formal sense, an imam is a religious leader, but can also be a political leader. Many Shiites believe imams are intercessors with God; many also believe in the Twelve Imams, descendants of Prophet Muhammad whom they consider his rightful successors. The Twelfth Imam disappeared from the world in 873, but followers of Twelve Imams Shiism believe that he is still alive and will return as the Mahdi, or “the guided one,” who will restore righteousness before the end of the world. On first reference, uppercase imam when preceding a proper name. On second reference, use only the person’s last name. Uppercase imam when referencing the Twelve Imams.

Posted in Islam, Religious titles

Immaculate Conception

The Roman Catholic dogma that Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, was conceived without original sin. Do not confuse it with the virgin birth of Christ.

Posted in Catholicism

indigenous religion

Refers to the myriad religious traditions of local and regional societies where language, kinship systems, mythologies and rituals shape religious practices that may borrow from traditional religion but are unique to the local culture.

Posted in Religion and culture


A term applied to an interpretation of the Bible that holds that every word is accurate, error-free and literally true.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Protestantism

intelligent design

The belief that some aspects of life forms are so complex that they must reflect the design of a conscious, rational intelligence. Proponents do not identify the designer, but most people involved in the debate assume that intelligent design refers to God. Many supporters of intelligent design reject the theory of evolution and support the idea of creationism. Most intelligent design supporters do not believe that life forms share a common ancestor, although some do.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, Religion and culture


A congregation or organization that is formally approved or under the jurisdiction of more than one denomination. It is not a synonym for nondenominational.

Posted in Christianity, Protestantism


This refers to activities or events that draw people from entirely different religious traditions, such as Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Muslims. It is not a synonym for ecumenical, which refers to a multiplicity of Christian traditions, or interdenominational.

Posted in Interfaith


This Islamic term for shaking, uprising and insurrection generally is used to refer to the Palestinian resistance of the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Specific events mark the beginnings of different intifadas.

Posted in Government and politics, Islam


Religion founded in seventh-century Mecca by the Prophet Muhammad, who said Allah (God), through the Angel Gabriel, revealed the Quran to him between 610 and 632, the year of his death. Followers of Islam are called Muslims. They worship in a mosque, and their weekly holy day is Friday. Islam is the second-largest religion in the world, after Christianity.

After Muhammad’s death, Islam split into two distinct branches — Sunni and Shiite — in an argument over who would succeed him. Sunnis make up an estimated 85 percent of all Muslims. Shiites are the majority in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain, while Sunnis are the majority in other Islamic countries. In Sunni and Shiite Islam, there are various madhhabs, or schools of thought, and other theological traditions.

There is no central religious authority, so theological and legal interpretations can vary from region to region, country to country and even mosque to mosque.

Capitalize all Islamic titles when used before a name and lowercase otherwise. Use the title and name on first reference and only the person’s last name after that.

Shiites and Sunnis use a few of the same religious titles but differ on others. Shiites have a more-defined hierarchy than Sunnis. For example, Sunnis call people who lead congregational prayers imams, while Shiites almost exclusively reserve imam to refer to any of the 12 descendants of the Prophet Muhammad who Shiites believe were his rightful successors. Sheikh, on the other hand, is used in both communities, but can be used either as term of respect — to address older men, for example — or for a formally trained scholar. Among Sufi Muslims, sheikh holds a more exclusive status that is reserved for highly trained scholars and heads of Sufi orders.

Among Shiites, mullahs are lower-level clergy who generally have only rudimentary religious education. A hujjat al-Islam is more learned than a mullah but does not have the authority to issue legal rulings. Mujtahids and faqihs are jurists with the authority to issue rulings. A higher-level mujtahid is a marja, the most educated of whom are called ayatollahs.

In addition to imam and sheikh, Sunni titles include mufti and grand mufti, which indicate a higher status usually conferred by an institution. Grand muftis are usually the top religious scholar in a country.

Because the Quran is in Arabic, it is a common misconception that all Arabs are Muslim and all Muslims are Arab; neither is true.

Posted in Islam, Religious titles, Shiite, Sunni


An adjective used to describe the religion of Islam. It is not synonymous with Islamist. Muslim is a noun and is the proper term for individual believers. See Islamist, Muslim.

Posted in Islam


Follow AP style, which defines the term as an “advocate or supporter of a political movement that favors reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam” and gives this guidance: “Do not use as a synonym for Islamic fighters, militants, extremists or radicals, who may or may not be Islamists.

“Where possible, be specific and use the name of militant affiliations: al-Qaida-linked, Hezbollah, Taliban, etc. Those who view the Quran as a political model encompass a wide range of Muslims, from mainstream politicians to militants known as jihadi.”

Posted in Islam


Pronounced “JI-niz-um.” A sect established in India in the sixth century B.C. as a revolt against Hinduism. It teaches that the way to bliss and liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth is to live a life of harmlessness and renunciation. Jains do not believe in a creator god; God is any soul who has been liberated from the cycle of birth and rebirth. The supreme principle is nonviolence; Jains believe plants and animals have souls, just as people do, and should be treated with respect and compassion.

Posted in Hinduism, Jainism


Pronounced “JAAH-tee.” A subcategory of varna, or caste. Typically, these subcastes are classified by specific occupations. Initially, jati was not birth-based, but eventually it came to be.

Posted in Hinduism


A somewhat archaic English rendering of the four Hebrew letters, usually transliterated as YHWH, that form the name of God. The preferred term of modern scholars is Yahweh. Jews traditionally never pronounce this name, substituting the Hebrew word Adonai, meaning “my Lord,” and they add vowel markings in Hebrew Bibles that literally render the name unpronounceable.

Posted in Christianity, Judaism

Jehovah’s Witnesses

A religious group that believes in one God, referred to by the Hebrew name Jehovah. Jesus is considered to be Lord and Savior but inferior to God. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not recognized as Christian by the Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant traditions, primarily because they do not believe in the Trinity. Adherents do not salute the flag, bear arms or participate in politics. They also refuse blood transfusions. Jehovah’s Witnesses have no formal clergy titles and do not use honorifics such as the Rev. They refer to baptized members who evangelize as publishers and those who devote greater time to ministry activities as regular pioneers. Full-time workers are called special pioneers. Their gathering places are called Kingdom Halls, not churches.

Posted in Christianity, Jehovah’s Witnesses


Formally known as the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits were founded in 1540 by St. Ignatius Loyola, a Basque nobleman and soldier. They moved to the forefront of the Catholic Church in missionary work and have also been deeply involved in higher education and social service. Their early work as reformers within the church led to jealous opposition by some other religious orders, including complaints that the Jesuits inappropriately adapted the Catholic liturgy to Chinese culture during their successful 18th-century missionary work in China. Consequently, Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Jesuits in 1773. The order was restored in 1814 but continued to encounter pockets of opposition from inside and outside the church through much of its history.

Posted in Catholicism

Jesus Christ

Christians believe that the person Jesus of Nazareth is the prophesied Messiah and the Son of God incarnate. Jesus is one with God and the Holy Spirit in the Christian Trinity, and is worshipped as God and as the way to salvation. The New Testament gives Jesus the title Christ, which is Greek for “Messiah” or “anointed one.” Jesus’ life, Crucifixion and Resurrection are recorded in the Gospels of the New Testament; his birth is celebrated on Christmas Day, his Resurrection on Easter. His death is commemorated on Good Friday. Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet, but they do not believe that Jesus was crucified or resurrected. They believe he was drawn up alive into heaven, as was the prophet Elijah. Because Christ is a theological term, refer to Christ or Jesus Christ in quotations or in the context of stories about Christians. Otherwise, refer to Jesus. Personal pronouns referring to him are lowercase.

Posted in Christianity


Follower of the Jewish faith. Tradition holds that people are Jewish if their mothers are Jewish or if they have gone through a formal process of conversion, but some Jews argue for a more liberal definition. Many Jews consider themselves “secular Jews” whose connection to Judaism is cultural or ethnic rather than spiritual. Jews believe that God called their ancestor, Abraham, to be the father of their nation, which works toward the goal of establishing a divine kingdom on earth. Use Jew for men and women.

Posted in Judaism

Jewish congregations

Jewish congregations are sometimes called synagogues and sometimes called temples. Many Reform congregations use the latter term, while Orthodox and many Conservative Jews believe the word temple can refer only to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, which they hope will one day be rebuilt in the messianic age. Do not call a Jewish congregation a temple unless it uses that word in its name. Jewish congregations are autonomous, with no hierarchies controlling their activities. The only formal titles used are rabbi for the spiritual leader of a congregation and cantor for the person who leads the congregation in song. Capitalize these titles before a person’s full name on first reference. Use only the last name on second reference. See Judaism.

Posted in Judaism

Jewish holidays

Judaism observes 12 major holidays. Each begins at sunset and extends to nightfall at the end of the holiday. The most commonly celebrated by American Jews are Passover, which takes place in March or April and lasts for eight days; Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in September or October; the Day of Atonement, also called Yom Kippur, in September or October; Sukkot in September or October; Hanukkah, which lasts for eight nights, in November or December; and Purim in February or March. The High Holy Days are the 10-day period beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. Judaism uses a lunar/solar calendar, so the dates of each holiday move each year. The year of the Jewish calendar (for example, 2006 ushered in the year 5767) represents the number of years since creation.

Posted in Judaism

Jews for Jesus

This is a proper name of an organization founded by Jews who converted to evangelical Christianity, but see that faith as a fulfillment of the Jewish hope in the Messiah. The organization is part of a broader group of converts who call themselves “Messianic Jews.” Jews for Jesus are known for proselytizing to Jews. They observe Jewish holidays, speak Hebrew in their services, read from the Torah and refer to Jesus by the Hebrew name Yeshua. They also call their houses of worship “synagogues” and their clergy “rabbis.” Mainstream Jewish groups consider Messianic Judaism deceptive and do not want such converts to call themselves Jews of any kind. Messianic Jews and Jews for Jesus should never be grouped together with mainstream Jews in stories or listings. When reporting on them, clearly state that they are Christian by faith, though Jewish by culture or ethnicity.

Posted in Christianity, Judaism


An Arabic word that translates as “struggle” or “striving.” It is most commonly used to describe an inward, spiritual struggle for holiness, though traditionally it has also been used to describe defensive military action against non-Muslims. Today militant Muslims use it to call for aggressive armed strikes against non-Muslims, including civilians, and against other Muslims whom they consider impure – all acts condemned by mainstream Islam. Although many in the media translate jihad as “holy war,” it does not mean that literally, and the majority of Muslims do not use it that way.

Posted in Islam


The religion of the Jewish people. With its 4,000-year history, it is one of the first recorded monotheistic faiths and one of the oldest religious traditions still practiced today. Its beliefs and history are a major foundation for other Abrahamic religions, including Christianity and Islam. It traces a covenant between the Jewish people and God that began with Abraham and continued through Jacob, Moses, David and others to today’s modern Jews. Jews believe that the Messiah will one day establish a divine kingdom on earth, opening an era of peace and bliss. They believe that God called their ancestor, Abraham, to be the father of their nation, which works toward the goal of establishing this kingdom. Throughout history, Jews have been heavily persecuted. The Holocaust is the most high-profile example. The modern Jewish state of Israel was established in 1948. There are three major branches of Judaism. Reform Jews are the largest branch in the U.S., followed by Conservative and Orthodox Jews. See Reconstructionist Judaism for information on a smaller, fourth branch.

  • Reform Judaism: Reform Jews believe that the spirit of Jewish law can be adapted to time and place, so they tend to emphasize social justice issues more than dietary laws, Sabbath rules and other particulars of traditional Jewish life. They are represented by the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, both based in New York City. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, based in Washington, D.C., is the political voice of the movement.
  • Orthodox Judaism: Orthodox Jews practice strict adherence to traditional Jewish laws, including the rules that prohibit work on the Sabbath and kosher dietary laws that prohibit such things as eating pork products or shellfish and eating meat and dairy products together. Some Orthodox Jews might consider themselves “modern Orthodox,” meaning that the men do not keep long beards or wear traditional garb. Most Orthodox congregations are represented nationally by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, and most of its rabbis are members of the Rabbinical Council of America.
  • Conservative Judaism: Conservative Jews follow a middle path between Reform and Orthodox Judaism. Congregations and individuals vary in terms of how observant they are of dietary laws, and though some do not, many drive to synagogue on the Sabbath. They are represented nationally by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly.
Posted in Conservative, Judaism, Orthodox, Reform

just war

A doctrine with roots in Christianity that posits that governments sometimes – but not always — have a morally justified reason for using mass political violence. It has three parts, known by their Latin names: jus ad bellum, which considers the justice of the cause for going to war; jus in bello, which concerns justice within the conduct of war; and jus post bellum, which concerns the justice of peace agreements and the termination of war.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Government and politics


Pronounced “KAH-bah.” A large cube-shaped house of worship that Muslims believe was built in Mecca by Abraham and Ishmael. Muslims around the world face the Ka’bah when they pray, and circle it several times as a rite of hajj.

Posted in Judaism


A doctrine of ancient Jewish mysticism that provides a path for humans to achieve an understanding of the divine mysteries of God and the universe. It teaches that such understanding can only be attained by praying and contemplating the hidden meanings of the Hebrew words and letters of the Torah. It had its greatest following in Europe during the 13th and 14th centuries. Preferred spelling is Kabbalah. Uppercase in all references.

Posted in Judaism


A men’s headdress.

Posted in Islam


Pronounced “KAH-lee.” In Hinduism, a form of the goddess, one of the many feminine forms of the divine as mother of the universe. She is the source of protection and liberation.

Posted in Hinduism


In Buddhism and Hinduism, the universal law of cause and effect; the effect (or fruits) of a person’s actions in one’s next lifetime. Lowercase in all references.

Posted in Buddhism, Hinduism


Pronounced “core.” A last name shared by all women who practice the Sikh religion, it means “daughter of kings” or “princess.” The 10th Sikh teacher, Guru Gobind Singh, gave Sikhs the same last names as a sign of equality (traditional last names in 17th-century North India indicated caste). Women are seen as equals in the Sikh tradition.

Posted in Sikhism


The name adopted by proponents of an independent Sikh homeland in India. It means “land of the pure.” Khalistani separatists declared their independence from India on Oct. 7, 1987, but this declaration has not been recognized by any nation.

Posted in Government and politics, Sikhism

King, Martin Luther Jr.

The civil rights leader and Baptist minister was born on Jan. 15, 1929, and assassinated on April 4, 1968. A federal holiday honoring him takes place on the third Monday in January. Refer to him as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on first reference.

Posted in Baptist/Southern Baptist, Christianity, Government and politics, Protestantism


Pronounced “KIR-pon.” A ceremonial dagger, it is a Sikh article of faith that symbolizes a commitment to fight against injustice. Initiated Sikhs wear the kirpan at all times. See Five K’s, Five Kakaars.

Posted in Sikhism


Quran is the preferred spelling and is capitalized in all references. The spelling Koran should only be used if it is in a specific title or name. See Quran.

Posted in Islam


In Judaism, refers to ritually pure food prepared in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. Lowercase in all references. Kashrut is the term for Jewish dietary laws, while kosher is the adjective.

Posted in Judaism


Pronounced “KRISH-na.” One of the most popular representations of God in Hinduism. He is worshipped as the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu and is best-known as the teacher in the Bhagavad Gita. For most Krishna devotees, his name refers to the unqualified absolute, or Brahman.

Posted in Hinduism


The name of a popular African-American festival held between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1. Uppercase in all references. The name is a Swahili term meaning first. Begun in 1966, Kwanzaa celebrates African-American heritage. It has become increasingly associated with religion as more churches observe it. The seven principles of Kwanzaa are unity, self-determination, work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

Posted in African-American, Christianity, Protestantism, Religion and culture


A formal proceeding at the Vatican in which a priest is “returned to the lay state.” This means he is free to marry and is no longer required – or permitted – to say Mass, although in an emergency he can give final sacraments to a dying person. Technically, he remains a priest, but only in the eyes of God, because the Catholic Church believes that ordination leaves an indelible mark on the soul. Most laicizations are done at the request of the priest, though some are carried out involuntarily as punishment for serious offenses. Even voluntarily laicized priests are restricted from certain activities open to other lay Catholics, such as serving as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, also known as a lay Eucharistic minister. The pope must approve all requests for laicization. Although this is colloquially known as “defrocking,” the Catholic Church does not use that word, and it fails to distinguish between laicization and a variety of lesser measures in which a priest can be forbidden to wear clerical garb.

Posted in Catholicism


Pronounced “LUK-shmee.” In Hinduism, the female counterpart of Lord Vishnu, or God’s role as preserver. She represents light, beauty and prosperity. See Vishnu.

Posted in Hinduism


A Tibetan Buddhist teacher or master. Capitalize when used as a title before a name, as in Lama Surya Das, or when referring to the man who holds the title Dalai Lama.

Posted in Buddhism


Pronounced “LUN-ger.” A Sikh congregational meal served in a free and open kitchen at every gurdwara (Sikh house of worship). The institution of langar represents the central teaching of service (seva) in the Sikh tradition. It also represents equality – regardless of gender, religion, class or race, people sit on the ground and eat together as equals.

Posted in Sikhism

Las Posadas

A traditional Mexican festival in which Joseph and Mary’s search for an inn is re-enacted on the evenings from Dec. 16 to 24. It generally moves from home to home in neighborhoods, but as the Hispanic population in the U.S. grows, it is increasingly staged as a community celebration that is both social and religious.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Protestantism

Last Supper

In Christianity, the Last Supper was the final meal Jesus shared with his disciples before his death. The meal is discussed in all four Gospels of the New Testament. Christians believe it took place on a Thursday night, Holy Thursday, before Jesus was crucified on Friday, observed as Good Friday. See Communion.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Baptist/Southern Baptist, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism

Latter-day Saints, Latter Day Saints

See Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Community of Christ.

Posted in Christianity, Mormonism


The period of penance and fasting preceding Easter, the Christian celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection. Lenten observances are most common in the liturgical traditions, such as Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Anglicanism.

The observance of Lent developed through the centuries and sometimes varied in its focus and length. Especially for Western Christians, the currently accepted Lenten period recalls Christ’s 40-day fast in the desert and the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert between leaving Egypt and entering the Promised Land. Lent was originally to prepare those being initiated into the church at Easter and was then broadened to include various days of fasting and penance by all believers.

In most of the Catholic Church, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Thursday. Sundays are not counted as days of Lent. Some, still using the old liturgical calendar, count from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday. Since 1969, when the document known as the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar was released, the Roman Catholic Church has said that Lent ends at the beginning of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. During Lent, able-bodied Catholics over 14 and under 65 are called on to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (that is, to go without a main meal during the day) and to abstain from meat on Fridays. Fish is often substituted.

The observance of Lent within Protestantism varies from denomination to denomination, church to church, believer to believer. In recent years, even some nonliturgical Protestants, on their own or through their churches, have taken to observing the Lenten season through fasting and penance.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


A woman who is sexually attracted to other women. Preferred to gay when referring to women.

Posted in Gender and sexuality


An acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. Should not be used without defining it.

Posted in Gender and sexuality

liturgical vestments

Special garments that a priest, minister, deacon or other clergy wears in worship. Liturgical vestments are especially characteristic of the liturgical churches, such as the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican. In some traditions, the colors of vestments change with the seasons of the church year.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy


Has two sets of meanings, one for Western Christians and the other for Eastern Christians. Among Roman Catholics and Protestants, lowercase liturgy means a standard set of prayers and practices for public worship. It can also be used as a synonym for the service of worship in churches that use such forms – most commonly the Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran. With reference to Orthodox Christians and Eastern Catholics, uppercase Liturgy; avoid the lowercase use of the word with their churches. Churches that tend to vary their services each week, such as most Baptist, Pentecostal and independent churches, are often called nonliturgical.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


Always capitalize when referring to God in a monotheistic faith, as in Lord Jesus or in Lord Krishna.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, Religion and culture

Lord’s Prayer

The New Testament describes Jesus teaching his followers this prayer, the most commonly recited in Christianity. It is found in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism

Lord’s Supper

See Communion.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism

Lubavitch, Lubavitcher

One of the largest branches of Hasidic Judaism, it originated in Russia in the 18th century. It was founded by Rabbi Schneur Zalman. In 1940, the Rebbe, or head of the movement, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, emigrated from Poland to America, where he was determined to make the Lubavitch into an American religious movement. Under his successor and son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitch used various forms of American media and institutions, such as schools and camps, to reach out to American Jews the group felt had not been exposed to “authentic” Judaism. Schneerson died in 1994, and a new leader has not been appointed. Lubavitchers still refer to him as “The Rebbe,” while they refer to his father-in-law as “The Previous Rebbe.” Some groups regard Schneerson as the Messiah and await his return, while others believe he could have been the Messiah if God had willed it. Still others believe he never died and is living in a way that ordinary people cannot perceive. The branch is also called Chabad-Lubavitch. Chabad comes from an acronym for the Hebrew words for wisdom, comprehension and knowledge. Lubavitch is the name of the town in Russia where the movement was based for more than a century. See Chabad.

Posted in Judaism


In Christianity, the proper name St. Jerome gave to Satan. Lowercase devil but uppercase Lucifer.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


A member of a Protestant denomination that traces its roots to Martin Luther, the 16th-century Roman Catholic priest whose objections to certain practices in the Catholic Church began the Reformation. The two major Lutheran bodies in the U.S. are the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA on second reference) and the smaller Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (Missouri Synod on second reference). Missouri Synod churches are far more theologically conservative than ELCA churches. There are smaller Lutheran bodies as well. In Lutheran practice, the congregation is the basic unit of government and is usually administered by a council made up of clergy and elected lay people. The council is headed either by the senior pastor or a lay person elected from the council. Some Lutheran branches, including the ELCA, have bishops. Members of the clergy are known as ministers. Pastor applies if a minister leads a congregation. On first reference, use the Rev. and the cleric’s full name. On second reference use only the cleric’s last name.

Posted in Protestantism

Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod

One of the two main Lutheran denominations in the U.S. Do not confuse it with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which is larger and more liberal.

Posted in Protestantism


Islamic school of thought. There are four schools of thought that most Sunni Muslims follow: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali. There is generally great harmony between these schools, with differences lying in finer points of law rather than in fundamentals of faith. Ja’fari and Zaydi are the two main Shiite schools of thought.

Posted in Islam


Pronounced “muhd-YAA-mih-kah.” A Mahayana Buddhist sect based on the third-century teachings of Nagarjuna. It focuses on the emptiness (shunyata) of the cycle of worldly existence (samsara) and nirvana. It rests on the scripture known as the Prajnaparamita Sutra.

Posted in Buddhism


A Muslim place of learning usually associated with a mosque.

Posted in Islam

Magen David

See Star of David.

Posted in Judaism


An act designed to cause intentional change. Associated with Wicca and a variety of occult beliefs.

Posted in Paganism/Wicca


Pronounced “Ma-haa-BHAA-ra-ta.” The world’s longest epic poem is longer than the Iliad and Odyssey combined. The Bhagavad Gita is one section of it. Known as the “Great Epic of India,” the Mahabharata was written by the sage Ved Vyas and revolves around the conflict between two kingdoms and their great battle more than 3,000 years ago.

Posted in Hinduism


Pronounced “muh-hah-YAA-nah.” Literally “great vehicle,” it is one of the two main forms of Buddhism, along with Theravada. Its traditions emphasize the Buddha-nature of all beings; the ideal is the bodhisattva, one who works for enlightenment while delaying personal attainment of liberation in order to help others, and realization is as much a goal for lay adherents as for monastics. Its followers are called Mahayanists. Mahayana has many sects in China, Japan, Korea, Tibet and Mongolia including the Madhyamika, Yogachara, Nichiren, T’ien-t’ai, Zen, Pure Land and Vajrayana schools. Mahayanists see Buddha as more than a man who was a great spiritual teacher; they believe he is also a universal spiritual being to whom (in his various forms) prayers may be effectively directed. Mahayana schools use different scriptures, such as the Lotus Sutra (Nichiren and T’ien-t’ai schools) and the Heart Sutra (Zen schools).

Posted in Buddhism


Pronounced “MAAH-dee.” The “guided one” many Muslims believe will appear at the end of times to restore righteousness for a short period before the end of the world. Shiite Muslims believe the Mahdi is the Twelfth Imam, a descendant of Muhammad who disappeared in 873. Many Sunni Muslims also believe in the Mahdi, though not necessarily that he is the Twelfth Imam. However, some noted Sunni authorities have rejected belief in the Mahdi, saying it is not compatible with a religion that does not rely on intercession to achieve salvation.

Posted in Islam

mainline Protestant

A designation for a group of moderate-to-liberal Protestant churches. The most prominent are the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.

Posted in Christianity, Protestantism

Malcolm X

The African-American civil rights activist who converted to Nation of Islam while in prison and changed his last name to X, symbolizing his lost tribal name. After becoming one of its most prominent spokesmen, he separated from the Nation in 1964 and was assassinated in 1965.

Posted in Nation of Islam


Pronounced “MUN-tra.” A syllable, word or phrase with spiritual power, it is chanted or held in the mind in connection with meditation or ritual. Mantras are commonly used by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains and are traditionally drawn from Sanskrit scriptures, such as the Vedas. The adherents of some vernacular texts, such as the Hindi Ramcharitmanas, believe their verses have the power of mantra as well. Some of the more powerful mantras consist of a single syllable, the most popular of which is “om.” See om.

Posted in Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Religion and culture


An area of Christian theology dealing with the life and veneration of the Virgin Mary.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity

Mary Magdalene

One of Jesus’ female disciples, although she was not counted among the Twelve Apostles. All four Gospels make her the first witness to the Resurrection – alone or with others. For that reason early Christian writers gave her the title “Apostle to the Apostles.” Due to the frequency of the name Mary in the New Testament, and also of significant unnamed women, for many centuries Catholic tradition attributed stories about other Marys and some unnamed women – including a repentant sinner and the woman caught in adultery – to Mary Magdalene. The result was that she was erroneously depicted as a repentant adulteress and later, based on early Protestant preaching, as a reformed prostitute. The Catholic Church officially corrected this depiction of Mary Magdalene in 1968, when her feast day on the church calendar was separated from that of the other Marys, and the readings were changed from those about a sinful woman to her witnessing of the Resurrection.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity

Mary, mother of Jesus

According to the New Testament, Mary was a virgin when she miraculously conceived Jesus through the Holy Spirit. She then married Joseph. Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that she remained a perpetual virgin and that biblical references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters mean either Joseph’s children by an earlier marriage or cousins. Most Protestants believe that Mary and Joseph had children. Mary was present at Jesus’ Crucifixion and was among the disciples gathered when the New Testament says they received the gift of the Holy Spirit. According to one tradition, she went to live with the Apostle John in Ephesus, Greece (in modern-day Turkey), after Jesus’ Crucifixion. Other traditions hold that she lived out her days near Jerusalem. Catholic, Orthodox and some Protestant Christians give her the title Mother of God. Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that her prayers for them are especially powerful because she has such a close relationship to Jesus.

Catholics alone believe that Mary’s parents conceived her without transmitting original sin to her – a dogma known as the Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception is often confused with the Virgin Birth, which refers to the birth of Jesus by the Virgin Mary. Catholics refer to her as the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Both Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that she was drawn up bodily into heaven at the end of her life. The Orthodox call this the Dormition of the Theotokos (Theotokos [theh-oh-TOH-kohs] is the usual Orthodox term for Mother of God) and believe that it happened after she died. Catholics call it the Assumption and have never officially resolved whether she died.

Mary is also revered by Muslims, and there is a chapter in the Quran named after her. Veneration is the term that characterizes Catholic devotion to Mary and other saints; only God is worshipped. Marian veneration, along with the entire tradition of devotion to saints, was historically one of the principal divides between Catholics and most Protestants, although many Protestants are rethinking their traditional views of the mother of Jesus.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Islam, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


A term used by Latin Catholics and some high-church Anglicans for a worship service that includes the celebration of Holy Communion. The term cannot be used for services that do not include Communion, including those in which someone distributes Communion hosts that were consecrated outside of that service. Catholic sources say a Mass is celebrated or said; however, The Associated Press accepts only celebrated. Capitalize when referring to the celebration of worship in the Roman Catholic Church. Lowercase any preceding adjectives, as in funeral Mass. Orthodox Christians call their Eucharistic service the Divine Liturgy.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Orthodoxy

Maundy Thursday

See Holy Thursday.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


The birthplace of Muhammad, it is Islam’s holiest place. Located in western Saudi Arabia, Mecca is the focal point of Muslims’ prayers. Muslims pray toward Mecca five times each day.

Posted in Islam


A quiet, alert, sustained, powerfully concentrated state in which new knowledge and insights are awakened from within as awareness focuses on an object or specific line of thought. In the West, practices that are taught as meditation are primarily techniques of concentration (“dharana” in Sanskrit). The more appropriate Sanskrit term for meditation is “dhyana”; it is more of a state of reflection on the nature of the self or of reality, and is one of the eight limbs of yoga.

Posted in Buddhism, Religion and culture

meeting, meetinghouse

Worship gatherings are called meetings in some traditions, including by Quakers and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Posted in Mormonism, Quaker


Generally defined as a Christian church that has a weekly sustained attendance of 2,000 or more. Although megachurches existed in some form in the United States throughout the 20th century, in recent decades they have flourished. Megachurches are often Protestant, evangelical, Catholic or Pentecostal, and many are theologically conservative. Many are nondenominational or Southern Baptist.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Pentecostalism, Protestantism


Mennonites trace their origins to the Swiss Anabaptist movement of the 16th century. Today, there are several kinds of Mennonite communities in North America. Old Order Mennonites are quite similar to the Amish in dress and rejection of modern conveniences, but many other Mennonites wear contemporary clothing, live in urban communities and are distinguished chiefly by a commitment to social justice and a refusal to salute the flag, which they regard as idolatrous.

Posted in Amish/Mennonite


Typically, a seven-stick candelabra used in synagogues. A seven-branched menorah is believed to have been in the original Jerusalem Temple. During Hanukkah, a nine-candle menorah called a “hanukkiah” is used to represent the eight nights of the holiday, with the ninth candle lighting all the others.

Posted in Judaism


By ritual and ethical practices, the Buddhist adherent accumulates merit, or adds positive karma and offsets negative karma (the spiritual fruits of former actions) on the path to liberation.

Posted in Buddhism


The name for representatives of local churches who attend the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting. They are free to vote on issues according to their conscience rather than being bound to vote in accordance with the wishes of their congregation.

Posted in Baptist/Southern Baptist

messiah, Messiah

A Hebrew term meaning “the anointed one.” For Christians, the one and only Messiah is Jesus Christ. Jews await the coming of the Messiah. Capitalize in religious uses and lowercase in secular cases.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Judaism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism

Messianic Jews

See Jews for Jesus.

Posted in Christianity, Judaism


Started in England in the 18th century by a group of men that included John Wesley and his younger brother, Charles, as a movement within the Church of England. It focused on Bible study and a methodical approach to Scriptures and Christian living. The term Methodist thus originated as a pejorative nickname. The Anglican Church’s refusal to grant the sacraments to John Wesley’s followers facilitated Methodism’s eventual split from the Church of England.

Posted in Protestantism

Methodist churches

The principal Methodist body in the United States is the United Methodist Church, formed in 1968 by the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. There are three major black Methodist denominations in the U.S.: the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. For all Methodists, use the Rev. before a minister’s name on first reference, or use Bishop before the name if the person holds that title. Use only the last name on second reference.

Posted in Protestantism


In the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches, a metropolitan heads an ecclesiastical province, a metropolitan see, and ranks below the patriarch. In Orthodoxy, a metropolitan is said to govern a metropolia, while the Eastern Catholics call it an archeparchy. In the Western churches, the corresponding terms are archbishop and archdiocese.

Posted in Orthodoxy, Religious titles

Middle Path, Middle Way

The moderate path taken by the historical Buddha to enlightenment, one that avoided both the hedonism he had seen as a prince and the total asceticism he practiced for a time.

Posted in Buddhism


A ritual bath Jews use for spiritual purification after a woman’s menstrual cycles, in conversion rituals and for men before important holidays. Jewish couples who observe the “laws of family purity” only engage in intercourse between when the woman goes to the mikvah after her menstrual cycle and the beginning of her next period. Contemporary Jews are incorporating the mikvah into new rituals involving major life cycle events, from graduations to divorces to adoptions.

Posted in Judaism


A term in Buddhism for the central practice of an alert, objective awareness that is directed to all activities throughout the day.

Posted in Buddhism


Most Protestant denominations use the term minister to describe their clergy, but it is not a formal title and is not capitalized. It is also used in Catholicism, with a strong distinction drawn between ordained ministers (priests and deacons) and lay ministers (including, for example, Eucharistic ministers, who take Communion to the sick, and youth ministers). The Nation of Islam also uses the term, and in that case it is a title and should be capitalized before the person’s name.

Posted in Protestantism, Religious titles


The quorum necessary to recite certain prayers, including the standing prayer called Amidah and the Kaddish prayer for the dead, or to read from the Torah during Shabbat services. Traditionally, a minyan consists of 10 Jewish males over age 13, though many congregations allow any Jewish adult over age 13 to be counted for the minyan.

Posted in Judaism

Mohammed, W. Deen

Founder of the American Society of Muslims, the largest association of African-American Muslims in the United States, and The Mosque Cares. His father, Elijah Muhammad (born Elijah Poole), was a leader of the Nation of Islam who was considered a prophet. After his father’s death in 1975, W. Deen Mohammed led the Nation of Islam toward mainstream Sunni Islam and then formed his own organization; Louis Farrakhan rebuilt the Nation of Islam closer to its previous tenets. Different spellings of both W. Deen Mohammed and Elijah Muhammad have been used over time, sometimes within the same organization, and W. Deen Mohammed changed his name from Muhammad to Mohammed at one point. See Nation of Islam.

Posted in Nation of Islam


A term often applied to any man in a religious order, it should be restricted to members of contemplative orders, such as Benedictines, Cistercians and Carthusians. Friar is the name given to members of the mendicant orders, such as the Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians and Carmelites, which are pledged to live on free-will offerings. Brother is a title given to laymen who take vows as members of religious communities. Monks and friars can be, but often are not, ordained priests. Brothers remain in the lay state but as vowed members of the community. All monks, friars and brothers who are not ordained can be addressed as Brother in conversation and on first reference, such as Brother John Doe. On second reference, continue to use Brother and the first name if the person is known that way, such as Brother John. Otherwise, use only the last name on second reference.

Posted in Catholicism, Religious titles


A religion devoted to the worship of a single god. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are known as the world’s three great monotheistic religions.

Posted in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Religion and culture


An honorary title given to some diocesan priests by the pope. Capitalize before the name on first reference. Do not use the abbreviation Msgr. or the titles the Very Rev. or the Rt. Rev.

Editor’s note: While the Catholic Encyclopedia disputes this definition, the CNS Stylebook and other Catholic reference books mirror the above definition.

Posted in Catholicism, Religious titles


A derogatory term for a member of the Unification Church. Journalists should not use it except in direct quotes. See Unification Church.

Posted in Christianity, Protestantism

Moral Majority

Started in 1979 by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, it was made up of conservative Christian political action committees that campaigned on issues it believed central to upholding its concept of Christian morality. Its leaders believed it represented the majority of Americans’ beliefs; hence the name. The organization officially dissolved in 1989, but its work continues through the Christian Coalition network initiated by Pat Robertson. After the 2004 presidential election, Falwell created a new group called the Moral Majority Coalition.

Posted in Christianity, Government and politics, Protestantism

Mormon church

See Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Posted in Christianity, Mormonism


An outdated term for Muslims. It should not be used unless it is part of a proper name.

Posted in Islam


Islam’s most important prophet. Because Muslims believe Islam existed before Muhammad, they consider him to be the religion’s final prophet, not its founder. Non-Muslims refer to Muhammad as the founder of Islam. Capitalize the word prophet when used with Muhammad’s name – as in the Prophet Muhammad – but not when used alone. According to traditional biographers, Muhammad was born circa 570 in Mecca and died in 632 in Medina, both cities in what is now Saudi Arabia.

Posted in Islam

Muhammad, Elijah

A leader of the Nation of Islam who is considered a prophet by members. After he died in 1975, his son, W. Deen Mohammed, led the Nation toward mainstream Sunni Islam. Louis Farrakhan then rebuilt the Nation according to Elijah Muhammad’s teachings.

Posted in Islam, Nation of Islam

Muhammad, Wallace Fard

The founder of the Nation of Islam. Members consider him the Mahdi, or savior, and believe that black people are superior to all others. Sometimes referred to as W.D. Fard. See Nation of Islam.

Posted in Islam, Nation of Islam


A Shiite term for lower-level clergy. Capitalize the title when it precedes a name.

Posted in Islam, Religious titles


Pronounced “MOOR-tee.” In Hinduism, an image or icon of God used during worship. A manifestation, embodiment or personification of the divine. Do not use the word idol as a synonym.

Posted in Hinduism

Muslim, Muslims

A Muslim is a follower of Muhammad and the tenets and practices of Islam. The word Muslim is a noun; use the adjective Islamic when referring to the Islamic faith or the Islamic world. See Islam.

Posted in Islam


Meditation, prayer or theology focused on some form of direct experience or union with the divine. Examples of mysticism and mystics can be found in a variety of religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as in neopaganism.

Posted in Religion and culture

Nation of Islam

A religious and political organization formed in 1930 by Wallace Fard Muhammad with the stated aim of “resurrecting” the spiritual, mental, social and economic condition of black people in America and the world. Its tenets differ markedly from those of traditional Islam.

Elijah Muhammad took over the organization in 1934 and preached separation of blacks and whites, in addition to calling for a strong morality. After his death in 1975, Elijah Muhammad’s son, W. Deen Mohammed, assumed leadership. (Note the different spelling of the last name.) Mohammed began moving the Nation toward mainstream Sunni Islam and shunning black separatist views. He essentially dismantled the Nation and created his own organization.

In 1976, Louis Farrakhan left the Nation of Islam, but in 1978 he and his supporters decided to rebuild the original organization.

Followers should be referred to as members of the Nation of Islam. The term Black Muslim, once associated with the organization, is now considered derogatory and should be avoided.

Nation of Islam clergymen use the title minister, which should be capitalized on first reference before a name. On second reference, use only the person’s last name.

Posted in Islam, Nation of Islam

National Association of Evangelicals

The leading national fellowship of evangelical denominations, churches, organizations and individuals. Founded in 1942, it focuses on public witness and cooperative ministry among evangelicals. It includes 60 denominations along with other organizations and represents 30 million members.

Posted in Christianity, Protestantism

National Baptist Convention of America

An association of black Baptist churches that formed after a split with the National Baptist Convention USA.

Posted in African-American, Baptist/Southern Baptist, Protestantism

National Baptist Convention USA

The oldest and largest black Baptist organization in the United States. Its formal name is National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., but National Baptist Convention USA is acceptable in all references. (AP style currently adds periods to USA, but the denomination says it prefers USA without periods.) It was formed in Atlanta in 1886. Its current presidential headquarters are in Philadelphia, with its world headquarters located at the Baptist World Center in Nashville, Tenn.

Posted in Baptist/Southern Baptist, Protestantism

National Council of Churches

The formal name of this group, which was founded in 1950, is the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. It is commonly called the National Council of Churches, and that term is acceptable in all references. Use NCC on second reference. The NCC is an ecumenical organization that is the major national umbrella group for mainline Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, historic African-American and Living Peace churches. More than 50 other faith groups, including Roman Catholics, work with the council on humanitarian, justice and interfaith issues.

Posted in Christianity, Government and politics, Interfaith, Orthodoxy

National Missionary Baptist Convention of America

A black Baptist denomination that was formed in the 1980s after a disagreement with the National Baptist Convention of America over publishing endeavors.

Posted in African-American, Baptist/Southern Baptist, Protestantism


A movement founded by B.R. Ambedkar in India in the mid-1950s to encourage members of the Hindu caste of untouchables to convert to Buddhism, which would assure them of social acceptance as well as spiritual guidance. Mass conversions are still held today.

Posted in Buddhism

neo-evangelical, New Evangelicalism

A term coined in 1947 by the Rev. Harold John Ockenga, an evangelical scholar who served as president of both Fuller and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminaries. He used the term for evangelicals who believe that Jesus Christ is the sole means to salvation, but who are more flexible than traditional evangelicals in their interpretation and understanding of the authority of Scripture. Neo-evangelicals are typically more open to critical-historical methods of Scripture study, and some would say that interpreting Scripture in its context would allow for acceptance of committed homosexual relationships and other practices long condemned by the church. The term should be used with caution.

Posted in Christianity, Protestantism


A theological movement that emerged in the 1920s as a scholarly reaction against extreme Protestant liberalism, and drew heavily on the work of the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. It emphasized the sovereignty of God, the seriousness of sin and the revelation of Christian doctrine through Scripture. However, it denied that accounts in the Bible were necessarily historic fact.

Posted in Christianity, Orthodoxy

neo-Pentecostal, charismatic

These terms apply to a movement that developed in the 1960s and 1970s within mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. It is characterized by emotional expressiveness in worship, speaking or praying in “tongues” and healing. Unlike the Pentecostal movement of the early part of the 20th century, the new movement did not result in the creation of new denominations. Instead, its adherents operate within their original denominations.

Posted in Catholicism, Pentecostalism, Protestantism


A term used to describe contemporary paganism, as opposed to ancient paganism. Some groups or individuals describe themselves as “pagan” because they trace their belief and practices back to ancient times and the emphasis on the natural world and goddess worship. Others prefer “neopagan” because their faith blends the old and the new.

Posted in Paganism/Wicca

New Age movement

A spiritual movement that developed in Western society in the late 1960s. Adherents link elements of religion with psychology and parapsychology. It remains a loose network of spiritual seekers, teachers, healers and other participants. Followers construct their own spiritual journeys, which are heavily influenced by the mystical elements of many organized religions, as well as native practices such as shamanism and neopaganism.

Posted in Other faiths, Religion and culture

New Religious Movement

A widely accepted term that describes religious groups outside the mainstream. These fringe groups often have roots in Christianity, Judaism or other major faiths but have beliefs and practices that are rejected by mainstream organizations. Some New Religious Movements are not new, and a few eventually evolve into mainstream religious groups. Cults, which are generally considered groups with overly controlling leadership or dangerous practices, are included in this category. New Religious Movements are sometimes called NRMs, but journalists should avoid using the abbreviation. See cult and sect.

Posted in Religion and culture

New Testament

The part of the Christian Bible written after the death of Jesus Christ. The name traces back to the Greek term meaning new covenant. There are 27 books in the New Testament, including the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as the letters of the Apostles and early church leaders.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Baptist/Southern Baptist, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, Protestantism

Nicene Creed

The profession of the Christian faith shared by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Catholic churches and most Protestant churches. Its earliest form was first agreed on by the overwhelming majority of hundreds of bishops who met in Nicaea in what is now Turkey in 325, and later expanded upon in 381 in Constantinople and confirmed in Chalcedon in 451. The councils were called to resolve the question of how to understand the divinity of Christ. The creed states that Christ was of one substance (consubstantial) with God the Father and was begotten, not created (made).

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Protestantism


A school within Mahayana Buddhism that was founded in 13th-century Japan by Nichiren. It calls on adherents to rely on the Lotus Sutra as the sole scripture needed for salvation, which is attained through veneration of the sutra’s sacred title, Namu-Myoho-renge-kyo.

Posted in Buddhism


A veil worn by some women who are Muslims; it covers all of their face except the eyes. See abaya, burqa and hijab.

Posted in Islam


Pronounced “nir-VAA-nah.” In Buddhism and Hinduism, a state of ultimate peace that is the goal of all beings, which includes freedom from suffering, desire and the cycle of rebirth. The Buddha’s entrance into nirvana at his death is referred to as his parinirvana (pronounced “PAH-rih-nir-VAA-nah”).

Posted in Buddhism, Hinduism


In Buddhism, the major tenet that no “self” exists as an individual, independent substance; rather, the ego is a transitory collection, an ever-changing process of mental formations and impressions. Also called not-self, it is referred to as anatman in Sanskrit and anatta in Pali.

Posted in Buddhism


Used among North American Protestants to describe Christian churches, activities or organizations that are not sponsored by a specific denomination. Some non-Christian groups, including some Jews, use the term as well. It should not be used as a synonym for interfaith, interdenominational or ecumenical. Independent would be an acceptable substitute for nondenominational.

Posted in Judaism, Protestantism


An increasingly popular term for people who answer “none of the above” in surveys that ask them to categorize what religion they follow. Many nones say they believe in God and/or consider themselves religious. In the early 21st century, nones are one of the fastest-growing segments in religious identification surveys. Journalists should define the term on first reference.

Posted in Government and politics, Religion and culture


A woman belonging to a religious order, typically Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. Nuns are also found in the Anglican/Episcopal, Lutheran and Buddhist traditions. In Catholicism, nuns are cloistered, meaning they live a life of secluded prayer, while sisters are more likely to be engaged in ministry outside the convent. However, the terms have become interchangeable in everyday language. Catholics commonly refer to nuns and brothers as “religious,” as in women and men religious, but that term is often confusing to general readers. Nuns and sisters are not ordained; they are lay people who take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the superior (leader) of their community. The superiors of some orders are referred to as Mother. Some nuns and sisters continue to use a surname, while others do not. On first reference, follow the appropriate conventions, as in Sister Jane Doe or Mother Teresa. On second reference, continue to use Sister or Mother and the first name if the person is known that way, such as Mother Teresa. Otherwise, use only the last name on second reference. See sister.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy

Old Testament

Also known as the Hebrew Scriptures or Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament makes up the first part of the Christian Bible. Jews do not use this term, and many consider it disrespectful because it implies that the Hebrew Bible is “old” and unnecessary compared with the Christian Scriptures. Use Hebrew Bible in stories solely involving Judaism. It is divided into categories of law, history, poetry and prophecy. All of the books were written before the birth of Jesus. The canonical books used differ among Jews, Protestants, Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, although there is much overlap. Old Testament is capitalized in all references. See Apocrypha.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Baptist/Southern Baptist, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, Protestantism


In Hinduism, the mantra of the divine. The ancient Sanskrit name for the absolute. All mantras begin with om.

Posted in Hinduism

om mani padme hum

Pronounced “OHM MAH-nee PAHD-may HUMM.” An important mantra in Tibetan Buddhism, roughly translated as “(Homage to) the jewel in the lotus.” It honors the Buddha-nature of all beings.

Posted in Buddhism

Opus Dei

A Roman Catholic organization founded in 1928 in Madrid by Josemaría Escrívá de Balaguer, who was proclaimed a saint in 2002, to help Catholic lay people experience God in their daily work. It is not a religious order, although it has priests as members; ninety-eight percent of its members are lay people. In 1982, Pope John Paul II made it a personal prelature, meaning that it functions a bit like a global diocese, with members of Opus Dei under the authority of a bishop who governs the group. It is formally known as the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei. It has been the subject of criticism by former members who found it too authoritarian and by conspiracy theorists who accused it of involvement in right-wing politics in Spain and Latin America. Opus Dei has gained further notoriety in recent years due to its depiction in the popular and controversial novel The Da Vinci Code. Opus Dei is one of what are known as ecclesial movements, that is, grass-roots organizations, usually among lay people, that transcend parishes and dioceses by attracting members drawn to the movement’s particular focus. These movements have become popular in recent decades. They have often started in Europe but spread internationally. Other well-known ecclesial movements include Communion and Liberation, the Neocatechumenal Way and the Community of Sant’Egidio.

Posted in Catholicism


The process of authorizing a person to perform ministry in an official capacity for a specific religious organization, usually Christian or Jewish. Many denominations require formal education and training, and many ordain deacons as well as clergy. Lowercase ordained and ordination in all references.

Posted in Christianity, Judaism, Orthodoxy, Religion and culture

Oriental Orthodox Church

A group of Christian churches that includes the Armenian, Indian, Ethiopian, Coptic (Egyptian), Syrian and Eritrean Orthodox churches.

Posted in Orthodoxy


Pronounced “oh-REE-shah.” In the Santeria religion, it is an emissary of God who rules over human life.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Santería

Orthodox Church

Any of the several Eastern Christian churches that are rooted in the Middle East or Eastern Europe but that do not give allegiance to the Roman Catholic pope. The term Orthodox was adopted by the Eastern Church to signify its adherence to the original apostolic traditions, teachings and style of worship. The Orthodox Eucharistic service is called the Divine Liturgy, and worship is very sensual, involving incense, chants and the veneration of icons. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches were united until 1054, when the Great Schism occurred, mainly as a result of disputes over papal authority. The pope in Rome claimed supremacy over the four Eastern patriarchs, while the Eastern patriarchs claimed equality with the pope. Although the split was officially made in 1054, divisions began more than two centuries earlier. Today the spiritual head of Orthodoxy is the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, who has no governing authority over the other patriarchs but is called “first among equals.”

Posted in Orthodoxy

Orthodox Church in America

The second-largest body of Orthodox churches in the United States. It traces its origins to the arrival in Kodiak, Alaska, of eight Orthodox missionaries from Russia in 1794. In the early 1960s, the OCA was known as the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of North America, or The Metropolia. People who joined this group in the 1930s were Eastern Catholics who turned to Orthodoxy after the Vatican forbade them to have married priests in the United States. Today, in addition to the parishes of the former Metropolia, the OCA includes the Romanian Orthodox Episcopate, the Albanian Orthodox Archdiocese and the Bulgarian Orthodox Diocese. In the past two decades the OCA has established more than 220 new parishes, almost all non-ethnic in origin and worshipping only in English. In 1970, the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church designated the OCA an autocephalous church, meaning it enjoys autonomy and has the right to elect its own primate, or presiding hierarch. It has its headquarters in Syosset, N.Y. See Eastern Orthodox.

Posted in Orthodoxy

Orthodox Judaism

The most conservative of the three major branches of Judaism, it strictly adheres to traditional teachings and acceptance of Jewish principles of faith and law. Capitalize in all references. Hasidism is a movement within Orthodox Judaism. See Jewish congregations, Hasidism and Chabad.

Posted in Judaism, Orthodox

orthodox, orthodoxy

A term used to denote a clear doctrine that implies correct belief according to a particular religion or philosophy. Lowercase except when referring to Judaism or the Eastern branches of Christianity or as part of a denominational name, such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Posted in Christianity, Orthodoxy, Religion and culture


Generally, a person who does not acknowledge the God of Judaism, Christianity or Islam and who is a worshipper of a polytheistic religion. Many pagans follow an Earth-based or nature religion. The modern religious movement known as neopaganism has adopted the name as a badge of faith. Note: Some pagans prefer to see the term capitalized. See neopaganism.

Posted in Paganism/Wicca

Palm Sunday

The sixth Sunday in Lent and the beginning of the Christian Holy Week before Easter. Palm Sunday marks Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The day gets its name from the biblical reference to crowds throwing palm fronds before Jesus as he entered the city. Also known as Passion Sunday, though Palm Sunday is the preferred term.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


A worshipper of all gods or one who believes that God and the universe are one. See polytheism.

Posted in Religion and culture

papal infallibility

The doctrine that the pope can make a pronouncement, under special circumstances, on a matter of faith that must be definitively accepted by all the faithful. This is one of the most misunderstood concepts among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and one whose exact meaning and exercise remain a matter of much debate within the church. The Catholic faith teaches that only God is infallible, and that God ensures that the church — rather than its members or leaders — will be free from error. A pope is not personally infallible. He is only able to make special declarations that are affirming a sacred truth that always existed. Papal infallibility was first formally defined in 1870, and it has only been invoked once since then – in 1950, when Pope Pius XII declared as dogma that the Virgin Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven at the end of her life. Pope Pius IX’s affirmation, in 1854, of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (that the Virgin Mary was conceived without sin) is the only other instance in modern history in which papal infallibility has been invoked. Theologians continue to debate whether and what other teachings might be considered infallible.

Posted in Catholicism

papal nuncio

A Vatican diplomat with the rank of ambassador to a country that has official ties with the Vatican. Papal nuncios normally have a crucial role in the selection of bishops for the country to which they are sent. Lowercase the title and do not use as a formal title before a name. Papal nuncios should be identified formally on first reference by their religious rank, usually archbishop. On second reference use only the cleric’s last name.

Posted in Catholicism


A Christian organization outside traditional church structures and hierarchies. Examples are organizations devoted to evangelism, missionary work, moral reform and education. They are particularly common among evangelicals. Parachurch is used most often as an adjective but is also used as a noun.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Protestantism


An event or perception that involves forces outside the realm of scientific explanation, such as extrasensory perception, ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance, astrology, communicating with the dead, witches, reincarnation and channeling.

Posted in Religion and culture


Originally this referred to a geographic territory whose residents were all to go to the one church within that territory. That is still essentially how it functions within Roman Catholicism. In the 1960s theEpiscopal Church allowed its members to attend any parish they chose, eliminating the geographic use of the term. Today, a growing minority of Catholics also attend the parish of their choice, and there is no sanction involved. In some heavily Catholic parts of the nation, particularly Louisiana and Philadelphia, counties or neighborhoods are still known as parishes. Capitalize as part of the formal name. Lowercase when standing alone.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Government and politics


A member of a parish. It is best used only in reference to Catholic, Episcopal and Orthodox Christians. It should not be used for non-Christians or members of nonhierarchical Protestant denominations.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy

Parsi, Parsis

Pronounced “PAHR-see.” An ethnic group in India that follows Zoroastrianism.

Posted in Zoroastrianism


Pronounced “PAR-va-tee.” In Hinduism, one of many names for the Universal Mother. A representation of the goddess to whom prayers are offered for strength, health and eradication of impurities. Hindus believe that she is Lord Shiva’s consort.

Posted in Hinduism


Pronounced “PAHS-kuh.” The term used by Orthodox churches and some other Christians for Easter.

Posted in Orthodoxy


A major Jewish holiday commemorating the freedom of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses, who was directed by God. The account is found in Exodus, the second book of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Old Testament. Passover takes its name from God’s instruction to the Israelites to mark the upper part of their homes’ doors with lamb’s blood so the Angel of Death would “pass over” their homes as he killed the firstborn male of each family in Egypt during the 10th plague. Passover, also called by its Hebrew name Pesach (pronounced “PAY-sakh”), is celebrated in late March or early April and lasts for seven days in Israel, though most outside of Israel celebrate for eight days. On the first two nights of Passover, it is traditional for a Jewish family to gather for a special dinner called a seder in which the story of the Exodus is retold. See seder and Jewish holidays.

Posted in Judaism


Generally, the head minister or priest of a Christian church, although in some denominations any ordained minister is called pastor. It means shepherd and is also used in reference to bishops and to the pope.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, Religious titles


One of the ancient fathers of Judaism and Christianity — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches, a patriarch is the highest-ranking bishop. Capitalize if used before a name. In the Roman Catholic Church, the patriarch is the bishop of Rome and is called pope. Unlike the pope, who has jurisdiction over all Roman Catholic territories, the authority of Eastern and Oriental patriarchs is more limited. They have a great deal of enforceable jurisdiction in their own territories but no authority over each other’s.

Posted in Christianity, Judaism, Orthodoxy, Religious titles

Pearl of Great Price

One of four scriptures of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is church founder Joseph Smith’s translation and revision of several Bible sections, including parts of Genesis. It also contains Smith’s personal story, his explanation of Mormon beliefs known as “Articles of Faith” and translations of Egyptian papyri Smith purchased. Mormon scriptures also include the Bible (King James Version), the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants.

Posted in Christianity, Mormonism


A five-pointed star inside a circle, it is a symbol of Wicca.

Posted in Paganism/Wicca


The Greek term for the first five books in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word for the same books is Torah.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Judaism, Protestantism


A Christian feast held on the seventh Sunday after Easter that marks the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus Christ.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


A Christian movement that started with a storefront revival on Azusa Street in Los Angeles in 1906 and has spread rapidly around the globe. Once regarded by many Christians as a marginal and almost embarrassing style of faith in which converts are “slain in the spirit” and adherents speak in tongues or perform miracle healings, Pentecostalism has become mainstream. A 2006 survey estimated that one in four Christians in the world is Pentecostal. Pentecostalism takes its name from the Christian feast of Pentecost, when Christians received the Holy Spirit. There are more than 60 Pentecostal denominations. Among the largest are Church of God in Christ, Assemblies of God, the Pentecostal Holiness Church, the United Pentecostal Church Inc. and the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

There are dozens of Pentecostal denominations as well as many nondenominational churches that are Pentecostal, so titles vary greatly. Common titles are bishop, minister, elder and superintendent; capitalize them before a name. Evangelist is another common title, but do not capitalize it, even with a name. Some clergy use the title of the Rev., but some do not.

Posted in Pentecostalism


When referring to religion, pluralism is a framework that allows different religious traditions to interact with each other with respect for each other’s viewpoints but without pressure to adopt or agree with each other’s beliefs. It acknowledges that those in the majority should respect different traditions and not impose their beliefs on others.

Posted in Interfaith, Religion and culture


The practice of having more than one spouse at a time. It was practiced by Mormons in the 1800s but was officially outlawed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1890. Members who are polygamists are excommunicated from the LDS church, but some Mormon offshoot groups still practice it. Polygamy is permitted in Islam, according to the Quran, which states that men can marry up to four women if they can be “equally just” to all of them.

Posted in Christianity, Mormonism


The belief in or worship of more than one god.

Posted in Religion and culture


An alternative name for pope. The word derives from Latin and means bridge builder. Do not use as a formal title or capitalize.

Posted in Catholicism


Most commonly refers to the head of the Roman Catholic Church, but Coptic Orthodox Christians also are led by a pope. Capitalize only when used as a formal title before a name.

Posted in Catholicism, Orthodoxy


A sociological term frequently discussed in relation to religion. Postmodernists believe there are no absolute values or truths; everything is relative and is shaped by the cultural context of a particular time and place. For that reason, postmodernity is considered a threat to religion, which teaches universal truths.

Posted in Christianity, Religion and culture


See devout.

Posted in Religion and culture

Prajnaparamita Sutra

Pronounced “PRUHJ-nyaa-PAA-ruh-mi-taa SOO-trah.” The “Perfection of Wisdom Sutra,” a major scripture in Mahayana Buddhism. It teaches that all phenomena are marked by impermanence and insubstantiality and presents the bodhisattva path.

Posted in Buddhism


The belief that God predetermines whether people’s afterlife is to be spent in heaven or hell. It is most often associated with Swiss theologian John Calvin.

Posted in Protestantism, Religion and culture

premillennial dispensationalism

A foundational belief of conservative Protestants about prophecy and end times, it was conceived in the 19th century by theologian John Nelson Darby and made popular by the Left Behind novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. It combines two theological views. Dispensationalism dictates that history is a series of eras or dispensations in which God interacts with the world in distinct ways. Premillennialism teaches that Jesus Christ will return before reigning for a thousand years, as prophesied in the New Testament Book of Revelation. Together, the theologies teach that the current era will soon end and usher in the Rapture and battle of Armageddon. Each term may also be used independently.

Posted in Protestantism

Presbyterian Church (USA)

One of the two major Presbyterian bodies in the United States. The Presbyterian Church in America is the smaller and more conservative of the two. Always use the full name Presbyterian Church (USA), or PCUSA on subsequent references, to avoid confusion.

The PCUSA is divided into 173 (as of 2010) local governing bodies called presbyteries, which are then grouped into regional synods (16). Each congregation is led by a “session” of elders, although Religion News Service style is to generally not use that word.

The General Assembly meets every two years and is the highest legislative body in the denomination. The highest court in the church is called the Permanent Judicial Council.

Posted in Protestantism

Presbyterian Church in America

The smaller and more conservative of the two main Presbyterian bodies in the U.S. To avoid confusing it with the Presbyterian Church (USA), always use the full name, or PCA on second reference.

Posted in Protestantism

Presbyterian churches

These Protestant members of the Reformed tradition developed in the 16th century from the doctrines of the Calvinist churches in Switzerland and France. In the U.S., there are two major Presbyterian bodies – the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the more conservative, much smaller Presbyterian Church in America – as well as other, even smaller ones. Presbyterian churches are led by a group of elders, a form of church governance known as Presbyterianism. All Presbyterian clergy may be described as ministers. Use the Rev. before a cleric’s name on first reference. On second reference use only the last name.

Posted in Christianity, Protestantism


The term used for ordained clergy of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Episcopal faith. Priest also is used by Wiccans and for some clergy in Buddhism and Hinduism. It is not a formal title and is not capitalized. Avoid the term minister when referring to Catholic priests. Also, while every priest has pastoral duties toward the baptized, the term pastor refers to the priest (and in rare cases, laymen or laywomen) charged by the bishop with overseeing a parish. A pastor may have one or more assistant pastors.

Most Catholic priests in the United States are diocesan clergy, ordained by and for a particular diocese. They make promises of celibacy and obedience, but although they are expected to adhere to a modest lifestyle, they do not take vows of poverty and can own a home, for example, or a car.

The term religious priests refers to priests who belong to a religious order, such as the Jesuits, and hold possessions in common.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Buddhism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Orthodoxy


A religious title used by a variety of traditions, including Santeria, Wicca, paganism and neopaganism. Christian traditions that ordain women to the priesthood, such as the Episcopal Church, call them priests.

Posted in Religious titles

priesthood of all believers

A Christian doctrine that believers have direct access to God and do not need professional priests to act as intermediaries. Based on New Testament passages (including 1 Peter 2:9), it stands in contrast to the role of priests in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. This doctrine has also been a source of debate in the Southern Baptist Convention when members have accused leaders of imposing interpretations of Scripture.

Posted in Baptist/Southern Baptist, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


A term used to describe people who support abortion rights. Abortion, however, is a more nuanced issue, with many people supporting abortion in some circumstances, but not all. Journalists should instead use the term pro-abortion rights or a similar description. See abortion, pro-life.

Posted in Christianity, Government and politics, Protestantism


A term used to describe people who oppose abortion. Abortion, however, is a more nuanced issue, with many people opposing abortion rights in most, but not all, circumstances. Journalists should instead use a description of their views, such as opposed to abortion or against abortion rights. See abortion, pro-choice.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Government and politics, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


A term that emerged as a way to refer to people of faith who are liberal-to-moderate in their political views. It is a disputed term because it implies that other groups are regressive, which carries a negative connotation.

Posted in Government and politics

Progressive National Baptist Convention

An African-American Baptist denomination formed in Cincinnati in 1961 after disagreements with the National Baptist Convention, USA, and partly out of a desire to fully support the civil rights movement.

Posted in African-American, Baptist/Southern Baptist

prophecy, prophesy

The first is a prediction viewed as a divine revelation; the second is a verb meaning to make such a prediction. The principal theological definition of prophesy, though, is not to foretell the future but to speak the word of God. Some Christian traditions – especially Pentecostals – use it primarily to refer to revelation of future events involving the return of Christ. Other churches, however, use it primarily in references to biblical teaching about social justice and concern for the poor.

Posted in Christianity, Pentecostalism, Protestantism, Religion and culture


Someone who speaks divine revelation, or a message they received directly from God. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have certain figures they formally recognize as prophets. Some traditions, including the Mormons, some charismatic groups and some non-Christian faiths, believe their leaders receive ongoing divine revelation. In much of Christianity, all ordained clergy are considered to have a prophetic role because their job is to proclaim the word of God. Capitalize when used before the name Muhammad to refer to Islam’s final prophet, but otherwise do not capitalize as a title.

Posted in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Orthodoxy, Religion and culture


The act of seeking converts to a faith. However, many Christian groups – particularly the Roman Catholic Church – draw a strong distinction between proselytizing and evangelizing. Proselytizing is viewed as the use of unethical methods – such as coercion, bribery or threats – to bring conversions. Evangelizing is considered a pressure-free effort to present the faith and invite others to freely accept it. This distinction explains why Pope John Paul II frequently condemned proselytizing while encouraging – and engaging in – evangelization. Do not use the word proselytize unless you know it is being used in a negative context. Evangelism (Protestant) or evangelization (Catholic or Orthodox) are the preferred terms.

Posted in Christianity, Orthodoxy, Religion and culture

prosperity gospel

The controversial teaching that God will reward signs of faith with wealth, health and happiness. It was popularized during the 1950s, particularly by Oral Roberts and his “Expect a Miracle” television ministry. The prosperity gospel is most frequently preached by televangelists, fundamentalists, evangelicals and African-Americans. It is also called “word faith,” “name-it-and-claim-it,” “health and wealth gospel” and “positive confession.”

Posted in Christianity, Protestantism

Protestant, Protestantism

In the 16th century, church thinkers and leaders such as Martin Luther and John Calvin demanded changes in Roman Catholic Church doctrine and practice. That led to the development of denominations made up of the protesters or “protestants” who declared themselves independent of papal authority. Many Protestants say the word means to “testify forth,” as in to preach the word of God. Protestant churches include Anglican, Baptist, Congregational, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Quaker churches. The label Protestant is not applied to Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons. It also should not be used to describe a member of an Orthodox church.

Posted in Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


Pronounced “POO-ja.” In Hinduism, a generic term for any ritual practice. This can be as simple as an individual saying a prayer or can encompass a complex, multiday ritual involving any number of individuals and priests. Puja generally incorporates a series of hospitality offerings to God.

Posted in Hinduism

Pure Land school

Japanese schools of Mahayana Buddhism whose teachings are based on devotion to the celestial Buddha Amida (also known as Amitabha). Jodoshu (Pure Land School), established in the 12th century by Honan, teaches that devotees have only to call upon Amida by name to invoke his aid on the path toward liberation. Honan’s disciple Shinran established Jodo Shinshu (True Pure Land School) with the same focus on the chanting of Amida’s name but specified that Amida Buddha had already provided liberation for his devotees, who need only realize it.

Posted in Buddhism


The Jewish holiday also called the Feast of Lots, held in February or March. As recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Book of Esther, also called “the Megillah”), it commemorates the deliverance of the Jews by Queen Esther from a massacre plotted by the Persian vizier Haman. Purim is a joyous festival that is celebrated by publicly reading the Megillah, dressing in colorful costumes and regaling the community with “shpiels” (pronounced “sh-PEE-ls”), or humorous Purim plays and skits. See Jewish holidays.

Posted in Judaism


Pronounced “kuh-WAH-lee.” Devotional songs of the Sufi tradition of Islam. Do not capitalize.

Posted in Islam


This group’s formal name is the Religious Society of Friends, but Quakers can be used in all references. Members typically refer to themselves as Friends. Historically, Quakers are considered Christian; some Quakers today consider themselves nontheistic. Their worship and business gatherings are called meetings. Although there is no recognized ranking of clergy over lay people, meeting officers are called elders or ministers, and these terms should be capitalized when used before a name. Many Quaker ministers in the Midwest and West use the Rev. before their names.

Posted in Quaker


Pronounced “ku-RAHN.” The holy book of Islam, which Muslims believe is the direct word of God as dictated in Arabic to Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel during the month of Ramadan beginning in 610 to about 632. The Quran contains laws for society, as well as descriptions of heaven and hell and warnings on the end of the world. It also includes stories of figures found in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, but Muslims believe the Quran supersedes those holy writings. Quran is the preferred spelling and is capitalized in all references. The spelling Koran should only be used if it is in a specific title or name.

Posted in Islam


Hebrew word for teacher and the title used by Jewish clergy. On first reference, capitalize before a name. On second reference use only the cleric’s last name.

Posted in Judaism, Religious titles


Pronounced “Raam.” In Hinduism, one of the two most popular incarnations of Lord Vishnu and venerated hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana. For most Ram devotees, his name refers to the unqualified absolute, or Brahman. Ram’s exemplary life helps to set high standards of dignity and nobility as an integral part of the Hindu way of life. Sita is his wife.

Posted in Hinduism


Pronounced “rah-mah-DAHN.” Islam’s holy month, during which Muslims fast from sunup to sundown. Ramadan commemorates the time during which the faithful believe Allah sent the Angel Gabriel to Muhammad in Mecca and gave him the teachings of the Quran. The end of Ramadan is marked by Eid al-Fitr. Because Islam follows a lunar calendar, Ramadan shifts each year as calculated by Western calendars. See Eid al-Fitr.

Posted in Islam


Pronounced “Raa-MAY-yah-nah.” One of the two Hindu epics; the other is the Mahabharata. Originally written in Sanskrit, it is the story of God taking a human form to destroy evil and teach the path of righteous behavior. The most popular telling of the story was written by Tulsidas in Hindi and is called the Ramcharitmanas. It is the predominant scripture in North India and in the Hindu diaspora.

Posted in Hinduism


In Christian eschatology, a term used to describe the sudden transportation of true Christians into heaven before other events associated with the end of the world take place. See premillennial dispensationalism.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism

Reconstructionist Judaism

A 20th-century movement, founded by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, that views Judaism as a social rather than a God-centered phenomenon. Reconstructionists generally do not believe the Hebrew Scriptures are divinely inspired, reject the idea of God as male or female, are less hierarchical and believe that Jewish law as a guiding principle isn’t binding. Reconstructionist rabbis are ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa.

Posted in Judaism


In the Anglican and Episcopal churches, the priest in charge of a parish who is responsible for conducting worship and leading spiritual affairs. If there is more than one priest at a parish, the rector is the senior priest, elected by the vestry and approved by the bishop. If the rector lives in parish-owned housing, it is called the rectory.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian

Reform Judaism

The dominant branch of Judaism in the United States. Originated in Germany in the 1700s, Reform Judaism is a more liberal form of Judaism than the Orthodox and Conservative branches. It is rooted in the belief that an individual’s personal autonomy overrides traditional Jewish law and custom. The individual decides which Jewish practices, if any, to adopt. It also believes that both traditional rabbinic modes of study and less traditional ones are valid ways to learn about and from the Hebrew Bible. Reform Judaism also is more accommodating to modern lifestyles and ideas.

Posted in Judaism, Reform


See Protestant, Protestantism.

Posted in Christianity, Protestantism


The belief that a person’s soul is reborn in another body after physical death. It is common in many Asian traditions — including Buddhism, Sikhism and Hinduism — as well as some Native American traditions. According to Hinduism and Buddhism, incarnation in the next life is determined by one’s previous actions. See karma.

Posted in Buddhism, Hinduism, Religion and culture, Sikhism


A general term referring to religious practice. It should not be used in regard to different traditions within the same faith. For instance, Catholics and Baptists should not be referred to as belonging to different religions. They both belong to the Christian religion. The same goes for Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Reform and Orthodox Jews.

Posted in Religion and culture

Religious Freedom Restoration Act

A federal law passed in 1993 that offers important protections for people’s right to the free exercise of religion. It prohibits the government from burdening a person’s religious practice unless a compelling state interest justifies the restriction. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the law did not apply to state or local governments, states began passing their own RFRA laws. RFRA is acceptable on second reference.

Posted in Government and politics

religious habit

The traditional garment worn by members of religious orders, the habit is analogous to the cassock worn by diocesan clergy. Each order has a distinctive style. Franciscans, for example, wear a simple brown habit with a hood, along with sandals, similar to that worn by the order’s founder, St. Francis. The habit generally has its origins in contemporary dress of the period the order was founded. The habits of many sisters and nuns resemble clothing worn by widows in ancient times, for example. Wearing the habit used to be compulsory, but the regulations were relaxed after the Second Vatican Council, and many religious, men and women, wear regular street clothes.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy

religious left

A term used to describe people of faith with liberal political views. Journalists can refer to the so-called “religious left,” but it is best to specify which groups they are referring to and what action they are promoting. See religious right and progressive.

Posted in Government and politics

religious movements

Refers to a shift in the thinking, doctrine or practice of people within a specific religion. Also refers to the development of a new religion.

Posted in Religion and culture

religious orders

Religious orders are communities that live by a particular “rule” that guides their daily communal prayer and work lives. Members profess vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. These rules are usually set forth by the founder of the order. For example, the Benedictines live by the Rule of St. Benedict, composed by the sixth-century monk who is considered the founder of Western monasticism. Franciscans, another well-known order, live according to the precepts and principles — especially service to the poor — set out by St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. Dominicans, founded by St. Dominic, are known for their vigorous preaching. Many orders have communities of men and communities of women. Men’s religious orders often have priests, who are ordained, and brothers, who have taken vows but are considered lay people. The Jesuits, the largest Catholic order today, is all-male, with priests and brothers. There are many manifestations of vowed religious life in Catholicism, and each order often has different communities that live according to reforms instituted through the centuries. Some religious communities are contemplative or cloistered, meaning their days are spent apart from the world and largely in prayer.

Religious life is believed to have originated with desert monks and hermits whose ascetic practices were brought to Europe in the early centuries of Christianity. In the United States, many religious orders operate schools and universities, in addition to running some parishes. (Most parishes are overseen by diocesan priests.) Orders are under the jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop, but they have a great deal of autonomy.

Members of religious orders have initials after their names that indicate the official title of their order. For example, the best-known group of Franciscans is known as the Order of Friars Minor, and its members have O.F.M. after their names. Similarly, the formal name for the Jesuits is the Society of Jesus, denoted by S.J. Accepted style does not include the initials, but rather names the person’s order as part of the identifier. For example, “C.S.J.” stands for “Congregation of St. Joseph,” but in referring to a member of that order one would write: Sister Helen Prejean, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph, works for the abolition of the death penalty.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity

religious references

In general, follow AP’s guidelines on religious references.

  • deities: Capitalize the proper names of the deities from monotheistic religions — God, Allah, the Father, the Son, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit. Lowercase pronouns referring to the deities. When referring to the deities of polytheistic religions, lowercase the words god and gods, but capitalize the proper name of a specific deity, such as Zeus or Odin.
  • life of Christ: Capitalize the names of major events in Jesus Christ’s life, such as the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Nativity, the Resurrection. Crucifixion and Resurrection should always be capitalized when referring to Jesus — a departure from AP style.
  • rites: Capitalize proper names for rites commemorating the Last Supper or that signify a belief in Christ’s presence, such as the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, Holy Eucharist. The word communion alone is lowercase. Lowercase the names of other sacraments. Capitalize Benediction when referring to the Catholic religious service with that name, but not when referring to other rites or acts of blessing. Capitalize Mass, but lowercase preceding adjectives, such as funeral Mass.
  • holy days: Capitalize the names of holy days.
  • other references: Lowercase heaven, hell and devil. Capitalize Hades and Satan. Lowercase angel unless it precedes a name, such as the Angel Gabriel. Lowercase apostle unless it precedes the name of one of the original Twelve Apostles or of Paul, or refers to those Apostles collectively.
Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, Religion and culture

religious right

A term used to describe people and groups whose religious beliefs inform their conservative political and social views. The term dates to 1979, when the Rev. Jerry Falwell formed the Moral Majority. Since then, politically active religious conservatives have diversified in their goals and approaches. Journalists should refer to the so-called “religious right” or religious conservatives. It is best to specify which groups the term refers to and what they are promoting. See religious left.

Posted in Christianity, Government and politics, Protestantism

Religious Society of Friends

See Quakers.

Posted in Quaker

Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints

See Community of Christ, the.

Posted in Christianity, Mormonism

revelation, Revelation

In monotheistic religions, revelation is the process through which God reveals or communicates truths about God’s self or will. Uppercase when referring to the final book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation. (Note that Revelation is singular.)

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Judaism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, Religion and culture

Reverend, the

An attributive form of address given to many but not all ordained Christian and Buddhist clergy. Do not use this honorific form unless you are sure that the particular denomination accepts its use. Follow AP style of using the article the to precede the abbreviation Rev. Never use the Rev. Dr. together before a name. See religious titles for guidance.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Buddhism, Catholicism, Christianity, Protestantism, Religious titles


Pronounced “RAHN-poh-shay.” Literally “precious one,” rinpoche is a title of respect for a Buddhist teacher, often signaling one considered to be an incarnate lama. The title of rinpoche generally follows a name, but practice varies, especially in the United States. Capitalize when used before or after a name. See lama and tulku.

Posted in Buddhism, Religious titles

Roman Catholic Church

It is the largest Christian community in the world and in the U.S. The Roman Catholic Church considers itself to be the one, true, and full expression of the church founded by Jesus Christ. (The word catholic means “universal.”)

It traces its origins to the Church of Rome, which was one of several pre-eminent churches in the apostolic age of the first century. (Others were in Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and elsewhere.) The Catholic Church believes that through St. Peter — considered the first bishop of Rome, where he was martyred — the Church of Rome early on exercised a primacy and authority over the other churches. That authority continued to be exercised under the successors to Peter, bishops who later came to be known by the title of pope.

The Catholic Church says the basis of the Petrine and papal authority starts with Jesus’ commission to Peter in Matthew 16:18. The assertion and its practice were always matters of dispute. The first major fracture came in the 11th century, when Western, Latin-Rite Christianity under the bishop of Rome split with the patriarchs of the Orthodox churches in the East, based in Constantinople. The Catholic Church still considers Eastern Orthodoxy a true church with which it has few significant doctrinal differences — the authority of the pope being one of them. Rome characterizes much of Protestantism as not comprising true churches but rather “ecclesial communities.”

The Roman Catholic Church was known simply as the Catholic Church until the Protestant Reformation, when the authority of the pope became a source of contention. Catholics began to use the Roman appellation to reinforce their unity under the pope, and the primacy of the papacy has become one of the distinguishing marks of modern Catholicism.

Catholic belief and practice are ordered around seven sacraments — Holy Eucharist, baptism, confirmation, penance (confession), matrimony, holy orders (ordination) and the sacrament of the sick.

The pope’s seat of power is the Holy See at the Vatican. He selects bishops and members of the College of Cardinals. Cardinals usually are bishops, but that is not a requirement. When a new pope must be chosen, the cardinals gather in a conclave to select him.

Outside of Rome, the church’s principal organizational units are archdioceses, headed by archbishops, and dioceses, headed by bishops. Both report directly to Rome. The highest office in the Catholic Church is that of bishop; the pope is the bishop of Rome. In reality, the hierarchical structure among ordained clergy is pope, cardinal, archbishop, bishop, monsignor, priest and deacon. Women are barred from holy orders.

Posted in Catholicism, Orthodoxy


A form of repetitive prayer and meditation used by Roman Catholics. The beads of the rosary are separated into five decades, with each decade representing a mystery or event in the life of Jesus Christ. The Apostles’ Creed is said while holding the rosary’s crucifix; the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer) is said on each of the large beads; the Hail Mary is said on each of the small beads; the Glory Be is said after the three Hail Marys at the beginning of the rosary and after each decade of small beads. In 2002, Pope John Paul II made the unprecedented move of introducing a fourth, optional set of mysteries. The rosary is recited or said, not read. Always lowercase rosary.

Posted in Catholicism

Rosh Hashanah

Pronounced “rohsh-huh-SHAH-nuh.” The Jewish New Year, celebrated according to the Hebrew calendar sometime between the middle of September and the middle of October. See Jewish holidays.

Posted in Judaism


Title for Zen Buddhist master, literally “old teacher.” It generally follows a name, but practice varies, especially in the United States. Capitalize when used before or after a name.

Posted in Buddhism, Religious titles


Some Amish allow their youth, after age 16, to spend a couple years free of the most intense restrictions of their faith while still living with their parents. The purpose is to make sure they are committed to their faith before they are baptized. The vast majority decide to remain within the Amish community.

Posted in Amish/Mennonite

Russian Orthodox Church

Branch of the Eastern Church of Christianity with headquarters in Moscow. It is the largest of the national and ethnic churches of Eastern Orthodoxy. See Eastern Orthodox.

Posted in Orthodoxy


The day of the week observed for rest and worship. Most Christian traditions observe the Sabbath on Sunday. Judaism — along with some Christian traditions such as Seventh-day Adventists — observes the Sabbath on Saturday. (Jews’ observance of the Sabbath begins at sundown Friday.) Capitalize in religious references but lowercase when talking about periods of rest. See Shabbat.

Posted in Christianity, Judaism, Orthodoxy


A Christian rite than confers grace and serves as a visible form of it. The Orthodox, Roman Catholic and certain Episcopal churches believe there are seven sacraments: Eucharist or Communion, baptism, confirmation, penance (often called confession), anointing of the ill, marriage and ordination (holy orders). Most Protestant churches recognize only two sacraments, baptism and Communion. Lowercase sacrament, but capitalize when using the proper names for sacramental rites that commemorate the life of Christ or signify a belief in his presence, such as the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion and Holy Eucharist. Lowercase the other sacraments.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Mormonism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


Characterized by irreverence toward a sacred person, place or thing.

Posted in Religion and culture


Pronounced “SAAD-han-aa.” In Hinduism, religious practice that is undertaken on a regular basis for the purpose of purifying oneself to gain wisdom, devotion or enlightenment.

Posted in Hinduism


Pronounced “SAA-dhu.” A Hindu ascetic who has renounced advancement in the material world and has dedicated his or her life to the search for wisdom, devotion, God, truth or enlightenment. There are many different types in India, grouped into orders according to their beliefs and practices. They may live in monasteries (ashrams) or as hermits and wanderers. They often live on alms, or provisions and gifts they are given. Sadhvi (pronounced “SAA-dhvee”) is the female form.

Posted in Hinduism


In Catholicism, a saint is anyone who is judged to have lived a holy life, to be in heaven and to be a model Christian worthy of public veneration. Canonization is the process in the Catholic Church by which a deceased person is officially recognized as having joined the “communion of saints” in heaven and therefore able to intercede with God in a special way for people on earth. Capitalize and abbreviate as St. when referring to names of saints, cities and other places. Follow the AP exceptions for the cities of Saint John in New Brunswick and Sault Ste. Marie. See canonization.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity


Pronounced “sahm-SAA-rah.” The cycle of birth, death and rebirth (and thus continual return to the suffering that constitutes human life). The fundamental goal of Buddhist practice is to be freed from samsara.

Posted in Buddhism


An ancient classical language of India in which most of the texts of Hinduism were written.

Posted in Hinduism


The term was first coined by the Spanish to describe the way West African slaves combined Roman Catholic traditions with aboriginal religious rites. The faith focuses on trances for communicating with ancestors and often involves animal sacrifice. Santeria is practiced in the Caribbean and in some major American cities with significant Caribbean populations. It shares some characteristics with Voodoo, another syncretistic religion in the Caribbean that also traces its roots to West Africa. Santeria is known by several other names, including Lukumi. The name Santeria is actually considered a pejorative by some but has come into common usage, even among some followers, and is acceptable to use. Uppercase Santeria in all references.

Posted in Catholicism, Santería


In the Hebrew Bible, Satan is depicted as an angel used by God to test man. In the New Testament, Satan is a fallen angel who is the ultimate evil and enemy of God and man. In Islam, Satan was the head jinn or genie until he angered God by refusing to accept man’s superiority. Uppercase in all references, but always lowercase devil.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Orthodoxy


Term in Zen Buddhism for the experience of awakening to the truth.

Posted in Buddhism


Pronounced “SAHT-vah.” In Hinduism, the quality of light and goodness.

Posted in Hinduism


Always capitalize when referring to Jesus Christ.

Posted in Adventism, Amish/Mennonite, Anglican/Episcopalian, Baptist/Southern Baptist, Catholicism, Christian Science, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, Protestantism, Quaker


See Church of Scientology.

Posted in Scientology

scripture, scriptures

The sacred writings of a religious group. Capitalize when referring to writings from the Holy Bible but not otherwise.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, Religion and culture

Second Coming

Always capitalize when referring to the return of Jesus that is prophesied in the Bible.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism

Second Vatican Council

See Vatican II.

Posted in Catholicism


Refers to a group that has broken off from another. Avoid this label unless you are sure it fits; it often carries negative connotations.

Posted in Religion and culture

secular humanism

An outlook that emphasizes human rather than religious values. Secular humanism stresses reason, scientific inquiry, individual freedom and responsibility, human values and compassion, and the need for tolerance and cooperation.

Posted in Atheism/Agnosticism, Religion and culture


The belief that religion and religious considerations have no place in public life and education.

Posted in Religion and culture


The ritualized dinner held in Jewish homes on the first night or first two nights of Passover. The word seder means “order” in Hebrew. It commemorates the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt as described in the book of Exodus, and it features special foods and the reading of the Haggadah, a compilation of biblical passages, prayers, hymns and rabbinic literature. See Passover.

Posted in Judaism


A bishop’s official seat or center of authority.

Posted in Catholicism


Title of teacher in a Zen Buddhist lineage, it refers to one who has received dharma transmission, or formal recognition of his or her awakening. Capitalize with a name. The title sensei generally follows a name, but practice varies, especially in the United States. Sensei is also a title in Japanese martial arts.

Posted in Buddhism


A term used to describe people or groups who support a strong separation of church and state in legal matters. See accommodationist, Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause.

Posted in Government and politics


Pronounced “suh-FAR-dee.” A Jew of Portuguese, Spanish or North African descent. Originally, Sephardi meant a Jew descended from the Iberian Peninsula, but it has now come to mean Jews who are not Ashkenazim, including Jews from Arab countries and Greece. Sephardic Jews are estimated to make up 20 percent of the world’s Jewish population. The plural form of Sephardi is Sephardim. See Ashkenazi.

Posted in Judaism


See devout.

Posted in Religion and culture

seven deadly sins

Pope Gregory the Great is credited with devising this list in the sixth century of the worst human vices: pride, envy, greed, anger, sloth, lust and gluttony.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity

Seventh-day Adventist Church

A Christian denomination that traces its origin to William Miller, who predicted that the world would end in the mid-1840s based on his reading of the Book of Daniel. When that failed to occur, Miller’s followers split into smaller groups, one of which eventually became the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Seventh-day Adventists observe Saturday as their Sabbath. Ministers use the title pastor or elder, which should be capitalized before a name on first reference. The honorific the Rev. is not used.

Posted in Adventism

sexual orientation

Sexual attraction. Use the term sexual orientation instead of sexual preference.

Posted in Religion and culture


Hebrew word for Sabbath. The Jewish Sabbath is from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Shabbat is observed by lighting candles on Friday night (this is usually done by the woman of the house) and sharing a special family meal. Religious services that include a reading from the Torah happen on Saturday morning, after which families gather for a Shabbat lunch. Shabbat ends with the lighting of a three-wicked “havdalah” candle and the passing around of a fragrant spice box, the scent of which is supposed to carry the peace of Shabbat into the work week. Orthodox Jews refrain from driving, turning lights on or off and a number of other activities that are considered “work” on Shabbat.

Posted in Judaism


Pronounced “SHAK-tee.” In Hinduism, the active power or manifest energy that pervades all of existence and is represented in feminine names and forms.

Posted in Hinduism


A spiritual leader in a tribal society who heals people by channeling spirits, often in an altered state. Sometimes referred to as a medicine man or witch doctor. It is a description rather than a formal title; do not capitalize, even when used with a name.

Posted in Religion and culture, Religious titles


Pronounced “sha-REE-ya.” The revealed and canonical laws of Islam. Some countries base their legal systems on Shariah; their legislators create laws and rules based on the Quran, hadith and other sources.

Posted in Islam


Pronounced “shuh-VOO-oat.” The name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks, which commemorates Moses’ receiving of the Ten Commandments. Shavuot falls 49 days after Passover. These days are counted out ritually by Jews in a practice known as “Counting the Omer.” Shavuot occurs in May or June. See Jewish holidays.

Posted in Judaism


Most Islamic clergymen use the title sheikh like a Christian cleric uses the Rev.

Sheikh also is used as a secular title. Capitalize it when used before a name, but lowercase otherwise.

Posted in Islam, Religious titles


Pronounced “shu-MAH.” Considered the most important prayer in Judaism, it consists of Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which begins, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”

Posted in Judaism

Shiism, Shiite

Shiism is the name of the smaller of the two major branches of Islam. It developed after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, when his followers split over who would lead Islam. The Shiism branch favored Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. Its followers are called Shiites. Use Shiite instead of Shi’ah unless in a quote or as part of a name. Uppercase in all uses.

Posted in Islam, Shiite


Japan’s indigenous religion. It has no formal doctrine and stresses nature, harmony and personal cleanliness. In 1868, it was declared Japan’s official religion after the emperor regained power from the shoguns. After World War II, the religion was separated from the state. Uppercase in all references.

Posted in Shinto


Pronounced “SHEE-vah.” A popular representation of God in Hinduism. He is worshipped as the lord of time and change. Brahma is the name used for God when God’s role as creator of the universe is described. God is referred to as Vishnu when God’s role as preserver is emphasized. The divine is always understood to be one. Shiva’s consort has the names of Parvati, Kali and Durga. Also spelled Siva (pronounced “SEE-vah”).

Posted in Hinduism


The Jewish term for the seven-day period of mourning in which close relatives “sit shiva” after a person’s funeral. During shiva, mourners abstain from work, sex, learning and following other rules. Mourners often sit on low stools or benches to symbolize how they are brought low by grief, and they cover all mirrors in the shiva house to focus on the deceased rather than on their own vanity. The purpose of shiva is to honor the dead and to help the mourner grieve. Others visit a home where someone is sitting shiva.

Posted in Judaism

Shmini Atseret

Jewish holiday celebrated eight days after the beginning of Sukkot. Shmini means “the eighth.”

Posted in Judaism


The Hebrew word for holocaust. The memorial day for those who died in the Holocaust is called Yom Hashoah and takes place in March or April.

Posted in Judaism


A ceremonial ram’s horn sounded on Jewish holidays and special occasions, particularly Rosh Hashanah.

Posted in Judaism


A Yiddish word for a Jewish house of worship. The term is primarily used by Orthodox Jews.

Posted in Judaism


Pronounced “SHOON-yuh-taa.” Emptiness, a key teaching in Mahayana Buddhism that all phenomena lack real and permanent substance.

Posted in Buddhism

Siddhartha Gautama

Pronounced “Sid-DHART-hah GAU-tuh-mah.” Name of the historical Buddha, also known as Shakyamuni (“sage of the Shakya clan”). Born to a wealthy ruling family between the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. in an area that is part of modern-day Nepal, he left the kingdom at age 29 after encountering the outside world of illness, old age and death beyond the palace walls, to find enlightenment and release from suffering. After years as a wandering ascetic, he awoke to the true nature of reality after meditating under a bodhi tree and spent the rest of his life passing on to others what he had realized. The title Buddha means awakened or enlightened one. Gautama did not teach that he was a god; as a historical figure, he is venerated in Buddhist tradition as a perfect teacher and ultimate authority. (“Lord Buddha” is a term of respect rather than a title of divinity.) See Buddha and Buddhism.

Posted in Buddhism


The traditional pronunciation is “SICK-ism,” but it is commonly pronounced “SEEK-ism.”

The Sikh religion is the fifth-largest organized religion in the world. Followers are called Sikhs (which means students). It originated in 15th-century Punjab (now North India and Pakistan) when Guru Nanak, the first Sikh teacher, turned against the caste system, forced conversion and empty ritual in medieval Hinduism and Islam. Through devotional (bhakti) poetry and music, he taught that all religions lead to One Formless God, that all people, including women and the poor, are equal and that all may realize liberation here and now through living an honest life of love and service (seva).

Nine gurus succeeded him, and in 1699, the 10th teacher, Guru Gobind Singh, formed Sikhs into the Khalsa: a spiritual sisterhood/brotherhood in which men share the last name Singh (“lion”) and women share the name Kaur (“daughter of kings”). All were given five articles of faith (the Five Kakaars), including long uncut hair, which men and some women wrap in a turban. The 11th and lasting Sikh teacher is Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, also known as the Adi Granth.

Sikhism has no clergy, but spiritual guides may be called gurus; capitalize this title before a name.

Posted in Sikhism

Simchat Torah

Pronounced “SIM-hot TO-rah.” A Jewish holiday marking the completion of the yearlong cycle during which the entire Torah is read.

Posted in Judaism


Pronounced “singg.” A last name shared by all men who practice the Sikh religion, it means “lion.” The 10th Sikh teacher, Guru Gobind Singh, gave Sikhs the same last names as a sign of equality (traditional last names in 17th-century North India indicated caste).

Posted in Sikhism


A member of a religious order of women. Uppercase when used as a title before a name. On second reference, continue to use Sister and the first name if the person is known that way, such as Sister Joan. Otherwise, use only the last name on second reference. Anglican orders for women may include both lay and ordained members.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy


Pronounced “SEE-taa.” In Hinduism, the wife of the avatar Lord Ram, as depicted in the Hindu epic Ramayana. For millions of Hindus, Sita represents the perfect mother and expression of womanly virtue.

Posted in Hinduism


A small, close-fitting headpiece worn in some religious traditions, particularly by men. Other names for it include yarmulke or kippa (worn by Jews), zucchetto (worn by Roman Catholic prelates) and kufi (worn by Muslims).

Posted in Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Religion and culture

Social Gospel

Refers to a Protestant movement, prominent in the 19th and early 20th centuries, that sought to apply Jesus’ teachings to social problems, such as poverty and industrialization. Sin and salvation were seen as social rather than individual.

Posted in Government and politics, Protestantism

Society of Friends, Religious

See Quakers.

Posted in Quaker

Soka Gakkai

“Value Creation Society,” a Japanese Buddhist group based on the teachings of the Nichiren school of Mahayana Buddhism. It holds the Lotus Sutra to be the only scripture needed for salvation, which is achieved by venerating and chanting its title.

Posted in Buddhism

Soka Gakkai International-USA

An American Buddhist association based on the teachings of the Nichiren school of Mahayana Buddhism. See Buddhism.

Posted in Buddhism


A person from Somalia, or as an adjective for a thing related to Somalia. Avoid “Somalian.”

Posted in Government and politics

Southern Baptist Convention

The nation’s largest Protestant denomination and the world’s largest Baptist association, it was founded in the United States in 1845. It is the second-largest religious group in the United States after the Catholic Church. Like other Baptist bodies, the SBC places great store in the authority of the Bible, the independence of every congregation and the “priesthood of all believers” — the right and responsibility of every believer to personally understand the will of God. The SBC also puts great emphasis on “The Great Commission,” the passage in Matthew where Jesus commands his disciples to “make disciples of all the nations” (28:18-20). The national convention is a voluntary association of state conventions. Technically, the leadership of the SBC holds no authority over any churches or church members. In practice, the current leadership of the convention has emphasized a document called the Baptist Faith and Message, which sets out specific interpretations of the Bible on issues including the nature of God and Jesus, the role of women and men in the family and the church, and the end times. The SBC was formed when it split from a national Baptist association because of its support of slavery, a stand it formally apologized for in 1995. SBC is acceptable on second reference.

Posted in Baptist/Southern Baptist


The belief that the human personality survives death and can communicate with the living, usually through the use of a medium. Sometimes called spiritism.

Posted in Religion and culture


In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a stake is a designated geographic area of inhabitants. Stakes are divided into wards and branches, and Mormons are expected to attend the church they are assigned to. The Community of Christ (previously known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) also uses the term stake.

Posted in Christianity, Mormonism

Star of David

A six-pointed star that is a symbol of Judaism and of Israel. The Hebrew term for it is Magen David, which translates as “shield of David.”

Posted in Judaism


Burial mounds containing relics of the historical Buddha across the Indian subcontinent. Many were later developed into shrines or temple compounds.

Posted in Buddhism


Pronounced “SOO-fee-izem.” An Islamic mystic tradition with followers around the world.

Posted in Islam


Pronounced “SOO-koht.” Seven-day Jewish festival commemorating the Israelites’ life as they wandered 40 years in the desert after being liberated from slavery in Egypt. Sukkot is the word for the booths the Israelites lived in. Also called the Feast of the Booths or the Feast of the Tabernacles. It is considered one of the most important Jewish holidays and occurs during September or October. See Jewish holidays.

Posted in Judaism


Pronounced “SOO-nee.” The largest denomination in Islam, followed by about 85 percent of Muslims. The plural form is Sunnis.

Posted in Islam, Sunni

sutra, sutta

Pronounced “SOO-trah” and “SUHT-ta.” In Buddhism, a sutra is a text containing the Buddha’s discourses. Sutras have been preserved in Sanskrit and Pali and in Chinese and Tibetan translations. The scriptures of Theravada Buddhism — the Pali canon, which are in the Pali language – include a collection of such texts, which are called suttas. They are subdivided into sections called Nikayas. These texts are said to have been transmitted from Ananda, the Buddha’s closest disciple. The schools of Mahayana Buddhism base their teachings on the interpretation of any of a number of other sutras originally written in Sanskrit. These are known by the Sanskrit term sutra. Individual Mahayana schools base their teaching on specific sutras.

Posted in Buddhism


Pronounced “SVA-mee.” In Hinduism, a title of respect and reverence conferred on a religious teacher and, in particular, one who has taken vows of celibacy and renunciation. It literally means one who has self-control. Capitalize before a name.

Posted in Hinduism


Pronounced “SVA-stik-a.” It is one of the most popular symbols for Hindus, Jains and Buddhists. The word swastika is derived from Sanskrit words that mean “auspicious,” “luck” and “well-being.” It is also a sign of the Sun-God Surya and his generosity. The swastika is one of the 108 symbols of Lord Vishnu and represents the sun’s rays, without which there would be no life. The swastika is used in religious and civil ceremonies in India, both public and private.

Use extreme care in stories that mention the hooked-cross symbol associated with Nazi Germany and neo-Nazi groups. Although the symbol is commonly called a swastika, some historians say Adolf Hitler and the Nazis never called it that. The emblem can be referred to as the Nazi cross or by its German name, Hakenkreuz.

Posted in Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism


Jewish place of worship. In Orthodox communities, people live within walking distance of their synagogues.

Posted in Judaism


A council, usually in a Christian church, convened to decide a doctrinal or administrative issue. Uppercase in formal names.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


A Greek word, meaning “to view together,” used to refer to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, which tell many of the same stories of Jesus’ life and can be compared side-by-side. The Gospel of John tells different stories in a different sequence.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


An important Chinese Mahayana Buddhist school founded in the sixth century; the scripture on which it rests is a discourse of the Buddha known as the Lotus Sutra. The tradition was later brought to Japan, where it is known as Tendai.

Posted in Buddhism


Pronounced “TEH-zay.” A Christian worship service known for silence, simple music, candle lighting, prayer and meditation. It is drawn from the practices of a monastic community founded in the Burgundy region of France during World War II. Taizé emphasizes Christian unity. People from Roman Catholic, Protestant and other traditions from all over the world flock to Taizé to take part in worship, service and reflection.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Protestantism

taking refuge

In Buddhism, taking refuge is an important act of commitment in which a person proclaims his faith in the Three Jewels — Buddha, the dharma and the Sangha. See Three Jewels.

Posted in Buddhism


An object believed to have magical powers.

Posted in Religion and culture


In Judaism, the extensive written body of interpretation and commentary by scholarly ancient rabbis of the oral law believed to have been given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai. The Talmud is made up of the Mishnah, which is the written version of early Jewish oral law, and the Gemara, which interprets and comments on the Mishnah and other traditional texts. The Talmud constitutes the basis of religious authority in Orthodox Judaism and is distinct from the written law of the Torah.

Posted in Judaism


The technical name for the entire Hebrew Bible. It includes the Torah, the Prophets and the Sacred Writings, organized into 24 books.

Posted in Judaism


Pronounced “Dow.” The ever-changing energy of the universe that flows all around in the form of nature. In Taoism, Tao is unknowable and therefore cannot be defined. In Confucianism, Tao is the correct manner of conduct that stems from universal standards and ideals that govern right and wrong.

Posted in Confucianism, Taoism


Pronounced “DOW-ism.” A school of philosophical and religious teachings that stem from Tao. Taoism is one of the major religions in China, although it was forcefully suppressed during Maoist Communist rule. When tolerance of some religions was restored in China in the early 1980s, Taoism began to flourish again.

Posted in Taoism


A set of cards used in fortunetelling. It is usually made up of 78 playing cards, including 22 cards, the Major Arcana, that depict the elements, vices and virtues in sometimes elaborate drawings.

Posted in Religion and culture


Pronounced “tau-HEED.” The concept that denotes the oneness and unity of God; it is the basis of Islam.

Posted in Islam


A building used for worship or religious purposes. Uppercase when part of a formal name or when referring to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The word temple is used differently in different religious traditions. It is the place of worship for Hindus, Buddhists and Jews, although Orthodox Jews and many Conservative Jews believe the only temple is the one destroyed in Jerusalem and so they call their congregational buildings synagogues. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, temples are sacred buildings with restricted access; they differ in purpose from meetinghouses, where weekly worship takes place.

Posted in Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Religion and culture

Temple Mount

The area in the old city of Jerusalem that housed ancient Jewish temples. See also Al-Aqsa.

Posted in Judaism

Ten Commandments

The biblical edicts handed to Moses by God atop Mount Sinai. They are the basis of Mosaic law. They are found in Exodus 20:2-17, 34:12-26, and Deuteronomy 5:6-21; Exodus 20 is the most commonly quoted version. The commandments are numbered differently by Jews and by different Christian traditions, including Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic Christians. The different numbering and wording (according to the biblical translation chosen) is one factor that has made public posting of the Ten Commandments controversial.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Judaism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


A government ruled by religious authority or people who believe they are carrying out divine directions.

Posted in Government and politics


Pronounced “teh-ruh-VAA-dah.” One of the two main forms of Buddhism, it means “the way of the elders.” (The other is Mahayana.) Theravada is an early tradition directed to the monastic community. Its ideal is the arhat, the individual who attains enlightenment and thus escapes the cycle of rebirth through practices involving ethical conduct, meditation and insight. Its scriptures are those of the Pali canon, held to represent the earliest direct teachings of the Buddha. Theravada Buddhism is the form found in most of Southeast Asia (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Laos). An adherent of the Theravada school is a Theravadin.

Posted in Buddhism

Three Jewels

In Buddhism, the three objects Buddhists take refuge in or give themselves to: the Buddha (both the historical Buddha and the Buddha-nature that is in every sentient being), the dharma (the Buddha’s teachings as well as universal law) and the Sangha (the monastic community as well as the wider community of Buddhists everywhere). See taking refuge.

Posted in Buddhism


Pronounced “ti-PIH-tuh-kah.” The “Three Baskets,” or collections, of early Buddhist texts that make up the Pali canon, the scriptures of the Theravada school of Buddhism. The Vinaya Pitaka lists regulations for monks and nuns, the Sutta Pitaka consists of discourses from the historical Buddha or his disciples, and the Abhidhamma Pitaka presents a systematic organization of the teachings.

Posted in Buddhism

Tisha B’Av

Pronounced “TI-shah Bav.” Literally, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. Jews fast and mourn the destruction of the two ancient Temples.

Posted in Judaism

titles, religious

See religious titles.

Posted in Religion and culture


The Jewish sacred writings found in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Also called “the Five Books of Moses,” the Torah is copied by specialized scribes onto parchment scrolls and is treated with great care and respect by Jewish congregations. The term Torah is sometimes also used to describe the larger body of Jewish law and Scripture.

Posted in Judaism


A representation of a person or likeness such as an animal or plant that is revered by a tribe or group. It is a part of many American Indian and African religious practices.

Posted in Other faiths, Religion and culture

Transcendental Meditation

A form of meditation made popular by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who introduced it in 1955. TM is acceptable on second reference.

Posted in Hinduism, Other faiths


Adjective describing people whose gender identity/expression differs from the biological features they were born with. Includes preoperative and postoperative transsexuals, female and male cross-dressers, drag queens or kings, female or male impersonators and intersex people. The National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association Stylebook Supplement advises, “When writing about a transgender person, use the name and personal pronouns consistent with the way the person lives publicly.” Do not necessarily equate transsexual with transgender. Transsexuals are people who identify themselves as members of the opposite sex and who acquire the physical characteristics of that gender.

Posted in Gender and sexuality


The doctrine that the bread and wine are physically transformed into the body and blood of Christ when consecrated in the Eucharist. The Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox churches believe in transubstantiation. See consubstantiation.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy


This key doctrine in Christianity says that God, the Son and the Holy Spirit together make up the one Godhead. The exact nature and definition of the Trinity were central in the split between the Eastern and Western Christian churches.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


Pronounced “TOO-bi She-VOT.” Literally, the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat. This Jewish holiday is also called the New Year for Trees.

Posted in Judaism


Pronounced “tül-koo.” In Tibetan Buddhism, an incarnate or reincarnated lama.

Posted in Buddhism


Cloth wrapped around the head as cultural attire in many regions of the world, the turban has religious significance for Sikhs. Observant Sikh men and some women wrap their long uncut hair (an article of faith) in a turban. Nearly every person who wears a turban in America is Sikh.

Posted in Sikhism

Twelve Apostles

See Apostles.

Posted in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Mormonism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

The official governing body of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, it is made up of bishops, archbishops and cardinals. The USCCB adopted this name in 2001; note that U.S. is abbreviated, not spelled out. USCCB is used on second reference.

Posted in Catholicism


Pronounced “OOM-mah.” The worldwide community of Muslims.

Posted in Islam

Unification Church

The formal name of this organization founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon is the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, but Unification Church is acceptable in all references. Moon launched it in 1954 in South Korea, six years after the Presbyterian Church of Korea excommunicated him for beliefs it said were incompatible with traditional Christianity. Among other beliefs, followers reject the Trinity, saying instead that God is a single being with male and female aspects. Members are often called Moonies, but the term is considered derogatory; they call themselves Unificationists. Use Moonies only in direct quotes.

Posted in Christianity, Other faiths, Protestantism

Unitarian Universalist

The Unitarian Universalist Association encourages a wide spectrum of belief. Many members believe in God, but atheists also find a home in this denomination. Unitarian Universalists do not believe Jesus was divine and are not considered Christians, although they would welcome Christians — or just about anyone — in their churches. They employ a congregational form of government.

Posted in Atheism/Agnosticism, Other faiths

United Church of Christ

A mainline Protestant denomination and the largest of the Congregationalist denominations. The word church is applied only to individual, local churches. Clergy members are known as ministers. Pastor is used if a minister leads a congregation. On first reference, use the Rev. before the name. On second reference, use only the last name.

Posted in Christianity, Protestantism

United Methodist Church

The largest Methodist denomination and the second-largest Protestant body in the United States. Officially, the denomination is The United Methodist Church, but the Religion Stylebook follows Associated Press style in not capitalizing “The” as part of the name. See Methodist churches.

Posted in Protestantism

Unity Church

A denomination that says it promotes “practical Christianity.” It is the primary church in the “New Thought” movement, which teaches belief in monism, the universal presence of creative energy, or God, within the world and within all people. Some adherents accept traditional Christian beliefs about Jesus, but many do not.

Posted in Christianity, Protestantism


The traditional English term for members of the lowest rung of the caste ladder in India. The term is increasingly being replaced in common usage by other terms, and some now regard it as offensive. In the early part of the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi began referring to members of the lowest caste as Harijan (“children of God”), while the Indian government adopted the term Scheduled Castes. Since Indian independence, the government has gradually increased the benefits it provides to members of the Scheduled Castes, as well as the Shudra caste of servants and menial laborers, known collectively as the “Other Backward Classes.” See caste system.

Posted in Hinduism


Pronounced “oo-PAAN-ish-ud.” The Upanishads are the final sections of each of the four Vedas, or Hindu scriptures. These texts are spiritual dialogues in which teachers and students discuss ultimate questions of human existence.

Posted in Hinduism


Pronounced “VA-sock-ee.” The most important Sikh holiday, celebrated annually in mid-April. Originally a harvest festival celebrating the first wheat crop in the growing season and still celebrated as such in North India, Sikhs commemorate the Vaisakhi of 1699, when Guru Gobind Singh established the amrit sanchar ceremony and the Khalsa. See amrit sanchar and Khalsa.

Posted in Sikhism


Pronounced “vuh-jruh-YAA-nah.” Considered the third major tradition or “vehicle” of Buddhism, after Mahayana and Theravada. It is also called Tibetan Buddhism, Esoteric Buddhism or Tantric Buddhism (its scriptures are called tantras). Vajrayana literally means “diamond vehicle.” It developed from Mahayana Buddhism, particularly in Tibet, Nepal and Mongolia. Vajrayana Buddhists emphasize the use of ritual, meditative practices, mantras, mudras (symbolic gestures) and mandalas (symbolic diagrams in the form of a circle). Schools of Tibetan Buddhism include Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelugpa, the order to which the dalai lamas belong. See Buddhism.

Posted in Buddhism


Pronounced “VARN-ah.” Varna refers to the four broad groups that make up the caste system in traditional Indian society. They consisted of the Brahman (scholars, teachers, doctors and priests), Kshatriya (warriors, rulers and lawmakers), Vaishya (business people, traders, farmers, and artisans), and Shudra (servants, menial laborers). Later, a fifth varna was created, into which people who performed tasks considered “polluting” in a physical or spiritual sense were placed. Members of this new group were called “untouchables” in English. See caste system.

Posted in Hinduism

Vatican II

The common name for the Second Vatican Council, a council of all the world’s bishops opened by Pope John XXIII in 1962 and closed under Pope Paul VI in 1965. Vatican II ushered in major reforms in the Roman Catholic Church, such as changes in biblical studies, and encouraged bishops and clergy to deal with the challenges of the modern world. It also recognized the importance of the laity in the church and signaled a greater openness to other Christians and non-Christians, including a reconsideration of the church’s attitude toward Judaism. Popularly, Vatican II is perhaps best-known for leading to the saying of Mass in the vernacular, rather than exclusively in Latin. Councils are infrequent — the previous council was Vatican I (1869-70) — and are convened in times of crisis or to resolve especially difficult questions. There is some debate as to whether a council wields greater authority than the pope.

Posted in Catholicism

Vatican, Vatican City

The pope and his administrative clergy live in this 108-acre city-state that is the temporal headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. Vatican City is an independent state in the center of Rome. The cathedral of the pope — the bishop of Rome — is the Basilica of St. John Lateran on the other side of Rome. In recent centuries popes have resided more often at the Vatican, which is built around St. Peter’s Basilica. St. Peter’s Basilica sits above the tomb where the remains of St. Peter, who Catholic tradition regards as the first pope and bishop of Rome, are believed to rest.

The popes were for centuries temporal rulers of a large swath of central Italy. But when Italy was united as a single nation in 1860, the Papal States became part of the new secular government, and the pope’s kingdom was reduced to the city of Rome. In 1870 Italian troops defeated the last papal forces and took Rome as the nation’s capital. The pope refused to recognize the new situation and became a self-declared “prisoner of the Vatican” until 1929, when the Vatican and the government of Benito Mussolini resolved the impasse in a concordat. The Vatican was given a sum of money as compensation for the confiscation of its holdings, and Vatican City was recognized as a legal governing entity. Popes were also allowed to travel outside the Vatican’s confines.

The Vatican has its own flag, coins, postage stamps, media, train station and police, as well as the ceremonial troops known as the Swiss Guard. Vatican City includes St. Peter’s Square, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo, the Vatican Museums and other priceless works of art. Vatican City stands alone in datelines.

Posted in Catholicism


Pronounced “VEH-daas.” Hinduism’s most ancient scriptures. There are four: Rig Veda, Atharva Veda, Sama Veda and Yajur Veda. The Vedas include more than 100,000 verses and additional prose. The term Veda stems from a Sanskrit word meaning knowledge. Many Hindus believe that the Vedas were revealed by God and/or realized by ancient sages.

Posted in Hinduism


Pronounced “vih-PAHS-suh-nah.” In Theravada Buddhism, a profound, nonjudgmental self-awareness practiced in meditation. Often called insight meditation.

Posted in Buddhism

Virgin Birth

The Christian belief that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin. It should not be confused with the Immaculate Conception, which is a Catholic dogma that the Virgin Mary was conceived free from original sin.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy

Virgin Mary

The mother of Jesus Christ. See Mary, Mother of Jesus.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy


Pronounced “VISH-noo.” In Hinduism, the name used when God’s role as preserver is emphasized. Shiva is the name used when the emphasis is on God’s role as lord of time and change. Brahma is the name used for God when God’s role as creator of the universe is described. The divine is always understood to be one. For most Hindus, Vishnu is either equated with or a manifestation of Brahman. Vishnu has many avatars or incarnations, the best-known of which are Ram, Krishna and the Buddha. His consort is Lakshmi.

Posted in Buddhism, Hinduism


A religious tradition born in West Africa that is derived from animism, ancestor worship and polytheism. Slaves brought from West Africa transplanted Vodou to the New World. As practiced in the Caribbean and areas along the U.S. Gulf Coast, Vodou merged West African traditions with Roman Catholic beliefs, adding saints to rituals. The term Vodou, which should always be capitalized, is the acceptable spelling in academic circles and the Haitian community. Other common spellings include Vodun, Voodoo and voodoo, but generic uses of “voodoo” can be offensive to those who practice the religion. Avoid using phrases such as “voodoo economics,” except in direct quotes. The Associated Press Stylebook continues to use Voodoo.

Posted in Other faiths, Vodun


An austere form of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia and Qatar that follows a strict, literal interpretation of the Quran. Most people in the West knew nothing of Wahhabism until after the 9/11 attacks, which were organized by the terrorist Osama bin Laden, a Wahhabi. Wahhabism has spread rapidly since the 1970s, when the oil-rich Saudi royal family began contributing money to it. It is considered an extremist form of Sunni Islam that strictly enforces rules and criticizes those who follow other traditions of Islam. Use Wahhabi for a follower of Wahhabism.

Posted in Islam


Large congregations in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are called wards, and they are led by a bishop and two counselors. Wards have specific geographic boundaries, and Mormon families attend the meetinghouse in their ward. Small Mormon congregations are called branches, which can develop into wards.

Posted in Christianity, Mormonism

Watch Night

A New Year’s Eve worship service popular in African-American churches. It dates back to 1864, when tradition holds that slaves waited all night long to hear word of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Posted in African-American, Christianity, Protestantism


There are many forms of Wicca, but most share a worship of the divine feminine, or Goddess, and a reverence for nature and its cycles. It is traditionally believed to be based on the symbols, celebrations, beliefs and deities of ancient Celtic peoples. Many scholars consider it the largest segment of neopaganism, saying it can be traced back to Gardnerian Witchcraft, founded in the United Kingdom during the late 1940s. See neopaganism.

Posted in Other faiths, Paganism/Wicca


A practitioner of natural magic; often a follower of a pagan religion, such as Wicca.

Posted in Other faiths, Paganism/Wicca, Religion and culture

Word of Wisdom

The Mormon teaching, believed to be a revelation given to founder Joseph Smith, that Mormons should abstain from tobacco, alcohol and hot drinks such as tea and coffee.

Posted in Christianity, Mormonism

World Council of Churches

Formed in 1948 in Amsterdam, the World Council of Churches claims the membership of 340 churches, denominations and church fellowships in more than 100 countries and territories, representing some 550 million Christians, including most of the world’s Orthodox churches. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member but has a working relationship with the council. Based in Geneva, Switzerland, the council works for Christian unity while stressing that it is not aimed at creating a “global super-church.” It is viewed with suspicion by many theologically conservative Christian groups — including strong factions of some member churches — who believe that it waters down Christian theology and substitutes social action for spreading the gospel.

Posted in Christianity, Government and politics, Interfaith, Orthodoxy

worship, worshipped, worshipper

Worship is the act of offering devotion and praise to a deity or deities. It is most often used in reference to formal religious services, but also applies to private prayer and other acts done to honor or revere the sacred. Many evangelical Protestants have a tendency to use it specifically in reference to music – especially contemporary praise music – sung in church. Thus, the leader of the contemporary singing group may appear in the church bulletin as “praise and worship leader.”

Posted in Protestantism, Religion and culture


Pronounced “woo-DOO.” A ritual in Islam in which the hands, face, mouth and feet are cleaned with water, symbolic of spiritual cleansing. It is usually performed before a Muslim goes to prayer five times each day. See ablution.

Posted in Islam


Do not use this shortened form of the word Christmas.

Posted in Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


Pronounced “YAH-way.” An English translation of the four Hebrew letters usually transliterated as YHWH that form the name of God. Jews do not attempt to pronounce this name, as they believe that would risk taking the name of God in vain. Wherever it appears in Scripture, they say “the Lord” (“Adonai”) instead, and a vowel marking beneath the four consonants renders the word unpronounceable in Hebrew. Sixteenth-century Protestants attempted to transliterate this word, resulting in “Jehovah.”

Posted in Christianity, Judaism, Protestantism, Religion and culture


Pronounced “YAH-mi-kuh.” Yiddish name for the skullcap traditionally worn by Jewish men in synagogue, and by some Jews at all times. It is a symbol of humility and submission to God. It is sometimes also referred to by its Hebrew name, kippa, which means “dome.”

Posted in Judaism


A symbol from Chinese philosophies such as Taoism and Confucianism representing two forces continually interacting in humans and in the universe; balance between the two is ideal. Yin is the darker, female, passive force; yang is the lighter, male, active force.

Posted in Confucianism, Taoism


Most often associated with body poses, stretching exercises and breathing techniques developed in India. It is a Sanskrit term that means union; yoga is a discipline found in Hinduism. It is the philosophy, process, disciplines, and practices whose purpose is the unification of individual consciousness with transcendent or divine consciousness. One of its eight “limbs” is referred to as asana (also known as “hatha yoga”) and involves various body postures meant to keep the body physically relaxed and healthy as an important prerequisite for meditation.

Posted in Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism


A Mahayana Buddhist school whose followers practice yoga and meditation and whose focus is the teaching of shunyata (emptiness).

Posted in Buddhism

Yom Hashoah

The Hebrew words for Holocaust Remembrance Day, which commemorates the victims of the Holocaust and takes place on the 27th day of the month of Nisan in the Jewish calendar. It falls in spring, though the day shifts on the U.S. calendar. The U.S. Congress asked the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which it created in 1980, to lead the nation in civic observances. It is a national memorial day in Israel, and U.S. observances generally take place from the Sunday before to the Sunday after the actual day.

Posted in Judaism

Yom Kippur

Pronounced “yohm ki-POOR.” The Jewish Day of Atonement, which takes place on the 10th day of the Jewish month of Tishri — September or October of the Gregorian calendar. Yom Kippur is marked by spending the day in prayer; forgoing food, drink and work; and repenting for misdeeds of the past year. See Jewish holidays.

Posted in Judaism


An ancient name for the Northern European pre-Christian celebration also known as Midwinter (see Ásatrú). The word is etymologically related to Jólnir, a name for the Norse god Odin, who was particularly venerated at this sacrificial feast (see blót). After Northern Europe’s conversion to Christianity, the name of the heathen feast came to refer to the Christmas celebration. Nowadays, the terms Yule and Yuletide are most often associated with the season marking Jesus’ birth.

Posted in Christianity, Other faiths


Pronounced “zar-uh-THOO-struh.” The ancient Iranian name for Zoroaster.

Posted in Zoroastrianism

Zen Buddhism

A Mahayana Buddhist tradition that teaches enlightenment through meditation. It developed in China as Ch’an. Two major schools of Japanese Zen are the Rinzai school, which emphasizes koan practice, in which the student is given a traditional paradoxical sutra or story to consider (and, by having ultimately to transcend the logical use of mind, thereby is propelled into a direct encounter with reality beyond words), and the Soto school, whose primary practice is shikantaza (“just sitting” meditation, in which there is no object but simply a state of awareness).

Posted in Buddhism


In Zen Buddhist schools, a meditation hall.

Posted in Buddhism


A modern movement in Judaism rooted in the establishment of a separate Jewish nation, based on God’s biblical promise that Israel would forever belong to Abraham and his descendants as a nation. Many Zionists do not have religious motives, but believe a Jewish state is necessary because of the long history of persecution of Jews. That goal was realized with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Zionism refers to Mount Zion, the site of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. A Zionist is a supporter of Zionism.

Posted in Government and politics, Judaism


Pronounced “zoh-roh-AS-tuhr.” Zoroaster was the founder of Zoroastrianism (pronounced “zoh-roh-AS-trah-nism”), one of the world’s oldest surviving monotheistic religions. It was once the state religion of the ancient Persian empires, which include modern-day Iran, before the Arab Islamic invasions of the seventh century. Zoroastrians who fled to India more than 1,000 years ago are known as Parsis.

Posted in Zoroastrianism