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Literally, before Christ or the Christian era. Scholars and textbooks are increasingly using the abbreviations B.C.E. for “before the common era” and C.E. for “common era” to avoid using terms defined by their relation to Christianity. See A.D.

Filed in Christianity, Religion and culture


See B.C.

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

B’nai B’rith

One of the oldest continually operating Jewish service organizations in the world. It was founded in New York City by Henry Jones and 11 others in 1843. The organization is engaged in a wide variety of community service and welfare activities, including promoting human rights, assisting hospitals and victims of natural disasters, and opposing racism and anti-Semitism through its Anti-Defamation League.

Filed in Judaism


The Bahá’í Faith is a monotheistic religion. Its founder, Bahá’u’lláh, taught that all religions represent progressive stages in the revelation of God’s will. There are no clergy; the faith’s affairs are administered by a network of democratically elected councils. The terms Bahaism and Bahaist are incorrect; use the Bahá’í Faith to refer to the religion and Bahá’í to refer to an adherent.

Filed in Bahá’í Faith

Bandi Chhor Divas

A Sikh festival celebrating the release of the sixth guru, Guru Hargobind, from political imprisonment. The primary celebration takes place in Amritsar, Punjab, India. Occurs in October or November, coinciding with the Hindu festival of Diwali.

Filed in Sikhism


A Christian sacrament, ordinance or ceremony marked by ritual use of water and admitting the recipient to the Christian community. Christians practice three forms of baptism: immersion, where the believer is totally submerged in water; sprinkling, where the believer is sprayed with water; and affusion, where the believer has water poured on his head at a font. There may be variations within a tradition: Roman Catholics are generally baptized by affusion, though some modern fonts allow a candidate for baptism to stand partially immersed. Different Christian bodies have very different ideas about what baptism accomplishes in the person who receives it. Some see it as a symbolic way of publicly proclaiming faith in Christ; others see it as necessary for salvation. They vary on whether it is required for membership.

Many Christian traditions, particularly Baptists, consider baptism a ceremony or ordinance instead of a sacrament. Some Christian traditions insist that candidates for baptism be accountable adults who have personally professed faith in Christ. The Catholic Church and others that accept or practice infant baptism may object to the term believer’s baptism because it implies that baptized infants are not believers. These churches prefer the term adult baptism. Baptism is considered one of the three sacraments of initiation, along with confirmation and the Eucharist, by Catholic and Orthodox churches. The term baptism also is used by some non-Christians to describe ritual purification using water.

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

baptism of the Spirit

Christian Pentecostal and Holiness groups use this phrase to refer to a believer being “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Pentecostals associate it primarily with speaking in tongues, others with empowerment to faithfully serve God. Most non-Pentecostal Christian groups believe that the baptism of the Spirit happens at conversion or water baptism.

Filed in Christianity, Pentecostalism


When capitalized, the term generally refers to a member of an evangelical Christian grouping marked by baptism by immersion of individuals who profess faith in Jesus Christ. Baptists commonly call this practice believer’s baptism. This distinguishes them from groups that practice infant baptism, such as Catholics and Episcopalians.

Filed in Baptist/Southern Baptist, Christianity

Baptist churches

A major division of Christianity. In the United States there are more than 70 distinct Baptist denominations or associations. Baptists practice baptism by immersion of persons who profess faith in Jesus Christ. They do not practice infant baptism and generally reject the notion of sacraments. They describe baptism and the Lord’s Supper as ordinances carried out in obedience to Jesus’ commands in Scripture. Baptists are noted for their emphasis on personal religious experience and the authority of Scripture, which individuals are free to interpret according to conscience. Some Baptists do not like to be called Protestant because they trace their tradition’s origins to John the Baptist, but most historians say the Baptist tradition began with several early 17th-century breaks from English congregationalism.

The local congregation is the highest church authority for Baptists. No leader from a regional or national headquarters can tell a congregation what to do, and it is incorrect to refer to any body other than a congregation as the Baptist church. Baptists refer to their church connections as voluntary “ropes of sand.” The most tangible link between a local church and any convention or association is money: Local churches contribute to the state or national organizations and are considered “members” of the organizations they donate to.

There are dozens of associations of Baptist churches. The largest in the United States by far is the conservative Southern Baptist Convention. The smaller and more liberal American Baptist Churches USA is based in the northern United States. Prominant black Baptist associations include the National Baptist Convention of America, the National Baptist Convention USA and the Progressive National Baptist Convention and the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America. Other major U.S. Baptist organizations include the Baptist General Conference, the Conservative Baptist Association of America, the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, the General Association of General Baptists and the North American Baptist Conference. The Baptist World Alliance, made up of more than 200 Baptist bodies throughout the world, organizes the Baptist World Congress, which generally meets every five years. The Southern Baptist Convention, a founder of the BWA, left the alliance in 2004 when the SBC leaders accused the BWA of becoming too liberal.

All members of the Baptist clergy may be referred to as ministers. Pastor applies if a minister leads a congregation. Use the Rev. on first reference before a clergy’s name. On second reference use only the last name.

Filed in Baptist/Southern Baptist, Christianity, Religious titles

Baptist Faith and Message

The confessional statement of the Southern Baptist Convention. The statement lists specific biblical interpretations about a variety of 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 most recent revisions were an important step in the so-called conservative resurgence that shifted the leadership and direction of the denomination. It was written in 1925 and revised in 1963, 1998 and 2000.

Filed in Baptist/Southern Baptist

Baptist General Convention of Texas

The largest state Baptist convention is nominally aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention, but most ties were broken during the SBC’s “conservative resurgence” in the 1980s and 1990s. The BGCT is often referred to as “moderate” when compared with the SBC, but compared with other American Christian denominations, it would be considered conservative.

Filed in Baptist/Southern Baptist, Christianity

bar mitzvah

Means “son of commandment” in Hebrew and Aramaic. A milestone in Judaism in which a person is no longer a child in the eyes of Jewish law and is now responsible for his or her own actions spiritually, ethically and morally. A boy automatically reaches the milestone at age 13, while a girl reaches it at age 12 (bat mitzvah). No ceremony is required to mark the passage, although religious ceremonies and receptions are commonplace.

Filed in Judaism


A church to which special privileges have been given by the pope. A few of special importance are called major basilicas. Among these are St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major and St. Paul Outside the Walls, all in Rome. Many basilicas, including St. Peter’s, are not cathedrals (the seat of a diocesan bishop). Capitalize basilica only when used as part of a proper name.

Filed in Catholicism


See canonization.

Filed in Catholicism, Orthodoxy

Beatitude, Beatitudes

Beatitude is a formal title of respect for a Catholic patriarch or an Orthodox metropolitan. It should not be used except when it appears in quotations. The Beatitudes is the name given to a well-known portion of the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in the Gospels of Matthew (5: 2-12) and Luke (6: 20-23). In this section, Jesus describes the qualities of citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Capitalize when used as a title or when referring to the Beatitudes, but lowercase in other forms of reference. Beatitude means “blessed” but can also be translated as “happy.”

Filed in Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Religious titles


Blessing. Capitalize when referring to a Catholic religious service with prayers, hymns and the adoration of the displayed Eucharist. Lowercase when referring to other rites or acts of blessing.

Filed in Catholicism, Christianity

Bhagavad Gita

Pronounced “BAH-gah-vahd GEE-tah.” One of the most popular Hindu scriptures, it literally means “Song of the Lord.”

It is in the form of a conversation between Lord Krishna (an avatar of Lord Vishnu) and Arjuna on the great battlefield at Kurukshetra just before the famous war in the Mahabharata. In the conversation, Lord Krishna illuminates Arjuna on righteous action that is conducive to the well-being of the world and spiritual liberation (moksha), and instructs him on karma yoga (the path of self-transcending action), samkhya yoga (the path of discerning the principles of existence correctly), jnana yoga (the path of wisdom), raja yoga (the path of knowledge) and bhakti yoga (the path of devotion).

Filed in Hinduism


Pronounced “BUK-tee.” A Sanskrit term meaning “loving devotion to God,” bhakti inspired major Indian religious movements, including Sikhism, by focusing on the individual’s relationship to the divine.

Filed in Hinduism, Sikhism


Pronounced “BHIK-koo.” A fully ordained monk in the Theravada Buddhist tradition; a nun is a bhikkhuni. In the Mahayana tradition, the Sanskrit forms (bhikshu, bhikshuni) are used. Capitalize when used with a name.

Filed in Buddhism, Religious titles


Capitalize when referring to the Scriptures in the Old Testament or the New Testament. The Bible is a collection of writings compiled through centuries and authorized by various church councils, rather than a single book. The Old Testament is a Christian designation for the Hebrew Bible. The term Hebrew Bible should be used in articles dealing solely with Judaism. Lowercase biblical in all uses and bible as a nonreligious term. When citing biblical verses, use AP style for numbering chapter and verse, as in Luke 21: 1-13.

  • In Protestant Bibles, Old Testament books, in order, are: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.
  • Hebrew Bibles contain the same books but in different order.
  • Roman Catholic Bibles follow a different order, use some different names and contain seven additional, or deuterocanonical, Old Testament books (called the Apocrypha by Protestants): Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch.
  • The books of the New Testament, in order, are: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation (in Catholicism, the traditional name for this last book is Apocalypse, but the Catholic News Service advises using Revelation except in direct quotations). See Apocrypha.
Filed in Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism

Bible Belt

Areas of the United States that are noted for a prevalence of strict evangelical Christian teachings, particularly in the South and Midwest. Writer H.L. Mencken coined the phrase in 1925 while reporting on the Scopes Trial in Tennessee. It can be considered offensive in some contexts so the term should be used carefully.

Filed in Christianity


A term used by some Christians to describe their emphasis on the authority and primacy of Scripture, as in Bible-believing Christians. By definition, however, all Christians believe the Bible. Thus, journalists should avoid using this term except when it is clear people are using it to describe themselves.

Filed in Baptist/Southern Baptist, Christianity, Protestantism


The elevated part of the sanctuary in a synagogue or temple where the Torah reader stands and the rabbi leads the service.

Filed in Judaism


Pronounced “BIN-dhee.” The decoration worn on the forehead by many Hindu women. There are various explanations for the bindi: It can be a blessed symbol that signifies female energy and is believed to protect women and their husbands; a traditional symbol of marriage; a third eye, the eye of inner vision or spiritual wisdom; or simply a decoration like jewelry. It is worn by Indians of all religions.

Filed in Hinduism


In Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches and some Protestant denominations that have an episcopal or hierarchical form of government, bishop is the highest order of ordained ministry. The distinction between a Catholic bishop and an archbishop is an honorary one, and an archbishop has no authority over a neighboring diocese. Some groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Amish and some Pentecostals, use the title bishop for someone who is the pastor of a congregation. Capitalize when used as a formal title before a name. On second reference, use only the cleric’s last name. Lowercase bishop in other uses.

Filed in Amish/Mennonite, Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Mormonism, Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, Protestantism, Religious titles

Black Muslims

Black Muslim is a term that became associated with the Nation of Islam but is now considered derogatory and should be avoided. The preferred term is simply member of the Nation of Islam. Also, because of that association, do not use Black Muslim to describe African-Americans who practice traditional Islam, whose tenets differ markedly from the Nation’s. Instead, say African-American Muslims. See Islam and Nation of Islam.

Filed in African-American, Nation of Islam


Capitalize when used as a title before a name, as in Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. In Roman Catholicism, the title applies when a person is one step away from canonization as a saint.

Filed in Catholicism, Christianity

Blessed Virgin

See Virgin Mary.

Filed in Catholicism, Christianity, Islam, Orthodoxy


Pronounced “blote.” The central ritual of Ásatrú. The Old Norse word for “sacrifice” is used for a ritual in which offerings are made to gods, goddesses and other figures (including elves and land spirits). Blót is often performed outside, and the most common offering is some form of alcohol (beer, mead).

Filed in Other faiths

Bodh Gaya

Pronounced “Bohd guh-YAA.” The site in northeast India of the tree under which the meditating Buddha attained realization.

Filed in Buddhism


Pronounced “bohd-hi-SAHT-tvah.” In Mahayana Buddhism, one who strives to attain Buddhahood through the practice of prescribed virtues, while postponing his or her own entry into nirvana for the sake of helping others to enlightenment. The term also refers to various celestial beings who are venerated in some schools for their special ability to help those on the Buddhist path. See enlightenment and nirvana.

Filed in Buddhism

bodhisattva vow

The resolve in Mahayana Buddhism to become a Buddha for the sake of aiding all beings.

Filed in Buddhism

Book of Common Prayer

An official book of prayers and liturgical services for churches within the Anglican Communion, including the Episcopal Church. It has been revised and adapted from place to place. The original was compiled by Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, in the mid-1500s.

Filed in Anglican/Episcopalian

Book of Mormon

One of four books of scripture for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is subtitled “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.” The LDS church believes that Mormon, an ancient American prophet, inscribed the contents of the Book of Mormon on golden plates, which his son Moroni buried on a hill in what’s now upstate New York. The church teaches that Moroni returned as an angel and led church founder Joseph Smith to the plates, which he translated and published in 1830. Mormon scriptures also include the Bible (King James Version), Doctrine and Covenants (divine revelations given to Smith and other prophets) and the Pearl of Great Price.

Filed in Christianity, Mormonism


Theologically, all Christians claim to be born-again through the saving work of Jesus Christ; they just disagree over how it occurs. Catholics and Orthodox, for instance, say it occurs in the sacrament of baptism, which frequently takes place when the baptized person is too young to recall it. Evangelical Protestants emphasize being born-again as a personal, transformational experience that involves a deliberate commitment to follow Christ. Because the term tends to associate someone with a particular religious tradition, do not label someone a born-again Christian. Rather let the person label themselves, as in, who calls herself a born-again Christian.

Filed in Baptist/Southern Baptist, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


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.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed in Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy


An individual who espouses a naturalistic worldview, free of any supernaturalism or mysticism. The term was coined by Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert, co-directors of the Brights’ Network, and encompasses a diverse range of views. Critics, including some in the freethought community, dislike the word, which they consider pretentious and condescending.

Filed in Atheism/Agnosticism

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.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed in Catholicism

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