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The pagan celebration of the autumnal equinox.

Filed in Paganism/Wicca


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.

Filed 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.

Filed in Buddhism


A Muslim place of learning usually associated with a mosque.

Filed in Islam

Magen David

See Star of David.

Filed in Judaism


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

Filed 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.

Filed 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).

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed in Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Religion and culture


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

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Orthodoxy

Maundy Thursday

See Holy Thursday.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed in Catholicism, Christianity, Judaism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism

Messianic Jews

See Jews for Jesus.

Filed in Christianity, Judaism


Someone who, deep down, doesn’t believe in God, though that person might not even consciously realize it.

Filed in Atheism/Agnosticism


A branch of philosophy based around the nature of existence and reality, including ideas about the self and the universe.

Filed in Religion and culture


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.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed in Judaism


Refers to a 1,000-year period of messianic peace on Earth. Thus, a phenomenon can be millennial without occurring at a millennium (chronological marker), and vice versa. The turn of a millennium or a century has, historically, intensified manifestations of religious expectation and social enthusiasm.

Filed in Christianity, Protestantism


The generation often defined as those born between 1981 and 1996.

Filed in Religion and culture


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

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed in Judaism


Pronounced “MYUL-neer.” The universal sign of Ásatrú; the Old Norse name for Thor’s hammer. In a tradition originating in the pre-Christian era, Ásatrúar wear small neck pendants representing the hammer of Thor. Dating back to Bronze Age carvings in Scandinavia, the hammer has a 4,000-year history as a symbol of protection, blessing and community.

Filed in Other faiths

Modern Orthodox

A movement within Orthodox Judaism that tends to integrate traditional Jewish practices and beliefs with life in the secular world while retaining a distinctive Jewish identity and presence. Modern Orthodox will keep strictly kosher and carefully observe the Sabbath, and they will often wear a yarmulke, or skullcap, for example, but not always. Sen. Joseph Lieberman is a widely known example of a follower of the Modern Orthodox movement. The term “Modern Orthodox” is accepted among Jews, but as with any movement it can encompass a wide spectrum of beliefs and behaviors. So it is advisable to clarify with the subjects of a story where they see themselves within Modern Orthodoxy. See also ultra-Orthodox.

Filed in Judaism, Orthodox

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.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed in Christianity, Government and politics, Protestantism

Mormon church

See Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Filed in Christianity, Mormonism


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

Filed in Islam


A building in which Muslims gather for prayer and worship. The tower of a mosque, a minaret, is used to chant a call for prayer.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed 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.

Filed in Islam, Nation of Islam


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

Filed 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.

Filed in Hinduism

Muslim Americans

Do not hyphenate. Do hyphenate, however, when the term is used as a compound modifier, as in Muslim-American community.

Filed in Islam

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.

Filed 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.

Filed in Religion and culture

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