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Religious terms

Meanings of ambiguous terms
beginning with the letters "S" to "W"

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Satanism, Satanic, Satanist:

bulletIn the past, these terms referred to an artificially created, nonexistent religion that was invented by the Christian church during the late Middle Ages. Members were called witches They were portrayed as Satan worshipers, and perpetrators of Satanic Ritual Abuse. This gave a theological justification to the burning and hanging of heretics and others.
bulletSatanism today generally refers to religious Satanists. Some belong to an organized group, like the Church of Satan, the Temple of Set, etc. Others are solitary practitioners who have little or no contact with organized Satanic groups. Many are Agnostics who base their beliefs on a pre-Christian nature/fertility concept. Many do not worship Satan as a living entity.
bulletSatanism is sometimes used to refer to a type of eclectic practice engaged in by some teens and young adults, involving Satanic, Wiccan, and other rituals and beliefs. They are often referred to as "dabbling" in Satanism. They incorporate any ritual, symbol, belief or practice which seems right to the practitioner.
bulletSome conservative Christians define followers of religions other than Judaism and Christianity as worshipers of Satan. This is backed up by at least one verse from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and two form the Christian Scriptures (New Testament).

More details.

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Unitarian:

bulletThis term is sometimes used to refer to the belief that the Christian God is a unity, not a Trinity. This was a near-universal belief in the very early Christian movement, but was narrowly voted down at an early church council in the fourth century CE. By popular vote, and a bit of political arm twisting, God was perceived as multiple persons in one entity.
bulletA more common modern usage is to refer to the members and congregations associated with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) in the U.S. or the Canadian Unitarian Council in Canada. They promote a creedless religion in which members are expected to develop their personal spirituality, moral standards and religious beliefs. The purpose of the minister in Unitarian congregations is not to teach what the membership should believe. It is to help the congregation develop spiritually and religiously. Many articles and books by non UUA members mistakenly propagate the belief that the UUA teaches the unity of God. In fact, most UUA followers are Humanists and do not believe in a personal deity.

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Universalist, Universalism:

bulletThis sometimes refers to a belief that everyone will be eventually saved and go to heaven. This was considered a heresy in the ancient Christian movement. However, many Christian denominations are now downplaying the concept of Hell as a place of eternal torture, and are beginning to accept the concept of Universalism.
bulletIn the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) the term referred to the concept that God was more than the tribal God of the ancient Israelites; he was the God of all creation.
bulletIn modern times, the term has sometimes referred to a liberal religious denomination which joined with the American Unitarian Association to form the UUA.

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Voodoo:

bulletThis often is used to refer to an artificial, non-existent religion created by Hollywood movie producers for their horror movies. It is a religion filled with zombies, dolls with pins, black magic, etc.
bulletIt is used to refer to Vodun, which is a legitimate religion from the Caribbean. It is a syncretistic religion which merged Roman Catholic beliefs with Western Africa Native spirituality. More details.
bullet"Voodoo" is sometimes used as a derisive term to refer to a practice that is without scientific merit. For example, Recovered Memory Therapy and Multiple Personality Disorder have been referred to as "voodoo therapy."

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Witch, Witchcraft:

These words have have many unrelated meanings. We have counted 17 to date. One pair of definitions are opposites:

bulletA Gothic Satanist; a worshiper of Satan who, during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, was believed to use black magic to harm others, by involving the aid of Satan and his demonic hordes. Gothic Satanists didn't exist then and don't exist today.
bulletA Wiccan; a follower of Wicca, a recent, benign reconstruction of an ancient European Celtic religion. Wiccans are prohibited from using magic to harm others; they do not believe in the existence of Satan or demons.

Another pair of common definitions are also mutually exclusive:
bulletA woman of such incredible beauty that she bewitches others.
bulletA woman of incredible ugliness; a hag.

There are at least a dozen other unrelated meanings.

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The meanings of religious symbols:

Religious words and symbols have no inherent meaning. The only acquire the meanings that individuals and groups give to them. For example:

bulletLate in the year 2000, a third grade student in a Maine public school wore a sweatshirt which displayed the name "Jesus Christ" in large letters. To her, the name represented the name of her Lord and Savior. Some of her fellow students objected to her clothing; to them, "Jesus Christ" is a swear phrase -- something that should not be allowed in school. Others found it funny because one of their fellow students has Jesus as a first name. The teacher violated the student's guarantee of freedom of speech by asking her to wear her sweatshirt inside-out to avoid disrupting the class. 
bulletTo most Christians, a cross or crucifix is a positive symbol which recalls the death of their sinless man-God, Yeshua of Nazareth. They believe that through his torture-death, a mechanism was opened by which individuals can be saved. However, to some Native Americans who follow an Aboriginal religion, it is a very negative symbol which represents the destruction of Native American spirituality and the loss of their culture to the European invaders. 
bulletTo Wiccans, a pentagram (a five pointed star) symbolizes life and its precursors: earth, air, fire, water, and spirit. To some Christians, it symbolizes death, evil, violence Satanism and perhaps Satanic Ritual Abuse. To others, it represents a potential gang symbol.

Who is right? They all are, when viewed within their own cultural or religious groups. Of course, some groups have a longer historical claim to their particular meaning.

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Avoiding terms with multiple meanings:

Because of the wide variety of unrelated activities that are called cults, the occult, Pagan, Witchcraft, etc., we recommend that these terms never be used, except in a context that is clear and unambiguous. More precise and terms should be used instead to avoid confusion:

bulletInstead of cult, you can use neutral terms, like: new religious movement, emerging religion, or simply the name of the group.
bulletInstead of the occult use the specific name of the occultic activity, such as Astrology, Tea Cup Reading, Tarot Cards, Wicca, etc.
bulletInstead of Pagan, use the exact name of the follower of the religion to which you are referring (e.g. Buddhist). Alternatively, the term non-Christian or nonJudeo-Christian might be best. If you need a term that refers to all Pagan religions, use "neo-Pagan, or the less common spelling  "Neopagan."."
bulletInstead of Witchcraft use the name of the tradition to which you are referring, such as Asatru, Druid, Wicca, etc.
bulletWhen using the term Christian, define in advance what you mean by the word. Liberal Christians generally use the term inclusively to include Protestants (conservative, mainline, and liberal), the Anglican Community, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), Christian Science, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and other faith groups that consider themselves to be Christian. However, conservative Protestants often do not recognize Roman Catholics, Mormons, Christian Scientist, liberal Christians and/or believers of other groups as part of Christianity. The latter are considered to be sub-Christian or unChristian. 

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References:

  1. The ultimate reference book on religions of the world is the two volume monumental set, World Christian Encyclopedia, released in mid-2001, by Oxford University Press. It contains 1699 pages with information about religion in the 238 countries of the world: David Barrett et al, "World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions - AD 30 to 2200," Oxford University Press, (2001). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  2. Drew Campbell, "What is Hellenismos?," About.com, at: http://paganwiccan.about.com/
  3. "Kemetic Religion," at: http://www.hethert.org/
  4. "Religio Romana," at: http://www.novaroma.org/
  5. "Abrahamic religion," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/

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Site navigation:

 Home page > Definitions > here

 Home page > Religious Information > Glossary of terms > Definitions > here

or Home page > Religious Information > Definitions > here

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Copyright 2003 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-JAN-28
Latest update: 2006-MAR-16
Author: B.A. Robinson

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