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Glossary of religious and spiritual terms

Starting with the letters "Sb" to "Se" inclusive

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Words beginning Sa are described elsewhere

Words beginning Sh... to So... are described elsewhere

Words beginning Sp... to Sz... are described elsewhere

  • SBNR (a.k.a. S.B.N.R.): An acronym for "Spiritual but not religious." In the U.S., the term refers to the approximately 20% of adults who pursue an active spiritual life but without any involvement with organized religion. Many are actually antagonistic towards religion and feel that it is counter-productive to their spiritual development. They often feel that they do not wish to be associated with a faith group that is sexist, homophomic, and/or anti-science.
  • Scapegoat: Originally a religious term. Ancient Israelite priests would transfer the sins of the community to a goat who would then be driven into the desert to die. The term is currently used to refer to a person or group who is unjustly accused of a crime or improper behavior. In scapegoating, the sins of one person or group are transferred to an innocent person or group. For example, original sin is a common teaching found in Christianity in which the sin committed by Adam and Eve when they ate a fruit in violation of a direct order from God. This is commonly thought of as an apple although apples are not indigenous to the Middle East. Many Christian churches beleieve that their sinful behavior was transferred to their children, grand-children and even down through about 250 generations to people living in the present day as "original sin." Many ethical and moral systems regard the transfer of sin and guilt from those responsible to persons innocent of the sin is profoundly immoral.

  • Schism: From the Greek word "schisma" - a rent or tear. A division of a faith group into two or more smaller groups. One result of the Protestant Reformation was a series of schisms leading to the approximately 25,000 present-day Protestant Christian faith groups.

  • Schism, great: The formal split between the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches in 1054 CE. Also used to refer to the interval from 1378 to 1417 CE when as many as three individuals simultaneously claimed to be pope.

  • Scientism: The belief that the scientific method is significantly superior to all other interpretations of reality such as myth, philosophy, religion, and spirituality.

  • Scripture: In Christianity, this is the Bible. It is composed of the 39 books of the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament) and the 27 books of the Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. New Testament). Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox churches and some Protestant denominations include the 14 books of the Apocrypha. However, there are many Christian writings that were widely believed to be scripture by groups within the early Christian Church that never made it into the Bible. This included more than 40 Gospels that were rejected in the 4th century because the books' teachings were incompatible with the teaching of the Christian Church at the time. Among the rejected writings are the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary are considered by many theologians to be particularly important.

  • Seance: A gathering of individuals who attempt to communicate with the spirits of the dead, generally with the help of a medium.

  • Second coming: The return of Jesus Christ to earth which was predicted by Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus Christ) and Paul to occur during the 1st century CE, and has been expected as imminent by every generation of Christians since -- including the present one.

  • Second probation: The belief that after death, non-believers will be given a second chance to be saved by accepting Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.

  • Second Temple Period: The interval from 520 BCE to 70 CE, between the reconstruction of Solomon's temple and the destruction of the temple by the Roman Army.

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  • Secret rapture: The rapture is a belief that Jesus will soon return towards Earth. All saved individuals -- dead and living -- will defy gravity by rising through the air and meeting him in the sky. The secret rapture is a variation on this belief in which those left behind are confused about why so many people disappeared and where they went.

  • Sect: A small religious group that has recently split away from an established religion. The early Jewish Christian group under James, the Brother of Jesus, in Jerusalem circa 30 CE would have been considered a sect of Judaism at the time.

  • Sectarian: Acceptance and adherence to the beliefs a particular group -- often a faith group. Often implies rejection of religious beliefs by those outside of a person's chosen faith group. Most world conflict today involves violence inspired by sectarian beliefs.

  • Secularism: A term created in 1846 by a British freethinker George Holyoake:
    • The belief that government decisions should be made independently of religious considerations.

    • The promotion of ideas and values not based on religious criteria.

    • Skeptical or indifferent towards religious matters.

  • Secularization: A process in which religious consciousness, activities, and institutions lose social significance within a culture.

  • Sectarianism: A narrow-minded adherence to the beliefs of a particular political party or religious group to the exclusion of contrasting beliefs;

  • Security, eternal: The concept that once a person is saved, that they cannot lose their salvation. Christian faith groups have opposing beliefs on this topic.

  • Seder: A Jewish ceremonial meal held on the first day (and sometimes also on the second day) of Passover. It recalls the alleged Exodus of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, variously dated as 1440 to 1290 BCE. The meal and associated rituals are typically held by families in their homes.

  • Selah: A biblical term used 71 times by itself in the Psalms. It invites the reader to pause and to meditate or reflect on the message. One example is Psalms 3:2: "Many there be which say of my soul, There is no help for him in God. Selah."

  • Semite: The term has various meanings:
    • A family of languages, mainly of Middle Eastern origin, including Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic.

    • A Jew, Arab, or member of a group of semitic-speaking peoples from the Middle East or Northern Africa.

    • A descendent of Shem, alleged to be one of Noah's three sons.

In this website, we associate semite and semitic with a language group, and thus write the word in lower case. The word is most commonly capitalized, as in "anti-Semitic."

  • Separationist: A person or movement advocating the dividing of a country into two or more parts. Evangelical Christian use: A person or group advocating the separation of church and state in accordance with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

  • Sephardi: Jews who are descended from individuals who once lived in Spain and Portugal. See also Ashkenazi.

  • Septuagint: A Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, made in Egypt, perhaps in the third century BCE. This was the version known to, and used, by the early Christians. Many theologians believe that its mistranslation in Isaiah contributed to the Christian belief in the virgin conception of Jesus, commonly called the virgin birth.

  • Serpent Seed doctrine: The belief that Eve's sin in the Garden of Eden was to engage in sexual intercourse with the serpent. Together, they produced Cain. Various faith groups identify the descendents of Cain in various ways: They are: "Jews according to the Christian Identity Movement, Communists/Atheists according to the Unification Church, Whites according to the Nation of Yahweh, and the lost according to William Branham." 1

  • Service: In a religious sense, a formal worship meeting of a group of believers.

  • Sexism: Any attitude, action or institutional structure which systematically treats an individual or group of individuals differently because of their gender. The most common form of sexism is discrimination against females. However, it occasionally is manifested as preferential treatment for women. A secondary meaning is the belief that one gender -- normally female -- is inherently inferior to other genders (male and intersexual). See also colorism, homophobia, racism, religism, shadeism, and transphobia. Although sexist hiring practices and treatment of women is considered profoundly immoral and often illegal within domocracies, it remains quite common within conservative Christian groups like the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention.

  • Sexual Orientation: There are at least three quite different meanings to this term. This makes it imperative for reports, essays, legislation etc. to predefine  the author's precise understanding of the term:

    • Gays, lesbians, bisexuals, the LGBT community, sociologists, psychologists, researchers into human sexuality, essentially all therapists, members of liberal and most mainline faith groups, etc. normally define this as a measure of a person's feelings of sexual attraction to males and females. This orientation applies, whether or not they are sexually active. There are three main sexual orientations: heterosexual (attracted only to the same sex), homosexual (attracted only to the opposite sex), and bisexual (attracted to both men and women, but not necessarily to the same degree). All three are unchosen, and either unchangeable or almost always so in adulthood. They are normal, natural, morally neutral, and observed in groups of humans, in all other mammals, and in some other species. (By morally neutral, we mean that ones feelings of sexual attraction are considered to be something that one discovers, something that one doesn't choose, and is free of sin.)

    • Most fundamentalist and other evangelical Christians and some mainline faith groups define the term as a measure of an adult's actual sexual behavior with other adult men and women, and unrelated to the person's feeling of attraction. There are two main sexual orientations: homosexual (having had same-sex sexual behavior recently), and heterosexual (not having same-sex behavior recently). Sometimes, these groups recognize a third orientation: bisexual (having recently had sex with both men and women). Other groups minimize or discount bisexuals and bisexuality. Under this definition, a homosexual can thus become heterosexual by becoming celibate. A bisexual can become heterosexual by deciding to only engage in sexual relationships with members of the opposite sex. Only heterosexual orientation is considered normal, natural, and morally neutral. Homosexuality and bisexuality are often believed to be chosen and changeable in adulthood. They often use the term 'sexual preference' in place of 'sexual orientation,' thereby implying that orientation is a choice and can be readily changed. There is a widespread belief among some conservative and mainline Christians that if a person is "saved" that God will convert them to have a heterosexual orientation.

    • The Traditional Values Coalition (TVC) has created a unique definition of the term "sexual orientation" that differs greatly from the meaning used by all others. They started with a list of about 30 sexual paraphilias. These as activities that generate sexual arousal in response to sexual objects or situations. This list includes incest, necrophilia, masochism, sadism, voyerism, pedophilia, hebephilia, ephebophilia, etc. They redefined them all as sexual orientations. These were added to the standard three sexual orientations (homosexuality, heterosexuality and bisexuality). Finally, they added adultery, prostitution, and a few other sexual activities . They ended up with over 30 behaviors that they redefine as descrete sexual orientations. 2,3 Using their definition, a single person may have multiple sexual orientations. For example, a woman or man could be sexually:
      • excited by persons of the opposite-sex only and thus be heterosexual,
      • excited about having sex with their brother, and be into incest,
      • excited about having sex with trees or other large plants, and be into dendrophilia (although I cannot imagine how this works),

    all at the same time, and have three sexual orientations!

    This can insert confusion into legislation like bills to criminalize hate crimes motivated by sexual orientations. As generally understood, such bills would protect heterosexuals, bisexuals, and homosexuals. However, if the TVC definition is used, it would also protect pedophiles, persons committing incest, and other criminal activities, and some very strange behaviors. Fortunately, this definition has never really been extensively used outside of the TVC. More details.

References used:

  1. "Watchman Fellowship's Index of Cults and Religions: Mysticism," at:
  2. "What is a 'sexual orientation'," Traditional Values Coalition, at: This is a PDF file. You may require software to read it. Software can be obtained free from: 
  3. "Paraphilias," in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision, American Psychiatric Association, (2000), Pages

Copyright © 1996 to 2017 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published on: 1996-MAR-11
Last update: 2017-JAN-08
Author: B.A. Robinson
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