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Suggested usage of secular terms in articles about "hot" religious topics

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Topics covered in this essay: 

bullet Overview
 
bullet Typical examples of biased reporting
 
bullet About topics often linked to religions:
bullet Abortion terms
bullet Homosexual terms including same-sex marriage (relocated in a separate essay)
bullet Occult
 
bullet Associated material on this web site

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Overview:

At any time over the past 500 years, there has been at least one active "hot" religious debate. Most conflicts in the distant past have been settled. These include the shape of the earth, path of the earth around the sun, interest on loans, childhood vaccinations, etc. But we are blessed (or cursed) with a large number of currently active religious debates. Most of these tend to involve human sexuality in some way. The most serious current conflicts appear to be on abortion and sexual orientation: namely abortion access and equal rights for gays, lesbians and bisexuals, including the right to marry.

Generally speaking, religious conservative (including Fundamentalist and other Evangelical Protestants, Roman Catholics, Sikhs, conservative Jews and Muslims, etc.) tend to take one side in these debates. Liberals of all religious traditions tend to take the opposite position, in support of those individuals most concerned by the debates (women, homosexuals and bisexuals in the above examples).

The true situation is often more complex than simply two well-defined groups fighting each other. Not everyone who is pro-life is totally opposed to abortion in some cases. Others might oppose homosexual behavior in principle, but fight for equal rights for gays and lesbians.

Language is often used as a weapon in these debates:

bullet It is often difficult to find truly neutral terms to describe beliefs and events. Often, the words used will automatically bias the article. Referring to homosexual behavior as a lifestyle or a preference implies that a person can choose their sexual orientation. Referring to homosexual behavior as an orientation implies that it is not changeable and not chosen. Yet, these are the only commonly used words.
bullet Often, terms such as "homosexuality" will be used in confusing ways - sometimes referring to behavior and other times to feelings of attraction.
bullet Other terms, such as "pregnancy" have different meanings to the groups in involved. Some conservative Christian groups define "Sexual orientation" as including exhibitionism, sadism, masochism, pedophilia, necrophilia, etc.

The result is confusion and a loss in objectivity and balance.

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Typical examples of biased reporting: 

Bias can easily slip into an article:

bullet Pastor P.J. Peters in his article "Intollerance [sic] of, discrimination against and the death penalty for homosexuals is prescribed in the Bible" at: http://www.identity.org/files/homo.html He wrote "Homosexuals are willing to...promote their life style...[and] are willing to  prescribe the death penalty to those who oppose them."
bullet He uses the term "life style" to imply that homosexual orientation is a chosen, changeable factor.
bullet He takes the inflammatory rhetoric of Larry Kramer, founder of ACT UP and applies it to a whole movement.  
bullet "The Christian anti-Homosexuality  Web Site" (now believed to be defunct) at http://www.anti-homosexuality.com/ refers to two frequently cited passages in Leviticus. He quotes the original Hebrew text which says that certain behavior is to'ebah. This, he translates as "an abhorrence or a disgusting thing." But to'ebah is a religious term, usually reserved for criticizing idolatry. If the writer(s) of Leviticus wished to refer to a moral violation, a sin, he/they would have used the Hebrew word zimah. To'ebah could better be translated "foreign religious cult practice." The Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (circa 3rd century BCE) translated "to'ebah" into Greek as bdelygma, which meant ritual impurity. The author overlooks the facts that the Mosaic code calls eating a cheeseburger, charging interest on a loan, shaving a beard, sowing seeds in the corner of a field all "to'ebah".
bullet The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas has perhaps the best known gay/lesbian hate site on the Internet, at: http://www.godhatesfags.com/ It has the catchy name "God Hates Fags."  Their Fag Facts section contains some amazing assertions; most are believed to be wildly inaccurate. Some examples:
bullet that "homosexuals account for half the murders in large cities." (It is not clear whether gays and lesbians are victims or perpetrators of the homicides).
bullet homosexuals account for only 1 to 2% of the population of the U.S.
bullet homosexuals are responsible for 50% of the suicides
bullet the media age at death of gay men is 42; that of lesbians is 45.
bullet homosexuals are 19 times as likely to die in a traffic accident than the average person
bullet part of the gay agenda is to turn people away from Christianity

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Abortion terms:

Terminology concerning abortion is a semantic minefield!  It is very difficult to write about Abortion without using words that are unacceptable to some people. Typical difficulties are listed below:

bullet Many articles describing the developing embryo or fetus use terms like "products of conception" and "terminating pregnancy" to obscure the fact that we are dealing with a form of life that could develop into a newborn baby. Others use terms like child, baby, infant, murder, etc. to imply that the embryo or fetus is already a full human being. Perhaps the safest, least biased terms are embryo, fetus, killing, and terminating the life of....
bullet There is a general misconception in the media and elsewhere that there are two sides to the abortion access question: pro-life and pro-choice. Actually, there are many sides. Some pro-lifers would not allow any abortion under any circumstances; most would allow it to save the life of the mother; some would also permit an abortion if the conception was caused during incest or rape. Some pro-choicers feel that a woman should be able to have an abortion at any time before birth; others would prefer a cutoff date, beyond which abortion access would be restricted -- e.g. 26 weeks when the fetus' brain has developed to the point where it has self-awareness. So, calling a person pro-life or pro-choice only gives a vague idea of their exact position.
bullet A general consensus exists among all sides to the abortion access question. When life, in the form of a sperm and ovum, becomes a human person, then almost everyone agrees that an abortion should only be performed in very critical situations. However, there is little agreement about when this transition happens: at conception, at birth, or some time in between.
bullet The pro-life movement defines the start of pregnancy differently from the pro-life and medical communities. Pro-lifers generally define pregnancy as starting when the sperm fertilizes the ovum. Others define pregnancy as starting about 14 days later, when the fertilized ovum attaches itself to the wall of the uterus. This difference is critical. An intra-uterine device (IUD) and emergency contraception (the so-called "morning after pill") can sometimes work by preventing the fertilized ovum from imbedding itself in the wall of the uterus. These are regarded as a contraceptive techniques by physicians and the pro-choice movement because, as they see it, they prevent a pregnancy from starting. They are sometimes regarded as abortifacients by pro-lifers because, as they see it, pregnancy may have started many days previously. Care should be taken when writing about contraception, birth control, abortifacients, and the start of pregnancy. 
bullet Some derogatory terms have been used to refer to the pro-life and pro-choice movements. These include: anti-choice, pro-abortion, pro-death. We strongly advise against their use. We recommend that the terms that are used by the groups themselves should be used in writing about abortion access.

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The Occult:

This is another term that is so poorly defined that we recommend that it never be used. Occult is derived from the Latin word occultus which means "hidden". 

Some meanings of the term Occult are:

bullet
 Any activity which
  1. is esoteric (employs knowledge that is not known to the general public, but which is only revealed gradually to a selected few in training), and
  2. depends upon those talents which lie beyond the five senses, and
  3. engages with the supernatural, and
  4. does not form part of a traditional religious ritual.

In modern days, much published material is available on topics ranging from ceremonial magick, to tarot cards, to Neopagan religions, etc. There are few formerly occult activities that are still secret. Without secrecy, they do not meet the first requirement listed above. Just about the only occultic that are left are some secretive faith groups, and some spiritual organizations like the Masonic order. 

bullet Occult blood is a medical term which refers to blood which cannot be seen, except perhaps under a microscope. It has no connection to "the Occult."
bullet Many Conservative Christians define the Occult as including an enormous range of practices and beliefs. We have seen references to the following as parts of the Occult:
bullet Religions & Spiritual Movements
bullet Ceremonial Magick (the use of rituals, spells, chants to change the material world)
bullet Channeling (communication with a spirit guide)
bullet Christian Science
bullet Church of Scientology
bullet Eckankar, a religious and spiritual path, sometimes called the Religion of the Light and Sound of God.
bullet Hinduism; Hindu sects of various types, such as Hare Krishna
bullet Macumba 
bullet New Age 
bullet Rosicrucianism (an ancient syncretistic religion dating back to the 17th century.)
bullet Santeria  
bullet Satanism 
bullet Spiritualism (communication via a medium with the spirit world)
bullet Theosophy (a religious group based on the writings of Helena Blavatsky)
bullet UFO cults
bullet Unification Church, an established Christian denomination
bullet Vodun 
bullet Wicca
bullet Witchcraft
bullet Divination Techniques
bullet Astrology
bullet Casting of Runes
bullet I Ching
bullet Palm Reading
bullet Tarot Card Reading 
bullet Tea Cup Reading
bullet Games
bullet Adult games (e.g. Ouiji Boards)
bullet Children's TV programs and cartoons (e.g. She-ra)
bullet Children's toys (e.g. Smurfs)
bullet Fantasy role-playing games (e.g. Dungeons and Dragons™)
bullet Other Activities
bullet Fire walking (bare-foot . on a bed of glowing coals)
bullet Heavy metal rock music
bullet Holistic Health Practices (healing by acupuncture, flower remedies, etc.)
bullet Membership in the Masonic Lodge (or similar men's fraternal organizations)
bullet A range of modern educational methods
bullet Novels by specific authors (e.g. Carlos Casteneda)

Some conservative Christians view "The Occult" as a profoundly evil international organization that is controlled by Satanists. The various parts of the Occult act to lure unsuspecting people into Satanism. They see all parts of the Occult as being condemned by God. 

Others view it as an arbitrary grouping of unrelated activities, religions and pastimes. Again, this term has so many meanings that we recommend it not be used. We suggest that you refer directly to the activity by name, such as Astrology, Tea Cup Reading, Tarot Cards, Wicca, Masonic Order, etc.

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Associated material on this web site:

bullet Suggested use of religious terms in essays, articles, etc.
bullet Glossary of religious terms, A to Z
bullet Religiously motivated hatred against gays and lesbians on the Internet

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Reference used:

  1. Baptist Press, "Town removes Christian symbol from seal," 1999-JUL-22. Online at: http://www.mcjonline.com/news/news3261.htm 

Copyright date: 1999-JUL-25
Latest update: 2004-NOV-14
Author: B.A. Robinson

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