Ambiguity: In engineering and medicine, the precise use of terminology is
of paramount importance. Otherwise, misunderstandings will occur. Bridges will
fall down, and patients will die from medication errors. In those professions,
great care is taken to define terms clearly and unambiguously. But religion is
another field entirely. Since many religions -- and even individual traditions
within each religion -- have little contact with other faith groups, there has
been little standardization of the meanings of religious terms. Many terms have multiple meanings; sometimes
those meanings are mutually exclusive. The result is mass confusion and an
inability to communicate effectively. The solution is to avoid using certain confusing
words and/or to carefully define in advance the meaning of specific ambiguous
words within your article or essay.
Variety of religious experience: Religious activity is not confined to churches. It also takes
place in mosques, synagogues, temples, private homes and outdoors. Many
religious institutions have priests, ministers, mullahs, pastors or rabbis. But
Aboriginal religious often have elders, healers and/or shamans; Neopagans have
priests and priestesses. There is such variety in religion that all attempts to
write an inclusive definition of "religion" have failed. Unfortunately,
most writers are very familiar only with their own religious tradition. It is
important to try to be sensitive to the full range of your potential readers' religious
beliefs and practices when writing on religious topics.
Bias can easily slip into an article. Consider an article about
a matter involving separation of church and state in Republic MO. The Baptist Press
referred to three individuals by their religion:
"Alderman DeWayne Willis, a Jewish rabbi..."
"Ray Bennett, 69, a deacon at First Baptist Church
"Jean Webb, a self-described witch and a
practitioner of Wicca..." 1
Some concerns about this article are:
The Jew was not described as a "self-described Jew," nor
was the Christian a "self-described Christian." But
the Wiccan was a "self-described witch".
The Jew and Christian are described in terms of their religious
rabbi and deacon. But
the Wiccan is defined as a "practitioner," as if Wicca is a
pastime or activity, rather than a real religion.
The appropriate title for Ms. Webb would be priestess; an initiated male Wiccan
carries the title of
The words Jewish and Baptist are capitalized;
Witch was not.
The result is
that Judaism and Christianity are presented in this article as legitimate religions; the status
of Wicca and Witchcraft is denigrated.
A less biased description of the Wiccan could read:
"Jean Webb, a Witch and follower of the Wiccan
religion..." (6 characters shorter than the original), or
Capitalizing: The names of religions should always be
capitalized.This practice is almost always followed with large,
established religions (e.g. Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism). But smaller, new
religious movements are frequently spelled in lower case (e.g. wicca,
witchcraft, santeria). We feel that this as poor practice. To many people, it will be
seen as a negative value judgment.
Describing individuals: These terms should also be
capitalized, as in Buddhist, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Wiccan). We feel that the term "self
described" as in "self-described Wiccan" is poor form, as it
denigrates the validity of the person's faith. It would only be appropriate if
you are referring to a religious hypocrite.
Sacred Texts: Capitalizing the name of a sacred text appears to be
inconsistently followed in the media, Internet, etc. We recommend capitalizing
such names as: Bible, Qur'an, etc as a sign of respect.
The Christian Holy Bible is divided into two sections,
traditionally called the Old Testament and the New Testament. Some
Jews and others feel that these are poor terms, because they imply that the New
Testament is superior to the Old Testament, or is a replacement for
it. The names Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Scriptures are
gradually replacing Old and New Testament.
Dates: Dates in the West have been traditionally identified as:
AD, from the Latin "Anno Domine" - Year of the Lord.
BC, meaning Before Christ.
Although the Gregorian calendar is very widely accepted among many nations
and cultures, the labels AD and BC are felt to be inappropriate by
many of the world's non-Christian majority. New terms are gradually being
CE, meaning Common Era. 1999 CE means the same as 1999 AD.
BCE, meaning Before the Common Era. The approximate date of Jesus'
birth can be expressed as 4 BCE or 4 BC.
We use the new terminology throughout our web site. The identifiers are
frequently seen in religious, academic writings and school text books; they are not in general use yet.
Christian: Census offices, many
dictionaries, mainline and liberal Christians,
the media, and this web site generally accept as Christian any group
that seriously and thoughtfully identifies itself as
Christian. Conservative Protestants often restrict the
term to only born-again Fundamentalist or other
Evangelical Christians. They sometimes exclude as
non-Christian or pseudo-Christian such denominations
as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
(often called the Mormons), Roman Catholic Church, Unification
Church, Christian Science, etc. Similarly, they
generally drop the term "conservative" when
referring to conservative Christian beliefs,
conservative Christian radio stations, and
conservative Christian book stores
This the belief that before the birth of Mary (the mother of Jesus) was born, she
was preserved from original sin at the time of her conception. It is widely
but incorrectly believed to refer to Jesus' conception.
Mormon: This term started as a term of
derision used to verbally attack members of Joseph
Smith's original organization, the Church of
Christ, later called "The
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints." They later dropped the
capitalization of "Day." There are now about 100
denominations and sects within the LDS Restorationist Movement
which trace their
spiritual ancestry back to Smith's Church of
Christ. Unfortunately, most regard themselves as
the only legitimate spiritual heirs of Joseph Smith.
Some call themselves Mormons; others reject the name
because they feel it is too closely associated with
incorrect versions of the name of the main restorationist denomination -- The
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- are seen on the Internet and in
the print media. The most common are:
Leaving off "The"
Capitalizing the first letter in "day"
Omitting the "-" after "Latter."
The Church discourages the use of the nickname
"Mormon Church." This is probably a good idea, because there are almost 100 LDS Restorationist denominations
and sects to which this
nickname could apply.
The term "LDS Restorationist
movement" be used to refer to the group of about 100 faith groups who trace
their history back to Smith's Church of Christ.
We recommend citing
the full name of the church when you wish to refer
to a single faith group.
We recommend not
using the term "Mormon" because it has so many
Pre-1776 CE: The belief in a single,
indivisible God, and the rejection of the Christian
concept of the Trinity.
Post-1776: A creedless, dogma-free religious organization. The Unitarian
Universalist Association, (UUA) is an association of Unitarian Universalist groups.
The belief that the God described in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old
Testament) is the deity for all humanity, rather than just for
the ancient Hebrews.
The belief that every person will go to heaven after death.
This is in contrast with the historical belief of almost all Christian
faith groups that one's natural destination is eternal torment in hell;
only certain individuals will end up in heaven.