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Religious Tolerance logo

Suggested usage of religious terms:

Overview, Capitalization, Bad example, Confusing terms

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Topics covered in this essay: 

bulletTypical example (bad)
bulletCapitalization of religious terms, etc.
bulletOther assorted confusing terms

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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.

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Typical example (bad): 

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:

bullet"Alderman DeWayne Willis, a Jewish rabbi..."
bullet"Ray Bennett, 69, a deacon at First Baptist Church of Republic..."
bullet"Jean Webb, a self-described witch and a practitioner of Wicca..." 1

Some concerns about this article are:

bulletThe 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". 
bulletThe Jew and Christian are described in terms of their religious position: 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 priest. 
bulletThe 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: 

bullet"Jean Webb, a Witch and follower of the Wiccan religion..."  (6 characters shorter than the original), or
bullet"Jean Webb, a Wiccan..." (really brief).

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Capitalization of religious terms, etc:

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:

bulletAD, from the Latin "Anno Domine" - Year of the Lord.
bulletBC, 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 introduced:

bulletCE, meaning Common Era. 1999 CE means the same as 1999 AD.
bulletBCE, 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.

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Other confusing and misunderstood terms:

bulletChristian: 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
bulletImmaculate Conception: 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.
bulletMormon: 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 polygyny.

Many 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:
bulletLeaving off "The"
bulletCapitalizing the first letter in "day"
bulletOmitting 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.

We recommend:

bulletThe 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.
bulletWe recommend citing the full name of the church when you wish to refer to a single faith group.
bulletWe recommend not using the term "Mormon" because it has so many different meanings.
bulletPre-1776 CE: The belief in a single, indivisible God, and the rejection of the Christian concept of the Trinity.
bulletPost-1776: A creedless, dogma-free religious organization. The Unitarian Universalist Association, (UUA) is an association of Unitarian Universalist groups.
bulletThe belief that the God described in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) is the deity for all humanity, rather than just for the ancient Hebrews.
bulletThe 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. 
bulletAn organization promoting the latter belief.

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

Copyright © 1999 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Publishing date: 1999-JUL-22
Latest update: 2002-APR-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

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