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Religious Tolerance logo

Suggested usage of religious terms:

About minority religions

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Sponsored link.

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Topics covered in this essay: 

bulletAbout various minority religions:
bulletNeopagan religions
bulletWicca and Witchcraft
bulletCults and new religious movements

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Neopagan religions:

Neopaganism is a group of religions which have been or are being reconstructed from ancient Pagan roots. Just as the term "Eastern Religions" is an umbrella term which includes Buddhism, Hinduism and other Asian religions, Neopaganism includes a number of distinct Pagan religions. The latter were once extinct (or almost wiped out) and are now being revived. For example, Druidism is based on the faith and practices of the ancient Celtic professional class; followers of Asatru adhere to the ancient, pre-Christian Norse religion; Wiccans trace their roots back to the religion of the people in Celtic Europe. Additional Neo-pagan religions are derived from Roman, Greek, Egyptian and other traditions. Some traditions within many Neopagan religions have evolved well beyond their original origins.

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Various unrelated definitions of "Witchcraft:"

Of the many Neopagan religions, Wicca is by far the most popular in North America. It has a larger following than many other long-established faith groups, such as Buddhism, Christian Science, and Unitarian Universalism. It is growing very rapidly, particularly among teenagers. It does suffer from one overwhelming problem. Starting about 550 years ago, the Western Christian church decided to attain a religious monopoly in Europe by exterminating all of the Witches and other heretics. Thus started the "Burning Times" which lasted until 1792 CE in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people were tortured to death, burned alive, crushed, or hanged. This tragedy has had long-lasting effects. The term "Witch" still carries immense negative emotional baggage among many people. Many conservative Christian web sites continue to dredge up what they consider to be facts and evidence of the evils of Witches from the period of the Inquisition. These are repeated today as if they were real. 

We recommend that the terms "Witch" and "Witchcraft" rarely be used, unless they are carefully predefined before use.  There are two reasons:

bulletThe terms have multiple and often mutually exclusive meanings.
bulletMany of the meanings are very negative.

"Witchcraft" can refer to:

  1. A Neo-pagan duo-theistic religion called Wicca. Wiccans often use the terms "Witch" and "Witchcraft" to refer to themselves and their religion. Wicca has roots in pre-Christian, Celtic Europe. 
    bulletWiccans are un-Christian, as are Buddhists and Hindus.
    bulletWiccans worship a Goddess and a God.
    bulletBelievers follow the Wiccan Rede: "do whatever you wish, as long as you harm nobody, including yourself". Power, manipulation and control of others strictly prohibited.
    bulletWide range of rituals are practiced. Individuals often create their own ceremonies.
    bulletDrug usage usually confined to small quantities of wine. 
    bulletRitual sexual activity is practiced, rarely, but only in private between committed adult couples. 
    bulletMost Wiccans are solitary practitioners; some form democratically organized covens, typically of 4 or more people.
    bulletWiccans do not proselytize. 
    bulletMinimum age for initiation is usually 18. 
  2. A group of practices which are intended to influence future events, using magickal energies and powers which are beyond those know to science at the present time. Followers of this form of witchcraft often learn their "craft" from their ancestors and pass their knowledge on to their children. Their practices do not form a religion in the conventional meaning of the term.
  3. A group of evil practices rather than a religion. This definition can can be traced back to 15th and 16th century writings by Christians, when the church and the courts were burning heretics at the stake. Many conservative Christians still use this definition of "witch" and "witchcraft" today. However, with the increasingly higher public profile of Wiccans, they are abandoning this meaning. Except for a few mentally ill individuals, nobody practiced this form of "witchcraft" in the past, nor do they do it today.
    bulletIt was part of the evil Occult conspiracy.
    bulletWitches were seen as intensely anti-Christian.
    bulletWitches were believed to worship Satan and have sold their soul to him.
    bulletWitchcraft was viewed as an evil practice based on a lust for power, manipulation and control.
    bulletBelievers were thought to follow a rigidly defined ritual practice
    bulletHeavy illegal drug usage and sexual activity were believed to be common.
    bulletThey were thought to be organized into covens of precisely 13 members each; some practice shape shifting (e.g. human to animal). 
    bulletWitches were believed to be active recruiters, particularly of youth.

"Witchcraft" is another word with so many meanings that it should be used with great care. To avoid confusion, perhaps it should be totally avoided. Some contradictory meanings are: 

  1. A woman of such incredible beauty that she bewitches another person.
  2. The opposite of the above; a woman of incredible ugliness; a hag
  3. A follower of Wicca, an aboriginal religion of Western Europe. Believers worship a Goddess and God, do not recognize Satan, and are prohibited from harming others.
  4. The opposite of the above; a person who worships Satan, has sold their soul to the devil, and devotes their life to harming others.
  5. A person who uses evil, black magic to harm others, involving the aid of Satan and his demons.
  6. A religious Satanist, follower of the Church of Satan, or Temple of Set, etc, and who is probably an Agnostic.
  7. Follower of one of a group of Caribbean religions which combine elements of tribal African religions with Christianity; e.g. Santeria
  8. A follower of a African native religion, as in "Witch doctor"
  9. A person with evil powers who is devoted to harming others. Many Aboriginal religions believe that such individuals exist.

Instead of using terms like Witch and Witchcraft, we recommend that you refer directly to the individual's religion, as in Wicca, Wiccan; Santeria, Santerian. In the unlikely instance that you need a term to refer to a person who uses evil magic to hurt others, we recommend evil sorcery, evil sorcerer, or evil sorceress. The prefix "evil" is important, because the term "sorcery" is sometimes used to refer to benign or positive magick that helps or heals the recipient.

One practice that we recommend avoiding is referring to a Wiccan as a "self-proclaimed Witch" or "self-identified Witch." That denigrates their religion, just as the term "self-proclaimed Christian" would do.

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This is another religious term with many meanings - some nasty and others neutral:

  1. A person who follows a faith tradition that is not one of the main Abrahamic religions; i.e. other than a Jew, Christian, or Muslim. About 45% of the world's population are Pagans, by this definition.
  2. A person who has no religion; a secularist, free-thinker or religious skeptic.
  3. A person believing in an animistic religion, usually polytheistic. It is based upon direct perception of the forces of nature and usually involves the use of idols, talismans and taboos in order to convey respect for these forces and beings.

With the exception of some Neopagans, very few individuals willingly describe themselves as Pagan. It is generally a hurtful word that dredges up thoughts from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) of human sacrifice, irresponsible sexual excesses, and uncivilized behavior.

We suggest that the term Pagan not be used, except when carefully predefined. We recommend that you use the name of the individual's religion, spiritual path or ethical system instead.

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The terms Satan, Satanism and Satanist also have so many definitions that we recommend that they never be used unless they are clearly pre-defined. Some meanings are:

  1. A follower of the Church of Satan or Temple of Set or similar religious group. Religious Satanists do exist. They are not a particularly large faith group in North America; they number in the tens of thousands, and are believed to be in numerical decline. Many are Agnostics who do not view Satan as a living entity. They do not engage in criminal activities at a higher rate than other adults.
  2. A dabbler, typical a teenager, in a syncretistic religion that is a combination of religious Satanism, Wicca, other Neopagan religions, ceremonial magic and any other unusual tradition that is too fast to run away. They sometimes deface public and private property with graffiti. A very few have been known to sacrifice small animals.
  3. Internationally controlled, underground, evil worshipers of Satan who kidnap, abuse, kill and sometimes even eat infants and children. Fortunately, they do not exist. Unfortunately ritual abuse does exist in other forms.
  4. A follower of any religion that is neither Christian or Judaism. Some conservative Christians, and some Biblical passages teach, that when a person worships a deity other than than the Judeo-Christian God, that they are really worshiping either Satan or one of his demons. Some go further and say that established non-Judeo/Christian religious such as Buddhism and Hinduism are either forms of Satanism or Satanism itself. Needless to say, this belief does not find wide acceptance among people outside the Judeo/Christians traditions. 

We recommend that you avoid identifying an individual as a Satanist, because your readers will not know whether they are a member of the Church of Satan,  a teenage Satanic dabbler, a Hindu or a Buddhist, etc. We recommend that you identify the person as a follower of a Satanic church or as a dabbler, as in:

bullet"John Doe is a member of the Temple of Set, a Satanic religious organization."
bullet"Jane Doe is a teenage Satanic dabbler."

If you are involved in a case that appears to involve adult Satanists engaging in the ritual abuse of animals or humans, be skeptical. There have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of such stories reported in the media. But none appears to have been supported by any hard evidence. At most, they may be based on recovered memories which are very unreliable.  

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Cults and new religious movements:

"Cult" has many meanings, ranging from positive to neutral to negative to really awful. It is one of the most misused religious term in the English language. It is generally a hateful term used to denigrate religious groups. Some of the meanings are:

bulletPositive Meaning:
bulletTheological usage: A style of worship and its associated rituals; devotion or homage to a particular person or thing. This is the historical meaning of the word, but is rarely today heard outside of religious circles. A reference to the "Cult of Mary" appeared in a newspaper report on the Pope's 1999 visit to the Americas. It simply means that the Pope devotes special attention to the Virgin Mary.
bulletNeutral Meanings:
bulletSociological usage: A small religious group that exists in a state of tension with the predominant religion. Hinduism might be considered a cult in North America; Christianity might be considered a cult in India.
bulletThe Observer: An English newspaper once used the term to refer to any small religious group, no matter what its age or teachings.
bulletGeneral religious usage: A small, recently created, religious organization which is often headed by a single charismatic leader and is viewed as a spiritually innovative group. A cult in this sense may simply be a new religious movement on its way to becoming a denomination. The Christian religion, as it existed in 29 CE might be considered a cult involving one leader and 12 to 70 devoted followers. 
bulletNegative Meanings:
bulletEvangelical Christian and Counter-Cult Movement (CCM) usage: Any religious group which accepts most but not all of the historical Christian doctrines (the divinity of Jesus, virgin birth, the Trinity, salvation, etc.). The implication is that the cult's theology is invalid; they are heretical. Under this definition, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), Unification Church and Jehovah's Witnesses would be considered to be cults. But they would not classify Wicca as such, because it is unrelated to Christianity. 
bulletFundamentalist Christian usage: Some Fundamentalists would accept the Evangelical definition of cult defined above. Others might brand any religious group which deviates from historical Protestant Christian beliefs as a cult. This definition would include the Mormon Church, Wicca, mainline and liberal Christian denominations, Roman Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, and all of the other religions of the world. Probably over 80% of humanity would belong to cults, by this definition.
bulletAnti-cult movement (ACM) usage: A small number of therapists, research psychologists, self-taught individuals, etc., have formed the anti-cult movement (ACM) They attempt to raise public consciousness about what they see as dangerous and authoritarian mind control cults and doomsday cults. Many do not care about the faith group's theology. They target only what they see as deceptive practices, and dangerous psychological pressure techniques, such as brainwashing. Their beliefs are not generally shared by the mental-health community. They see mind control/doomsday cults as a widespread social problem. The ACM is on rapid decline in North America; it is a growing movement in some parts of Europe.
bulletVery negative meaning:
bulletPopular, media usage: A small, evil religious group, often with a single charismatic leader, which engages in brainwashing and other mind control techniques, believes that the end of the world is imminent, and collects large amounts of weaponry in preparation for a massive war. Membership in such groups is seen as dangerous to your health and even your life. "Cult" is often used as a synonym for mind control religious group or for doomsday cult

"Cult" has so many different and largely unrelated meanings that we recommend that the word be rarely used.  We would recommend substituting the terms new religious movement, alternative religious movement, emergent religion or, simply, faith group. These terms are more precise and have not (yet) been burdened by so many negative connotations, as has "cult." In 1998-MAY, the Associated Press decided to avoid the use of the word "cult" because it had acquired a pejorative aura; they have since given preference to the more neutral term "sect."

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Copyright © 1999 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Publishing date: 1999-JUL-22
Latest update: 2005-NOV-04
Author: B.A. Robinson

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