30 Religious Terms You Should Know

By Maeve Maddox

When I was growing up in small town America, stories about religion were generally confined to the Saturday church pages in the local newspaper. Catholics and Jews were the most exotic religious practitioners in town, and “atheist” was a strong term of disapprobation.

These days religion is front page news. People are killed or driven into hiding because someone somewhere has labeled their work “blasphemy.” School children with attitude get away with refusing to do their homework because they know that school officials are easily spooked by anything relating to religion.

Journalists and school officials shouldn’t have to tiptoe around religious topics. The topic of religion, like that of ecology, is one that concerns all human beings. Although the three Abrahamic religions get most of the news copy, the number of religions that matter to people number in the double digits. Whether we care about it or not, we ought to be able to read and write about religion with some understanding of the terminology.

NOTE: The definitions given here are not intended to be exhaustive. For one thing, some of the terms are defined differently by different religious groups. For permutations of meaning, see the OED or some other authoritative dictionary.

Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three faiths trace their origins to the patriarch Abraham who rejected the polytheism of ancient Sumer to embrace a belief in one, invisible, deity. Sometimes referred to as “the desert religions.”

agnosticism: the philosophical position that the existence or non-existence of God or a First Cause is unknowable.

Anglican: relating to the Church of England. An ancient name for the English people was “Angles.” The Church of England traces its beginning to 597, the year in which Pope Gregory I sent St. Augustine to Canterbury. The Church of England remained under papal authority until 1534 when Henry VIII declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church because of conflicts with Pope Clement VII.

animism: the belief that every material form of reality (plants, animals, stones, thunderstorms, earthquakes) have an indwelling spirit; often includes belief in the continued existence of individual disembodied human spirits capable of helping or harming the living.

asceticism: a mode of life that excludes physical pleasures and self-indulgence. Many religions regard asceticism (fasting, abstaining from sexual activity, wearing inadequate clothing) as a means of reaching a higher spiritual state.

atheism: disbelief in any deity or supernatural power.

blasphemy: indignity offered to God, from Greek blasphemia, “a speaking ill, impious speech, slander.” Religions define blasphemy in terms of their own beliefs, often designating prophets and holy objects along with God as subjects not to be profaned. Many countries have anti-blasphemy laws.

Buddhism: the teaching that suffering is inherent to life and that the way to escape suffering and repeated existence is to limit one’s desires and expectations. There are various sects with varying beliefs.

Confucianism: a system of teachings characterized by central emphasis on the practice and cultivation of the cardinal virtues of filial piety, kindness, righteousness, propriety, intelligence, and faithfulness.

ecclesiastic: relating to a church. Greek ekklesiastikos referred to the ancient Athenian political assembly. First century Christians writers adopted the word to mean “assembly of believers,” or “church.”

episcopal: having to do with a bishop. Like “ecclesiastic,” the English word bishop derives from a Greek word, episkopos, “watcher, overseer. The Greeks used their word to refer to government officials. First century Christian writers used bishop or episkopos to refer to church elders. In time bishop came to mean the chief administrator of a diocese (administrative district governed by a bishop) with the power to ordain. Episcopal is the adjective for bishop.

evangelical: having to do with the Christian gospel/New Testament writings. The word is also used to describe a type of Christian belief that emphasizes the inerrancy of scripture and salvation through personal conversion.

Eucharist: the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, a rite in which bread and wine are consecrated and consumed in symbolic union with Christ. The word comes from a Greek word meaning “grateful.”

ecumenical: worldwide. As applied to religion, the word’s current use to mean cooperation among religious groups began with a 20th century movement promoting the idea of an inter-confessional Christian unity. Now an “ecumenical” group cooperating on some matter of general social benefit might include representatives from non-Christian religions.

eschatology: the study of matters relating to the ultimate destiny of mankind and the world.

Gnosticism: the belief that salvation is to be obtained by means of secret knowledge and that the material world is evil. Gnostic mystery religions abounded in the Roman Empire. The early Christian church was fragmented into various sects, many of which taught a Gnostic version of the new religion.

gospel: the story of Christ’s life and teachings as told in the first four books of the Christian New Testament. The literal meaning of the word is “good news.”

heresy: a religious opinion, or adherence to such an opinion, that is contrary to an established religious teaching. The word comes from Greek hairesis, “action of taking, choice, sect.” Originally a heresy was simply a difference of opinion. It became a religious crime, often punished by death.

Hinduism: a body of social, cultural, and religious beliefs and practices found chiefly in India. It includes a belief in reincarnation and transmigration of souls.

indulgence: in Roman Catholicism, a remission of punishment, especially punishment in Purgatory (in Catholic belief, Purgatory is an intermediate place of purification for souls that departed stained with minor sins not deserving of eternal punishment in Hell).

Immaculate Conception: the Roman Catholic doctrine that the Virgin Mary was conceived without Original Sin (the sin of Adam and Eve conveyed to all human beings). This is not the same thing as the Virgin Birth, “the belief that Jesus was divinely begotten and miraculously born of a virgin mother.”

jihad: a holy war on behalf of Islam. The Christian equivalent word is crusade, “a campaign or war sanctioned by the Church against unbelievers or heretics.” Literal crusades were common in the Middle Ages and were directed against Christian heretics as well as non-Christians. Now the term is used figuratively to mean “any remedial activity pursued with zeal and enthusiasm.” The same meaning is becoming attached to jihad.

lay: not in holy orders. In a monastery there are monks who pray and do intellectual work, and those who do manual work and attend to secular affairs. The latter are called lay brothers. The term has spread to non-religious professions. Someone who lacks professional knowledge of a particular profession is called a layman. In a church setting one may speak of the clergy and the laity (non-clerical members of the church).

monotheism: the doctrine or belief that there is only one God.

nihilism: the viewpoint that all traditional beliefs are unfounded and that human life has no meaning.

orthodox: in agreement with the official doctrine of a given religion. The word is from Greek orthodoxein, “to have the right opinion.” The noun is orthodoxy. Departure from orthodoxy is called heterodoxy.

pagan – This is a term difficult to define in even such a superficial treatment as this. For the early Christians, a pagan was a believer in polytheistic religion. The word originally meant “country dweller.” The rural population was slower to adopt Christianity than the city dwellers, probably because their religion was closely bound to agricultural cycles. Nowadays there are religious groups that identify themselves as Pagans. Modern paganism is earth-centered and can include polytheistic beliefs. The word heathen is used pejoratively to mean a person without religion. Like pagan, heathen also points to the fact that non-city dwellers tended to reject religious change. Heath comes from a word meaning “field.” Heathen was originally an adjective meaning “of the heath.”

polytheism: belief in more than one god.

profane: not holy. Anything not related to religion and spirituality is profane. The word can also be used as a verb meaning “to treat something sacred with irreverence.”

secular: worldly, not sacred. Similar to profane, secular refers to anything that is not specifically religious.

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31 Responses to “30 Religious Terms You Should Know”

  • Eric C

    Some words I think are useful: pantheism, gentile. I’m sure I could come up with more. good list though, particularly my understanding of ecumenical and episcopal were way off.

  • Maeve

    Eric,
    You’re right, there are plenty of other useful words. I’ll give some thoughts to how additional words might be grouped.
    Thanks

  • Selia

    A few problems with this list.

    (1) Why did you take the time to define the other religions, then not define Islam, in fact the only Muslim word you have on there is jihad, which actually is understood by the majority of muslims as “Struggle”, mostly an internal struggle to adhere to the ways of Islam. Holy war is only an extremist (read minority) understanding of the word.

    (2) In your definition of eschatology you use the word mankind. You run a writing website, please use gender neutral language please, it isn’t that difficult.

    (3) Religion is an important facet of the lives of more than 3/4 of the world, perhaps we should think about writing about religion because it is so important, instead of always focusing on the controversial.

  • Philip Dragonetti

    Comment on “Anglicanism”. The reason the early Brits were called Angles is that the Angles are Germans. Anglo-Saxon for that matter are two German tribes. the English language is basically “Anglish”—the language of the Germans who invaded and controlled Britain until the French-Norman William the Conquerer invaded in 1066 and brought French to Britain. But meanwhile the Brits were still speaking and continue to speak “Anglish”—which is basically German.

    Another comment: Atheist was defined in a disbelief in God. I ask—Isn’t that really a somewhat weakened definition of Atheism? Most Atheists I have come across claim “There is no God!” Which kind of religious attitude should bear the name “Atheist”???–the one who just disbelieves in God, or the one who claims there is no god???

  • Roberta B.

    also it’s my understanding that Hinduism is multi-theistic.

  • Kathy Teel

    Thanks for this. I linked my World Religions class to it!

  • Andy Knoedler

    As a born and raised Catholic who has worked in Muslim countries for more years than I can remember and who thinks of himself as a Buddhist, I found your list quite limited.

    Don’t you think the religion that most of your readers need to learn more about is Islam? What do Muslims believe? What’s the difference between the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam? What are the 5 pillars of Islam?

    This is the sort of information that Westerners would benefit from reading — not definitions of mainstream Christian terms or jihad or pagan.

  • bad tim

    do you have a source for the origin of the word pagan? i don’t believe the ‘country dweller’ excuse is entirely valid. the word also meant ‘civilian’ and may have been coined by pagans to distinguish themselves from christian ‘milites’. also, ‘heathen’ is used by norse pagans to refer to their own beliefs today.

    to another comment: hinduism isn’t exactly polytheistic, and can’t be defined as a single religion. a predominant belief among followers of sanatan dharma is that there is one all-pervasive and unknowable god, and that the devas are merely manifestations of this being that help mortals cope with divine knowledge. hinduism’s devas are not exactly the same as western gods.

  • Daniel Scocco

    @Andy, Islamic terms would grant a post on their own, and that is why we have not mixed them here (except for the mainstream jihad).

  • Philip Dragonetti

    Genesis says:
    “Let us make Man in our own image.”

    I ask: Is that supposed to be ‘monotheism.”???

  • John

    Eucharist: the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, a rite in which bread and wine are consecrated and consumed in union with Christ.

    Delete the word “symbolic”. The bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.

  • Erik

    @Philip Dragonetti, Maeve’s definition of atheism is entirely correct: someone who lacks belief in a god or gods.

    As for your question, “atheism” covers both those lacking a belief in god(s) and those who claim there is no god.

  • Freeman Presson

    While “pagan” and heathen” are still sometimes used as pejoratives by some Christians, they are also claimed by contemporary Pagans and Heathens (= Germanic polytheists).

    Not all contemporary Pagan traditions are “earth-centered” either. This term sets my teeth on edge, especially when used as a shorthand definition as you have done. Neither classical Paganism nor contemporary polytheism are “earth-centered” even if that term actually means anything.

  • Robyn Broyles

    John hinted at a flaw in your definition of “Eucharist.” The flaw is that the definition varies significantly among Christian denominations. Your definition is common among most (but not all) Protestants. In Catholicism, the Eucharist is believed to be entirely literal, not symbolic. Once consecrated, the matter of the Eucharist is believed to be bread and wine in appearance only, with its metaphysical substance completely transformed into Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. The change is called transubstantiation, and the doctrine of the literal presence of Jesus is called the Real Presence.

    Also, you defined orthodox with a lower-case o accurately, but omitted the very different of Orthodox with a capital O. The Orthodox Churches, also called Eastern Orthodox, are a group of Churches that split from the Church in Rome around the 11th century. Their liturgy and mysticism is more similar to Catholicism than to any other Christian denomination, but has some important distinctions.

    Kudos for getting Immaculate Conception spot-on! (Or should I say spot-off?)

    Great list!

  • Peter

    Which kind of religious attitude should bear the name “Atheist”???–the one who just disbelieves in God, or the one who claims there is no god???

    They only seem like different things to the mind determined to see religion where there is none — atheism, of course, isn’t a “religious attitude” at all.

    Which should be called “a-unicornist”, the one who disbelieves in unicorns, or the one who claims there are no unicorns?

  • Maeve

    Hoping to avoid acrimony, I included disclaimer at the top of the list of terms. Somehow it has dropped out of the post. I’ll put it here and probably insert it where I’d intended for it to appear:

    NOTE: The definitions given here are not intended to be exhaustive. For one thing, some of the terms are defined differently by different religious groups. For permutations of meaning, see the OED or some other authoritative dictionary.

    Pax

  • Maeve

    @bad tim,
    The word did have different meanings and there are different theories as to why Christians called the nonbelievers by that word. Here’s the explanation I chose to work from in this post:

    The older sense of classical Latin p{amac}g{amac}nus is ‘of the country, rustic’ (also as noun). It has been argued that the transferred use reflects the fact that the ancient idolatry lingered on in the rural villages and hamlets after Christianity had been generally accepted in the towns and cities of the Roman Empire; compare Orosius Histories 1. Prol. ‘Ex locorum agrestium compitis et pagis pagani vocantur.’ –OED

  • Cory

    Thanks, Robyn, John’s comment made me wonder, so I am glad that you clarified it.

  • Erik

    @Peter, spot on.

  • Carmen

    Thanks Maeve. As always, most appreciated

  • John

    Robyn, Thanks for your eloquent, accurate and complete explanation of the Eucharist.

  • Emma

    Also, probably worth noting the difference between “catholic” (All inclusive, pertaining to all mankind) & “Catholic” (as in Roman Catholic).
    http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/catholic for more

  • David

    Agnosticism is not about the existence of God being “unknowable” — I cannot think of a single Faith that claims you can *know* God exists. If I know something, there is no faith involved. Faith is a commitment of action or belief based on certain evidences, though all supporting facts remain unknown.

    Agnostic comes from the same root as ignorant. It means ‘not known.’ Agnostics take a faithless (safer) position, whereas believers in God and Atheists alike have taken a position of commitment based on their beliefs which are evidential, experiential and circumstantial.

    Agnostics just say “I don’t know.”

    Philip Dragonetti – Monotheism still fits with the perplexing “let Us make Man in Our Image” in the Christian concept pf the Trinity which is not mentioned in the bible, but extrapolated from the whole, that God is a single entity consisting of 3 ‘expressions.’ For example John 1:1 refers to the Son as the creative expression of God and the Word (an expressive attribute) and the Spirit is considered to be the Power of God expressed. 3 attributes expressions of a monotheistic entity.

  • David

    What exactly does disbelieve mean? Is it an active verb?

  • Erik

    Agnosticism is the position that the existence of god(s) is unknown or unknowable.

    Disbelieve means “to not believe”. If you don’t believe in a god, you are an atheist – you are not an agnostic just cause you accept the theoretical possibility.

  • David

    Still having trouble with the concept, if you’ll pardon me. It almost sounds like “disbelieve” is more like “un-believe” — something you “do.” Where as to not believe is to never arrive at a state of belief…

    If I may come up with a political example, there would be certain people who disbelieve in Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq having previously believed there were, while others never believed there were. (I am not opening up a debate on that subject).

  • Valerie

    Anglican: St Augustine of Canterbury, not the famous St Augustine of Hippo, 354-430, author of City of God.

  • Sabina

    Though this person doesn’t know what is islam ( I don’t see any description it ), but she/he knows what is jihad . Quite funny 🙂

  • munawar am

    from Latin…
    I often read about Liberation Theology since I have studying about Comparative Religion…

  • John

    Thanks, Maeve. Nice job.

  • Ken

    @Emma re: small c versus capital C Catholic — there is no difference except that one is used as a title. The synonym is universal, or Universal, as one might prefer. The Catholic Church rightly describes herself as The Universal Church.

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