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”

  • 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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