Glossary

  • Agnosticism: from the Greek word agnostos or unknown, unknowable; an agnostic holds that we know nothing beyond material phenomena.
  • Allah (Muslim): an Arabic word for God.
  • Almsgiving: the act of giving money or other goods to the poor and needy.
  • Altar: a table or table-like surface used as a centre in worship.
  • Ancestors: people from whom one is descended; relatives who lived at an earlier time and are now dead.
  • Animism: belief that spirits inhabit the natural world: objects, animals, vegetables or minerals. Animistic religions generally do not accept a sharp distinction between spirit and matter.
  • Asceticism: the practice of self-denial in order to attain spiritual gain: fasting, self-mortification, celibacy.
  • Ashram (Hindu): monastery or communal house of meditation.
  • Atheism: denial of the existence of deities or the Divine.
  • Avatar (Hindu): one of several forms that a god or goddess may assume on earth. Rama, Krishna and Buddha are the most famous avatars of the god Vishnu – a bit like the evolution of the Pokemans.
  • Balance: equilibrium; harmony among the parts that compose a person, things and nature. A term associated with Taoist virtue.
  • Bodhisattva (Buddhist): Sanskrit word for a wise person who renounces reaching nirvana in order to help people who suffer on earth.
  • Brahma (Hindu): a Sanskrit word for a deity.
  • Brahman (Hindu): the impersonal, absolute reality of the universal soul.
  • Buddha (Buddhist): ‘The Enlightened One’; applicable to any human being who has reached enlightenment, especially Siddhartha Gautama a man who lived in India in the 6th century before the Common Era, the founder of Buddhism.
  • Caste (Hindu): a social group to which Hindus belong by birth. One’s caste cannot be changed during this lifetime.
  • Cathedral (Christian): the principal church in a bishop’s jurisdiction often noted for its size and beauty.
  • Ceremony: the outward form of a rite or formal act; usually presided by a representative of the community that witnesses the rite or formal act.
  • Christ (Christian): see Jesus Christ.
  • Church/church (Christian): the community of believers on earth and in heaven; a building used for worship.
  • Circumcision (Jewish, Muslim): a procedure that cuts some or all of the foreskin (prepuce); an operation performed on boys or men.
  • Communion (Christian): taking part of the consecrated bread and wine during the rite known as the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper or the Divine Liturgy.
  • Compassion: i)the feeling of empathy for the suffering of other living beings that is often linked to a desire to help the sufferer; ii) a primary Buddhist virtue.
  • Consultation (Bahá’í): a humble form of discussion conducive to the exchange of ideas with courtesy and openness so that the decisions arrived at can be wholeheartedly supported by the group.
  • Convention (Bahá’í): a gathering called at a regional, national, or international level for consultation on matters affecting the welfare of the community.
  • Convert: a person who decides to adhere to a religion or who changes from one religion to another.
  • Cosmology: beliefs about the structure of the universe.
  • Cult: worship and its associated rituals.
  • Deity: a god or goddess; a supernatural being or presence.
  • Devotion: act of setting apart or dedication; piety, faithful service; a state of consecration or worship. A word associated with Hindu virtue.
  • Diaspora (Jewish): the dispersion and migration of a people outside of their home territory. The Jewish people who live outside of Israel.
  • Disciple: a Latin word for student; one who is taught by or who adheres to the teachings of a master.
  • Divination: any method of predicting future events: runes, tarot, numerology, reading the stars, the entrails of animals or coffee grounds in the bottom of a cup.
  • Doctrine: a collection of teachings or rules that define a religious group’s behaviour and their ideas about the world.
  • Dogma: a truth defined by a religious group to be essential to its teaching.
  • Dreamtime (Australian Aboriginal): the period in which ancestral beings shaped the earth.
  • Ecumenism: the promotion of understanding between traditions within a single religion. The term is used almost exclusively in reference to Christianity.
  • Enlightenment (Buddhist): also called illumination; awakening; the act of coming to a complete understanding of life and of the world.
  • Epic: a very long poem or text in prose that recounts the exploits of legendary heroes.
  • Ethics: the study of human values and moral conduct.
  • Experience: wisdom gained from the changes and trials of life; anything received from the mind as perception, sensation or knowledge. A term that is significant for grasping the essence of local religions.
  • Faith: an attitude of trust and certainty; a term closely associated with the monotheistic religions, in particular Christianity and Islam (correct behaviour is considered more important than faith for religions such as Judaism and Hinduism).
  • Fasting: going without food, water or both for a determined period of time in order to achieve spiritual gain.
  • Festival: originally the term referred to religious celebrations which included sacred communal feasts; many such events are celebrations of the life cycle (rites of passage) or the cycle of nature (seasons).
  • Ghost dance (American Indian): a dance believed to lead to the resurrection of all dead Indians.
  • God/god/goddess: a superhuman being, an object of worship: a creator of the world and sustainer of life; the Supreme Deity of monotheistic religions.
  • Harmony: a fitting together of parts to form a whole in a satisfying state of completeness. The word is closely associated with Taoism.
  • Heaven: realm of good and the gods; a state of reward; in Christianity and Islam Heaven is the ultimate destination of the saved.
  • Hell: realm of evil and the devil; a state of punishment; in Christianity and Islam Hell is total separation from God.
  • House of worship (Bahá’í): a nine-sided Bahá’í place of worship open to all people for prayer and meditation. There is now one House on every continent in the world.
  • Human rights: basic rights and freedoms that all humans should be guaranteed, such as the right to life and liberty, freedom of thought and expression, and equality before the law.
  • Humanity: human beings as a group; the human condition.
  • Huqúqu’lláh (Bahá’í): an Arabic word that refers to the practice of giving nineteen percent of what remains of one’s personal income after essential expenses have been covered.
  • Hymn: a sacred song; usually sung as an act of worship.
  • Imam (Muslim): a recognized learned religious leader or teacher. For some, the person must be a perfect example.
  • Immortality: the belief that at least a part of a living being never dies or that it is imperishable. The word is closely associated to Taoism, a religion that reveres the Eight Immortals.
  • Incarnation: i) belief that God became human in the form of Jesus Christ (Christian); ii) Hindu doctrine of avatar.
  • Incense: aromatic smoke given off by the burning of special resins or spices, used in worship as an act of devotion.
  • Jesus Christ (Christian): a name for Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish man whom Christians believe to be the Messiah, or Christ (Anointed One).
  • Jihad (Muslim): an Arabic word that refers to the struggle to evolve as a human being, to better oneself; the literal fighting for the cause of Allah is known as the ‘lesser jihad‘.
  • Kachina (American Indian): ceremonial masks used among the Pueblo Indians.
  • Kami (Shinto): traditional nature spirit.
  • Karma (Buddhist, Hindu): a Sanskrit term that refers to the deeds or actions performed by each person during this lifetime determines their next life form.
  • Kosher (Jewish): an English word for the Hebrew term kosher, meaning acceptable for consumption according to traditional Jewish dietary laws.
  • Laity: non-ordained members of a religious community; the term ‘lay’ may be used to refer to that which is non-religious (acts, ceremonies, festivals).
  • Lama (Buddhist): Tibetan religious leader.
  • Liturgy (Christian): the form of service or regular ritual of a church – strictly, the form of the celebration of the sacraments called the Eucharist, Lord’s Supper or Divine Liturgy.
  • Love: reverence for other human beings; the primary Christian virtue.
  • Magic: the art of working wonders with special knowledge and the aid of spirits or the secret forces of nature.
  • Mana: sacred power associated with gods or with natural forces in local religions.
  • Mandir (Hindu): temple.
  • Manifestation of God (Bahá’í): a divine messenger or educator; commonly called a prophet. Bahá’u’lláh is considered a Manifestation of God.
  • Mantra (Buddhist, Hindu): A Sanskrit term used to denote a word, phrase or sound used as an aid to meditation.
  • Marae (Polynesian): sacred area with shrine.
  • Meditation: an effort to quiet and focus the mind on spiritual matters or the Divine.
  • Messenger of God (Muslim): a person sent by God with a special mission or message: the Prophet Muhammad is considered by Muslims to be the greatest and last Messenger of God.
  • Miko (Shinto): priestesses dedicated to the worship of the kami.
  • Miracle: an amazing extraordinary event, apparently impossible to explain by the normal laws of nature and thus attributed to divine intervention.
  • Mitzvah, pl. mitzvot (Jewish): a Hebrew word for commandment of which there are 613 in all with ten main ones. The term has come to express any act of human kindness, such as the burial of the body of an unknown person.
  • Mizimu (Bantu): spirits of the dead; ancestors.
  • Monk/nun:a member of a religious community living voluntarily under certain rules which often include poverty and chastity.
  • Monotheism: belief in one unique Divine Being or God.
  • Mosque (Muslim): a place of worship and social gathering for followers of the Islamic faith. Muslims use the Arabic names jami’ or masjid.
  • Mudra (Buddhist): ritual gesture, as in the different hand positions of Buddha statues.
  • Muezzin (Muslim): person who calls Muslims to prayer.
  • Mulla (Muslim): scholar versed in the laws of Islam.
  • Myth: sacred story, often forms the basis of a religious culture. The veracity of the story is not a condition for its significance in this context.
  • Nature: the cosmos, the external world; the power that creates and regulates the world; the established order of things. A significant concept for understanding local or primal religions.
  • Nganga (African tradition): specialist in dealing with illness and evil (erroneously called a witch doctor).
  • Nirvana (Buddhist, Hindu): a state reached by those who, having escaped the cycle of death and rebirth, have become pure.
  • Obeah (West Indies): magic and religious practices usually of West African origin.
  • Om/aum (Hindu): most sacred and ultimate word, sound at the origin of the universe.
  • Pagan: a term used to designate a person who is neither Christian, Jewish or Muslim.
  • Pagoda (Eastern): a many-tiered temple with many stories, each of which has a projecting roof that narrows at the top.
  • Pantheism: belief that divinity resides in all aspects of reality.
  • Pilgrimage: a journey to a holy place often undertaken as a spiritual exercise of penance or celebration.
  • Pluralism: situation in which no single group holds a monopoly in the definition of beliefs, values and practices.
  • Pogrom (Jewish): a Russian word historically used to denote extensive violence against Jews under the Tzars (1880-1920). It has since also been applied to violence against other minority groups.
  • Polytheism: belief in a variety of gods or goddesses, each with its own area of rule or competence.
  • Prayer beads: a string of beads used in many religions as an aide for reciting prayers: rosary (Christian), mala (Buddhist).
  • Prayer wheels (Buddhist): cylinders or wheels inscribed with mantras that are spun or turned as a concrete gesture of prayer; used mainly among Tibetan Buddhists.
  • Prayer: private or public communication with the Divine.
  • Priest, pastor (Christian): the title of the person who leads Orthodox, Catholic, Episcopal or Anglican worship (priest) or a Protestant church service (pastor).
  • Prophet: a person through whom a deity speaks or who proclaims a divine message; inspired teacher or poet.
  • Puja (Hindu): worship, particularly at temple or household shrines.
  • Qi (Taoist): vital life energy or life force that pervades the universe and every living body.
  • Qibla (Muslim): direction of Mecca to which Muslims pray.
  • Rabbi (Jewish): teacher of the Torah; spiritual leader of the community.
  • Reincarnation (Hindu, Buddhist): the passing of the soul or self into another life form after death.
  • Respect: to treat with consideration, esteem, honour or deference. A term often associated with humanist virtue.
  • Rite: a ceremonial form or observance; rites de passage (Arnold van Gennep) = a ceremony associated with birth, puberty, marriage or death that marks a person’s transition from one status to another within his or her community.
  • Ritual: relating to, or to the nature of, rites; a body or code of ceremonies; an oft-repeated series of actions carried out by followers or religious leaders in a prescribed manner.
  • Sacrament (Christian): ‘an outward and visible symbol of an inward and spiritual grace’ (Book of Common Prayer).
  • Sacrifice: a ritual offering to a deity.
  • Sadhu (Hindu): a holy man or ascetic.
  • Saint (Christian): a holy person; all Christians (New Testament); official sainthood is conferred by the Pope (Roman Catholic) or the Orthodox Church.
  • Salvation: i) Christian belief in forgiveness by God; ii) Buddhism and Hinduism refer to attainment of nirvana.
  • Samsara (Hindu, Buddhist): the cycle of life, death and rebirth.
  • Saviour (Christian): one who saves from evil; one of the titles applied by Christians to Jesus Christ. Others include Redeemer, Son of God, Messiah, Lord.
  • Sawm (Muslim): fasting, particularly during the month of Ramadan.
  • Scripture: text revered by a community as a basis for its spiritual tradition.
  • Shabbat (Jewish):a Hebrew word for rest; observed from before sundown on Friday until after nightfall on Saturday. Many Jewish people, regardless of whether or not they attend the synagogue, observe shabbat.
  • Shahada (Muslim): Islamic declaration of faith.
  • Shakti (Hindu): sacred force, power or energy; concept or personification of the divine feminine aspect, sometimes referred to as ‘The Divine Mother’.
  • Shaman (Local Religions): a member of certain tribal societies who acts as a religious medium between the concrete and spirit worlds.
  • Shema (Jewish): central creed recited daily by some religious Jews.
  • Shrine: a place made sacred by its link with a holy person; this link may be an image or relics.
  • Spiritual: having to do with the spirit or essence of a living being; the human being’s highest expression and activity.
  • Stupa (Buddhist): A dome-shaped monument built upon relics of the Lord Buddha or holy objects or scriptures.
  • Submission (Muslim): act of yielding, surrendering or giving way to another; Muslims voluntarily submit themselves to Allah.
  • Swastika (Hindu): Sanskrit word meaning well being; a mystical sign. Symbol misused by the Nazis.
  • Synagogue (Jewish): meeting house for prayer and worship.
  • Tabu/tapu (Polynesian): that which is forbidden.
  • Talisman: a small amulet or other object, often bearing magical symbols, worn for protection against evil spirits or the supernatural.
  • Temple: a building used for worship.
  • Theology: theos is a Greek word for god; theology is the study of God; more generally ‘religion’.
  • Totem (American Indian): a natural object or living creature that serves as an emblem of a tribe, clan or family. Totem poles are erected as clan emblems.
  • Trance: an abnormal state of consciousness or exaltation where the person is taken out of him or herself and the real world. This state may be achieved by the absorption of certain plants, by chanting or dance.
  • Tzedakah (Jewish): a Hebrew term most commonly translated as charity even though its root means justice.
  • Umma (Muslim): an Arabic term that refers to the global community of all Muslim believers.
  • Understanding: reason, intelligence; mental and emotional process of comprehension, assimilation of knowledge. An important Jewish virtue, seen in the Tree of Life as bina.
  • Unity: state of being one or undivided; united in mind or purpose. A central concept of the Bahà’ì Faith.
  • Venerate: to hold something or someone in deep respect.
  • Wisdom: an element of personal character that enables one to distinguish the wise from the unwise; the ability to know and apply spiritual truths. A term often associated with Judaism; this quality is also highly valued by Christians and Buddhists.
  • Witchcraft: the practice of witches; magic, sorcery or the use supernatural powers to influence or predict events.
  • Yang (Taoist): the essential male principle in eastern religion or philosophy. The balance between yin and yang is a fundamental concept in Taoism.
  • Yin (Taoist): the essential female principle in eastern religion or philosophy. The balance between yin and yang is a fundamental concept in Taoism.
  • Yoga (Hindu, Buddhist): method of meditation that involves physical as well as spiritual discipline; the goal is union with the divine.
  • Zakat (Muslim): an Arabic word for the Islamic concept of tithing and alms.