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A gathering in Wiccan traditions for one of the eight major holy days; timed around the solar cycle. See also: esbat.

Filed in Paganism/Wicca


The day of the week observed for rest and worship. Most Christian traditions observe the Sabbath on Sunday. Judaism — along with some Christian traditions such as Seventh-day Adventists — observes the Sabbath on Saturday. (Jews’ observance of the Sabbath begins at sundown Friday.) Capitalize in religious references but lowercase when talking about periods of rest. See Shabbat.

Filed in Christianity, Judaism, Orthodoxy


A Christian rite than confers grace and serves as a visible form of it. The Orthodox, Roman Catholic and certain Episcopal churches believe there are seven sacraments: Eucharist or Communion, baptism, confirmation, penance (often called confession), anointing of the ill, marriage and ordination (holy orders). Most Protestant churches recognize only two sacraments, baptism and Communion. Lowercase sacrament, but capitalize when using the proper names for sacramental rites that commemorate the life of Christ or signify a belief in his presence, such as the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion and Holy Eucharist. Lowercase the other sacraments.

Filed in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Mormonism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


Characterized by irreverence toward a sacred person, place or thing.

Filed in Religion and culture


Pronounced “SAAD-han-aa.” In Hinduism, religious practice that is undertaken on a regular basis for the purpose of purifying oneself to gain wisdom, devotion or enlightenment.

Filed in Hinduism


Pronounced “SAA-dhu.” A Hindu ascetic who has renounced advancement in the material world and has dedicated his or her life to the search for wisdom, devotion, God, truth or enlightenment. There are many different types in India, grouped into orders according to their beliefs and practices. They may live in monasteries (ashrams) or as hermits and wanderers. They often live on alms, or provisions and gifts they are given. Sadhvi (pronounced “SAA-dhvee”) is the female form.

Filed in Hinduism


In Catholicism, a saint is anyone who is judged to have lived a holy life, to be in heaven and to be a model Christian worthy of public veneration. Canonization is the process in the Catholic Church by which a deceased person is officially recognized as having joined the “communion of saints” in heaven and therefore able to intercede with God in a special way for people on earth. Capitalize and abbreviate as St. when referring to names of saints, cities and other places. Follow the AP exceptions for the cities of Saint John in New Brunswick and Sault Ste. Marie. See canonization.

Filed in Catholicism, Christianity


The prescribed prayer that Muslims offer five times a day to fulfill the second of the Five Pillars of their faith.

Filed in Islam


A pagan festival marking the end of the harvest and the beginning of the winter. Believed to be Celtic pagan in origin, but increasingly observed by neopagans, Wiccans and other occult groups.

Filed in Paganism/Wicca


Pronounced “sahm-SAA-rah.” The cycle of birth, death and rebirth (and thus continual return to the suffering that constitutes human life). The fundamental goal of Buddhist practice is to be freed from samsara.

Filed in Buddhism


An ancient classical language of India in which most of the texts of Hinduism were written.

Filed in Hinduism


The term was first coined by the Spanish to describe the way West African slaves combined Roman Catholic traditions with aboriginal religious rites. The faith focuses on trances for communicating with ancestors and often involves animal sacrifice. Santeria is practiced in the Caribbean and in some major American cities with significant Caribbean populations. It shares some characteristics with Voodoo, another syncretistic religion in the Caribbean that also traces its roots to West Africa. Santeria is known by several other names, including Lukumi. The name Santeria is actually considered a pejorative by some but has come into common usage, even among some followers, and is acceptable to use. Uppercase Santeria in all references.

Filed in Catholicism, Santería


In the Hebrew Bible, Satan is depicted as an angel used by God to test man. In the New Testament, Satan is a fallen angel who is the ultimate evil and enemy of God and man. In Islam, Satan was the head jinn or genie until he angered God by refusing to accept man’s superiority. Uppercase in all references, but always lowercase devil.

Filed in Catholicism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Orthodoxy


Term in Zen Buddhism for the experience of awakening to the truth.

Filed in Buddhism


Pronounced “SAHT-vah.” In Hinduism, the quality of light and goodness.

Filed in Hinduism


Always capitalize when referring to Jesus Christ.

Filed in Adventism, Amish/Mennonite, Anglican/Episcopalian, Baptist/Southern Baptist, Catholicism, Christian Science, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, Protestantism, Quaker


See Church of Scientology.

Filed in Scientology

scripture, scriptures

The sacred writings of a religious group. Capitalize when referring to writings from the Holy Bible but not otherwise.

Filed in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, Religion and culture

Second Coming

Always capitalize when referring to the return of Jesus that is prophesied in the Bible.

Filed in Catholicism, Christianity, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism

Second Vatican Council

See Vatican II.

Filed in Catholicism


Refers to a group that has broken off from another. Avoid this label unless you are sure it fits; it often carries negative connotations.

Filed in Religion and culture

secular humanism

An outlook that emphasizes human rather than religious values. Secular humanism stresses reason, scientific inquiry, individual freedom and responsibility, human values and compassion, and the need for tolerance and cooperation.

Filed in Atheism/Agnosticism, Religion and culture

secular religion

Generally understood as a widely held belief system that does not take metaphysical, spiritual or religious aspects into account; a governing system with rules, practices, rituals and organization that does not discuss such topics as the afterlife or the divine.

Filed in Atheism/Agnosticism


The belief that religion and religious considerations have no place in public life and education.

Filed in Religion and culture


The ritualized dinner held in Jewish homes on the first night or first two nights of Passover. The word seder means “order” in Hebrew. It commemorates the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt as described in the book of Exodus, and it features special foods and the reading of the Haggadah, a compilation of biblical passages, prayers, hymns and rabbinic literature. See Passover.

Filed in Judaism


A bishop’s official seat or center of authority.

Filed in Catholicism


Title of teacher in a Zen Buddhist lineage, it refers to one who has received dharma transmission, or formal recognition of his or her awakening. Capitalize with a name. The title sensei generally follows a name, but practice varies, especially in the United States. Sensei is also a title in Japanese martial arts.

Filed in Buddhism


A term used to describe people or groups who support a strong separation of church and state in legal matters. See accommodationist, Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause.

Filed in Government and politics


Pronounced “suh-FAR-dee.” A Jew of Portuguese, Spanish or North African descent. Originally, Sephardi meant a Jew descended from the Iberian Peninsula, but it has now come to mean Jews who are not Ashkenazim, including Jews from Arab countries and Greece. Sephardic Jews are estimated to make up 20 percent of the world’s Jewish population. The plural form of Sephardi is Sephardim. See Ashkenazi.

Filed in Judaism


See devout.

Filed in Religion and culture

seven deadly sins

Pope Gregory the Great is credited with devising this list in the sixth century of the worst human vices: pride, envy, greed, anger, sloth, lust and gluttony.

Filed in Catholicism, Christianity

Seventh-day Adventist Church

A Christian denomination that traces its origin to William Miller, who predicted that the world would end in the mid-1840s based on his reading of the Book of Daniel. When that failed to occur, Miller’s followers split into smaller groups, one of which eventually became the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Seventh-day Adventists observe Saturday as their Sabbath. Ministers use the title pastor or elder, which should be capitalized before a name on first reference. The honorific the Rev. is not used.

Filed in Adventism

sexual orientation

Sexual attraction. Use the term sexual orientation instead of sexual preference.

Filed in Religion and culture


Hebrew word for Sabbath. The Jewish Sabbath is from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Shabbat is observed by lighting candles on Friday night (this is usually done by the woman of the house) and sharing a special family meal. Religious services that include a reading from the Torah happen on Saturday morning, after which families gather for a Shabbat lunch. Shabbat ends with the lighting of a three-wicked “havdalah” candle and the passing around of a fragrant spice box, the scent of which is supposed to carry the peace of Shabbat into the work week. Orthodox Jews refrain from driving, turning lights on or off and a number of other activities that are considered “work” on Shabbat.

Filed in Judaism


The Islamic profession of faith that there is no god but God, and Muhammad is God’s prophet. The Shahada is the first of the Five Pillars of Islam.

Filed in Islam


Pronounced “SHAK-tee.” In Hinduism, the active power or manifest energy that pervades all of existence and is represented in feminine names and forms.

Filed in Hinduism


A spiritual leader in a tribal society who heals people by channeling spirits, often in an altered state. Sometimes referred to as a medicine man or witch doctor. It is a description rather than a formal title; do not capitalize, even when used with a name.

Filed in Religion and culture, Religious titles


Pronounced “sha-REE-ya.” The revealed and canonical laws of Islam. Some countries base their legal systems on Shariah; their legislators create laws and rules based on the Quran, hadith and other sources.

Filed in Islam


Pronounced “shuh-VOO-oat.” The name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks, which commemorates Moses’ receiving of the Ten Commandments. Shavuot falls 49 days after Passover. These days are counted out ritually by Jews in a practice known as “Counting the Omer.” Shavuot occurs in May or June. See Jewish holidays.

Filed in Judaism


Most Islamic clergymen use the title sheikh like a Christian cleric uses the Rev.

Sheikh also is used as a secular title. Capitalize it when used before a name, but lowercase otherwise.

Filed in Islam, Religious titles


Pronounced “shu-MAH.” Considered the most important prayer in Judaism, it consists of Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which begins, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”

Filed in Judaism


A spiritual technique of building an energy field around oneself; believed to protect one’s energy from escaping while guarding the individual from external negative energy.

Filed in Paganism/Wicca

Shiism, Shiite

Shiism is the name of the smaller of the two major branches of Islam. It developed after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, when his followers split over who would lead Islam. The Shiism branch favored Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. Its followers are called Shiites. Use Shiite instead of Shi’ah unless in a quote or as part of a name. Uppercase in all uses.

Filed in Islam, Shiite


Japan’s indigenous religion. It has no formal doctrine and stresses nature, harmony and personal cleanliness. In 1868, it was declared Japan’s official religion after the emperor regained power from the shoguns. After World War II, the religion was separated from the state. Uppercase in all references.

Filed in Shinto


Pronounced “SHEE-vah.” A popular representation of God in Hinduism. He is worshipped as the lord of time and change. Brahma is the name used for God when God’s role as creator of the universe is described. God is referred to as Vishnu when God’s role as preserver is emphasized. The divine is always understood to be one. Shiva’s consort has the names of Parvati, Kali and Durga. Also spelled Siva (pronounced “SEE-vah”).

Filed in Hinduism


The Jewish term for the seven-day period of mourning in which close relatives “sit shiva” after a person’s funeral. During shiva, mourners abstain from work, sex, learning and following other rules. Mourners often sit on low stools or benches to symbolize how they are brought low by grief, and they cover all mirrors in the shiva house to focus on the deceased rather than on their own vanity. The purpose of shiva is to honor the dead and to help the mourner grieve. Others visit a home where someone is sitting shiva.

Filed in Judaism

Shmini Atseret

Jewish holiday celebrated eight days after the beginning of Sukkot. Shmini means “the eighth.”

Filed in Judaism


The Hebrew word for holocaust. The memorial day for those who died in the Holocaust is called Yom Hashoah and takes place in March or April.

Filed in Judaism


A ceremonial ram’s horn sounded on Jewish holidays and special occasions, particularly Rosh Hashanah.

Filed in Judaism


A Yiddish word for a Jewish house of worship. The term is primarily used by Orthodox Jews.

Filed in Judaism


Pronounced “SHOON-yuh-taa.” Emptiness, a key teaching in Mahayana Buddhism that all phenomena lack real and permanent substance.

Filed in Buddhism

Siddhartha Gautama

Pronounced “Sid-DHART-hah GAU-tuh-mah.” Name of the historical Buddha, also known as Shakyamuni (“sage of the Shakya clan”). Born to a wealthy ruling family between the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. in an area that is part of modern-day Nepal, he left the kingdom at age 29 after encountering the outside world of illness, old age and death beyond the palace walls, to find enlightenment and release from suffering. After years as a wandering ascetic, he awoke to the true nature of reality after meditating under a bodhi tree and spent the rest of his life passing on to others what he had realized. The title Buddha means awakened or enlightened one. Gautama did not teach that he was a god; as a historical figure, he is venerated in Buddhist tradition as a perfect teacher and ultimate authority. (“Lord Buddha” is a term of respect rather than a title of divinity.) See Buddha and Buddhism.

Filed in Buddhism


The traditional pronunciation is “SICK-ism,” but it is commonly pronounced “SEEK-ism.”

The Sikh religion is the fifth-largest organized religion in the world. Followers are called Sikhs (which means students). It originated in 15th-century Punjab (now North India and Pakistan) when Guru Nanak, the first Sikh teacher, turned against the caste system, forced conversion and empty ritual in medieval Hinduism and Islam. Through devotional (bhakti) poetry and music, he taught that all religions lead to One Formless God, that all people, including women and the poor, are equal and that all may realize liberation here and now through living an honest life of love and service (seva).

Nine gurus succeeded him, and in 1699, the 10th teacher, Guru Gobind Singh, formed Sikhs into the Khalsa: a spiritual sisterhood/brotherhood in which men share the last name Singh (“lion”) and women share the name Kaur (“daughter of kings”). All were given five articles of faith (the Five Kakaars), including long uncut hair, which men and some women wrap in a turban. The 11th and lasting Sikh teacher is Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, also known as the Adi Granth.

Sikhism has no clergy, but spiritual guides may be called gurus; capitalize this title before a name.

Filed in Sikhism

Simchat Torah

Pronounced “SIM-hot TO-rah.” A Jewish holiday marking the completion of the yearlong cycle during which the entire Torah is read.

Filed in Judaism


Pronounced “singg.” A last name shared by all men who practice the Sikh religion, it means “lion.” The 10th Sikh teacher, Guru Gobind Singh, gave Sikhs the same last names as a sign of equality (traditional last names in 17th-century North India indicated caste).

Filed in Sikhism

sinner’s prayer

A term used by some evangelicals to describe a conversion-moment prayer, in which a person acknowledges sinfulness and seeks a relationship with Christ.

Filed in Christianity, Protestantism


A member of a religious order of women. Uppercase when used as a title before a name. On second reference, continue to use Sister and the first name if the person is known that way, such as Sister Joan. Otherwise, use only the last name on second reference. Anglican orders for women may include both lay and ordained members.

Filed in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy


Pronounced “SEE-taa.” In Hinduism, the wife of the avatar Lord Ram, as depicted in the Hindu epic Ramayana. For millions of Hindus, Sita represents the perfect mother and expression of womanly virtue.

Filed in Hinduism


Someone who questions claims about the supernatural and insists on evidence as a condition for belief.

Filed in Atheism/Agnosticism


A small, close-fitting headpiece worn in some religious traditions, particularly by men. Other names for it include yarmulke or kippa (worn by Jews), zucchetto (worn by Roman Catholic prelates) and kufi (worn by Muslims).

Filed in Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Religion and culture


A practice or ritual of burning certain plants, particularly herbs, to cleanse a space of negative energy.

Filed in Religion and culture

Social Gospel

Refers to a Protestant movement, prominent in the 19th and early 20th centuries, that sought to apply Jesus’ teachings to social problems, such as poverty and industrialization. Sin and salvation were seen as social rather than individual.

Filed in Government and politics, Protestantism

Society of Friends, Religious

See Quakers.

Filed in Quaker

Soka Gakkai

“Value Creation Society,” a Japanese Buddhist group based on the teachings of the Nichiren school of Mahayana Buddhism. It holds the Lotus Sutra to be the only scripture needed for salvation, which is achieved by venerating and chanting its title.

Filed in Buddhism

Soka Gakkai International-USA

An American Buddhist association based on the teachings of the Nichiren school of Mahayana Buddhism. See Buddhism.

Filed in Buddhism


A person from Somalia, or as an adjective for a thing related to Somalia. Avoid “Somalian.”

Filed in Government and politics

Southern Baptist Convention

The nation’s largest Protestant denomination and the world’s largest Baptist association, it was founded in the United States in 1845. It is the second-largest religious group in the United States after the Catholic Church. Like other Baptist bodies, the SBC places great store in the authority of the Bible, the independence of every congregation and the “priesthood of all believers” — the right and responsibility of every believer to personally understand the will of God. The SBC also puts great emphasis on “The Great Commission,” the passage in Matthew where Jesus commands his disciples to “make disciples of all the nations” (28:18-20). The national convention is a voluntary association of state conventions. Technically, the leadership of the SBC holds no authority over any churches or church members. In practice, the current leadership of the convention has emphasized a document called the Baptist Faith and Message, which sets out specific interpretations of the Bible on issues including the nature of God and Jesus, the role of women and men in the family and the church, and the end times. The SBC was formed when it split from a national Baptist association because of its support of slavery, a stand it formally apologized for in 1995. SBC is acceptable on second reference.

Filed in Baptist/Southern Baptist

spiritual activities

Mental or physical practices that relate to a person’s beliefs about supernatural phenomena and the soul. Can include religious activities such as praying or going to a service at a house of worship. New Age spiritual activities include (but are not limited to) meditating with crystals and channeling.

Filed in Religion and culture

spiritual but not religious

An increasingly popular phrase used to describe those who are spiritually active or engaged but who do not identify with a particular religious denomination.

Filed in Religion and culture

spiritual energy

Considered a nonphysical force that connects the individual spirit to a universal order or shared universal spirit. Many spiritual practices center on training oneself to tap into a “pure” spiritual energy to reach heightened levels of understanding, enlightenment or connection with others, the universe or the divine.

Filed in Religion and culture


The belief that the human personality survives death and can communicate with the living, usually through the use of a medium. Sometimes called spiritism.

Filed in Religion and culture


Individual-based beliefs about the universe and the soul, including supernatural phenomena, as opposed to organized religions that are characterized by defined guidelines, rituals and belief systems. “Spiritual” identification overlaps with “religious” identification, although increasingly the percentage of those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” is on the rise.

Filed in Religion and culture


In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a stake is a designated geographic area of inhabitants. Stakes are divided into wards and branches, and Mormons are expected to attend the church they are assigned to. The Community of Christ (previously known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) also uses the term stake.

Filed in Christianity, Mormonism

Star of David

A six-pointed star that is a symbol of Judaism and of Israel. The Hebrew term for it is Magen David, which translates as “shield of David.”

Filed in Judaism


Burial mounds containing relics of the historical Buddha across the Indian subcontinent. Many were later developed into shrines or temple compounds.

Filed in Buddhism


Pronounced “SOO-fee-izem.” An Islamic mystic tradition with followers around the world.

Filed in Islam


Pronounced “SOO-koht.” Seven-day Jewish festival commemorating the Israelites’ life as they wandered 40 years in the desert after being liberated from slavery in Egypt. Sukkot is the word for the booths the Israelites lived in. Also called the Feast of the Booths or the Feast of the Tabernacles. It is considered one of the most important Jewish holidays and occurs during September or October. See Jewish holidays.

Filed in Judaism


Pronounced “SOO-nee.” The largest denomination in Islam, followed by about 85 percent of Muslims. The plural form is Sunnis.

Filed in Islam, Sunni

sutra, sutta

Pronounced “SOO-trah” and “SUHT-ta.” In Buddhism, a sutra is a text containing the Buddha’s discourses. Sutras have been preserved in Sanskrit and Pali and in Chinese and Tibetan translations. The scriptures of Theravada Buddhism — the Pali canon, which are in the Pali language – include a collection of such texts, which are called suttas. They are subdivided into sections called Nikayas. These texts are said to have been transmitted from Ananda, the Buddha’s closest disciple. The schools of Mahayana Buddhism base their teachings on the interpretation of any of a number of other sutras originally written in Sanskrit. These are known by the Sanskrit term sutra. Individual Mahayana schools base their teaching on specific sutras.

Filed in Buddhism

Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson

Pronounced “SVAIN-byordin BAIN-tain-son.” The founder of the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Æsir Faith Fellowship”). An Icelandic farmer-poet, he led the emergence of Ásatrú as a modern religion and served as chief goði of the heathen church from its founding in 1972 until his death in 1993. Since Icelandic second names are patronymics (not family names), refer to Sveinbjörn by first name after full initial mention.

Filed in Other faiths


Pronounced “SVA-mee.” In Hinduism, a title of respect and reverence conferred on a religious teacher and, in particular, one who has taken vows of celibacy and renunciation. It literally means one who has self-control. Capitalize before a name.

Filed in Hinduism


Pronounced “SVA-stik-a.” It is one of the most popular symbols for Hindus, Jains and Buddhists. The word swastika is derived from Sanskrit words that mean “auspicious,” “luck” and “well-being.” It is also a sign of the Sun-God Surya and his generosity. The swastika is one of the 108 symbols of Lord Vishnu and represents the sun’s rays, without which there would be no life. The swastika is used in religious and civil ceremonies in India, both public and private.

Use extreme care in stories that mention the hooked-cross symbol associated with Nazi Germany and neo-Nazi groups. Although the symbol is commonly called a swastika, some historians say Adolf Hitler and the Nazis never called it that. The emblem can be referred to as the Nazi cross or by its German name, Hakenkreuz.

Filed in Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism


Jewish place of worship. In Orthodox communities, people live within walking distance of their synagogues.

Filed in Judaism


A council, usually in a Christian church, convened to decide a doctrinal or administrative issue. Uppercase in formal names.

Filed in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


A Greek word, meaning “to view together,” used to refer to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, which tell many of the same stories of Jesus’ life and can be compared side-by-side. The Gospel of John tells different stories in a different sequence.

Filed in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism

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