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Generally, a person who does not acknowledge the God of Judaism, Christianity or Islam and who is a worshipper of a polytheistic religion. Many pagans follow an Earth-based or nature religion. The modern religious movement known as neopaganism has adopted the name as a badge of faith. Note: Some pagans prefer to see the term capitalized. See neopaganism.

Filed in Paganism/Wicca

Palm Sunday

The sixth Sunday in Lent and the beginning of the Christian Holy Week before Easter. Palm Sunday marks Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The day gets its name from the biblical reference to crowds throwing palm fronds before Jesus as he entered the city. Also known as Passion Sunday, though Palm Sunday is the preferred term.

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


A worshipper of all gods or one who believes that God and the universe are one. See polytheism.

Filed in Religion and culture

papal infallibility

The doctrine that the pope can make a pronouncement, under special circumstances, on a matter of faith that must be definitively accepted by all the faithful. This is one of the most misunderstood concepts among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and one whose exact meaning and exercise remain a matter of much debate within the church. The Catholic faith teaches that only God is infallible, and that God ensures that the church — rather than its members or leaders — will be free from error. A pope is not personally infallible. He is only able to make special declarations that are affirming a sacred truth that always existed. Papal infallibility was first formally defined in 1870, and it has only been invoked once since then – in 1950, when Pope Pius XII declared as dogma that the Virgin Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven at the end of her life. Pope Pius IX’s affirmation, in 1854, of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (that the Virgin Mary was conceived without sin) is the only other instance in modern history in which papal infallibility has been invoked. Theologians continue to debate whether and what other teachings might be considered infallible.

Filed in Catholicism

papal nuncio

A Vatican diplomat with the rank of ambassador to a country that has official ties with the Vatican. Papal nuncios normally have a crucial role in the selection of bishops for the country to which they are sent. Lowercase the title and do not use as a formal title before a name. Papal nuncios should be identified formally on first reference by their religious rank, usually archbishop. On second reference use only the cleric’s last name.

Filed in Catholicism


A Christian organization outside traditional church structures and hierarchies. Examples are organizations devoted to evangelism, missionary work, moral reform and education. They are particularly common among evangelicals. Parachurch is used most often as an adjective but is also used as a noun.

Filed in Catholicism, Christianity, Protestantism


An event or perception that involves forces outside the realm of scientific explanation, such as extrasensory perception, ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance, astrology, communicating with the dead, witches, reincarnation and channeling.

Filed in Religion and culture


Originally this referred to a geographic territory whose residents were all to go to the one church within that territory. That is still essentially how it functions within Roman Catholicism. In the 1960s theEpiscopal Church allowed its members to attend any parish they chose, eliminating the geographic use of the term. Today, a growing minority of Catholics also attend the parish of their choice, and there is no sanction involved. In some heavily Catholic parts of the nation, particularly Louisiana and Philadelphia, counties or neighborhoods are still known as parishes. Capitalize as part of the formal name. Lowercase when standing alone.

Filed in Catholicism, Christianity, Government and politics


A member of a parish. It is best used only in reference to Catholic, Episcopal and Orthodox Christians. It should not be used for non-Christians or members of nonhierarchical Protestant denominations.

Filed in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy

Parsi, Parsis

Pronounced “PAHR-see.” An ethnic group in India that follows Zoroastrianism.

Filed in Zoroastrianism


Pronounced “PAR-va-tee.” In Hinduism, one of many names for the Universal Mother. A representation of the goddess to whom prayers are offered for strength, health and eradication of impurities. Hindus believe that she is Lord Shiva’s consort.

Filed in Hinduism


Pronounced “PAHS-kuh.” The term used by Orthodox churches and some other Christians for Easter.

Filed in Orthodoxy


A major Jewish holiday commemorating the freedom of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses, who was directed by God. The account is found in Exodus, the second book of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Old Testament. Passover takes its name from God’s instruction to the Israelites to mark the upper part of their homes’ doors with lamb’s blood so the Angel of Death would “pass over” their homes as he killed the firstborn male of each family in Egypt during the 10th plague. Passover, also called by its Hebrew name Pesach (pronounced “PAY-sakh”), is celebrated in late March or early April and lasts for seven days in Israel, though most outside of Israel celebrate for eight days. On the first two nights of Passover, it is traditional for a Jewish family to gather for a special dinner called a seder in which the story of the Exodus is retold. See seder and Jewish holidays.

Filed in Judaism


Generally, the head minister or priest of a Christian church, although in some denominations any ordained minister is called pastor. It means shepherd and is also used in reference to bishops and to the pope.

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


One of the ancient fathers of Judaism and Christianity — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches, a patriarch is the highest-ranking bishop. Capitalize if used before a name. In the Roman Catholic Church, the patriarch is the bishop of Rome and is called pope. Unlike the pope, who has jurisdiction over all Roman Catholic territories, the authority of Eastern and Oriental patriarchs is more limited. They have a great deal of enforceable jurisdiction in their own territories but no authority over each other’s.

Filed in Christianity, Judaism, Orthodoxy, Religious titles

Pearl of Great Price

One of four scriptures of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is church founder Joseph Smith’s translation and revision of several Bible sections, including parts of Genesis. It also contains Smith’s personal story, his explanation of Mormon beliefs known as “Articles of Faith” and translations of Egyptian papyri Smith purchased. Mormon scriptures also include the Bible (King James Version), the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants.

Filed in Christianity, Mormonism


A five-pointed star inside a circle, it is a symbol of Wicca.

Filed in Paganism/Wicca


The Greek term for the first five books in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word for the same books is Torah.

Filed in Catholicism, Christianity, Judaism, Protestantism


A Christian feast held on the seventh Sunday after Easter that marks the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus Christ.

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


A Christian movement that started with a storefront revival on Azusa Street in Los Angeles in 1906 and has spread rapidly around the globe. Once regarded by many Christians as a marginal and almost embarrassing style of faith in which converts are “slain in the spirit” and adherents speak in tongues or perform miracle healings, Pentecostalism has become mainstream. A 2006 survey estimated that one in four Christians in the world is Pentecostal. Pentecostalism takes its name from the Christian feast of Pentecost, when Christians received the Holy Spirit. There are more than 60 Pentecostal denominations. Among the largest are Church of God in Christ, Assemblies of God, the Pentecostal Holiness Church, the United Pentecostal Church Inc. and the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

There are dozens of Pentecostal denominations as well as many nondenominational churches that are Pentecostal, so titles vary greatly. Common titles are bishop, minister, elder and superintendent; capitalize them before a name. Evangelist is another common title, but do not capitalize it, even with a name. Some clergy use the title of the Rev., but some do not.

Filed in Pentecostalism


See Passover.

Filed in Judaism


When referring to religion, pluralism is a framework that allows different religious traditions to interact with each other with respect for each other’s viewpoints but without pressure to adopt or agree with each other’s beliefs. It acknowledges that those in the majority should respect different traditions and not impose their beliefs on others.

Filed in Interfaith, Religion and culture


The practice of having more than one spouse at a time. It was practiced by Mormons in the 1800s but was officially outlawed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1890. Members who are polygamists are excommunicated from the LDS church, but some Mormon offshoot groups still practice it. Polygamy is permitted in Islam, according to the Quran, which states that men can marry up to four women if they can be “equally just” to all of them.

Filed in Christianity, Mormonism


The belief in or worship of more than one god.

Filed in Religion and culture


An alternative name for pope. The word derives from Latin and means bridge builder. Do not use as a formal title or capitalize.

Filed in Catholicism


Most commonly refers to the head of the Roman Catholic Church, but Coptic Orthodox Christians also are led by a pope. Capitalize only when used as a formal title before a name.

Filed in Catholicism, Orthodoxy


Lowercase this term.

Filed in Catholicism, Christianity


The belief that Christ will return after the establishment of the millennial kingdom, which arises from divinely inspired human efforts. In mild forms, blends with progressive reforms; in more extreme ones, with violent theocracies.

Filed in Christianity, Protestantism


A sociological term frequently discussed in relation to religion. Postmodernists believe there are no absolute values or truths; everything is relative and is shaped by the cultural context of a particular time and place. For that reason, postmodernity is considered a threat to religion, which teaches universal truths.

Filed in Christianity, Religion and culture


See devout.

Filed in Religion and culture

praise and worship

A contemporary style of music and worship that is particularly popular among evangelical and nondenominational Christian churches.

Filed in Christianity, Protestantism

Prajnaparamita Sutra

Pronounced “PRUHJ-nyaa-PAA-ruh-mi-taa SOO-trah.” The “Perfection of Wisdom Sutra,” a major scripture in Mahayana Buddhism. It teaches that all phenomena are marked by impermanence and insubstantiality and presents the bodhisattva path.

Filed in Buddhism


The belief that God predetermines whether people’s afterlife is to be spent in heaven or hell. It is most often associated with Swiss theologian John Calvin.

Filed in Protestantism, Religion and culture

premillennial dispensationalism

A foundational belief of conservative Protestants about prophecy and end times, it was conceived in the 19th century by theologian John Nelson Darby and made popular by the Left Behind novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. It combines two theological views. Dispensationalism dictates that history is a series of eras or dispensations in which God interacts with the world in distinct ways. Premillennialism teaches that Jesus Christ will return before reigning for a thousand years, as prophesied in the New Testament Book of Revelation. Together, the theologies teach that the current era will soon end and usher in the Rapture and battle of Armageddon. Each term may also be used independently.

Filed in Protestantism


The belief that Jesus will return before the beginning of the millennium and will be the impetus for the final battle between good and evil. It often includes apocalyptic expectation of Rapture, tribulation, the Antichrist, strong dualist tendencies, emphasis on preparation of self and missionizing.

Filed in Christianity, Protestantism

Presbyterian Church (USA)

One of the two major Presbyterian bodies in the United States. The Presbyterian Church in America is the smaller and more conservative of the two. Always use the full name Presbyterian Church (USA), or PCUSA on subsequent references, to avoid confusion.

The PCUSA is divided into 173 (as of 2010) local governing bodies called presbyteries, which are then grouped into regional synods (16). Each congregation is led by a “session” of elders, although Religion News Service style is to generally not use that word.

The General Assembly meets every two years and is the highest legislative body in the denomination. The highest court in the church is called the Permanent Judicial Council.

Filed in Protestantism

Presbyterian Church in America

The smaller and more conservative of the two main Presbyterian bodies in the U.S. To avoid confusing it with the Presbyterian Church (USA), always use the full name, or PCA on second reference.

Filed in Protestantism

Presbyterian churches

These Protestant members of the Reformed tradition developed in the 16th century from the doctrines of the Calvinist churches in Switzerland and France. In the U.S., there are two major Presbyterian bodies – the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the more conservative, much smaller Presbyterian Church in America – as well as other, even smaller ones. Presbyterian churches are led by a group of elders, a form of church governance known as Presbyterianism. All Presbyterian clergy may be described as ministers. Use the Rev. before a cleric’s name on first reference. On second reference use only the last name.

Filed in Christianity, Protestantism


The term used for ordained clergy of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Episcopal faith. Priest also is used by Wiccans and for some clergy in Buddhism and Hinduism. It is not a formal title and is not capitalized. Avoid the term minister when referring to Catholic priests. Also, while every priest has pastoral duties toward the baptized, the term pastor refers to the priest (and in rare cases, laymen or laywomen) charged by the bishop with overseeing a parish. A pastor may have one or more assistant pastors.

Most Catholic priests in the United States are diocesan clergy, ordained by and for a particular diocese. They make promises of celibacy and obedience, but although they are expected to adhere to a modest lifestyle, they do not take vows of poverty and can own a home, for example, or a car.

The term religious priests refers to priests who belong to a religious order, such as the Jesuits, and hold possessions in common.

Filed in Anglican/Episcopalian, Buddhism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Orthodoxy


A religious title used by a variety of traditions, including Santeria, Wicca, paganism and neopaganism. Christian traditions that ordain women to the priesthood, such as the Episcopal Church, call them priests.

Filed in Religious titles

priesthood of all believers

A Christian doctrine that believers have direct access to God and do not need professional priests to act as intermediaries. Based on New Testament passages (including 1 Peter 2:9), it stands in contrast to the role of priests in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. This doctrine has also been a source of debate in the Southern Baptist Convention when members have accused leaders of imposing interpretations of Scripture.

Filed in Baptist/Southern Baptist, Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


A term used to describe people who support abortion rights. Abortion, however, is a more nuanced issue, with many people supporting abortion in some circumstances, but not all. Journalists should instead use the term pro-abortion rights or a similar description. See abortion, pro-life.

Filed in Christianity, Government and politics, Protestantism


A term used to describe people who oppose abortion. Abortion, however, is a more nuanced issue, with many people opposing abortion rights in most, but not all, circumstances. Journalists should instead use a description of their views, such as opposed to abortion or against abortion rights. See abortion, pro-choice.

Filed in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Government and politics, Orthodoxy, Protestantism

pro-social behavior

Used to describe those who are more likely to take actions such as performing favors for others or expressing gratitude and appreciation, as well as praying for someone who is not a close friend or family.

Filed in Religion and culture


A term that emerged as a way to refer to people of faith who are liberal-to-moderate in their political views. It is a disputed term because it implies that other groups are regressive, which carries a negative connotation.

Filed in Government and politics

Progressive National Baptist Convention

An African-American Baptist denomination formed in Cincinnati in 1961 after disagreements with the National Baptist Convention, USA, and partly out of a desire to fully support the civil rights movement.

Filed in African-American, Baptist/Southern Baptist

prophecy, prophesy

The first is a prediction viewed as a divine revelation; the second is a verb meaning to make such a prediction. The principal theological definition of prophesy, though, is not to foretell the future but to speak the word of God. Some Christian traditions – especially Pentecostals – use it primarily to refer to revelation of future events involving the return of Christ. Other churches, however, use it primarily in references to biblical teaching about social justice and concern for the poor.

Filed in Christianity, Pentecostalism, Protestantism, Religion and culture


Someone who speaks divine revelation, or a message they received directly from God. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have certain figures they formally recognize as prophets. Some traditions, including the Mormons, some charismatic groups and some non-Christian faiths, believe their leaders receive ongoing divine revelation. In much of Christianity, all ordained clergy are considered to have a prophetic role because their job is to proclaim the word of God. Capitalize when used before the name Muhammad to refer to Islam’s final prophet, but otherwise do not capitalize as a title.

Filed in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Orthodoxy, Religion and culture


The act of seeking converts to a faith. However, many Christian groups – particularly the Roman Catholic Church – draw a strong distinction between proselytizing and evangelizing. Proselytizing is viewed as the use of unethical methods – such as coercion, bribery or threats – to bring conversions. Evangelizing is considered a pressure-free effort to present the faith and invite others to freely accept it. This distinction explains why Pope John Paul II frequently condemned proselytizing while encouraging – and engaging in – evangelization. Do not use the word proselytize unless you know it is being used in a negative context. Evangelism (Protestant) or evangelization (Catholic or Orthodox) are the preferred terms.

Filed in Christianity, Orthodoxy, Religion and culture

prosperity gospel

The controversial teaching that God will reward signs of faith with wealth, health and happiness. It was popularized during the 1950s, particularly by Oral Roberts and his “Expect a Miracle” television ministry. The prosperity gospel is most frequently preached by televangelists, fundamentalists, evangelicals and African-Americans. It is also called “word faith,” “name-it-and-claim-it,” “health and wealth gospel” and “positive confession.”

Filed in Christianity, Protestantism

Protestant, Protestantism

In the 16th century, church thinkers and leaders such as Martin Luther and John Calvin demanded changes in Roman Catholic Church doctrine and practice. That led to the development of denominations made up of the protesters or “protestants” who declared themselves independent of papal authority. Many Protestants say the word means to “testify forth,” as in to preach the word of God. Protestant churches include Anglican, Baptist, Congregational, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Quaker churches. The label Protestant is not applied to Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons. It also should not be used to describe a member of an Orthodox church.

Filed in Christianity, Orthodoxy, Protestantism


Capitalize when referring to divine care or God.

Filed in Religion and culture


Pronounced “POO-ja.” In Hinduism, a generic term for any ritual practice. This can be as simple as an individual saying a prayer or can encompass a complex, multiday ritual involving any number of individuals and priests. Puja generally incorporates a series of hospitality offerings to God.

Filed in Hinduism

Pure Land school

Japanese schools of Mahayana Buddhism whose teachings are based on devotion to the celestial Buddha Amida (also known as Amitabha). Jodoshu (Pure Land School), established in the 12th century by Honan, teaches that devotees have only to call upon Amida by name to invoke his aid on the path toward liberation. Honan’s disciple Shinran established Jodo Shinshu (True Pure Land School) with the same focus on the chanting of Amida’s name but specified that Amida Buddha had already provided liberation for his devotees, who need only realize it.

Filed in Buddhism


The Jewish holiday also called the Feast of Lots, held in February or March. As recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Book of Esther, also called “the Megillah”), it commemorates the deliverance of the Jews by Queen Esther from a massacre plotted by the Persian vizier Haman. Purim is a joyous festival that is celebrated by publicly reading the Megillah, dressing in colorful costumes and regaling the community with “shpiels” (pronounced “sh-PEE-ls”), or humorous Purim plays and skits. See Jewish holidays.

Filed in Judaism

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