Multifaith Glossary Terms

1993 Parliament of the World's Religions

(also: Parliamant of the World's Religions; Centennial of the 1893 Parliament) In 1993, one hundred years after the Chicago World's Parliament of Religions, a centennial event--the Parliament of the World's Religions--opened in the same city. Planned by fourteen host-committees in the Chicago area, the 1993 Parliament represented the changes in America's religious landscape with American Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Zoroastrian, Muslim, Baha'i, Taoist, and Wiccan groups participating in great number, along with Christians, Jews, and Native Americans. Religious leaders and the Parliament discussed and signed a document called "Toward a Global Ethic."


A person who believes that it is impossible to know whether or not a god exists. One can be an agnostic theist or an agnostic atheist and the term is often seen to be seen as a kind of “middle ground" between theism and atheism.


An altar is a raised platform or stand which bears the central symbols of a religious tradition—whether in a temple, church, shrine, or home—and at which offerings are made, worship is offered, or prayers are said.


Assimilation refers to the process of “making similar,” a process by which people lose their national, cultural, or even religious identity through absorption in the wider society. In the history of American immigration, it has usually meant the absorption for both individuals and groups into a society shaped largely by a dominant Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority.


A chapel is a place of worship, smaller than the sanctuary of a church or synagogue, or in an institutional setting such as a college or hospital.

cultural pluralism

Cultural pluralism is a term first populairzed by the sociologist Horace Kallen to describe the interaction of diverse cultural, ethnic, and religious groups in the U.S. Rather than assmilate into a common "melting pot," Kallen firmly believed that the freedom of America includes the freedom to be oneself, not surrendering one's cultural particularity, but bringing these particularities forward in the creation of a common democratic society. He argued that America can have plural ethnic cultures, complementing one another, like the different parts of a symphony orchestra.


The term dialogue has come to common use among the world's religions today to refer to interaith or interreligious dialogue among Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Native peoples, etc. For people of different religious traditions involved in dialogue, this new form of relationship is understood to be premised on mutual desire for better understanding. Interfaith dialogue may address questions of faith or questions of civic or social concern. Indeed, some of the most productive dialogue takes the form of common projects inovolving people of different faiths.


Ecumenical means "worldwide," from the Greek oikoumene, "the whole inhabited earth." The term is used most commonly to refer to the Christian ecumenical movement which, in the 20th century, has brought Christian churches together from across the lines of confession and denomination and from around the world to seek common fellowship and address common issues. As other religious traditions begin to explore their own intenal differences and commonalities, the term "ecumenical" is sometimes adopted, as in the efforts towrd pan-Buddhist ecumenical relations in the U.S.


Enlightenment means awakening to or realizing the true nature of reality. The term is used with various nuances in the Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu traditions to express the spiritual awakening that is the goal of religious life. “The Enlightenment” also refers to 17th and 18th century European philosophical and religious movement emphasizing the role of reason in religious thinking, the importance of religious toleration, and the need to separate religious dogma from political power. For Jews, the term refers also to the 18th and 19th century Haskalah movement aimed at modernizing Jewish life and thought.


Epicurus (341–270 BCE) was a Greek philosopher who posited that the world was composed of atoms that operated according to a system of natural laws. In his view, if gods did create the universe, they did not continue to engage with it beyond the act of creation. Epicurus emphasized human happiness, or deep satisfaction, fulfillment, and dignity.


The term god with a lowercase “g” is used to refer to a deity or class of deities whose power is understood to be circumscribed or localized rather than universal, or to refer to a plurality of deities.


God is a term used to refer to the Divine, the Supreme being, Transcendent deity, or Ultimate reality.


Gongfu (also: kung-fu) is the Chinese term for martial arts. Monks from the Buddhist temple of Shaolin were especially famous for their mastery of the physical skills and spiritual potential of this art.


Interfaith and interreligious are terms that have come to common use in the late 20th century to descirbe efforts at dialogue, understanding, and cooperation among people of different religious traditions--Muslims, Jews, Christians Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, for example. Interfaith and interreligious movements are presmised on respecting the distinctiveness and particularity of each faith tradition and are not attempts to create a new faith.

interfaith council

Interfaith or interreligious councils are relatively new structures in the American public square, usually including at least Christian, Jewish and Muslim participants and, increasingly, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha'is, Unitarians, and often may others.


Meditation is the disciplined practice of quieting and focusing the mind or cultivating the heart’s attention. Different meditation practices commend focusing attention on a word, a prayer, a form, or the breath as a way of practice. Meditation is common in the Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain traditions; forms of meditation are also practiced in the Sikh, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Taoist traditions. Buddhist meditation is the practice of quieting the mind and bringing it to full attention, as did the Buddha in the meditative practice that led to his enlightenment or awakening. Cultivating an alert, wakeful consciousness through meditation is practiced in several distinctive schools: the vipassana tradition of insight-meditation or mindfulness; the Tibetan schools of visualization; and the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Zen traditions. In the Jain tradition, one meditation practice involves sitting or standing completely still for 48 minutes, letting go of all passions and negative mental attitudes, thereby attaining a sense of equanimity (samayika). Another technique is prekshadhyana, or “insight meditation,” in which the meditator engages the mind to fully attend to the subtle and changing phenomena of consciousness.

melting pot

The image of the "melting pot" has been used to describe the process through which the various ethnic, cultural , and religious groups that have come to the United States have mutually transformed one another, thereby creating one American people. At its most static, the melting pot has meant the melting away of the customs and ways of the "old country" to conform with the new. At its most dynamic, however, it is an image of the process of change that both immigrants and native-born Americans undergo as they encounter one another on American soil. Although the term has caught the imagination of Americans for decades, it has also generated a significant cirtique from those who argue that even the more dynamic interpretation of the image sacrifies differences to uniformity.

National Conference of Christians and Jews

(also: NCCJ) The National Conference of Christians and Jews was formed in 1927 to bring together Protestants, Catholics, and Jews to speak out against the anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, and the anti-immigrant prejudice of the Ku Klux Klan and other "ativist" groups. Over seven decades later, the 61 reigional offices of the National Conference continue to sponsor progrms of interfaith education and dialogue, many of them now involving Muslims and other religious groups as well. Recently the NCCJ has expanded to address wider issues of stereotyping and prejudice, adopting the new name "The National Conference," or TNC.

New Age

New Age refers to a wide variety of late 20th century religious movements. Many of these movements are based on a holistic cosmology which does not see the world as the scene of dualistic conflict between good and evil, sin and salvation, but rather sees the cosmos as a harmonious whole which needs to be brought once again into balance. Thus, many New Age movements have a “holistic” approach to such dualities as mind-body and spirit-matter. Seeing them as integrally related, they emphasize forms of diet, exercise, meditation, and healing that seek to restore balance. The environmental movement with its emphasis on human and ecological interdependence also grows from the soil of this New Age worldview.


In general, orthodox means having a “correct opinion or outlook” and is a term used by people in many religions who claim authority for traditional views and forms of their religion. More specifically, however, Orthodox in the Jewish tradition refers to commitment to the unchanging divine revelation of Torah, with the theological views and scrupulous ritual observances that accompany this understanding of the divine law. In the Christian tradition, Orthodox refers to an entire family of churches, the Eastern Orthodox churches that include traditional liturgical sensibilities as well as a range of both progressive and conservative theological ideas.


The term pluralism has many meanings, but in this context means the recognition and engagement of cultural and religious diversity in the context of creating a common society. Rather than excluding differences or erasing differences, pluralism seeks to engage differences in the project of society-building.


Prayer is the vocal or silent address to the Divine. It may consist of fixed words, spontaneous words, or rest in silence with no words at all. Some forms of prayer are accompanied with specific postures or gestures, while others are not.


A priest is the leader of a religious community or congregation, specially trained and often ordained to service, who leads members of the community in the rituals and practice of shared and individual life. Many traditions have forms of priesthood. In the Christian tradition, priests also have a pastoral role as “shepherds” of the flock of parishioners and are trained to be responsible for the religious instruction of the community through preaching and teachings. In some Christian churches, women have been ordained to priesthood along with men. In the Hindu tradition, the English word priests is often used to refer to pujaris, who are primarily responsible for the daily ritual care of deities in the temple and for ritual (puja), but do not share pastoral or counseling responsibilities. In the Sikh tradition, the granthi who is responsible for the care of the gurdwara and the Guru Granth Sahib is often referred to as a priest in English. In some of the Buddhist traditions of Japan, there are traditions of married clergy who have also come to be called priests. In the Japanese Shinto tradition, there are many ranks, titles, and functions of Shinto priests. Some priestly positions are hereditary, most priests train for their ceremonial, educational, and administrative roles at Shinto institutions. Most priests are men, though women do become priests as well. Shinto priests are allowed to marry. In Haitian vodou, there are male priests (oungan) and female priests (manbo) who invoke the gods, practice divination and healing, and direct the communication of the Divine and human through ceremonies of possession. The priest (babalocha) and priestess (iyalocha) of the Cuban Santería tradition have similar roles, though divination is the special province of diviners called babalaos.


A priestess is a female leader of a religious community, specially trained and often ordained to service, who leads members of the community in the rituals and practice of shared and individual life. Pagan traditions have many forms of priestesses. The manbos of the Haitian Vodou tradition are also referred to with the English term priestess, as are the iyalochas of the Santería or Lucumi tradition. Ordained female members of the Christian clergy, however, are not called priestesses.


A prophet is one who communicates a divine message or vision, sometimes calling people to repentance or awakening, sometimes predicting future events. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all look to Hebrew prophets, including Abraham and Moses. Muslims believe that God has communicated with human beings through the prophets, beginning with Adam, including Jesus, and ending with Muhammad, the final prophet. When Muslims say, “The Prophet,” they refers specifically to Muhammad, seal of the prophets. Many other religious movements have also had prophets, such as the Native American prophets of the Ghost Dance in the 19th century, or the Prophet Zarathushtra of the Zoroastrian tradition.


“Queer” is an umbrella term for a wide variety of sexual minorities and their allies, but primarily for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people (GLBT). Because many Pagan groups hold sex-positive and body-affirming values and accept queer and GLBT people as clergy, the Pagans movement has a much larger percentage of sexual minorities than American society at large.


Revelation is the gift or disclosure of knowledge, insight, or instruction from God to the human. The term is used in the Jewish tradition to refer to the revelation of Torah, the law; in the Islamic tradition to refer to the revelation of the Qur’an, the word of God. in the Christian tradition to refer to the revelation of Christ, the embodied Word; in the Mormon tradition to refer to the disclosure of the Book of Mormon; in the Baha’i tradition to refer to the manifestation of God to Baha’u’llah. In some usages, the term indicates that true knowledge is bestowed by the agency of the Divine, rather than discovered within the depths of oneself, as a Buddhist or Hindu view might hold.


Saints are human beings whose lives have displayed extraordinary holiness and devotion. As such they become examples for others. Indeed some of the faithful may understand them to be intermediaries and seek their help in time of need. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians honor saints, as do some Muslims. Though in principle Islam recognizes no mediators between human beings and God, the veneration of saints (awliya’; singular wali) is a part of popular Muslim practice. Especially in the Sufi tradition, the tombs of Sufi masters have become centers of pilgrimage.

Sanger, Margaret

Margaret Sanger (1879–1966) is widely regarded as the founder of the modern birth control movement. As a nurse and educator, Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States, founded Planned Parenthood, and was instrumental in the 1965 Supreme Court case which legalized contraception in the United States (Griswold v. Connecticut).


The soul is the inner spirit, the life-essence of a person, regarded in many religious traditions as Divine. In the Hindu tradition, the atman or pure consciousness within is understood to be one with Brahman, the ultimate reality that pervades the entire universe. In the Jain tradition, every sentient being us understood to possess a jiva, a “life-force,” capable of liberation into its original state of blissful energy. In the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, the soul is of God, created by God, and capable of relation with God, but not identical with the Divine reality.
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