Definitions

The following is an alphabetical list of terms and concepts that are discussed on this site. The first time each of these terms appears on one of this site's main pages, there is a link to the following discussion. If you arrive at this page by following one of those links, then use the back button to return to the main text.

Links within the following entries refer either to other concepts already discussed on this page, to scholars discussed elsewhere on this site, or to outside resources (which open into new browser windows).

Although a number of resources have been used to create this page, readers interested in more detailed discussions of some of the following concepts should consult the two primary works used: Jonathan Z. Smith (ed.), The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion. HarperSanFrancisco, 1995 and Mircea Eliade (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Religion. Macmillan, 1986 [2nd. edition 2005].


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Agent - term commonly used to refer to a being assumed to be intentional--that is, a being who acts, has motivations that inspires such actions, and can therefore be held accountable for these motives and actions. Human beings are therefore to possess the quality known as agency. The term is also sometimes used to describe non-intentional things, such as a "chemical agent," which nonetheless are thought to be able to cause certain outcomes.

Agnosticism - term coined in the nineteenth century by combining the Greek gnosis (meaning esoteric or secret forms of knowledge) with the prefix a- which often denotes the negative form of a word; a philosophical position that admits to having no privileged knowledge concerning whether God or the gods exist; a position of theological neutrality to be distinguished from atheism.

Animism - [Latin anima, meaning life, soul] a term popularized by the late nineteenth-century anthropologist E. B. Tylor to name the belief he thought to be held by evolutionarily early people (what Tylor would have named as "primitive" or "tribes very low in the scale of humanity") concerning natural phenomena (e.g., trees, the ocean, people, etc.) possessing spirits or souls. This term, and his theory of animism, was developed to help answer the question: "What is the origin of religion?" making Tylor an early example of a scholar developing a naturalistic theory of religion.

Anthropology - [Greek anthropos, meaning human being + Greek logos, meaning the systematic study of] the modern, comparative and cross-cultural science that deals with the origins, physical and cultural development, biological characteristics, and social customs and beliefs of humankind. Practiced as a component of the human sciences, the academic study of religion is considered distinct from the discipline known as anthropology though religious studies could be said to be anthropological in its outlook (or what is sometimes termed "anthropocentric": centered on the study of human behavior); that is, when practiced as something other than theology, the study of religion is focused on human beings and their practices and does not study the gods and their will.

Anthropomorphism - [Greek anthropos, meaning human being + Greek morphé, meaning shape or form] as in personification, to ascribe a human form or human qualities and traits to non-human things; prosopopoeia [from the Greek, prosopopoiia, to make a mask or face] is a related term, naming the poetic technique of having a dead or imaginary person speak, as well as the technique of giving human qualities to inanimate objects such as mountains or the sea. "The sea was angry" could be considered an anthropomorphic claim; seeing faces in the moon, or faces in the patterns found in wood grains, could also be considered evidence of anthropomophism. Central to David Hume's early theory of religion, a modern theory of anthropomorphism is that of the anthropologist and cognitivist, Stewart Guthrie, who argues in his book, Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993), that humans--among many other species--possess brains that are "hard wired" to project onto the world the traits that they perceive themselves to possess, all in an effort to make sense of, and thereby navigate, an otherwise unknown environment. For Guthrie, much as with Hume, religion--that is, the widespread belief that the universe is alive and cares for human beings--is but one instance of this anthropomorphic strategy.

Atheism - a term that combines the Greek theos, meaning god, with the negative prefix a- which often denotes the negative form of a word; the philosophical position that denies the existence of God or the gods; to be distinguished from theism and agnosticism.

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B.C.E/C.E. - Unlike the explicitly Christian classification system known to most people in North America and Europe and which is based on the Gregorian calendar--with B.C., standing for "Before Christ," in the English version of the older A.C.N., which is Latin for Anti Christi Natus (meaning "before the birth of Christ") and A.D., standing for the Latin phrase Anno Domini ("year of Lord," short for Anni Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, meaning "In the year of our Lord Jesus Christ")--B.C.E. and C.E. use precisely the same numbers but stand for "Before the Common Era" and "Common Era." Scholars often adopt this alternative notation to avoid the explicitly theological assumptions of the so-called Western dating system.

Buddhism - the name given to a collection of beliefs, practices, and institutions that developed from (sometimes said to be in reaction to) Hindu/Indian institutions and that revolve around the importance placed upon the teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, thought to have lived and taught in northwestern India between the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. Gautama is known by the honorary title of "the Buddha" (which, in the language of Pali, means "awakened one"). The Buddha is thought to have awoken to the true nature of reality, thereby experiencing nirvana (to extinguish ones presumption of having a distinct, enduring self). His teachings involve understanding that all appearances are misleading and that impermanence, or change, is the basis of all reality. Several dominant branches of Buddhism exist today and it has distinctive shape in different geographic locations (such as in southeast Asia as opposed to Tibet, China, Japan, Europe, and North America). Studies of Buddhism will often begin by narrating the life of Gautama (given that it illustrates certain key ideas that come to symbolize basic Buddhist doctrines), and then focus on its critique of Hinduism's caste system as well as the doctrines known as the Four Noble Truths (credited to Gautama's first teaching after attaining enlightenment) and the Noble Eightfold Path (entailing a systematic behavioral system of detachment or mindfulness). Although "Buddhism" is an outsider's term (coined under the earlier European presumption that this Asian mass movement is centered on the worship of the Buddha just as Christianity is centered on the worship of the Christ), a more apt term for this tradition may be "the Middle Path" (between the two extremes of craving and complete renunciation).

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Christianity - the name given to a collection of beliefs, practices, and institutions that developed from out of the ancient Jewish, as well as the Greco-Roman, world of antiquity. Focused on the life and teachings of a turn-of-the-era Jew named Jesus of Nazareth, it began as an oppositional movement that was persecuted and, by the early fourth century CE, it had become tolerated throughout the Roman empire. Its teachings, found in its scripture called the Bible (from the Greek for paper, scroll, or book), include much of the previously existing Jewish scripture, including the Torah, along with the New Testament comprising the Gospels (from the Greek for "good news"), which present various narrations of the life and signifiance of Jesus (including his resurrection from the dead after being executed by the Roman authorities), along with the Epistles (Latin epistola, meaning letter), comprising communications between early Christian leaders (such as the influential early convert to Christianity and missionary, Paul) and various isolated early Christian communities or house churches. Jesus, considered early on to be the messiah ("annointed one of the Lord," a Hebrew designation originally of relevance to Jewish tradition) was soon understood by his followers to have been "the son of God," and later in Christian doctrine is understood to have been one of three aspects of God (the others including God the Father and the Holy Spirit). The honorary title of "Christ" (from khristos) derives from the Greek translation of the Hebrew mashiah; Christians are therefore followers of the one believed to be the Messiah. Currently, Christianity involves three major sub-types, some of which differ significantly from the others on issues of doctrine and ritual: Roman Catholicism, Protestantism (which contains a large number of sub-types), and Greek Orthodoxy.

Church/State - a dichotomy, that dates to sixteenth-century Europe, commonly used today in the United States to stand for the legally mandated separation between the workings of any Church or religious group and the state or federal government; this notion of separation is traced to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Commonly, U.S. political theorists and legal scholars refer to the "wall of separation" between Church and State, although this widely used phrasing is not in the Constitution. Instead, it derives from phrasing found in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) while he served as the third President of the United States (1801-1809). More on this letter can be learned at the U.S. Library of Congress website.

Cognitive Science - [cognitive: Latin cognition, meaning a getting to know, acquaintance, notion, knowledge; science: Latin scientia, meaning knowledge] the systematic study of the precise nature of different mental tasks and forms of cognition, and the operations of the mind/brain; this study uses elements of psychology, computer science, philosophy, and linguistics and, in recent years, has proved one of the more active and organized sub-specialties in the academic study of religion, focusing specifically on the study of ritual. Unlike some popular forays into the interface between religion and cognitive studies, such scholarly work seeks not to isolate the part of the brain that experience God or the sacred (such as the so-called "god gene"); instead, scholars such as E. Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauley, Pascal Boyer, and Harvey Whitehouse apply findings from cognitive psychology to develop a naturalistic theory of religious beliefs and behaviors. To learn more about one cognitive science effort to study religion, visit the Institute of Cognition and Culture. See also psychology.

Colonialism - [Latin colonia, meaning tiller, farmer, cultivator, planter, settler in a new country. Latin colonia had the senses of 'farm,' 'landed estate,' or 'settlement' and was especially the proper term for a public settlement of Roman citizens in a hostile or newly conquered country] the economic or political control or governing influence of one nation over another (a dependent country, territory, or people); also, the extension of a nation's sovereignty over another outside of its boundaries to facilitate economic domination over the latter's resources and labor usually to the benefit of the controlling country. Although not limited to European nations, their rapid colonial expansion across the globe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries today attracts a great deal of attention among scholars and has led to the development of a new field known as postcolonial studies (which focuses on the implications of, and local reactions to, the colonial era).

Comparative Religion - [comparative: form of the Latin verb compare-re which literally meant to pair together, couple, match, bring together; religion: possibly from Latin religere, meaning to bind tightly together] a systematic study of the commonalties and differences among the religions of the world; this study seeks to establish a set of principles and categories that can be used systematically to understand the universal and particular features of religions (in the plural) and to determine whether they are sub-types of religion (in the singluar). Although today the notion of comparative religion is sometimes limited to the work carried out in a world religions course and textbooks, during the field's formative period in late nineteenth-century, Comparative Religion was the name often given to the entire field.

Confucianism - Name given by European scholars to a group of Chinese schools of thought associated with the teachings of such writers as Confucius (551-479 BCE), Mencius (372-289 BCE), and Hsun-tzu (298-238 BCE). These traditions focus upon developing proper forms of social and political behavior. During the Chinese Han dynasty (206-220 CE), these schools became offical state orthodoxy, and a authoritative collection of texts and temples were established; see li.

Correspondence Theory - a common approach to understanding how truth and meaning-making works, and thus how definition works; the truth of some claim (or, what we might better call a proposition, such as "The sky is blue") is thought to be determined by whether or not the claim fits, or corresponds, to some observable set of facts. The truth of language (for example, the words strung together in a sentence) is therefore thought to have a direct relationship with an observable, stable reality and the judgment "true" is therefore a confirmation of this relationship. This correspondence theory (also called a referential theory insomuch as words are thought to refer to things) applies equally well to the production of meaning, since it is commonly thought that a word--say, the word "blue," as in the proposition "The sky is blue"--refers or corresponds to some quality a thing possesses--in this case, the quality of blueness possessed by the sky. Or, to phrase it another way, among the sky's many observable characteristics is one that is of particular interest to us right now, its color. I look up, confirm it is blue and thus judge the proposition "The sky is blue" to be true and the word "blue" to be meaningful; see positivism.

Cult - [Latin cultus, meaning care, cultivation, and by extension, a system of ritual] originally a merely descriptive term for the ritual component attached to any social group, as in the phrase "the cult of the saints," it is today a term most often used in popular culture to name marginal groups considered by members of dominant groups to be deviant and thus dangerous. In the sociology of religion, "cult" is used as a technical term, in distinction from both "church" (or "denomination") and "sect." Traced to the work of the German sociologist, Max Weber, "church" and "sect" were technical terms he used to identify what he took to be significant differences among religions, the former meaning a religion into which one was born whereas the latter named one in which membership was the result of a conscious decision. This pair of terms was then reformulated by the German theologian, Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923)--such as his book, In The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches--"church" was distinguished from "sect" in terms of the latter being a group in greater tension to the dominant social world whereas the former being a group that more easily accomodates itself and, thereby, lives in greater harmony with the wider social world. For Troeltsch, "mysticism" was the term he used for a third, far more private and individualized variation that likely did not lead to any form of social organization. In the early 1930s, the sociologist Howard Becker termed this latter group "cult." The modern, popular use of the term to name groups that deviate too far from accepted conventions can be understood to develop from these uses.

Culture - [adaptation of Latin cultura, meaning cultivation, to tend, hence involving the notion of domestication] that portion of thought and behavior used by social groups that is learned and capable of being taught to others; culture can include: language, customs, worldviews, moral/ethical values, and religions. For those who believe that religion (or at least some elements of it, such as so-called religious experience) is somehow set apart from all other aspects of the historical world (making religion sui generis), the concept of culture is sometimes set apart from that of religion and they are thought to interact in specific ways--hence the "and" that joins "culture and religion," a phrase found in the work of many scholars of religion. For yet others, who see religious practices as but a sub-set of cultural behaviors, that can be explained in precisely the same manner as all other cultural attributes, it would be more appropriate to talk about "religion in culture."

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Deduction - [Latin noun deductio derived from the verb deducere, meaning to lead down, to derive; in medieval Latin it meant to infer logically] a process of reasoning in which the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises presented so that the conclusion cannot be false if the premises are true. Deductive logic is a form of argumentation in which one begins with acknowledged general premises and then reasons from these to specific cases, such as the three-part form of reasoning known as the syllogism in which the major premise (All people are mortal) is followed by a minor premise (Judy is a person), which logically leads to a specific conclusion (Judy is mortal). The role of inductive reasoning to establish the major premise of a syllogism ensures that deduction and induction are intimately connected forms of reasoning.

Din - Arabic term (pronounced "deen") found in Islam that is translated into English usually as "religion." It is thought that the term dates to a much earlier idea of an actual debt that must be settled on a specific date, which in turn led to such other meanings and usages as: the idea of following an established series of customs for settling debts; the act of guiding someone in a prescribed direction to carry out required action; the act of judging whether such a prescriptions have been followed properly; and, finally, visiting retribution upon one who has failed to follow the required prescriptions. If this etymology is persuasive, then the link from the earlier notion of an actual debt to the later notion of the manner in which Allah judges human beings can be understood as a rather sensible development of the concept. With regard to din's denotation of following prescribed action, see eusebia and pietas.

Discourse - [Latin discurrere, meaning to run to and fro; in Old French the word had the more literal sense of traversing and the modern usage of the English word probably derives from the French discourir, meaning to discourse of] most simply, the communication of thought by words/conversation; a discourse could therefore be likened to a conversation or, more technically, to a teaching or a systematic exploration of a topic; many scholars now use the term to refer to any number of fields or disciplines, the formal discussion of a subject in speech or writing, or even the series of material conditions, practices, assumptions, institutions, architecture, and conventions that make specific types of thought and action possible (such as the discourse of the academy).

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Emic and Etic Perspectives - These terms are derived from the suffixes of the words "phonemic" and "phonetic"; the former refers to any unit of sound significant to the users of a particular language (each such unit of sound is known by scholar of linguistics as a phoneme) and the latter refers to the system of cross-culturally useful notations that represent each of these vocal sounds (as in the phonetic alphabet found in the front of most dictionaries and used as a pronunciation guide); derived from the same Greek root, "phonemic" designates the complex sounds themselves whereas "phonetic" specifies the signs and systems scholars devise to represent and then compare the manner in which the basic phonemic units of a language are produced and pronounced. Adopted by anthropologists, and later by scholars of religion, the terms emic and etic come to stand for the participant's (emic) and the non-participant's (etic) viewpoints.

Essentialism - [essentialis form of the verb essential meaning to be, in imitation of] a theory that maintains that membership within a class or group is based on a finite list of characteristics, all of which an entity must possess to be considered a member of the group, as opposed to the merely accidental or contingent characteristics a thing might or might not possess. An essentialist view of religion recogonizes that there are many different characteristics to be found among religions, but argues that these characteristics are merely secondary and superficial; instead, there are a small number of primary characteristics, possibly only one (a so-called essence or substance), that encompass all the religions of the world within one category; see Existentialism.

Establishment Clause - a clause contained in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that prohibits Congress from "respecting an establishment of religion." Many believe this clause to mean that Congress is not allowed to create a national religion, give preference to one religion over another, or prefer a religious over a secular outlook, but others argue that there is ambiguity in the clause itself concerning its use and implimentation.

Eusebia - ancient Greek term for the quality one was thought to possess if one properly negotiated the various social expectations and duties required based upon such factors as ones social rank, gender, birth order, generation, occupation, etc. Often translated as "piety" (from the Latin pietas), it is not to be confused with the modern sense of "religion," insomuch as the quality of eusebia resulted from ones proper behaviors toward the gods (such as performing a ritual in the prescribed manner at the appropriate time and place) but also from those behaviors involving ones social superiors, equals, and inferiors. Therefore, piety in the Greco-Roman world, was a fundamentally social, and not a faith, designation. See also din.

Evolution - [Latin evolutio, meaning the unrolling or opening of something] theory developed in the nineteenth century by such scholars as Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin to explain biological change in the gene pool of a population from generation to generation by such processes as random mutation, natural selection, and genetic drift. The much criticized theory known as Social Darwinism names a school of thought that applied this biological theory to account for cultural changes over time and place (assuming a uniform, linear development from so-called lower or primitive cultures to so-called higher or civilized cultures). Today teaching evolutionary biological theory in public schools is controversial in some areas of the U.S. due to the manner in which it is understood by some Christians to contradict a literal reading of the creation of the world as found in the Bible's book of Genesis. Although so-called creation science, or intelligent design, has been proposed as an alternative to evolutionary theory, and in some cases is taught along side it in public schools, so far no non-Christian views on the creation of the universe have gained sufficient support in the U.S. to prompt them also to be taught in the public school system as competitors to evolutionary theory.

Existentialism - although it can be traced to earlier influences, it is primary understood today as a mid-twentieth-century European philosophical movement, much associated with post-World War II French intellectuals (philosophers, literary critics, authors, playwrights, etc.), that takes as its starting point the priority of the individual along with the assumption that, in the words of one of the best known representatives of the movement, Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980), "existence precedes essence"--that is, historical human beings come before, and are thus the makers of, qualities and values. As Sartre also observes, human beings are therefore "condemned to be free"--that is, have no choice but to be accountable for their own actions, desires, and the values they produce. Existentialism, then, can be understood to be in opposition to essentialist approaches to the study of culture and meaning, though there were theological existentialists.

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Faith - [Latin fides, meaning trust, confidence, reliance] a term today commonly used alongside "religion," sometimes assumed to be the essential element to the religious life; sometime in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Europe seems to be the first time we find "faith" used as a synonym for "religion." In the modern sense, faith (as in Wilfred Cantwell Smith's notion of "faith in transcendence") is often juxtaposed to the social or institutional sense of religion (what W. C. Smith termed the "accumulated tradition"), as in the distinction between "spiritual" and "religious" when the latter is assumed to denote the merely secondary, external, institutional, or ritual elements whereas the former denotes what is assumed to be the personal and core element that is merely symbolized or manifested in the institution. Given the sixteenth-century reformers' efforts to criticize, and eventually to replace, the institutions and authority of Roman Catholicism, prioritizing faith over religious institution, and criticizing the latter for the manner in which it unnecessarily stifles the former, remains a common anti-Catholic, or pro-Protestant, form of argumentation.

Faith-Based Initiative - a program originating from the Personal Responsibility
and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 during the Clinton administration that President George W. Bush expanded to the cabinet level early in his first administration (2000-2004). This program financially supports community service organizations, some of which are run by local churches, religious charities, and religious foundations while others are run by secular organizations. The relevance/controversy of this initiative is that, in the past, the U.S. Federal government has avoided supporting religiously identified organizations that carry out social services (such as operating day cares, food banks, homeless shelters, programs for alcoholics, etc.) due to the understood separation of Church and State in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. President George W. Bush is the first President to institute through executive order a federally funded program that some think crosses the line from separation to establishment. To read more on the Faith-Based Initiative, visit the U.S. Federal government's office of Faith-Based Initiatives.

Family Resemblance - an approach to defining something, first described by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, that presupposes that no one characteristic is possessed by all members of a group but, instead, that a series of traits must be present, each to varying degrees, among the members of a group.

First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution - an amendment ratified in 1791 as a part of the Bill of Rights that prohibited Congress from interfering with the freedom of religion, speech, assembly, or petition. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Free Exercise Clause - portion of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that denies Congress the right to prohibit the "free exercise" of religion. What exactly constitutes free exercise is unclear, however, and therefore open to debate. Congress does have the power to limit certain practices whether they are religious or not. A recent example of the debate is found in a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court case over whether city council in Florida could use their animal cruelty laws to curtail animal sacrifice as practiced by members of a Santeria group (Santeria, "the way of the saints," is a Caribbean tradition that combines elements of African and Roman Catholic religious practices). Read the decision here.

Functionalism - [Latin functio, meaning action, to perform] the view that, rather than some internal quality, things are defined by what they do and can be studied in terms of the purposes that they serve or the needs that they fulfill. Functionalists can study the social, political, or psychological role played by, for example, a myth or a ritual, examining how it functions either for the individual or how it contributes to maintaining an overal social structure into which the individual is placed.

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Greek - [Graecus meaning the name applied by the Romans to the people called by themselves Hellenes] the Christian text commonly known as the New Testament was written in a script known as common or koine (pronounced "coin-ay") Greek. It is important to note that words/concepts that were once prominent in the Hellensitic world of early Christianity, and therefore used in the production of these texts, eventually were translated into Latin, and then into the many language that today comprise the text known as the Bible.

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Hermeneutics - [Greek hermeneutikos, meaning translator or interpreter] the precise history of the term is unknown, though some trace it to the name of the Greek god Hermes (known by the Romans as Mercury) who served as a messenger for the gods; others trace it to Hermes Trismegistus, the Greek name for the ancient Egyptian god Thoth, said to have been the founder of alchemy and other such secret sciences. In any case, hermeneutics is that branch of study that deals with interpretation, both the act of interpretation as well as the academic study of the methods and theories of interpretation. Often associated with the interpretation of scripture, as in the long history of hermeneutics in the field of Biblical studies, hermeneutics presupposes that the object of study must be understood for its meaning and that this meaning can only be adequately understood if it is interpreted and translated in precise and correct ways; see phenomenology; positivism; reductionism.

Hinduism-[sindhu, meaning river, especially the body of water known today as the Indus River (in northeastern India), hence the region of the Indus, which today also names the entire nation-state of India] the name given to the mass social movement found originally in the sub-continent that is today known as India and dates to up to 1,500 years prior to the turn-of-the-era; those who practice Hinduism refer to it as Sanatana-dharma; it is a term for indigenous Indian religions, and is characterized by a diverse array of belief systems, practices, institutions, and texts. It is believed to have had its origin in the ancient Indo-Aryan Vedic culture. Texts in Hinduism are separated into two categories: shruti (inspired [revealed scripture]) and smriti (remembered [epic literature]). The Veda, a body of tests recited by ritual specialists (brahmins) is considered shruti, whereas the Bhagavad Gita is considered to be smriti. Other smriti texts are the major epics: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Some of the commonly known deities are Vishnu, Brahma, Kali, Ganesha, Shiva, and Krishna. Studies of Hinduism will often focus on the role played by the dharma system (social system of duties and obligations), the caste system (similar to a class system but inherited), beliefs in karma (social actions result in future reactions), atman (the name for ones soul or self), and samsara (the term for the almost limitless cosmic system of rebirths), and the central role of brahmins (a caste of ritual specialists).

History - [Latin historia, meaning narrative, account, tale, story] by "history" we today mean at least two things: (1) a narrative about the accumulated, chronological past that either demonstrates development over time or established lineage and (2) a more general usage that refers to the world of cause/effect in which unanticipated events intermingle with the intentions of agents. Saying that something is "an element of the historical world" therefore implies that the present is the result of past plans as well as accidents, which were themselves the results of yet other past plans and accidents. To say that something is "historical," therefore means that it is contingent, i.e., depends on prior things happening and therefore could have been otherwise.

Human Nature - a concept--sometimes termed the human spirit, the human condition, the human heart, or the human experience--that asserts all human beings hold some essential characteristic(s) that are universal and thus not bound by any notions of time or space. In other words, all human beings, from the beginning of time and spanning the entire present world, are said to share these characteristics, making them the defining element, or essence, of the human species as a species separable from all others. Some scholars of religion argue that religion, or religious experience, is the preeminent or fundamental aspect to this presumed human nature.

Human Sciences - those academic studies of minds, texts, institutions, political organization, and economic activity, that seek to develop theories that explain human behavior rather than offer an interpretation of, or appreciation for, the meaning of the behavior or its various artifacts (such as texts, art, architecture, etc.). This classification of work carried out in the modern university provides an alternative to the traditional division of social sciences versus humanities insomuch as the human sciences groups together fields previously studied separaely in either of these other divisions, understanding all elements of human social life to be subject to the tools of observation, analysis, generalization, and explanation. Practiced as part of the human sciences, the study of religion seeks not to discover the meaning of religiosity but its causes and practical implications.

Humanities - an organizational title given to that area of the modern university that usually includes such academic disciplines as the study of literatures, languages, theater, philosophy, history--all of which are often presumed to study various expressions of the eduring human spirit as it is manifested in the conscious and intentional actions of human beings in different historical periods and regions. The academic study of religion is most often placed within humanities divisions of the university because its presumed object of study--religious experience--is often held to be a key ingredient to human nature; see also social sciences.

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Idealism - [Latin idealis, meaning look, semblance, form, configuration, species, kind, class, sort, nature] a philosophical viewpoint that prioritizes mind or spirit over matter or the physical world, the latter being derived from the former; to be distinguished from materialism.

Ideology - first coined in late-eighteenth-century France, the term stood originally for the systematic study of ideas, or science of ideas, but soon came to stand in for both a complete system of ideas, or what we sometimes term a worldview, as well as an incorrect or false system of ideas (the former a more descriptive use of the term wheras the latter is a more normative use of the term). The term obtained its best known and most critical usage in the work of Karl Marx, where it was used to name the system of "false consciousness" within which oppressed people labored. Today the term retains this critical edge, though it is also used in a more neutral fashion, one that is synonymous with "philosophy" and "worldview."

Induction - [Latin inducere, meaning to lead into, to introduce] any form of reasoning in which a general conclusion is supported by the premises, but does not necessarily follow from them; inductive logic begins with the observation of specific cases and reasons to general conclusions based on this series of discrete observations. Classical scientific method, which prioritized observation and description, was thought to proceed inductively, in that a general conclusion (for example, about the law of gravity) followed from a series of experiments (such as repeatedly dropping an object and observing its behavior). Inductive conclusions are only as sound as the number of instances that support them (that is, how many spotted dogs must one see before one is confident in concluding: "All dogs are spotted"?), leading one to see that induction does not provide certain, but instead probable, knowledge; distinguished from deductive logic.

Inference - to derive a conclusion from something known or assumed to be the case, knowledge which was itself gained by means of either induction or deduction.

Inter-religious Dialogue - following the age of Christian missionizing, in which the conversion of so-called "heathens" was the goal, a more theologically and politically liberal movement began within Christianity in which some differences that came to be seen as merely secondary were put aside in favor of a common search for more fundamental similarities among religions. Mutual understanding and appreciation therefore take over from a previous era's attempt to judge and convert. As practiced by some, the academic study of religion is seen as one component of the effort to identify and nurture shared commonalities among the world's religions. For those who see the study of religion as part of the human sciences, such versions of the field are indistinguishable from liberal theology.

Islam - in Arabic meaning literally "submission," the name given to a collection of beliefs, practices, and institutions that date to the sixth and seventh centuries CE, originating in the Arabian penninsula, which place importance on the role played by the Prophet Muhammad who is believed to have received, by means of recitations granted to him by an angel, the word of Allah (Arabic, "the God") which is contained in their scripture, known as the Qur'an (sometimes written in English as "Koran"). These revelations, which occured in the area outside of the city of Mecca (today considered the central geographic site of Islam, toward which devout Muslims worldwide face when praying each day and to which they aim to make a pilgrimage at some point in their adult life), were eventually transcribed and today comprise the Qur'an's 114 suras, or chapter divisions, each of which have a number of verses. Merging indigenous Arabian cultural practices with elements of Jewish and Christian belief, Muslims (those who submit to the will of Allah) understand Muhammad to have been the last in a long line of prophetic figures (stretching from Abraham to Jesus); he is understood to have been the "seal of the prophets" (as in a stamp to close an envelope), all of whom conveyed the divine word, law, and instructions of Allah. After establishing the first Muslim community in the nearby city of Medina, Islam spread successfully throughout much of the then "known" world, stretching across north Africa, Europe, and well into Asia. Today it can be found all throughout the world. Early on in its development, disagreements over such things as leadership succession led to a division, leaving two main sub-types: Sunni and Shi'ite (a third sub-type, Sufism, is considered the mystical aspect of Islam)--all of which have their own sub-types, often based on differeing traditions of legal and textual interpretation.

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Judaism - the name given to a collection of beliefs, practices, and institutions that date at least to several hundred years prior to the turn-of-the-era and whose significant historical events transpired in the area of the world now known as the Middle East; although today considered a religious designation, to some it has always been an ethnic designation and--especially since the founding of the state of Israel in 1948--for yet others it designates a national identity (sometimes designating all three at once). The terms "Jew," "Jewish," and "Judaism" derive from the anceint Hebrew y'hudi which is itself a derivative of the proper name Y'hudah or Judah, which means "celebrated" and was the name of the fourth son of one of the group's ancient patriarchs, Jacob, as well as the name for the familial line (that is, tribe) that is said to have descended from him. Although one might talk of anceint Hebrew religion (involving twelve ancestral tribes, a distinctive role for the members of a priestly tribe, the centrality of temple worship, animal sacrifice, a period of enslavement in anceint Egypt, and a belief in a divine mandate to settle "the promised land"), after the Exilic period (in which it is held that, for much of the sixth century BCE, Hebrews were conquered by the ancient Babylonian empire [specifically, a group called the Chaldeans] and forcibly removed from their land) the centrality of textual interpretation, the role of the rabbi (Hebrew: master), and the place of the synagogue (Greek: assembly, as a translation for the late Hebrew, keneseth) came to supplant the prior place of the temple and priests. Along with legal traditions and traditions of rabbinic commentary, the main scripture is known as TANAKH, an accronym standing for the letters that signify the three main bodies of work that comprise what is sometimes called the Hebrew Bible: Torah (the Law, which comprises the first five books of the Hebrew Bible), Neviim (the writings attributed to the Prophets), and Ketuvim "the writings" (such as the more poetic book of Psalms that is attributed to the patriarch and onetime Hebrew King, David). Today, Jews are found worldwide and the modern state of Israel (the so-called "promised land") plays a particularly important role in the social identity for many Jews.

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Li - Chinese term, associated with Confucianism, that names the rules of propriety (or proper form) associated with carrying out ritual and which influence all social interaction.

Linguistics - [Latin lingua, meaning tongue] the cross-cultural and comparative science of language as a human phenomenon, including phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and historical linguistics. In the late nineteenth century, when the cross-cultural study of languages was developing, it served as a model for the the development of the early science of religion--neither was concerned about simply studying this or that language, this or that religion, but with studying each as a universal human phenomenon (regardless which particular language one spoke or which specific religion one practiced), thereby necessitating the development of general theories of language and general theories of religion.

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Materialism - [Latin materialis from materia, meaning the substance from which an object is made; the subject of a discourse (as in "subject matter")] a philosophical viewpoint that prioritizes matter or the physical world over mind or spirit, the latter being derived from the former; to be distinguished from idealism.

Metaphysics - [Greek meta-, meaning after, following + physiké, meaning nature and the world of production] the Greek phrase, ta meta ta physika, meant literally "that which is after the physics," implying early cataloguing/placement of an unnamed text by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) after another of his works, entitled Physics, that dealt with the natural world or, what he termed, Being that is endowed with motion (that is, self-determination, motivation, or will, something not possessed by art). The untitled text that followed Physics in early collections of Aristotle's works dealt with questions of origin and first principles; it traditionally went by the name of Metaphysics. What was therefore originally a term of classification therefore comes today to stand for that branch of philosophy that addresses questions of Being, reality, existence, the origins of the universe, etc. Today the prefix meta- is often used to signify theoretical work, or work that examines assumptions that operate behind scholarship, as in the difference between developing a theory of religion as opposed to studying theories of religion themselves: meta-theory; see positivism.

Monothetic and Polythetic Definitions - deriving from Greek for either one, alone (mono-) or many, much (poly-) that are "capable of placing," as in one-placement and many-placements. Monothetic definitions, which can be essentialist or functionalist, presume a limited set of necessary characteristics or purposes whereas polythetic (or what might also be termed multi-factoral) definitions identify a range of traits or functions, none of which is sufficient in order for the object to qualify as a member of a class.

Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans - Latin phrase coined by the German Protestant theologian Rudolf Otto to name the awe-some (fascinating and full of awe) mystery that, he argued in his German work on comparative theology, Das Heilige (1917; translated as The Idea of the Holy, 1923), was the object common to all forms of religious experience.

Myth - [Greek mythos, meaning word, story, or narrative; traced back to an argument of Plato's in his ancient Greek dialogue entitled The Republic, "myth" comes to designate fanciful, false, or fictional narratives that are to be distinguished from historical narrative or rational discourses (Greek, logos)] commonly used to refer to narratives that are transmitted orally and tell of supernatural beings that can accomplish deeds that humans cannot. For idealist scholars, myth, conceived as the expression of certain modes of thought, was understood to come before, and thus inspire, ritual. "Myth" as a classification is now often used by functionalist scholars of religion to refer to any narrative that is used by a group of people to satisfy any basic need that a society or an individual may have.

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Nation-State - [Latin natio, meaning stock or race, "that which has been born"; as in native + Latin status, meaning "position, the manner of standing, ones condition, as in the condition of a region or place) a term for modern, large-scale social units that combines the earlier sense of an ethnic or ancestral group (a nation, clan, or tribe) with the more recent political sense of a group organized around legal principles (such as those who possess citizenship not as a birthright but as an identity adopted by means of legal procedures). Often, nationalism, understood as an expression of ones political identity, is distinguished from patriotism with only the latter being understood as positive. This distinction is spurious for it is apparent that the same behavior (singing songs, marching, displaying flags and military hardware, engaging in nationalist rhetorics, presumptions that God is on ones side during a time of war, etc.) when practiced by ones enemies is classified as nationalistic whereas when practiced by ones own group of ones allies it constitutes benign patriotism.

Naturalistic Theories of Religion - as opposed to theological approaches to the study of religion that presume that the basis of religion is to be found in a supernatural source (such as God, the gods, etc.), natrualistic approaches presuppose that those beliefs, behaviors, or institutions classified as "religious" are in fact mundane elements of the so-called natural world--that is, the historical, cultural world. In this sense, "natural" does not necessarily carry the connotation of "inevitable" or "the way it ought to be" but, instead, is linked to an earlier sense of "natural science" in that it is the systamtic study of the empirical (observable with one of the five senses) world. Of course this is to be distinguished from what was once called "natural religion"--the onetime effort to establish such things as the existence of God from observable evidence, such as the so-called design argument (that is, the complex workings of the natural world betray the existence of a design and a design necessitates the existence of a designer). Although early contributors to a naturalistic approach to religion can be dated to several centuries ago--notably the Scottish philosopher David Hume's book, A Natural History of Religion (1757)--they began to flourish in the late-nineteenth century and today involve the work of, among others, psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, economics, and cognitive scientists.

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Orientalism - [Latin orientem, meaning the east, or from where the sun rises] a term that has traditionally named a scholarly discipline, at its height in nineteenth-century Europe, that takes as its subject matter the study of the Arab world (the so-called Orient or "Mystic East"), its history, language, and contemporary customs, religion, and politics. It is this sense of the term that we today find in the name for the University of London's well-known School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), founded in 1916. More critically, "Orientalism" now often stands for a particular attitude toward what scholars term "the Other"; in this sense, most famously examined in a book by this title by the Columbia University literary critic Edward Said (1935-2003), Orientalism names a widespread strategy whereby groups create a sense of themselves as distinct from others by generating powerfully negative and easily reproduced caricatures and stereotypes of those from whom they see themselves to differ. In Said's analysis (Orientalism [1978]), the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century preoccupation among Europeans intent on studying "the Orient"--learning its languages, mapping it, studying its culture, and writing novels about its mystery and danger--functioned to create a representation of the Orient that reflected not actual traits in this distant part of the world, but instead, functioned to reinforce a sense of superiority and order at home. Given that today the term "Orient" refers not to the so-called Middle East (and such modern countries as Egypt, Israel, Syria, etc.) but to parts of Asia (e.g., China, Japan, Korea, etc.), it should be evident that this term is plastic and can be applied to whomever the apparent in-group sees as different from themselves and thus unknown.

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Phenomenology - [Greek phainomenon, to appear] the descriptive and systematic study of that which appears or that which presents itself; to be distinguished from ontology [Greek ontos, being], the philosophical study of being or ultimate reality, as well as metaphysics. Although first developed in nineteenth- and twentieth-century European philosophy (notably the work of the German philosopher, Edmund Husserl [1859-1938]), early on scholars of religion adapted phenomenological methods to develop a technique for studying claims, symbols, practices, and institutions that seemed to defy rational explanation (such as belief in an afterlife or rebirth). The term "phenomenology of religion" is credited to the Dutch scholar, P. D. [Pierre Daniel] Chantepie de la Saussaye (1848-1920). This approach avoids assessing the truth or reality of such claims, studying instead what is assumed to be the public forms taken by what is often termed a symbol's essence. Phenomenologists of religion, many of whom would also be termed comparativists, therefore work to describe what appears to them rather than judging it or criticizing it. They are therefore well-known for advocating empathy as well as the bracketing (or setting aside) of assumptions and preconceived notions when one confronts unfamiliar data. Phenomenolgocial method therefore presupposes both the objectivity of observers as well as their ability to identify with the experiences and meanings of the people they study; see hermeneutics; positivism; reductionism.

Pietas - the Latin term, from which we derive the English word "piety," that is commonly (although perhaps misleadingly) translated by meany people today as "religion." In the classical world, "piety," like eusebia and din, denoted a quality that resulted when one fulfilled ones social obligations and dutues, which involved everything from properly performing rituals toward the gods to treating ones superiors, peers, and inferiors properly--that is, according to custom and the accepted rule of propriety. The common assumption today, prevent in the Euro-North American world and especially within the Christian tradition, that "religion" denotes an inner faith or experience therefore interiorizes or privatizes that which, in antiquity, was considered a public trait linked to observable behaviors one would or would not perform satisfactorily.

Political Economy - the systematic study (science) of the manner in which systems that govern power and privilege are interconnected with systems that govern patterns of exchange and the valuation of commodities; the earlier name for what is today often referred to simply as economics.

Positivism - Although for some "positivism" is used along with "reductionistic" to name a attitude toward the study of culture that--at least for those who fall in the theological, hermeneutic, and humanistic traditions--is seen as overly reliant on the effort to reduce the meaning of a participant's testimony to observable, and tus predictable, facts, more properly it is termed "Logical Positivism"--a term derived originally from the work of the early French social theorist, Auguste Comte (1798-1857), and which refers to an originally Austrian and German philosophical school of thought (which exerted great influence in North America as well) that dates to the early decades of the twentieth century. Members of the so-called "Vienna Circle" of philosophers developed a system of rules for establishing which propositions were and were not meaningful and thus the proper topic of scientific discourse; their system thereby classified many of the traditional topics addressed within the field known as metaphysics (e.g., Does God Exist?) as meaningless. Their "verifiablity principle" ensured that only those propositions that could conceivably be tested empirically or logically, and thereby found either to correspond to some observable state of affiars in the natural world or to obey the rules of logic, were meaningful--others were classified as nonsensical or, as in the case of statements on morality, merely emotive. Experience and the use of human reason to organize experience and generalize from experience, were, therefore, the only basis for knowledge, and facts were understood to be independent of human consciousness and intention, thereby ensuring that objectivity was an attainable goal. Reaching the peak of their influence by the mid-twentieth century, it was realized that logical positivists' criterion of verifiability itself did not obey their own rules; this presented an empirical and logical problem that could not be overcome--although the philosopher of science, Karl Popper (1902-1994), revised this principle as the falsifiablity criterion, whereby scientific propositions were those that could, conceivably, be empirically tested and, at least potentially, disproved. Until such a time as a proposition was disproved (such as "All dogs have four legs"), it could be used "as if" it was true, recognizing that one can never arrive at certain knowledge based on induction. Although few scholars of religion would today classify themselves as positivists in the earlier sense of the term, the goal of distinguishing participant claims from claims about participants--relying, to varying degrees, on the distinction between values and facts--yet remains for some scholars of religion.

Profane - [Latin profanus, from pro + fanus, meaning before, as in outside or in front of, the temple] considered the opposite of sacred. That which was not admitted into the temple, or dne while in the temple, which extends to notions of not consecrated, ritually unclean, polluted, or improper (as in "profanity" used to signify improper speech.

Prototype - the original or model on which something is based or formed; something that serves to illustrate the typical qualities of a class or group. For so-called Western scholars, Christianity is often unconsciously the prototypical religion, providing the model by which one judges other religions. Although Islam is not the worship of the Prophet Mohammad, the name by which it was once known in Europe--"Mohammadism"--provides a useful illustration of how earlier European scholars used their knowledge of the centrality of Jesus Christ in a religion that, to them, was familiar (that is, Christianity), as the model for naming and thereby comprehending Islam. That prototypes are necessary for cognition is not argued by contemporary scholars; instead, what is argued is that prototypes are not to be understood or used as ideal cases. Rather, they are working models that require adjustment when new information is acquired. The selection of features to be included in family resemblance definitions are generally thought to be arise from a prototype with which one happens to be familiar.

Psychology - the systematic study (science) of the mind or of mental states and processes; psychology of religion is but one among a number of subfields of the academic study of religion.

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Q - [German Quelle, meaning source or origin] "Q" is the shorthand scholars use to name a document hypothesized to have existed and been in distribution among members of the earliest groups that eventually become known as Christianity. Based on the study of the so-called synoptic Gospels (one eye, implying to view together; a term given in the late eighteenth century to the first three Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke)--which possess similar narrative structure and content, though which differ on significant details of the story of Jesus life, teachings, and resurrection--historians and literary theorists hypothesized that one or another of the three existed first and that subsequent authors must have had access to the earliest, from which they borrowed material. For those who argue for the priority of the Gospel of Mark--and there are those who argue for the priority of Matthew--those passages that do not appear whatsoever in the text of Mark (which is by far the shortest Gospel) and which are common to Matthew and Luke (many of which are "sayings" of Jesus, such as the Sermon on the Mount's Beatitudes ["Blessed are the poor..."]) are thought to have derived from a separate document, also in circulation at the time but no longer in existence. Scholars who advocate this "two source hypothesis," therefore attempt, through their analysis of the texts in existence, to reconstruct Q.

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Rational Choice Theory - a modern form of social theory, applied to the study of religion, and derived from theories of economics that attempted to account for the means by which consumers made their selections among alternatives. Rational choice theory, favored by a number of U.S. sociologists of religion, argues that such things as church membership are based on a series of sensible decisions made by participants, based on their assessment of costs and benefits (or gains and loses). For those benefits that cannot be had immediately (or in this life, such as justice), a series of compensators are drawn upon that make up for the lack of the primary goal.

Reductionism - an approach to the creation of new knowledge that attempts to account for one level of phenomena in terms of a more basic series of propositions, much as observations from the world of biology (such as monitoring the growth rate of cells) can be explained by reducing them to the language of chemistry, which in turn can be reduced to the theories of physics. In the study of religion, reductionism is often criticized for "throwing the baby out with the bathwater"; in other words, those who presume that religion is sui generis argue that reducing religion to, for example, sociology, and thereby explaining it completely as a sociological phenomenon, misses the irreducibly religious character of the belief, act, symbol, or institution. Although religion undoubtedly has a social dimension, as Ninian Smart would have argued, it cannot completely be reduced to sociology--or psychology, or politics, or economics, for that matter. For yet others who consider religion to be a thoroughly human institution, there is no choice but to study it by means of reductionistic, naturalistic theories derived from such domains as psychology, sociology, etc. In fact, even scholars who favor non-reductionistic approaches have little choice but to reduce, since their cross-cultural work necessarily must use comparative categories, such as Mircea Eliade's use of "the sacred," by means of which the language of participants is reduced to the language of the analyst; see hermeneutics; phenomenology; positivism

Religion - the precise etymology (or derivation) of the modern word religion is unknown. There are, however, several possible roots from which the term derives. Most commonly, the Latin words religere (to be careful, mindful) and religare (to bind together) are cited as possible precursors. Whereas the Roman writer Cicero (106-43 BCE) favored the first option, the later Christian writer Lactantius (250-325 CE) favored the latter. In his book, The Meaning and End of Religion (1962), Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who is among the more noted scholars to have investigated the category's history, suggests that both streams--one emphasizing the private disposition to be mindful whereas the other emphasizes the more objective sense of social processes that build identity--may have coalesced into the Latin religio. Jonathan Z. Smith, also among the scholars to have devoted attention to this problem, observes in an essay entitled "Religion, Religions, Religious" (in Mark C. Taylor [ed.], Critical Terms for Religious Studies, 1998) that in Roman and early Christian Latin literature the nouns religio and religiones, as well as the adjective religiosus and the adverb religios, were all employed mainly with reference to, in his words, "careful performance of ritual obligations"--as in the modern sence of a "conscientious repetitive action such as 'She reads the morning newspaper religiously'." If this is chosen as our origin for the modern term, then there is some irony in the fact that today it often is used to refer to an inner sentiment or affectation rather than within the context of ritual, routinized behavior. As J. Z. Smith has pointed out, the fact that ethics and etiquette books immediately precede books on religion in the U.S. Library of Congress catalog system may carry with it this earlier sense of religion as carefully performed behavior. Regardless which etymology one chooses, the term "religion" remains troublesome for those who presuppose some (truer or more valuable) essence to lie beneath the term--whether that essence is, as W. C. Smith argued, "faith in transcendence" (in distinction from the outer "cumulative tradition," as he phrased it) or whether it is some more specific item, such as famously argued by the Swiss Protestant theologian, Karl Barth (1886-1968), who criticized "religion" (that is, what he understood as inessential outward ritual and institution) as sinful (inasmuch as it was human beings trying to know God--whether those human beings were or were not Christian), as opposed to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ (which, he believed, was bestowed upon humans by God). That this approach has little, if anything, in commong with the academic study of religion should be clear to the reader.

Religionswissenschaft - a German term that roughly translates as the science of religion (Wissenschaft = systematic study of).

Ritual - a system of actions that, according to their practitioners, is used by a group of people to directly relate to superhuman beings; these actions may consist of worship, sacrifice, prayer, etc. Any set of actions that is supposed to facilitate interaction between humans and superhuman beings. For materialist scholars, ritual is often presumed to predate myth insomuch as routinized behaviors are thought to provide the physical conditions in which meaning systems (and hence mythic narratives) can take place. Scholars study ritual behaviors in terms of ther psychological, sociological, political, even their economic causes and implications. That some behaviors one might classify as a "habit" (for instance, regularly brushing ones teeth) could just as easily be classified as a "ritual" suggests that there is a great deal at stake in how one classifies behaviors as well as in the particular theory of behavior that one uses to guide ones classifications (on theories of ritual, see the work of Catherine Bell).

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Sacred, the - [Latin sacer, meaning set apart, dedicated, distinguished, as in set apart from the public or mundane world]; to be distinguished from profane. Although widely used as an adjective (e.g., sacred texts) "the Sacred" is a term of choice for Mircea Eliade, used to describe that which is shared in common among all religions and that which manifests itself in varied forms throughout the symbols of the world's religions: the experience of the Sacred. Akin to other essentialists who name the object of this experience as the Holy (Rudolf Otto) or Power (Gerardus van der Leeuw), or even religious experience (William James).

Sanatana-dharma - a compound Sanskrit term meaning the eternal or cosmic system of duties (dharma = system of social obligations, as in people "doing their dharma"), implying a universal moral order comprised of countless beings all diligently carrying out their proper social and ritual action; it is the term used by some practitioners of Hinduism to refer to their cultural practices as unchanging and divinely sanctioned.

Sanskrit - an ancient Indo-European language that began on the Indian subcontinent; somewhat like Latin once functioned in the Roman Catholic Church, it is the ritual language used in the sacred texts of Hinduism and some of the texts of Buddhism.

Semiotics - the systematic study of signs and symbols as elements of communicative systems of behavior; a theory of signs based upon linguistic theory which assumes that meaning is not an essential quality expressed by symbols but, instead, the result of relationships established and managed by means of structures (such as a grammar or the rules of a game).

Social Sciences - an organizational title given to that area of the modern university that usually includes such academic disciplines as economics, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and political science; in distinction from the humanities, the social sciences seeks to generate testable theories, often on a model similar to the way knowledge is gained in the so-called "hard sciences" (e.g., chemistry, physics, etc.). Since the social sciences study the actions and motivations of conscious subjects, they are sometimes known as the "soft sciences," since their findings are sometimes critiqued as more interpretive and thus open to debate than the work carried out in other sciences. Because many in the academic study of religion understand their object of study to refer to an inner experience of tremendous meaning to the participant, this field is most often placed within the humanities, though it is occasionally found in social sciences divisions of the university; see also human sciences.

Sociology - [Latin socius, meaning companion + logos, meaning word, speech, discourse, reason] the science or the study of the origin, development, organization, and functioning of human society; the science of the fundamental laws of social relations and institutions. The sociology of religion is but one subfield of the academic study of religion.

Structuralism - developing from out of the context of the structural functionalist approach, once dominant in cultural anthropology, structuralism names an approach to the study of meaning systems (such as language or culture) much associated with the the ground-breaking work of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908). Structural functionalists used a biological metaphor to understand social systems, seeing them as comprised of discrete and empirically observable units, such as: kinship systems, systems that govern the exchange of goods, system to govern the payment of debts, and rituals (such as rites of passage from one status to another)--all of which could be observed by the ethnographer (one who writes about another group pf people). In playing their various roles and each fulfilling their separate function, they collectively contributed to the overall well-being of the unit. Contrary to this position, structualists argue that the structure is not in the external world but, instead, is in the human mind itself. Through studying paired oppositions that occur in such things as rituals or myths (such as up/down, in/out, male/female, light/dark, cooked/raw, etc.), Lévi-Strauss argued that scholars could decode the the means by which groups of people set about ordering their worlds, classifying its components, establishing their relationships, and in the process making the world sensible and inhabitable. In this regard, structuralism owes much to the Swiss scholar, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), whose early work in linguistics and semiotics provided the basis for a critique of the correspondence theory of meaning. Saussure argued that, for example, the symbol "i" means what it does because it is placed in relation to the symbols "h" and "j" (when understood in terms of this thing we know as "the alphabet") or in relation to, say, the symbols "f" and "t," as in the thing we know as the word "fit." And "fit" has meaning because it is in relation to "fat"; in other words, meaning is not an essential trait (that is, "i" does not correspond to some i-ness); instead, meaning is the result of a series of relations of similarity and difference that is established by an overall structure.

Sui Generis - [Latin, designates a thing that belongs to its own kind; peculiar; unique; self-caused] this term has been used to designate the claim that religion or religious experience is of a kind wholly unique and thus irreducible. If religion is sui generis then it is a thing of a kind incomparable with any other social institution or practice and therefore cannot be explained using a naturalistic theory of religion. Arguments for the sui generis nature of religion were successfully used in the 1950s and 1960s to help establish autonomous Departments of Religious Studies--insomuch as the studies of anthropologists or sociologists, to name but two, were thought to overlook and obscure the irreducible element (or essence): religious experience.

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Theism - [Greek theos, meaning god] a philosophical position to name a family of belief systems that presuppose the existence of God or gods; sub-types could include such belief systems as monotheism (belief in one God) or polytheism (belief in many gods); to be distinguished from atheism.

Theory - [Greek theoria, meaning to look at, implying to observe, to consider, to speculate upon] a term that presupposes a distinction between reflection upon principles and causes as opposed to a form of practice; sometimes used as synonymous with philosophy, viewpoint, or speculation, it can, however, be defined in a technical, scientific manner to signify a series of logically related and testable propositions that aim to account for a certain state of affairs in the observable world. Meta-theory (see metaphysics) generally signifies rational reflection upon the principles that underly theoretical work. For Marxist scholars, the apparent separation between theory and practice is problematic, for theory too is a form of practical labor, and theory relies on practice which is itself directed by theory; they therefore often employ the term "praxis" to signify the correlation of, and dialectical relationship between, these two seemingly distinct domains.

Theodicy - [Greek theos + diké, meaning the justice of god] term coined by the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716) to name the problem of justifying belief in the goodness of an all-powerful divine being in light of routine empirical observations of what could be called evil in the world. Traditionally, the problem has been divided by European philosophers into three propositions that, it is argued, cannot all be held simultaneously (what is called a trilemma, as opposed to a mere dilemma): 1. God is all-powerful (omnipotent); God is all-loving (omnibenificient); Evil exists. Solving the problem of evil therefore requires one either to forsake one proposition in favor of the other two (e.g., evil exists because God is not all-powerful) or to adapt one or more propositions such that the trilemma is avoided (e.g., although it seems like evil to us, to God it is not). Theistic philosophers have also worked to develop ways to distinguish among types of evil that need to be addressed, such as moral evils, for which an intentional agent can be held accountable (and the evil thus explained as the result of free will) and natural evils, such as earthquakes (which do not appear to be the result of an intentional agent's actions). Although this is largely a Christian philosophical issue, Max Weber argued that the Hindu doctrine of karma (the law of action, past deeds influence future states of affairs) was but one more attempt to address the problem of evil.

Theology - [Greek theos, meaning god + logos, meaning word, speech, discourse, reason] taken from the Greek, this term designates the academic discussion and study of God or the gods; "theology" is commonly used today to signify the systematic study of Christian dogmas and doctrines, as carried out by a member of the group, but can be applied to any articulate and systematic discourse by members of a particular religion concerning their own tradition's meaning or proper practice or their tradition's view of others. It is to be distinguished from an anthropological approach to the study of religion in which human behaviors, not the actions of the gods, are the object of study.

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