Technical terms, terms used to describe religious ideas, and jargon used by religious groups.
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Ad hominem attack. A method of arguing that should be avoided – attacking a person or their character (rather than refuting the points they make). We note that certain New Zealand politicians seem to make a habit of using ad hominem attacks.
Agnosticism. A false worldview positioned between atheism and theism which states spiritual reality is unknowable. In other words, we can't know if God exists. A "soft-boiled" agnostic will admit that he/she doesn't know if spiritual reality is knowable – a little probing should reveal whether they actually want to know – but a "hard-boiled" agnostic will claim he/she knows spiritual reality is unknowable – a self-defeating position. Also see gnosticism on this page.
Antinomianism. The false belief that there are no moral laws that God expects Christians to obey. This is embraced by the hyper grace movement. For example, Gaye Stradwick who leads Origin: "We're not under laws or law of any kind." (Emphasis added.)
Atheism. A false worldview which states that God does not exist. Ultimately it is not a logically defendable worldview because either they must admit it's just their belief (of a religious nature, since it is regarding the existence of God) or they are being intellectually dishonest in asserting that there is definitely no God – an unprovable philosophical and religious viewpoint. This is because to know there is no God they would have to be omniscient; ironically an atheist would have to be God to know there is no God. Atheism is thus a very religious position because it requires so much faith to hold. The opposite of theism. For more info see atheism in the main listing.
Brainwashing. An activity usually involving torture to force victims to change their beliefs and/or actions. The effects of brainwashing are normally short-lived when the torture (or threat thereof) is removed. The word "brainwashing" was invented in 1951 by an American journalist to describe what American soldiers had undergone who had been captured in the Korean War and tortured to change their beliefs. Not the same as mind control.
Business cult. A group that employs various mind control techniques (notably deception) for the non-religious purpose of making money. For more information see the Business Cults section in the Cult FAQ.
Cargo cult. This term originally referred to a religious group in a tribal society, that upon exposure to Western material wealth (be it canned food, clothing or whatever) came to believe that material goods – cargo – are produced spiritually. In order to get said cargo, the spiritual rituals the Westerners performed to get the cargo just needed to be reproduced. This resulted in airstrips being made, bamboo control towers and straw aircraft being built etc. The meaning of the term has broadened somewhat since its conception.
Cargo cult mentality. At its simplest, an attitude that material wealth will be provided (to or for those with the cargo cult beliefs) without the need to do the necessary work for it, because the material wealth in question is spiritually destined for the recipients.
Catholic. A word meaning "universal." In other words, "the catholic church" (small "c") refers to the whole Christian church (literally the universal church) and is not technically the same as the Roman Catholic Church (with capital initials). However, in common usage people normally use "the Catholic church" (big "c") to refer to the Roman Catholics. Note that some Roman Catholics object to the "universal" use of the word catholic, apparently thinking that the word is being hijacked by non-Roman Catholics.
Cold reading. A technique where a person (who we'll call the reader) subtly extracts information from a victim, then feeds that information back to the victim, normally in order to deceive them into thinking the reader has the power to speak with the deceased and pass on messages to the victims. This is the usual method employed by fair-ground gypsies to convince their victims they have psychic abilities. A name is often the first step. The reader asks their victim if a particular name has any meaning for them. Names such as William (Will, Bill), Edward (Ed, Ted), or Jack are often chosen since they were very common boys' names for men who would now be 70 to 100 years old if they were still alive. The chances are very high that a middle-aged person knows someone of the name that is suggested. During a reading the victim will almost certainly give the reader much more specific information than the reader gives the victim (the reader may also simply feed the victim information gleaned from the victim's social media pages). Some information about how cold reading works can be found in this article. Cold reading is given a Caution rating because it is very easy to get fooled by this sort of thing unless you are aware of what is happening.
Conspiracy theory. Wikipedia has a good overview:
A conspiracy theory is an explanation for an event or situation that invokes a conspiracy by sinister and powerful groups, often political in motivation, when other explanations are more probable. ...
Conspiracy theories resist falsification and are reinforced by circular reasoning: both evidence against the conspiracy and an absence of evidence for it are re-interpreted as evidence of its truth ...
Conspiracy theories are a significant obstacle to improvements in public health, encouraging opposition to vaccination and water fluoridation among others, and have been linked to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases. ...
A conspiracy theory is not simply a conspiracy, which refers to any covert plan involving two or more people. In contrast, the term "conspiracy theory" refers to hypothesized conspiracies that have specific characteristics. For example, conspiracist beliefs invariably oppose the mainstream consensus among those people who are qualified to evaluate their accuracy, such as scientists or historians. Conspiracy theorists see themselves as having privileged access to socially persecuted knowledge or a stigmatized mode of thought that separates them from the masses who believe the official account. Michael Barkun describes a conspiracy theory as a "template imposed upon the world to give the appearance of order to events".
Deism. The false belief that God exists but after creating the universe does not interact with it in any way. Such a belief is supposedly arrived at by observation of the universe and by reason rather than through spiritual revelation or faith.
Dunning-Kruger effect. The tendency for people without competence in a particular area to be more likely to overestimate their competence in that area. Sometimes paraphrased as "stupid people don't know they're stupid". Related to hubris and over confidence.
Empiricism. Bill Cooper in his book After the Flood explains empiricism as being the idea "that nothing is worthy of our belief unless first it can be scientifically demonstrated and observed to be true. ... nothing is to be taken on trust, and that anything which lacks direct corroboration must be discarded from mankind's find of knowledge as simply not worth the knowing." Basically, anything that cannot be experienced with our senses is not to be believed. Empiricism is self-refuting; empiricism itself is not observable.
Fideism. An incorrect belief system, in which faith and reason are opposed to each other and faith determines what is right at the expense of reason. In extreme forms seen in the New Age Movement and in the Word Faith Movement, the fideist believes that belief actually forms reality. In other words, unlike Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" their version of fideism states "I believe, therefore it is."
Forer effect. The tendency to interpret a very general description (written or spoken) as being strongly personally relevant. This is largely why horoscopes may seem accurate to the reader. See the Wikipedia listing for more info.
Gaslighting. A form of manipulation which attempts to make people change what they believe is the truth, and may make the victim dependent on the manipulator. The name comes from a stage play and two movies based on it in which dimmed gaslights were passed off as being just imagination, and thus became part of the manipulation. Gaslighting involves the creation of a false narrative of the truth – or even the opposite of the truth – using outright lies, redefinition of words and concepts, and other techniques (which can create cognitive dissonance) in order to control the person or people or nation being gaslighted. Being able to recognise gaslighting is an important part of resisting it. Encyclopedia Britannica:
Gaslighting, an elaborate and insidious technique of deception and psychological manipulation, usually practiced by a single deceiver, or “gaslighter,” on a single victim over an extended period. Its effect is to gradually undermine the victim’s confidence in his own ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, right from wrong, or reality from appearance, thereby rendering him pathologically dependent on the gaslighter in his thinking or feelings.
The phenomenon is attested in the clinical literature as a form of narcissistic abuse whereby the extreme narcissist attempts to satisfy his pathological need for constant affirmation and esteem (for “narcissistic supply”) by converting vulnerable people into intellectual and emotional slaves whom he paradoxically despises for their victimhood. Because the gaslighter is himself typically psychologically disordered, he is often not fully aware of what he is doing or why he is doing it.
It's thus perhaps not surprising that gaslighting is used extensively by Donald Trump, especially regarding COVID-19 and the result of the 2020 election he lost. His gaslighting wasn't limited to American content. For example, he mentioned New Zealand three times in a single week in August 2020. His statements are easy to fact check.
Encyclopedia Britannica continues:
These [techniques] may include: attempting to convince the victim of the truth of something intuitively bizarre or outrageous by forcefully insisting on it or by marshaling superficial evidence; flatly denying that one has said or done something that one has obviously said or done; dismissing the victim’s contrary perceptions or feelings as invalid or pathological; questioning the knowledge and impugning the motives of persons who contradict the viewpoint of the gaslighter; gradually isolating the victim from independent sources of information and validation, including other people; and manipulating the physical environment to encourage the victim to doubt the veracity of his memories or perception.
Gnosticism. From the Greek word for knowledge (gnosis) and refers to the belief that we are saved by special knowledge rather than by the grace of God. Many gnostic cults existed in the history of the early Christian church. Also see agnosticism on this page.
Hyper-grace. A false Christian doctrine that everyone is saved regardless of whether they repent. See the Pastor Notes pamphlet We All Need Our Sins Forgiven (PDF, 35 KB) for more info about the forgiveness of sins.
Hypergraphia. A condition where a person feels compelled to write huge amounts. Wikipedia calls it "the uncontrollable urge to write." Associated with temperal lobe epilepsy. For an example of someone with hypergraphia, see Seventh Day Adventist founder Ellen G White.
Jehovah. A name for God probably invented by a Catholic monk named Raymundus (Ramón Martí) in about AD1270. He erroneously added the vowels of "Adonai" (Hebrew for "Lord") to YHWH, the Hebrew name for God (meaning "I AM"). Wikipedia: Today this transcription [Jehovah] is generally recognized as mistaken ... most scholars recognise Jehovah to be “grammatically impossible”. Jehovah's Witnesses wrongly claim that Jehovah is the only true and correct name of God – a ridiculous claim considering the origin of the name, even without the better understanding of Hebrew vowels we now have. (BTW, take a look in the JW listing at where the Jehovah's Witnesses' name came from.)
Karma. See Karma in the main list.
Law of non-contradiction. The law of non-contradiction states that something cannot both exist and not exist at the same time and in the same sense. Something cannot be both true and false at the same time and in the same sense. A statement and its denial cannot both be true at the same time in the same sense. Aristotle put it this way: "One cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time." This is important because Jesus Christ said "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6.) All other religions say that Jesus is not the only way to God, which is one example which shows pluralism is wrong – if Christianity is right, all other religions are wrong (or simply not enough), whereas if Christianity is wrong pluralism is disproven straight away (since we would have at least one wrong religion straight off).
Lent. An old English word meaning "Spring." In modern usage Lent is a 40 day period of self-denial/sacrifice starting on "Ash Wednesday" and leading up to Easter, as practiced (in particular) by the Roman Catholic Church.
Materialism. 1. The false belief that energy and matter are the only things that exist, not anything supernatural. Materialism itself is a non-scientific worldview as it lies outside the scope of science, but it gives a foundation for false religious origins beliefs such as evolution. Materialism is related to naturalism.
Mind Control. A suite of practices or mechanisms which cults (and sometimes sects) use to control the behaviour of their members. Mind control is not the same as brainwashing. Mind control can be very subtle, and often people who are subjected to mind control are unaware they are. For more information see the Cult FAQ section on Techniques of mind control or read the Cultwatch article Mind Control Tool Box.
Modalism. An incorrect view of God, where God changes modes over time, from Father to Son (when Jesus Christ was here) to Holy Spirit (after Jesus' ascension). Thus, modalism denies the trinitarian nature of God. Believed by Oneness Pentecostals, William Branham, Witness Lee, and others.
Monism. The false believe that everything in the universe (including us) is all part of the same thing – any differences are an illusion. In other words, we are part of God, since we are part of the one that is everything. (Remind you of Star Wars' Force?) Not to be confused with pantheism.
Narcissism. Pathological self-absorption, characterised by an inflated self-image. Extreme forms are characterised as narcissistic personality disorder, which reflect traits related to self-importance, entitlement, aggression, and dominance. The Wikipedia listing on narcissism says "Four dimensions of narcissism as a personality variable have been delineated: leadership/authority, superiority/arrogance, self-absorption/self-admiration, and exploitativeness/entitlement." Narcissism is named for the character Narcissus in Greek mythology who as a young man fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water.
Naturalism. Naturalism is the false belief that nothing exists apart from the natural universe, and that everything that has ever existed came from natural origins. Naturalism itself is unsupported by science, and indeed, outside the scope of science, but gives a foundation for false religious origins beliefs such as evolution. Naturalism is related to materialism. An article on Creation.com points out that naturalism is self refuting:
[N]aturalism is self-refuting. If physical nature is all there is, then a person’s belief in that idea is produced purely by the workings of inanimate nature. Their brain chemistry made them believe it; they didn’t reason to the belief — reason had nothing to do with it! So why trust your brain? Especially when someone else’s, by the same laws of brain chemistry, tells them that nature is not all there is. Again, your brain could just be fooling you to keep you alive, and you’ll never know the difference. If nature is all there is, we can’t know it, which means belief in that idea is self-refuting.
C S Lewis took a dim view of it:
Does the whole vast structure of modern naturalism depend not on positive evidence but simply on an a priori metaphysical prejudice? Was it devised not to get in facts but to keep out God?
Nihilism. An extreme form of skepticism that denies all existence, or a doctrine holding that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. (Of course, reading this definition tends to deny the idea.) Of course, nihilism is self refuting.
Objective. Objective reasoning or evidence is based on external facts and undistorted by personal feelings or emotion, the opposite of subjective reasoning/evidence.
Panentheism. An incorrect worldview in which everything is in God – ie, the universe (and everything in it) is a part of God, who also exists outside of the universe. Not to be confused with pantheism.
Paranoia. At its simplest, paranoia is a condition or state or mind where a person has a persistant feeling that others are watching them or "out to get them". Clinical paranoia is a recognised mental health disorder, and can be diagnosed when a sufferer completely believes others are lying or actively trying to harm them, without any evidence. Paranoia can result in delusion and irrationality, is commonly associated with schizophrenia, and is a defining characteristic of mental disorders such as:
Paranoia is heavily influenced by anxiety and fear, and can be strongly exacerbated by alcohol and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive component in cannabis. Note that being worried you're paranoid is probably anxiety, not paranoia.
Pareidolia. Seeing shapes or recognisable objects in vague or random data, even when it's completely unrelated to the shape or object seen. Most commonly this plays out as finding faces in things like shadows, rocks, or clouds. This is quite common, as humans are very good at recognising faces (for example, the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich). It also applies to sounds, such as hearing intelligible words when an audio recording is played backward, or hearing voices in flowing water.
Placebo, placebo effect. From the Latin for "I shall please." A placebo is a substance containing no medication taken by a patient who thinks it will make them well. For example, a sugar pill (for a non-diabetic of course). The only effect it has is in the user's mind, but because the patient believes the pill will make them well, it does. The larger, more brightly coloured and expensive the pill (example), the stronger the placebo effect. Placebos are used in new drug trials to compare the effect of the drug itself with the results simply due to the expectation that the drug will work. The placebo effect is not limited to just pills – the effect has also been noticed with inert objects held by the patient (eg, rocks) and physical exercises or rituals. It has also been noted for some years that the placebo effect can even work if the placebo is clearly labelled as a placebo, as this article explains.
A major review of the placebo effect across a number of clinical conditions in 2010 did conclude that, in general, placebos produced no important beneficial effects. However, homing in on more specific outcomes, the reasonably critical review did admit to finding evidence of beneficial effects in some situations that relied on patient-reported outcomes, such as pain and nausea.
So far, the growing body of study into open-label placebos has revealed positive effects in patients with back pain, nausea, IBS and migraine. Of course, centuries of bizarre medical solutions have proven that a small volume of patients can seemingly recover from almost any condition regardless of whatever crackpot solution is administered.
Pluralism. The false belief that all religions are equally valid. (This can be extended to worldviews and lifestyles.) See the law of non-contradiction for an example why pluralism is wrong.
Kenneth R Samples puts it well in his article The Challenge of Religious Pluralism:
Most people who believe the "all religions lead to God" are unaware of the insurmountable intellectual difficulties with this view. Therefore, the claim that one religion is exclusively true is often met with the charge that one is dogmatic, narrow-minded, or just plain arrogant. While people can act arrogantly and often do, to claim that one religion is exclusively true is not provincial or narrow-minded. As noted earlier, the only logical conclusion, in view of the multiple contradictions among the world's religions, is that one religious world view is true and the rest false, or that all the respective religions are false. As one philosopher put it, a world where all religions are simultaneously true would be a "cosmic madhouse."
Reincarnation. The false belief that people go through several lives, perhaps including insects, etc. The idea is that each time the person (or animal etc) dies they are reborn in another body, which may be better or worse depending on what karma they have worked off in the previous life. Crazy concept, but lots of people believe it.
Relativism. The view that there are (absolutely) no absolutes – a self-refuting view. A relativist (someone who believes in relativism) believes that truth is relative, that there is no absolute truth, that our beliefs shape our reality, etc. Relativism is particularly dangerous because it means that definite moral standards get abandoned.
Religion. An organised collection of beliefs, cultural systems and world views that relate humanity to their place in existence. There are many other definitions of religions but they generally fail to capture the diversity of religious belief. For example, definitions that require a belief in a deity or belief in deities, or that require active worship of someone or something, or that define religion in terms of the social function it serves.
Self-refuting statement. Also called a self-defeating statement. A statement that implicitly denies its own truthfulness. From the logic side of things, it's a little like shooting oneself in the foot. One of the most commonly used is variations of "There are no absolutes" – which is an absolute statement. It's easier to see when it's rephrased "There are absolutely no absolutes" because it's clear that it contradicts itself. One topical example of this phrase, Obi Wan Kenobi in Revenge of the Sith (Star Wars Episode III) claimed "Only a Sith deals in absolutes." Because this is an absolute statement and we know that Jedi don't lie, either Obi Wan (or rather George Lucas or his ghost writer) is an idiot, or Obi Wan is a Sith. (Ha! Bet you didn't know that about him. Just kidding.) Another commonly used self-refuting statement used regarding religions is "Truth is relative." Again, it's an absolute statement which in order to mean anything must be true. But if truth isn't absolute the statement isn't true. The idea that truth is relative is call relativism. For some more examples of self-refuting statements see the Self-refuting Statements page.
Self sustaining scam. A religious or non-religious group started as a con or scam but after the founder's death, having enough members who believe the group's teachings to be true to be able to continue on anyway. Possible or likely examples include:
The cults Jehovah's Witnesses, Latter-day Saints, and Scientology are probably not correctly regarded as self-sustaining (although they were all very likely started as scams) because of their pyramidial control structures. They all have people at the top with vested interest in keeping the cults going. Gentle Wind Project was definitely a scam but having been wound up it can hardly be regarded as self-sustaining either. Also, its founder is still alive (and continues to push other scams).
Snake oil. A medicine or health product marketed as curing just about everything but doesn't actually do anything, sold to people who don't know any better. Examples are colloidal silver (when taken internally), Mannatech products such as Ambrotose, magnetic bed underlays, etc. The term comes from 19th century traveling salesmen in America.
Straw man argument. A method of arguing that should be avoided – it involves redefining the issue to be rebutted so it can easily be demolished. (Meaning the original issue has not been refuted.) Many straw man arguments are exaggerations of the actual point or position they should be refuting. Examples of straw man arguments can be found in the Gentle Wind Project listing, for example: We are not ... part of a ... science fiction alien takeover of earthlings as found in the movie and television fantasies (as some of our critics would have you believe)..." No critics we know of have made such a claim.
Subjective. Something that is based on individual personal desires, feelings, impressions, and opinions rather than external facts. One common example is anecdotal evidence in the form of personal testimonies used for selling all sorts of doubtful medical products and dietary supplements. Beware of subjective evidence being used to determine truth/what is right. For example, Theophostic Counseling is claimed to work, therefore they claim it must be from God. The Mormons' "burning in the bosom" is a subjective experience that also cannot be shown to be true. They can merely feel that the feeling is true. The opposite is objective.
Super-apostle. A term used by Cultwatch to refer to a Christian leader who sets themselves up as being specially chosen or appointed by God to control a number of churches. The term comes from a reference the apostle Paul made in 2 Corinthians 11:5 – But I do not think I am in the least inferior to those “super-apostles.” Read Cultwatch's Super Apostle article for more information.
Tithing. The principle of giving 10% of a person's income to their church. This principle is readily embraced by many pastors (for reasons good and bad) but some theologians point out that tithing is not actually a Christian principle. Take the Tithing Test (PDF, 57KB) by Roger Sapp to find out how much you know about tithing. Also see TithingDebate.com, set up by Cultwatch.
Trinity. Essential Christian doctrine of God having three separate natures, or persons (namely Father, Son and Holy Spirit) within the one Godhead. This does not mean Christianity has three Gods; it is equivalent to 1 x 1 x 1 = 1, not 1 + 1 + 1 = 3. Many cults deny the Trinity. Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, attempt to refute it by saying the word Trinity is not in the Bible. (Actually the name Jehovah isn't in the original manuscripts either.) For more information about the Trinity see this blog post or CARM's Trinity article.
Truth. That which corresponds with reality (which does not change depending on our beliefs – see fideism). This is known as the correspondence view of truth, and is undeniable, since it must itself be used in order to try to deny it. Also, if this definition of truth were wrong, lies would be impossible, nothing would be true or false, and all meaningful communication would break down.
Universal negative. A logical statement that is both universal and negative, and thus very hard to prove. For example "no anti-cult workers are rich" – to prove the statement one would have to know the financial status of all anti-cult workers. "There is no God" – to prove this statement, you would have to know everything (omniscience) and be everywhere (omnipresence). In other words, to know there is no God you would have to be God.
Universalism. The false belief that everyone is saved (by the one true religion whether they want it or not). Norman Geisler explains that "this is self-defeating for it is claiming that: All persons (free agents) will be saved, even those who do not freely choose to be saved." In The Problem of Pain C S Lewis also examined the self contradictory nature of universalism:
When one says, ‘All will be saved,’ my reason retorts, ‘Without their will, or with it?’ If I say, ‘Without their will,’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say, ‘With their will,’ my reason replies, ‘How, if they will not give in?’”
You are welcome to suggest words not included above – see the Contact page.