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Religion; atheism; spirituality

Published onOct 20, 2022
Religion; atheism; spirituality

Religion and beliefs

When describing people’s religious affiliation or referring to groups of people with shared religious or nonreligious beliefs and worldviews, using non-inclusive language can alienate, dehumanize, and discriminate. Religious slurs and more subtle faith-based prejudicial discourse can effectively create moral hierarchies and value-based boundaries, dividing the world into in-groups (“us”) and out-groups (“them”). Such linguistic utterances, even if they occur behind closed doors and are heard by a small group of people, can reverberate through time and space, shapeshift into discriminatory policies, and manifest as hate crimes. Reframing conversations around religions and worldviews starts with using inclusive language in scholarly and everyday communications. 

In general, unless contextually relevant and essential for communicating meaning, specifying people’s religious affiliation or beliefs is unnecessary. In some contexts, language that excludes nonreligious people (humanists, agnostics, atheists, secularists, etc.) should be avoided. For example, if the referent group includes nonreligious people, rather than saying “religions” say “religions and beliefs” or “religions and worldviews.”

Avoid stereotypes. For example, Islam is often portrayed as an inherently violent religion, and Muslim children have reported being called “terrorists” and “bombers” by classmates (Bhatti). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is often depicted as endorsing polygamy despite the fact that the practice was banned in the late 19th century and the Church has repeatedly clarified its stance publicly.

Consider context and perspective. Many religious groups experience harassment around the world depending on local demographics. Those groups banned most often by local governments in 2019 include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’is, and Ahmadis (Majumdar). According to a Pew Research Center study, the number of countries where religious groups, which includes people who are religiously unaffiliated, experienced harassment reached a new high in 2019—harassment occurred in 190 out of the 198 countries studied (Majumdar and Villa). Christians and Muslims are the two largest and most dispersed religions in the world, and they experienced harassment in the most countries in 2019, both in countries where they are not the religious majority as well as those where they are. (It should be noted that the study reports the number of countries in which harassment occurred, not the severity nor frequency of harassment.) Jews were harassed in the third most countries in 2019 despite their comparatively small population size. Whereas most of the religious groups analyzed, including those who are religiously unaffiliated, faced harassment in more countries from governments and public officials than private entities in 2019, Jews faced social harassment in more countries than government harassment that year (Majumdar and Villa).

Terms to avoid or use with caution include:



Black Muslim

member of the Nation of Islam

Note: N ot the same as a Black person who is Muslim.

b orn-again

Avoid unless self-described

before Christ (B.C.), anno Domini (A.D.)

Before the common era (B.C.E.), common era (C.E.)

Arab; Arab World

When referring to a nation or people from an Arabic-speaking country, it is better to specify the nation/nationality instead (See Geopolitics). Not synonymous with Muslim.

Mormon Church; Mormons

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; the Church; Church of Jesus Christ. LDS church is acceptable on second reference. People are Latter-day Saints.

Koran; Quaran


fundamentalism; fundamentalist

Avoid unless self-described. May be considered pejorative.

unbeliever; nonbeliever

nonreligious; spiritual but not religious (if applicable); religiously unaffiliated.

Xmas; x-mas



Vodou. Do not use as a general reference to witchcraft or other practices.


Be specific

cult; sect

Generally best to avoid as these terms have negative connotations.


Christian bodies.

devout; serious; practicing; committed

Subjective; better to be specific. May be acceptable if self-identified.

faith-based (ex: faith-based group)

faith (ex: faith group)


Use with caution as this term may be considered pejorative in some religions (e.g., Judaism, Christianity, Islam).




Outdated. Use Muslim.


evangelism (Protestant) or evangelization (Catholic or Orthodox)

Islam (in reference to people)

Islam is the religion. People are Muslim.

religious left; religious right; progressive

Avoid as these terms are vague; better to specify which groups are being referenced.


Use with caution as it may be offensive; put in quotes.

religions; religious

religions and worldviews; religions and beliefs; religious and nonreligious

Merry Christmas

Happy holidays or season’s greetings are preferred if the recipient’s beliefs are unknown.

Christian name

First name, forename, given name


Bhatti, T. (2021, March). Defining Islamophobia: A Contemporary Understanding of How Expressions of Muslimness are Targeted. The Muslim Council of Britain.

The Diversity Style Guide. (2022).

Global Press Journal. (n.d.). Global press style guide.

Majumdar, S. (2021, November 15). 41 countries ban religion-related groups; Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’is among the most commonly targeted. Pew Research Center.

Majumdar, S., & Villa, V. (2021, September 30). Globally, social hostilities related to religion decline in 2019, while government restrictions remain at highest levels. Pew Research Center.

Non-religious inclusive language guide. (2021). Humanists UK.

Powell, J. (n.d.). Act, Communicating, Implicit Bias. Racial Equity Tools.

Religion Newswriters Association. (n.d.). Religion stylebook. Religion Stylebook.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (n.d.-a). Common questions.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (n.d.-b). Polygamy: Latter-day Saints and the practice of plural marriage.

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