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Glossary of religious terms
(Starting with "P")

By B.A. Robinson,
Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance,

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Note: Conservative Christian faith groups often define terms very differently than other faith groups and secular movements. The former are shown in italics in the below lists of words.

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Pacifism of Islam: The belief in Islam that war is an abnormal activity opposed to the will of God. It is sometimes forced on Muslims. When entered into must be limited, humane, and involve minimal damage to the land and possessions.
Padre: This is the word for "father" in the Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish languages. Its origin can be traced to the Latin word "pater," which also means father.  It is often used to refer to a member of the Christian clergy, particularly one who is a military chaplain.
Paedobaptism: Baptism of infants.
Pagan: This word has many unrelated meanings. Some definitions are:
- Wiccans and other Neopagans sometimes use Pagan as a synonym for Neopagan.
- Religious and social conservatives often use the term as a general-purpose "snarl" word to refer to cultures and religions very different from the speaker's.
- a person who is neither Christian, a Muslim or a Jew.
- an animistic, spirits-and-essences filled belief system, usually polytheistic. It is based upon direct perception of the forces of nature and usually involves the use of idols, talismans and taboos in order to convey respect for these forces and beings.
- The ancient religions of Egypt, Greece, Rome, and other civilizations are often referred to as Pagan religions. Societies surrounding the ancient Israelites are often referred to as Pagan. 1
Pagoda: A religious building, especially a multistory Buddhist tower in the Far East, erected as a memorial or shrine.
Palm reading: Attempting to foretell a person's future and reveal their past through an analysis of the lines on a person's hand. Fortune tellers generally have great confidence in this technique. Many conservative Christians consider it a dangerous form of divination forbidden in the Bible.
Panentheism, Panentheist: (From the Greek pan-en-theos which means all-in-God) Like Pantheism, Panentheism includes the belief that God is in everything. The belief that the entire universe - substances, forces and laws -- is God - the universe is God's body. But, in addition, God is seen as transcending the universe. This belief is seen in Process Theology and in some components of New Age belief. Leading Panentheists in the present and recent past are John Cobb, Charles Hartshorne, Shubert Ogden, and Alfred North Whitehead.
Pantheism, Pantheist: From the Greek words "pan" (all) and "theos" (God). God is all. The belief that every existing entity (humans, animals, etc.) together, is a part of God. The entire universe is divine. They do not view God in personal terms, as having a personality, having the ability to make decisions, able to interact with humans, etc.
Pantheon: A group of Gods and/or Goddesses worshiped by a single religion. One example was the Greek pantheon. The term originated with the name of a building: the Pantheon -- a circular temple built in the first century BCE in Rome, and dedicated to all of the deities.
Parachurch: A religious organization that operates outside of a denomination or sect. Their membership, catchment area, and message often cut across denominational lines. Typical examples are Promise Keepers, Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council.
Parousia: From the Greek word "parousia," meaning "presence." The second coming when many Christians expect Jesus Christ to return to earth. This is a major focus of most conservative Christians.
Parthenogenesis: Virgin birth.
Partial life: This is a Jewish term to refer to the status of a fetus. In Jewish law, a fetus normally becomes a full human person when its head emerges from the birth canal. Before that event, the fetus is considered of lesser importance than a full human being. The same term has many other meanings in biology and manufacturing.
Particular Redemption: This is the third of The Five Points of Calvinism: the belief that Jesus did not die to save all humans. He died only for the sake of specific sins of those who are saved. Sometimes called "Limited atonement."
Passover: This is the most important feast of the Jewish calendar, celebrated at the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox. The name "Passover" was derived from the actions of the angel of death as described in the book of Exodus. The angel "passed over" the homes of the Jews which were marked with the blood obtained from a ritual animal sacrifice. The same angel murdered the first-born son and first-born animals of every Egyptian family whose doorway was not so marked.
Past life regression: A therapeutic technique in which the patient is urged to imagine going back in time, past their birth, into a former lifetime. It is a suggestive treatment method that can easily generate memories of events that never happened without either the patient or therapist being aware of the process.
Peccability: The concept that Jesus Christ could have sinned if he had wanted to.
Pedobaptism: The practice of baptising an infant. Most conservative Protestant denominations defer baptism until later in life when a person becomes born again.
Pedophile: From two Greek words: ''pedo" means "child;" and "philia" means "love for." This is a word whose meaning is changing. In the past, it referred to an adult who is sexually attracted to pre-pubescent children -- often those who fall into a specific age range, like 5 or 6. Currently, it is evolving to mean a person who sexually molests pre-pubescent children. See hebephile.
Pelagianism: A concept proposed by Pelagious (circa 356 to circa 418) who denied the existence of original sin inherited from Adam. He taught that a soul created by god cannot inheret sin from an ancestor. Thus humans are born morally neutral. They can fall into habits of sin but can overcome sin through mental effort. He promoted adult baptism in place of infant baptism. His beliefs were declared heretical by the Christian movement.
Penance: A Roman Catholic sacrament in which sins are forgiven by a priest.
Pentacle: a five pointed star inside a circle -- most commonly used by Wiccans and other Neopagans. Some Satanists invert the pentacle so that one point is downwards and two upwards; they often add a goat's head to the inverted pentacle.
Pentagram: a five pointed star. Wiccans and other Neopagans are the main North American groups who use a pentagram as a religious symbol. They orient the star with one point upwards, two downwards. The points of the star are often interpreted to refer to earth, air, water, fire and spirit. Satanists, who are numerically much smaller group than Wiccans, sometimes use an inverted pentagram. 
Pentateuch: See Torah
- In Christianity, a holy day celebrated 49 days after Easter Sunday. It recalls the visitation of the Holy Spirit to 120 Christians 50 days after Jesus' resurrection. They spoke in tongues This is usually regarded as the date of the birth of the Christian church.
- In Judaism, a festival which was called "Pentecost," because it was observed 50 days after Passover. (The Greek word for 50th day is "pentecoste.") 
Pentecostals: those Christian individuals, churches and denominations who believe in the Holy Spirit Baptism, a second manifestation of the power God of which follows an individual's conversion to Christianity. It is evidenced by glossolilia, or "speaking in tongues". Services are highly emotional. There are about 50 Pentecostal denominations in North America, including the Assemblies of God, Church of God in Christ, Association of Vineyard Churches, the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship, United Pentecostal Church International, Church of God in Christ and the Pentecostal World Conference. This is the fastest growing family of denominations in Christianity. Its roots can be traced to the National Holiness Movement which came into being after the Civil War, and to the Baptist, Methodist denominations. Most denominations allow women to become at least junior pastors. Jim Bakker, Benny Hinn, Jimmy Swaggart and Pat Robinson are among the most famous Pentecostal leaders. BeliefNet estimated that there are about 24 million Pentecostal followers in the U.S. in early 2001.
Perfectionism: The belief that a person can attain a state of sinlesslessness.
Perseverance of the Saints: This is the fifth of the five points of Calvinism:  It is the belief that whoever is saved and will remain saved forever. "Once saved, always saved.
Pharisees: A Jewish religious party composed of the synagogue rabbis and their followers. They formed one of about two dozen Jewish religious groups during the 1st century CE.
Physico-theology: A 17th and 18th century approach to the belief in God derived from observations of physics in nature. William Derhamwrote a book with the same name in 1711. He said: "Let us ransack all the globe, let us with the greatest accuracy inspect every part thereof...pry into them with all our microscopes and most exquisite instruments, till we find them to bear testimony to their infinite workman."
Pietism: "...a religious reawakening in the Lutheran and Reformed churches in Germany and the Anglican church in England during the 17th and 18th centuries. Pietism stresses conversion and a personal experience of salvation, Bible study, devotional life, evangelical witness and a continuous openness to new light. There is also an emphasis on Christian social responsibility..." 3
Pluralism: In a religious sense, the term has two quite different different meanings:
- The belief that multiple religions or secular world views are all legitimate and valid. Each is "true" when viewed from within its own culture. This contrasts with exclusivism and inclusivism.
- The fact that religious diversity exists within in a country or the world.

Unfortunately, it is sometimes not obvious from the context which definition an author or speaker is using. This makes dialog on pluralism rather difficult.  More details.

Plurality: In a religious sense:
- A situation in which many different religions or world views exist in a country. 
Pneumatology: The theological study of the Holy Spirit -- one person within the Christian Trinity.
Progrom: Christian attacks on Jews, generally in Europe and Russia. Unlike the Holocaust, they were sporadic not systematic. They lasted for centuries.
Polemics: A systematic defense of a religious belief system from attacks from within the same religion. See Apologetics.
Politically correct: Treating other people's religion, culture, etc. with sensitivity. Normally used as a term of denigration.
Polyandry: The extremely rare practice in which a woman is married to more than one husband.
Polygamy: An umbrella term encompassing both polyandry and polygyny.
Polygyny: The practice whereby a man has more than one wife. This was seen in many places in the Bible. It is still practiced in predominately Muslim countries where a man can generally be married to up to four wives -- but only if he can treat them equally. This is seen in many Western U.S. states among some fundamentalist Mormon denominations. It is legal -- sort of -- in British Columbia, Canada.
Polytheist: one who believes in the existence of more than one deity. A polytheist often believes in both Gods and Goddesses. Often confused with "henotheist."
Porajmos: (in English: the Devouring): The systematic extermination of about 400,000 Roma (a.k.a. Gypsies) during World War II by the Nazi German regime. The total Nazi extermination program, totaled ten to fourteen million humans, included Jews, Roma, Russians, Poles, other Slavs, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses etc. .  
Positive Confession: (a.k.a. Word of Faith movement, Health & Wealth Gospel, Name it and Claim it, and Faith-formula). A group of conservative Protestant para-church ministries which focus on "anointed" ministers and the health, wealth, and success of their viewers and donors. MinistryWatch estimates that their total income is in excess of a half billion dollars annually. 2
Postmillennialism: (aka Post-millennialism): The belief that we are now living in the Millennium period. After this is over, Jesus will return to earth and conduct the final judgment. This was the near universal belief system of Protestants during the 17th and 18th century. It has since been replaced by Pre-millennialism among conservative Christians.
Post Modernism: (a.k.a. Postmodernism): The term means different things to different people. Some use it as a general purpose "snarl" word to attack all religiously liberal thought. Others define it as a belief that there are no absolute social/religious/cultural truths. Relative truths exist, but they are only valid for a given culture at a given time. Other traditions, religions, eras, races, genders, cultures, and groups believe/believed in other, often conflicting, truths. All of these alternative "truths" are valid, at least to the group that follows them. Postmodernism has been adopted by some liberal Christians, but is regarded as a serious error by all or essentially all conservative Christians.
Prayer: The act of attempting to verbally communicate with the supernatural. It is found in almost all the religions of the world. It is sometimes communal, as during a church service; it is sometimes done in private. Its purpose within Christianity is to assess the will of God for one's life, to praise God, to give thanks to God, to repent of sinful behavior, to ask forgiveness, to seek a favor from God, and (occasionally) to ask God to curse an opponent. Prayer is found in almost all religions.
Predestination: This is a controversial doctrine promoted by John Calvin and other theologians. God has divided humanity into two groups: a small percentage of people who God will save and who will attain heaven. God has decided to not save a much larger group; they will spend eternity being tortured without mercy in Hell. Only after God chooses an individual can they understand and accept salvation.
Pregnancy, start of:
- General medical definition: Pregnancy begins when the pre-embryo attaches to the wall of the uterus, about 12 days after conception.
- Common pro-life definitions: Pregnancy begins at conception, or shortly afterwards when a unique DNA is formed.
- The difference in definitions makes dialog concerning abortion and emergency contraception (a.k.a. the morning after pill) very difficult. More info.
Premillennialism: a belief that the moral condition of the world is degenerating, that a period of great suffering will occur in the near future, that "born again" believers will rise from the earth to be with Jesus, and that Jesus Christ will establish himself as king and start a 1,000 year period of peace. Originally a Christian heresy in the early church, this belief is now promoted by most Evangelical Christians.
- The name of a Christian denomination, like the Presbyterian Church, USA, who trace their spiritual roots back to Calvin.
- A method of church government by the ministers and representative elders from each congregation in a given district.
Presuppositionalism: a conservative Christian belief that accepts on faith that God exists and that the Bible is true. No attempt is made to prove these beliefs logically or from evidence. Leading proponents of presuppositional apologetics include Greg Bahsen, John Frame, Abraham Kuyper, and Cornelius Van Til.
Preterism: A Christian belief system in which some or all of the end-time events specified in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) are believed to have already been fulfilled. They were accomplished in the past, particularly during the Roman-Jewish war of 66 to 73 CE.
Preterist: A Christian who believes in Preterism.
Priesthood of all believers: The belief that saved individuals can have access to God directly, without the need for a professional priesthood to act as intermediaries.
Pro-aborts: A term used mainly by U.S. religious and social conservatives to refer both to the majority of American adults  who favor abortion access (pro-choicers), and to the small number of Americans who actively promote abortion as a solution to unwanted pregnancy.
Pro-choice: A belief that pregnant women should have free, or relatively free, access to abortion. There is a range of beliefs among people who consider themselves pro-choice: some would allow the woman to have an abortion for any reason up to the moment of birth. Others would restrict access to abortion under various conditions. Common reasons held by some pro-choice advocates include a pregnancy in its later stages when the fetus is sentient, abortions for sex selection, and/or cases where the fetus is minimally genetically defective There is no consensus on the meaning of the term, although many people hold firmly to their own definition as the only correct one.
Pro-life: A belief that pregnant women should have limited or no access to abortion. There is a range of beliefs among people who consider themselves pro-life: some would allow the woman and the fetus to die rather than terminate the life of the fetus; others would allow abortion for specific reasons but criminalize it under all other situations. Common reasons held by some pro-life advocates to allow abortion are: pregnancies resulting from rape, pregnancies arising from incest, pregnancies in which the fetus is very seriously genetically malformed and would quickly die, and/or pregnancies that would seriously harm the health and perhaps cause permanent disability to the woman if they are not terminated. There is no consensus on the meaning of the term "pro-life", although many people hold firmly to their own definition as the only correct one. In recent years, the meaning of the term has expanded to include matters related to assisted suicide, in-vitro fertilization, the death penalty, pre-implantation diagnosis, etc.
Process Theology: A view of God which is based on the writings of Alfred North Whitehead. The traditional view of a immutable, omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent deity is replaced by a God is who is in process. He is constantly changing, learning, and evolving along with humanity. God affects history indirectly through gentle persuasion and not directly by coercion. He does not intrude directly in human activities; he does not violate the laws of nature by creating a miracle. Rather, "God gently persuades all entities towards this perfection by providing each of them with a glimpse of the divine vision of a better future. And yet all entities retain the freedom to depart from that vision." 4
- When used to refer to language, "Profane" generally describes cursing, irreverent speech, or action.
- When used In a religious sense, "profane" means something that is not sacred and not associated with religion. 
Progressive Christianity: A loosely organized very liberal wing of Christianity whose believers look upon Christianity as one of many valid spiritual paths and who stress seeking truth, social justice, concern for the environment, and peace. Their groups are open to persons of all genders, races, sexual orientations, classes, abilities and such religious minorities as agnostics and skeptics. 5
Proof-text: A Bible verse or passage in the Bible, which clearly and directly answers a specific question.
Promise Keepers: A conservative Christian men's movement founded in 1990 by Bill McCartney. It encourages men to accept more responsibilities for their personal behavior and for their family roles. It is strongly opposed to racism. They promote a family structure in which men take a leadership role in families. They oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians.
Prophet: In the times of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) a person, almost always male, who was a religious reformer. They claimed to speak for God.
Prophecy: The foretelling of the future through a direct revelation from God.
Proselytize: To attempt to convert another person to your beliefs.
Protestantism: This word has many overlapping definitions:
- A grouping of thousands of Christian denominations that trace their history back to the Protestant Reformation, and the split with the Roman Catholic church over the authority of the pope, the grounds for salvation, the status of the Bible, and the priesthood of all believers.
- A Christian denomination that is not Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or the Anglican Communion. This is the definition that we generally use on our web site.
- A Christian denomination that is neither Roman Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox.
Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion: A document forged by the Russian Secret Police in the early 20th century. It was based on an earlier French novel, and was promoted as evidence of an international Jewish conspiracy to rule the world. It is still circulated by some rabidly antisemitic groups, and is referred to by the media in some Muslim countries. It was sold in Wal-Mart online book store until removed shelves on 2004-SEP-21. It is available online at 6
Protoevangelium: Greek for "first message." This is found in Genesis 3:15. It relates to the relationship between Eve and the snake in the Garden of Eden. Historical Christianity interprets the serpent as Satan, and has taught that this verse predicts how the impact of Adam’s and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden would be undone millennia later by the Messiah, who will bring salvation to all. Thus, the verse anticipates the gospel message.
Pulpit Theft: A term used to refer to clergy who buy canned sermons from the Internet or elsewhere and pass them on as their own creation. See as one example.
Pure: A term used by conservative Christians to refer to the very small percentage of  teens or young adults who have not become sexually active before marriage. Many who are not conservative Christians regard sexual activity within a committed relationship prior to marriage to be a moral decision, which makes neither partner less pure; they consider the term to be offensive.
Pure Land: A Buddhist term for a Land of Ultimate Bliss into which a person can be reborn after death and in which they can seek enlightenment without being subject to retrogression (rebirth on earth or in a lower realm).
Purgatory: The Roman Catholic Church teaches that almost everyone who is not sent to hell at death will go to this place and/or state. They will be purified through punishment for an interval of time before going to heaven. Belief in Purgatory was never accepted by the Orthodox Churches; it has been rejected by the Protestant Churches.
Pyramid power: The concept that objects in the shape of the Egyptian pyramids can concentrate power, preserve materials or heal. We have never seen any scientific studies which have supported this belief.


  1. We recommend that the term never be used in speech or written form unless it is carefully pre-defined. Otherwise mass confusion will occur. We suggest that you use the actual name of the religious group that you are referring to: e.g. Hindu, Animist, Wiccan, Neopagan, etc. to avoid ambiguity.
  2. "A critical look at the 'Word of Faith' ministries," Ministry Watch Reflections, 2003-OCT, at:
  3. Wayne Sutton, "Frequently Asked Questions," Church of the Brethren, at:
  4. Sheela Pawar, "Basis Synopsis of Process Thought," Center for Process Studies, at:
  5. The Center for Progressive Christianity lists "8 Points" which describe Progressive Christianity. See:
  6. Victor Marsden, translator, "The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion," Liberty Bell Publications, (2004). Read reviews or order this hate propaganda safely from online book store

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