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Dealing With Religious Terms: Many Faiths

Last week, I shared resources for religious terms and discussed how to handle special terms for an audience of a (mostly) single faith. That was the easy part.

Today, I look at the challenging part: when a text that discusses religion is aimed at a diverse audience. This includes people from different faiths, spiritual people of no organized religion, and people who don’t have a faith at all.

In this context, religion is a “third-rail” conversation: it’s a personal topic that people quickly become emotional about and are unlikely to agree on. If the topic isn’t treated thoughtfully and respectfully, the results could short-out any hope of communication.

Even seemingly simple choices can become complex with a diverse audience. By capitalizing God, for example, you’re respecting a lot of monotheistic believers, but some Jews use G-d or something similar instead, and atheists wouldn’t capitalize it at all.

And as a copyeditor, you must also balance the needs of your author and publisher. Let’s look at each of the copyeditor’s audiences in turn.

The Audience’s Needs

The whole point of publishing is communication. To successfully communicate, you need to know who your audience is.

Focus first on clarity: What will the audience understand, and what should be explained? To return to last week’s example, will readers be confused if holy family is used in quotes or left lowercased? Will Holy Family be recognized as referring to Christianity’s Jesus, Mary, and Joseph? Is some distinction or explanation required so that all readers know what’s meant?

Think, too, about context, balance, and bias. A news story about religious holidays might capitalize each religion’s special terms and provide a brief explanation of each, while a comparative religion article might not cap any of the religion’s terms. Either way, all religions being discussed should be treated equally.

In Western culture, Christianity often dominates. Stop to consider whether the copy presents Christian concepts as fact or as normal, and other religions’ or atheism’s concepts as something else. Will believers of other faiths feel as though they are second class? Will atheists feel unheard?

Our goals here should be to not make assumptions and to eradicate biases so that all readers are open to the copy’s message.

The Author’s Intentions

That said, the author may be communicating a specific position on one or more religions. The bias is intentional. Maybe it’s an argument piece on how Taoism saved the author’s life or an opinion piece on the benefits of Buddhism; the intended audience is broad but the theme is narrow.

As the copyeditor, you can point out that a biased approach could turn off readers, but it will be the author’s decision to remove the bias or not. If they choose to keep it, as a professional you need to respect that decision or withdraw from the job, if you can.

The Publisher’s Interests

It’s possible that the author’s intentions are at odds with the publisher’s interests. The publisher may not want to take a position on the validity of one religion or another. To avoid losing sales, it may not wish to upset a portion of their audience. It may wish to be known as all-inclusive when it comes to religious faith.

As a copyeditor, you want to know what the publisher thinks about any potential bias the author may be demonstrating. Confirm what’s acceptable and what’s not. You may be able to avoid an uncomfortable discussion with the author about needed changes if you have a supervisor who is charged with having those conversations.

If you’re the person in the hot seat, however, keep the conversation objective and professional, as you would with any sensitive query. You’re not making a judgment but pointing out the publisher’s guidelines, which you both must follow. Offer some guidance: suggest a rewrite or point to resources where the author can learn more about how to address the problems.

Here are a few resources for you and your author:

  • Religion Stylebook. Search by religion to gain an understanding of unfamiliar terms.
  • The Diversity Style Guide’s Religion Glossary. Terms from a variety of religions are organized alphabetically.
  • Conscious Style Guide’s Spirituality, Religion + Atheism. This collection of essays and resources can help you find the boundaries of what’s appropriate to say and what’s not.

Whatever decisions you make, make them thoughtfully and record them and your reasoning in the style sheet or editorial notes. You may need to explain them later.

You can’t please everyone, of course, and religion can be an emotional subject. Be willing to listen to feedback and to reconsider your editorial decisions. Even if you maintain a decision, acknowledging the critiquer’s feelings and point of view can help make them feel heard.

Respecting someone else’s thoughts and ideas, no matter who they are, is at the heart of all good communication.

This article originally published on 10/26/18 on Copyediting.com.

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