How Do You Represent Religion in Your GEDCOM Records?

In a fascinating discussion on soc.genealogy.computing’s mailing list, the issue of how religion is represented in GEDCOM 5.5’s RELI token. The question was whether or not there was a standardized value or list to use to represent the religion.

The example in the original question gave a possible example which explains the confusion over the taxonomy:

How would I represent the fact that a person is “roman-catholic”

RELI roman-catholic
RELI rÃmisch-katholisch
RELI roemisch-katholisch

Very good point. But one that is more complex that it may first appear.

The biggest problem GEDCOM files will have with such specific taxonomy examples is the use of character entities like the à which is might not recognize during the import/exporting process by genealogy software programs.

The issue of standardized values, such as grouping and sorting all Roman Catholics and Mormons together in your database program, makes this even more complex since Catholics may be listed as Catholic, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Assyrian, Chaldean Syrian, Byzantine, and so on. All come under “Catholic” but you’d have to program the computer to recognize each of these as “Catholic” even if they don’t have the word in the tag.

Then there is the issue, as another person brought up, of the ancestor being baptized in one religion, marrying under another religion, converting to a different religion, or changing religions due to marriage or other reasons. If there is only one tag for religion, how do you associate it with the religious changes a person might make in their lifetime?

In GEDCOM, the tag or token is standardized, but the information within the tag isn’t always as standardized. The problem isn’t in the tag but the information the tag holds.

The best recommendation the team came up with, and I agree, is to maintain your own standardized references. If you want to separate Roman Catholics from Eastern Orthodox Catholics in your family tree, label them accordingly. If not, then keep the reference as simple as possible by calling them Catholic.

One interesting note in the discussion was the fact that the:

…Handbook of Religious Denominations in the United States, edition of 1985 from Abingdon Press. It lists over 225 denominations from 22 years ago; who knows how many there are now! Think of how many “non-denominational” churches have sprung since then, each of which would probably insist on being included. And that’s just the United States. I’m sure there would be thousands and thousands if the whole world were included.

Another adds:

…there were over 70,000 Australians who listed their religion as Jedi in the 2001 census.

You can see how this religious thing has gotten totally out of control, making our job as family history researchers and preservers much more difficult. 😉

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Lorelle VanFossen hosts Family History Blog covering her ancestors and related family members. She is one of the top bloggers in the world, and host of the Lorelle on WordPress, providing WordPress and blogging tips for bloggers of all levels. A popular keynote speaker and trainer, she is also editor, producer, contributor, and official disruptive thinker for Bitwire Media which includes WordCast, Making My Life Network, Stories of Our Journeys, Life on the Road, WordCast Conversations, and the very popular WordCast Podcast.
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