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A Snapshot of Religious America

Thinkstock: gustavofrazao

This new reality is not a New York-California phenomenon of the cosmopolitan coasts of America. This is a Main Street phenomenon. There are Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists in Salt Lake City, in Toledo, and in Jackson, Mississippi.

This article appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of Spirituality & Health.

For almost ten years my students and I at Harvard have been studying our country’s new religious diversity as immigrants have come to America from all over the world, bringing with them their faith — as Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs. On a recent Sunday morning, I drove out to the Sri Lakshmi Hindu temple in Ashland, on the route of the Boston marathon. They were dedicating a new altar, and a thousand Hindus in festive dress were there to celebrate. On my way home, I stopped at the Islamic center in Wayland. The midday prayers were just over, and two hundred children were pouring into the parking lot from a morning at Islamic Sunday school. If I had spent the whole day circling Boston, I could have stopped at the Jain Temple in Norwood, the Vietnamese Buddhist Temple in Roslindale, the Islamic center in Sharon, and the Chinese Buddhist Temple in Quincy. This is New England today, and this is America.

Frankly, most people are surprised to learn America has more Muslims today than Episcopalians, as many Muslims as Jews. They are astonished to learn that Los Angeles is the most complex Buddhist city in the world, with Buddhists from all over Asia and new native-born American Buddhists. Perhaps their doctor is of Indian origin, but they don’t imagine that she might pause for morning prayers at an altar in her home and bring flowers to Sri Lakshmi Temple on the weekend.

This new reality is not a New York-California phenomenon of the cosmopolitan coasts of America. This is a Main Street phenomenon. There are Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists in Salt Lake City, in Toledo, and in Jackson, Mississippi.

As “we the people” become more religiously diverse, we face many new challenges. There are new legal issues. For example, last fall, an elderly Sikh man in Cleveland, stopped for a minor traffic offense, was stripped of his kirpan, a knife worn as one of the five symbols of his faith. To the police it was a concealed weapon; to the Sikh it was a sacred symbol. The changes were later dropped.

And there are new workplace issues: Last February, five Muslim womens were fired from their jobs at Dulles Airport for wearing the traditional headscarf. They filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and the case was settled out of court. But cases like this are growing rapidly as our workplace becomes more religiously diverse.

Alas, there are also hate crimes: Last spring saw the burning of a mosque in Minneapolis, as arson attempt at the mosque in Denver, and the vandalizing of a mosque in Chicago.

Americans all carry coins with the motto E Pluribus Unum — Out of Many, One. But given more complex landscape of America — culturally and religiously — America now has the opportunity and challenge to think anew about what that might mean.

Pluralism requires not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding. Tolerance — a necessary public virtue — does nothing to remove our ignorance of one another, and leaves in place the stereotype, the half-truth, the fear that underlie old patterns of division and violence. In the world into which we now move, our ignorance of one another will be increasingly costly.

Through a cynical intellectual sleight of hand, some critics have linked pluralism with a valueless relativism — an undiscriminating twilight in which “all cats are gray,” all perspectives equally viable, and as a result, equally uncompelling. But pluralism makes room for real commitment. In the public square or in the interfaith council, commitments are not left at the door.

The encounter of a pluralistic society is not premised on achieving agreement, but achieving relationship. Unum does not mean uniformity. Perhaps the most valuable things we have in common is commitment to a society based on the give-and-take of civil dialogue at a common table. Dialogue does not mean we will like what everyone at the table says. But it is a commitment to being at the table — with one’s commitments.

Documenting the remarkable changes in our religious landscape has been the work of the Pluralism Project at the Harvard University, but creating a new civil society in multireligious America will require hard work by all of us.

Diana L. Eck is the director of the Pluralism Project ( and professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University. Her publications include the CD ROM On Common Ground: World Religions in America (Columbia University Press) and the book Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras (Beacon Press). She received the National Humanities Medal from President Clinton in 1999.

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From the ArchivesReligious StudiesReligious DifferencesReligionReligionsDiversityFaith

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