History

In the fall of 1990, some 25 students joined Diana Eck for a course at Harvard University on “World Religions in New England.” Each week, the class would divide into teams to visit religious communities in the Boston area and then meet to discuss what we had learned. From Sri Lakshmi Temple, located close to the starting point of the Boston Marathon, to New England’s first mosque, established in the shadows of the cranes of Quincy’s shipyards, we began to discover and document a religious landscape being transformed before our eyes. The guidebook World Religions in Boston: A Guide to Communities and Resources grew out of this initial research.

Based on our findings in Boston, we set out to investigate more broadly the changing religious landscape of other American cities, and to consider the implications of this more complex religious landscape for American public life. From the beginning, it was clear that diversity alone does not constitute pluralism. Pluralism requires a degree of engagement with our diversity and the knowledge — both of others and of ourselves — that such engagement brings. And so, in 1991, the Pluralism Project was born.

The Pluralism Project engaged the best energies of Harvard students from both the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Divinity School in “hometown” research in such cities as Denver, Houston, and Minneapolis. Some had a more specific focus: Hindu summer camps in Pennsylvania, Vietnamese Buddhist struggles with zoning laws in California, the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America in Kansas City, or the history of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, D.C. Each year, during the subsequent fall semester, the researchers presented their work at a Pluralism Project research conference. And for one semester each year, all the researchers participated in a working seminar to revise their research into substantial papers.

Beginning in 1994, a team of students from Harvard University worked toward the production of a multimedia CD-ROM. We expanded the scope of our work to cover key cities across the country, to include the many other religious traditions of the United States, and to explore the historical and contemporary challenges posed by religious diversity. In 1997, On Common Ground: World Religions in America, was released by Columbia University Press . The CD-ROM serves as an introduction to the new religious landscape of America, from a Cambodian Buddhist temple set amidst the farmlands of Minnesota, to a multiethnic storefront mosque on a sloping San Francisco Street. On Common Ground makes the findings and insights of the Pluralism Project available to teachers, students, researchers, and religious leaders in a dynamic, informative, inviting, and data-rich multimedia format.

The CD-ROM has three main sections: “Exploring the Religious Landscape” provides portraits of some 300 communities of faith in 18 cities and regions of the United States, including mosques, gurdwaras, churches, and temples. “Discovering America's Religions” includes an introduction to fifteen religious traditions in the American context, from Afro-Caribbean traditions to Zoroastrianism. “Encountering Religious Diversity” looks at the ways America has responded to religious difference historically, and studies the current challenges as communities, schools, and public institutions take stock of America’s new religious diversity. On Common Ground received considerable critical acclaim, and a number of awards; it received the EDUCAUSE Medal in 1998, cited as “an extraordinary resource” and a “pioneering work.” The CD was a Media and Methods 1998 Awards Portfolio winner; on Choice’s 35th Annual Outstanding Academic Books list; and a finalist for the 1998 EdPress Distinguished Achievement Award. These achievements are a credit to the efforts of our students, academic advisors, and staff, especially Susan Shumaker and Terry Rockefeller.

On Common Ground 2.0, an updated web-based version of the On Common Ground resource is slated to launch in 2012.

As we completed the CD-ROM, we also began developing an online presence with our website, pluralism.org. This site, first launched in December 1996, began as an online flyer for the Project; over the years, the site has emerged as our most important tool for outreach and education. In 2003, the Pluralism Project website was named "Best of the Web" in the Spirituality category at the 7th Annual Webby Awards. Webby Award nominees are judged on six criteria: content, structure and navigation, visual design, functionality, interactivity, and overall experience. This award is a tribute to the hundreds of individuals who have contributed to the work of the Pluralism Project and to the richness of resources we are able to offer online; it also recognizes the efforts of our Webmaster, Alan Wagner, who has worked on the site for more than a decade. The Pluralism Project website was re-designed and re-launched in November of 2006.

One of the key resources of the Pluralism Project website is Religious Diversity News which began in 1997 to track news articles related to religion in multireligious America. The Pluralism Project newsfeed highlights media coverage of interfaith relations and issues related to religion in the public square, with a special emphasis on Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Muslim, and Sikh communities in the United States. In 2003, Religious Diversity News expanded its coverage to multireligious societies around the world. Today the Pluralism Project staff compiles Religious Diversity News from major newspapers and regional media, as well as from ethnic media and religious advocacy organizations. The Religion Diversity Newsfeed enabling subscribers to view updated article listings several times a week. The Religious Diversity News archive (which ran from 1997-2011) is available Religion Diversity News Archive. News articles in the RDN Archive are searchable by tradition, key themes, state or country, and date. Key themes cover a range of topics, including: religion in public life; statistics on religious identification; religious discrimination and accommodation; and women and gender relations.

Shortly after the release of On Common Ground and the creation of our website, we extended our research on America’s new religious landscape by engaging affiliate religion departments, theological schools, and researchers in the work of the Pluralism Project. Mini-grants enabled professors and departments to involve themselves and their students in research on the changing religious life of their own city or region, with special attention to the new presence of Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, and Zoroastrian religious communities. This work further expanded our geographic reach and extended the impact of the Pluralism Project.

Since 1998, we have hosted annual gatherings of the Pluralism Project at the American Academy of Religion (AAR). In 2011, we celebrated the Pluralism Project's twentieth anniversary at our reception at the AAR in San Francisco with over 100 guests. These receptions bring together many former student researchers who are now leaders in the field of religious studies, along with advisors, affiliates, and other friends of the Project. We provide opportunities for informal exchanges among students and scholars in disparate but related fields of study, and highlight new and innovative research being conducted by our affiliates. The AAR is also an opportunity for us to share with our colleagues the exciting new initiatives we are undertaking at the Pluralism Project. In addition, we have hosted bus tours for scholars of religion in many of the host cities.

In 1999, we hosted two groundbreaking consultations on multireligious America, where for the first time, activists and representatives of diverse advocacy groups shared a common table. Long-established Jewish and Christian organizations were represented, as were their counterparts in the Hindu and Muslim communities. Representatives from major advocacy groups, such as the ACLU, the Freedom Forum, and the NCCJ participated alongside representatives from Baha’i, Buddhist, Jain, Native American, Sikh, Wiccan, and Zoroastrian communities. The first “Consultation on Religious Discrimination and Accommodation” was held in May 1999 at Harvard University and was followed a “Symposium on Civil Society and Multireligious America,” in November 1999. The second meeting took a broader look at the issues of civil society, included a panel on public and private schools, and involved representatives from the White House, the Armed Forces Chaplains Board along with some of our affiliates and advisors.

Among the many outgrowths of these symposia were a greater awareness of the importance of teachers on the front lines of pluralism, and the need to highlight women’s voices in the context of religious diversity. In 2000, the Pluralism Project hosted a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar for Schoolteachers. The seminar, on “World Religions in America,” brought together teachers from across the United States and from a range of disciplines and subject areas to explore together the new religious diversity of the United States. Through seminars, field trips, and informal gatherings, we learned alongside these teachers, who represented some of the strength and diversity of American educational systems. Participants included an African American Muslim educator from Atlanta; a Brother from a West Philadelphia Catholic High School; and a Monk from a Buddhist school in California, Developing Virtue Boys High School. We involved teachers from esteemed institutions such as Phillips Exeter Academy and the National Cathedral School as well as educators from public and private schools in Washington, Louisiana, Texas, Illinois, and North Carolina.

This seminar helped us to re-ground our work in the concerns of secondary school teachers. Schoolteachers are truly at the forefront of grappling with America’s religious diversity: there is no place where the impact of our new religious reality is felt more forcefully. After the NEH seminar, we developed additional Teachers’ Resources and began offering specialized teacher affiliate grants. We also began offering grants to independent researchers, photographers, and filmmakers so that we could explore and document the many dimensions of our religious landscape. In addition, we began making research grants available to students from colleges and universities across the United States, with an interest in developing the next generation of scholars and researchers of religion.

In September 2000, we began to convene a series of lunch discussions with faculty across Harvard University who are interested in immigration and religious pluralism. The Interfaculty Working Group has included professors and visiting scholars from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Faculty of Divinity, the Kennedy School of Government, the Graduate School of Education, and the Harvard Law School. These discussions include presentations from leading thinkers and activists from diverse religious communities, particularly those with acute concerns about current policy issues. This interface between religious communities and the academy, and across fields of study, is a special emphasis of the Pluralism Project. Over a period of five years, we have developed and expanded these collaborations and conversations through an emphasis on American civil society.

In 2001, we embarked on a new initiative to convene, and cultivate, Women’s Networks in Multireligious America. At our first consultations of religious advocacy organizations, we recognized that women rarely held formal leadership positions, but played critical roles within the community. The common concerns of religious women represented important opportunities for collaboration, yet their voices were rarely heard within the public conversation, or the traditional structures of interfaith dialogue. We hosted the first in a series of multi-religious consultations with women leaders, activists, and academics in April 2001 at Harvard University. The first meeting served as an introduction to a range of individuals and organizations, providing a much-needed forum for conversation across difference and identifying important points of intersection.

In November 2001 we held a second consultation, one that had not been originally planned, as a means to respond to the crisis that minority religious communities were facing in the aftermath of September 11. This meeting, held at the Harvard Club of New York City, powerfully illustrated the urgency of multifaith conversation as we navigated new fault lines and worked to build stronger bridges. The following spring, in April 2002, we hosted a consultation focused on public policy, planned in conjunction with the Women and Public Policy Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. In April 2003, we incorporated an international perspective, uniting our women's networks members with participants from a groundbreaking 1983 gathering, “Women, Religion and Social Change.” In the fall of 2004, we hosted “Women’s Votes, Women’s Voices” at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. This public forum took place as the nation approached the 2004 presidential elections; it served to amplify diverse religious women’s voices and forged new linkages with secular women’s organizations.

In 2004, we began working with Rachel Antell, a former Pluralism Project staffer and award-winning documentarian, to develop a film that would enable the concerns of the women’s networks to reach a broader and more diverse audience. Acting on Faith: Women’s New Religious Activism in America is a documentary film that offers an intimate look at the lives and work of three American women – one Buddhist, one Hindu, and one Muslim – for whom faith, activism, and identity are deeply intertwined. The film premiered at Harvard University on April 26, 2005 to a standing-room only audience. Since then, the film has been used as an educational tool and has been featured in film festivals, conferences, and special events.

In 2005, we launched four research initiatives related to religious pluralism and civil society:

  • The Interfaith Initiative studies the fast-growing interfaith movement with its new forms of relationship, dialogue, and civic engagement.
  • The Civic Initiative investigates the practical challenges of religious pluralism by developing case studies and forging relationships with civic leaders.
  • The Women’s Initiative explores the varied expressions of women’s religious leadership, and provides opportunities for collaboration with secular women’s organizations.
  • The International Initiative expands our study of pluralism to other multi-religious democracies, broadening our network of affiliates to include research projects in other countries.

As we look to the future, we will continue to emphasize the role of student research in the documentation of our new religious reality. Student research is at the foundation of the Pluralism Project: students contribute as field researchers, affiliates, interns, and staff members. Students have made critical contributions: from the initial fieldwork on religious diversity in Boston, to the development of On Common Ground; from their work on convenings and special events to the creation and ongoing content development for the website. For many years, we have hosted annual Student Research Conferences at Harvard University to highlight some of the best student research efforts in a public forum. Beginning in 2004, we developed a summer internship program, which has drawn top students from across the U.S. and abroad. We look forward to expanding this program, and developing new ways to integrate the energies of students into the work of the Project.

Senior staff who have guided the Pluralism Project and share in the leadership of its programs and initiatives include Elinor Pierce, Research Director; Whittney Barth, Assistant Director; and Ryan Overbey, Postdoctoral Fellow. All hold degrees from Harvard University, and began working with the Project as student researchers.

Finally, the history of the Pluralism Project would be incomplete without mention of the role of the religious communities themselves. We would like to recognize the generosity of the countless individuals who have been our gracious hosts, learned teachers, informed contributors, and fellow researchers. Thank you for your contributions: our work is inspired by your example, infused with your spirit, and informed by your wisdom.