Pluralism Project History

Inspiration

“When I first met these new students—Muslims from Providence, Hindus from Baltimore, Sikhs from Chicago, Jains from New Jersey—they signaled to me the emergence in America of a new cultural and religious reality about which I knew next to nothing. At that point I had not been to an American mosque, I had never visited a Sikh community in my own country, and I could imagine a Hindu summer camp only by analogy with my Methodist camp experience. I felt the very ground under my feet as a teacher and scholar begin to shift. My researcher’s eye began to refocus—from Banaras to Detroit, from Delhi to Boston.”
          – Diana Eck, A New Religious America

Founding

In 1991, Diana Eck first offered a course at Harvard University on “World Religions in New England.” The subject matter came organically from her growing interest in the changing religious landscape of America, a trend that could be seen in the changing face of the student body at Harvard. Twenty-five students joined Professor Eck in the inaugural course and together they set out to explore the increasingly diverse religious communities in the Boston area. 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, students documented the post-1965 transformation of Greater Boston’s religious landscape. The result of this research was the publishing of World Religions in Boston: A Guide to Communities and Resources, a printed guidebook that would serve as a model for future research. In 2009, an updated and online version of World Religions in Greater Boston was published. Visit pluralism.org/wrgb to learn more about Boston’s changing religious landscape.

Greater Boston and Beyond

Based on the findings in Boston, researchers set out to investigate 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.

On Common Ground: World Religions in America

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, the first edition of On Common Ground: World Religions in America, was released by Columbia University Press. Subsequent editions of the CD-ROM were released in 2002 and 2008. At its initial launch, On Common Ground received considerable critical acclaim, and a number of awards. Winner of the EDUCAUSE Medal in 1998, it was cited as “an extraordinary resource” and a “pioneering work.” Read more about these achievements and the history of On Common Ground at pluralism.org/ocg/about.

In 2013, On Common Ground became available online at pluralism.org/ocg, making the findings and insights of the Pluralism Project available to a new generation of teachers, students, researchers, and religious leaders. The resource retains the same pedagogical time-tested structure as the original CD-ROM, with three main sections—Religion, Landscape, and Encounter—populated with essays, maps, and multimedia.

The longevity and numerous achievements of On Common Ground are a credit to the efforts of our students, academic advisors, and staff. Learn about the team of over 100 individuals who made this resource possible.

pluralism.org

In December 1996 we launched pluralism.org 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. Six criteria inform the rating: content, structure and navigation, visual design, functionality, interactivity, and overall experience. Read the 2003 announcement here. The Pluralism Project website was re-designed and re-launched in November of 2006. As of 2014, a new version of pluralism.org is currently in development. for improving pluralism.org.

Religion Diversity News

In 1997, the Pluralism Project began tracking news stories related to religion in multi-religious America. Religious Diversity Newsfeed (formerly Religion Diversity News) 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. Pluralism Project staff compile stories from major newspapers and regional media, as well as from ethnic media and religious advocacy organizations. In 2003, Religious Diversity News expanded its coverage to multi-religious societies around the world. Religion Diversity News became Religion Diversity Newsfeed in 2011. News stories included in RDN between 1997 and 2011 are available in the archive. Subscribe to newsfeed coverage of a particular tradition or topic by visiting pluralism.org/newsfeed and viewing the list of available RSS feeds. For news stories that ran between 1997 and 2011, search the RDN archive by tradition, key themes, state or country, or date.

Affiliates

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. Through the years affiliate grants have supported a wide variety of projects, including films like Valarie Kaur’s Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath and Rachel Antell’s Acting on Faith: Women’s New Religious Activism in America, as well as cities-based research like Dr. Claude F. Jacobs’ long-standing project at the University of Michigan-Dearborn mapping the religious landscape of Metropolitan Detroit.

Since 1998, the Pluralism Project has hosted or co-hosted an annual reception during the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. These receptions provide us with an opportunity to bring together many former student researchers—now leaders in the field of religious studies—along with advisors, affiliates, and other friends of the Project. These gatherings encourage 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 also allows us to share with our colleagues the exciting new initiatives we are undertaking at the Pluralism Project. In the past, we have also led bus tours for scholars of religion in many of the host cities. In 2011, Pluralism Project staff and more than 100 guests celebrated the Project’s twentieth anniversary during our reception in San Francisco.

Symposia and Consultations

The Pluralism Project long ago established itself as a bridge-builder among scholars, activists, and communities, not only through our approach to research but also in our convening capacity. 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. 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 Pluralism Project 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.

After the NEH seminar, we 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, remains a special emphasis of the Pluralism Project.

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 11th. 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.

Films

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.

Pluralism Project Research Director Elinor Pierce teamed up with Rachel Antell to produce the documentary film Fremont, USA (2009). Fremont, CA, a city transformed by increased immigration post-1965 has become home to Peace Terrace, where Muslims and Christians have built side by side, and Gurdwara Road, the site of a large Sikh temple. The film also shows the unexpected challenges faced by the city and its diverse communities when Alia Ansari, a Muslim woman, is murdered. Fremont, USA premiered on March 5, 2009 at Harvard University.

A searchable list of films relevant to the discussion of religious diversity is currently in development.

Case Studies and Ongoing Initiatives

In 2005 we began organizing our research and convening efforts four topical initiatives, which may also be understood as streams within our work: civic, interfaith, women’s leadership, and international. These streams continue to inform much of what we do.

Our focus on the civic, broadly understood to be our shared public life, is exemplified by our growing Case Study Initiative, which investigates the practical challenges of religious pluralism. Our basic texts are the issues that arise in the contexts of our civil society, public life, and religious communities. Controversy around the National Day of Prayer, the innovative Diversity Training Series used by Chicago law enforcement, the United States Air Force’s responses to religious diversity, and Boston’s Ten Civic Practices are examples of our early research in this area. Additional research reports are available at pluralism.org/reports. We also maintain a newsfeed that tracks stories pertaining to the civic sphere. Our searchable Religion Diversity News archive contains stories relevant to the civic sphere that ran between 1997 and 2011.

Tracking interfaith efforts is at the core of ongoing study of America’s Interfaith Infrastructure, where we analyze the fast-growing interfaith movement with its new forms of relationship, dialogue, and civic engagement. This research includes reports, promising practices, leadership profiles, and case studies from cities across the country. Religion Diversity Newsfeed is also a resource for news stories related to interfaith engagement, as is the Religion Diversity News archive.

Since our first consultation on Women’s Networks in 2001 and follow up gathering post-9/11, the Pluralism Project has explored the varied expressions of women’s religious leadership, and, where possible, provided opportunities for collaboration with secular women’s organizations. We have co-sponsored numerous events and published several research reports, leadership and organizational profiles, as well as promising practices that highlight the opportunities and challenges of women’s leadership within diverse communities and interfaith settings. In 2005, the film Acting on Faith: Women’s New Religious Activism debuted. Our Religion Diversity Newsfeed is an ongoing resource for stories about women and religion. Our searchable Religion Diversity News archive contains stories relevant to women in leadership that ran between 1997 and 2011.

While we remain focused on documenting the changing religious landscape of America, we recognize that we live in a globalizing world and are linked in so many ways by economic, political, and security concerns. It is critical to recognize the local impact of the global and the global impact of the local. This expansion of our study of pluralism to other multi-religious democracies, broadening our network of affiliates to include research projects in other countries, was greatly informed by the insights of international visitors to the Pluralism Project, and by Diana Eck’s visits to countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. Religious pluralism is not just American challenges, but is a challenge for multi-religious democracies around the world. Our growing body of research includes country portraits, research reports, and profiles of interfaith organizations. International news stories related to religious diversity and pluralism are available via our international newsfeed and archive.

Our Team

Student research is at the foundation of the Pluralism Project: students contribute as field researchers, affiliates, interns, and staff members. These contributions run the gamut, from 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 of pluralism.org. For many years, we 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 guide the Pluralism Project and share in the leadership of its programs and initiatives. Diana Eck is the Pluralism Project’s Founder and Director. She is also Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies, Fredric Wertham Professor of Law and Psychiatry in Society in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and member of the Faculty of Divinity at Harvard University. Elinor Pierce (HDS ‘96) is the current Research Director and primary case writer for the Pluralism Project. She began working with the Pluralism Project as a student researcher in the early 1990s. Whittney Barth (HDS ‘11) is the Assistant Director of the Pluralism Project. She manages the summer internship program and student staff and served as the project manager for the online version of On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Ryan Overbey (Religion PhD ‘10) is the Pluralism Project’s Webmaster and a former Postdoctoral Fellow.

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.