“Keep Austin Weird” is a current that pulses through the life of this university town in the heart of Texas. The state’s capital comes with a bohemian vibe and a booming technology industry. Its vibrant music, arts, and film scenes bring together an eclectic mix of students, high-tech professionals, artists, and a constant stream of tourists. Between 1990 and 2000, Greater Austin experienced rapid growth: its population leapt 48 percent and the number of immigrants tripled. Thanks to a thriving economy, 1.8 million people call the Austin area home.
Immigrant communities have long been a part of Austin’s history. According to the Austin History Center, Asian immigrants from China began arriving in the pioneer town as early as the 1870s. A century later, newcomers were drawn to the city in record numbers, attracted by the technology industry and the University of Texas at Austin. These communities soon built new places of worship, transforming the religious landscape of the city. Today, there are six Hindu temples, three Sikh gurdwaras, nearly ten mosques, and close to twenty-five Buddhist centers, including Tibetan, Zen, Shambhala, Nicheren, Ch’an, and Humanistic Buddhist communities, in Greater Austin.
New religious movements have not been afraid to add their own rhythms to the city, alongside more established traditions. Just north of downtown, along Guadalupe Street, a Baptist Church and Church of Scientology sit side by side. A block away, Texas Hillel is flanked by a Mormon temple and Catholic parish; a short walk further north, a Brahma Kumeris center makes its home.
Pagan groups, currently fourteen in all, have begun forming in recent years, mostly since 2000. North and South Austin Pagans each serve one side of the Colorado River; both organizations boast 300 members and meet monthly. A number of small groves, covens, and circles also represent a range of earth-based spiritualities, including Wiccan, Druidic, Gaelic Celtic, Asatruar, Germanic Heathen, and Shamanic paths.
Austin area atheists and secular humanists are also organizing, with ten groups established since 1996. The Rational Response Squad and Atheist Volunteers, a group of “friendly neighborhood atheist activists,” lead community service projects to shake the stereotype that atheists are amoral by living out their values.
The annual Interfaith Arts and Music Festival is a fitting example of engagement of religious diversity in a city home to great music outlets such as South By Southwest and Austin City Limits. The Festival provides Austinites from all faith traditions and none with opportunities “to experience spiritually inspired art and music” from around the world. It is one of nearly twenty initiatives in the city that seek to promote respect and understanding.
The Live Music Capital of the World embodies a daily rhythm inspired by the many diverse communities that call Austin home. Efforts like the Islam 101 course taught by a group of Muslim professionals via the Austin Network for Islamic Studies is just one example of how Austinites diverse communities are sharing their own distinct songs—and learning from each other—as the beat goes on.