Mission & History

Mission

The Pluralism Project at Harvard University studies and interprets the changing religious landscape of the United States. We conduct research with the help of students, in collaboration with others in our field, and in partnership with religious communities and interfaith organizations. Our award-winning educational resources are informed by this ongoing research.

Inspiration & Early Research

“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, 2001

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. 

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. 

Research was then, and is today, central to the work and educational resources of the Pluralism Project, especially as we expanded our efforts into the development of multimedia, convenings, and other initiatives. Our Current initiatives include Case Studies; Interfaith Infrastructure; News & Media; and Mapping Boston. Past initiatives and events are documented in our archive.

Website & Media

The Pluralism Project creates award-winning media and websites to facilitate engaged learning about religious diversity and interfaith relations. This includes:

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. The scope of work was expanded 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.” 

Today, the core content from On Common Ground is now integrated into the Pluralism Project website. This includes updated and expanded versions of America’s Many Religions and Encountering Religious Diversity; some of the content from the Landscape section is now available in the archive. The longevity of this resource is a credit to the efforts of our students, academic advisors, and staff: learn more about these individuals in On Common Ground: Credits.

pluralism.org

In December 1996, we launched the Pluralism Project website. Over the years, this 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. (Read the 2003 announcement here.) The site is regularly updated and expanded; it has been redesigned a number of times to improve usability. The most recent version of this site launched in spring 2020 with extensive content and design updates and the archiving of older materials: our goal is to position this website as an enduring and accessible resource for students, scholars, and the general public. 

Films

From the beginning, the Pluralism Project has taken a special interest in film and video. In 1993, Diana Eck helped produce Becoming the Buddha in L.A. with WGBH Boston. The film chronicles and explores growing religious diversity in the United States with a focus on Buddhism. At the same time, the program offers an overview of the origins of Buddhist traditions, revealing the historical and cultural context from which it has risen. The program emphasizes the diversity and change within Buddhism and yet shows the rituals, values, and visions that have remained at the heart of its tradition for centuries. This film, and the videos from On Common Ground, produced by Susan Shumaker and project staff, are available online (in low resolution). 

As part of our affiliate program, we provided mini-grants to select filmmakers, including Valarie Kaur (Divided We Fall, 2006); and Yoni Brook (A Son’s Sacrifice, 2007). During the same period, the Pluralism Project produced two feature length documentary films, Acting on Faith: Women’s New Religious Activism in America (2005) and Fremont, USA (2009). 

We worked 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. This film offers a unique portrait of religious diversity on the local level, and has been widely used in classrooms, at conferences, and featured in film festivals. 

Throughout, we have hosted numerous rough-cut screenings, campus and community screenings, and special events related to film. (For more information on these events, please visit our archive.) In 2014-2015, MassHumanities supported our local film series, Religion Refocused, which brought high-quality short films to diverse audiences in Boston, Cambridge, and Lynn, Massachusetts. Today, our curated collection of films related to religious diversity and interfaith relations in America can be found on our news & media page.

Symposia & 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. Key convenings include:

Consultations on Multireligious America

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.

NEH Summer Seminar

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. 

Interfaculty Working Group

In September 2000, we began to convene a series of lunch discussions with faculty across Harvard University who were interested in immigration and religious pluralism. The Interfaculty Working Group 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 included 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.

Women’s Networks in Multireligious America

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.

Pluralism Project at 25

In September 2016, in honor of our 25th anniversary, we hosted a two-day conference with over 150 attendees, which provided opportunities for strategic brainstorming about religious diversity and interfaith action in America. As part of Pluralism Project at 25, we also curated a photo exhibit on the Harvard campus.

Response and Resilience in Multireligious Boston

In 2016-17, a “Communities Against Hate” grant from the Open Society Foundation allowed us to bring together key religious leaders and activists from the Boston area for collaboration, education and skills-building. In addition to public events, we developed new case studies and maintained a “Solidarity Calendar,” advertising and documenting events in the Boston area that sought to combat prejudice and bigotry.

Case Convenings

More recently, our convenings have been focused on the case initiative. In January 2019, we brought together a group of more than 50 educators and scholars to develop skills and strategies for using our unique “case study” method to explore issues of religious pluralism. Master case study teachers from Harvard and MIT offered interactive workshops and attendees got to discuss their own use of the case method in classrooms across the country.

Our Team

Student research is at the foundation of the Pluralism Project: more than one hundred students have contributed as field researchers, affiliates, interns, and staff members; a few of our current advisors--now scholars and practitioners--once worked with us as graduate students. 

Students

Student 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 this website. Beginning in 2004, we developed a summer internship program, which has drawn top students from across the U.S. and abroad. As of the summer of 2020, this internship program will focus on students from the Greater Boston Area, particularly Harvard-affiliated students.  

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. 

Today, our affiliate program is no longer active, but many former affiliates continue to engage in innovative research projects of their own. Local Mapping Projects showcase some of these ongoing independent projects; please visit our archive for a complete list of former affiliates, many of whom remain engaged in the work of the Pluralism Project.  

Advisors

As we look to the future, the Pluralism Project’s Advisors help us to expand and enhance our work. This diverse group includes scholars and community leaders as well as former affiliates and student researchers.

Senior Staff

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. Alexis Salomone (HDS ’08) is the Assistant Director of the Pluralism Project. She manages the summer internship program and student staff as well as the day-to-day operations of the Project. Ryan Overbey (Religion PhD ‘10) is the Pluralism Project’s Webmaster and a former Postdoctoral Fellow.

A Final Word of Thanks

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.