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The Interfaith Movement Growing Exponentially

By Ruth Broyde Sharone


This is the second in a series of three articles based on a conversation TIO Correspondent Ruth Broyde Sharone recently had with Professor Diana Eck, founder of Harvard’s Pluralism Project, former president of the American Academy of Religion, and academia’s preeminent student of religious pluralism in America. Click here for Part 1. Ed.

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“What defines a movement,” Professor Diana Eck says, “is that it has energy in a particular direction even if it may not have one central leader or one main organization at its core.” Founder and executive director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard, Professor Eck has kept her finger on the pulse of the interfaith movement in America since 1991. Together with her researchers she continues to chart the movement’s growth and expansion. Their studies point to fascinating fundamental changes in the nature of the “typical” American city and in the religious practices of many Americans as well, changes she urges us not to ignore.

An Ever-Flowering Movement

The Tri-State Initiative land has a six-sided shared faith center, surrounded by the Jewish temple on the right, the Muslim mosque on the upper left, and the Christian church on the bottom. – Graphic: Tri-Faiths Initiative

The Tri-State Initiative land has a six-sided shared faith center, surrounded by the Jewish temple on the right, the Muslim mosque on the upper left, and the Christian church on the bottom. – Graphic: Tri-Faiths Initiative

An impressive spectrum of interfaith activity can be found today throughout America, affecting not only large cities, but mid-size and small towns. Professor Eck cites the recent Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha, Nebraska, where Muslims, Episcopalians, and Reform Jews have pooled their resources and purchased land together. The three congregations subdivided the land into four sections: three of the plots are designated for houses of worship, one for each; the fourth plot will accommodate a building designed to provide a multi-faith space to be shared by all three communities.

Professor Eck also points to the plethora of women’s interfaith groups that have sprung up, especially after 9/11. A few years ago the Pluralism Project invited leaders of some of those women’s groups to share their experiences on the Harvard campus. “All of them had creatively considered ways in which women can distinctively build relationships in cities and towns,” Professor Eck emphasized. “The one I speak about most often is Women Transcending Boundaries in Syracuse, New York, where just two women, a Muslim and a Christian, found one another and, after a very fruitful conversation, decided to each invite nine to ten others to join them. Before long there were 200 women, talking on a regular basis not just about political affairs – although they did talk about that – but also about many of the concerns they had, especially as women and as mothers. Women Transcending Boundaries has been growing and literally transcending its own boundaries,” she marvels.

“We also have new kinds of interfaith activity on the college campus. Twenty years ago there were hardly any interfaith campus groups that lasted more than a few years, but colleges have changed quite widely, both because religious diversity has become greater and because there is an increasing energy for Muslim, Christian, Jewish – even Hindu and Buddhist relationships – for service projects, such as young people building a habitat for humanity.”

By contrast, other interfaith organizations have taken on a more political nature. Professor Eck mentions the Interfaith Alliance, headquartered in Washington DC, that focuses on bringing interfaith energies to public policy. “Their work grows out of our own constitution with its guarantees of freedom of religion and the non-establishment of an official religion,” a combination Professor Eck labels a natural “recipe” for interfaith engagement.

The term “interfaith” may be problematic, she concedes, because of the divergent streams of activity that have emerged. “We probably need more words now” to convey the many layered meanings of interfaith.

Who gets included at the interfaith table?

“This is another issue – the awareness that the multifaith landscape of our communities includes not just the usual customers. Most of it is still pretty much Muslim, Christian, and Jewish, with occasional Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Baha’is, and Jains, if there are some, but also Native peoples, who are increasingly involved in interfaith affairs.” The Wiccans and many of the Pagan movements are much more visible and audible in the U.S., she notes, with one result being greater diversity in the chaplaincy corps of the U.S. military.

Atheists, Humanists, and Nones

The Humanist Community at Harvard – Photo: Facebook

The Humanist Community at Harvard – Photo: Facebook

Professor Eck points to another new contributor to interfaith constituencies and initiatives: the self-identified groups of atheists and humanists on college campuses – including Harvard – who are committed to interfaith engagement. “It is clear the breadth of communities involved in interfaith on college campuses has also become more expansive.

“We need to recognize, however, that there is a whole group of individuals among our population who are not committed to one particular faith tradition but who are the growing edge of the so-called Nones” (those who listed ‘None’ in the Pew Research surveys when asked with which religions they identify).

Pointing to their invisibility in the Pluralism Project’s initial research, humanists and atheists complained to Professor Eck when they met her: “Why don’t you have a special place for us in your research?”

“In response to that frequent query, we created a special category for them,” she declared. “Currently, in the on-line version, there is a button in the religion section that you can click on for humanists and atheists. You will discover, however,” she says playfully, “that when you click on that link you find the varieties of practice and affiliation are as complex as Hindus or Christians or many others. There are many streams within that tradition, just like in other religious communities.”

Returning to the subject of the Nones, Professor Eck emphasized that recent statistics indicate their number is growing substantially, primarily among young people but also in older groups. “I think part of this phenomenon is connected to the larger question of what it means to be a belonger.

“One of the sociologists of religion used to speak about the difference between seekers and belongers. The seeker culture is increasingly pervasive in the U.S. That means you don’t necessarily feel settled or that you belong in just one place; you may still be looking, still thirsting in some way. Perhaps we should say that the numbers of seekers has multiplied, rather than indicating that people no longer want to belong,” she theorized.

Beyond American Shores

Do we have anything to teach the world about interfaith?

“I went to Malaysia and Indonesia several years ago to talk about the Pluralism Project, and one of the things that amazed people consistently was that America is a multi-religious nation. They thought we were just a nation of Christian ‘crazies,’ but in fact they discovered we have vibrant Muslim communities that have political lobbies, political affairs councils, and national conventions. They also discovered there are Hindus who are looking out for the welfare of Hindus in American society; and there are Sikhs making sure that Sikhs don’t get harassed when they’re asked to submit to a pat-down of their turbans at the airports while going through security. All of these are vibrant American issues,” she emphasized, “and our unique political framework gives us an opportunity to work through that.”

Because grassroots interfaith activities have blossomed more successfully and more widely in the U.S. than in Europe, curiosity has often brought Europeans to the U.S. to look at the ways in which our interfaith organizations have taken shape. “Grass roots interfaith energy is more prolific here,” Professor Eck says. “It comes from a certain Zeitgeist in America that is distinctively the way in which America does religion: No established religion, free exercise of religion, constitutional protections that enable religious communities to flourish.” When compared, the differences between America and Europe become obvious.

England still has a recognized state religion, she points out, and they also support other faith communities as well. In contrast, France has “very ardent sects of secularism.” So, because there are many Muslims in France, and many people of other faiths as well, it ends up being the government’s job to reach out and say, “We’d like you Muslims to organize yourselves and create a national organization so that we, as a secular government, can relate to you.”

“The American government would never think of creating a Pan-Muslim organization so it could figure out who were the Muslims they should be talking to,” Professor Eck declares emphatically. “We have the kind of energetic, almost free-wheeling capitalist form of religious life, and many forms have blossomed here. This has been distinctive of the U.S. for as long as we have been in existence. Our energies about religion are more profuse, in part, because there is no state support. If you want to start a new church, you do it, and nobody is going to say anything about it until you want to apply for a 501(c)3 tax-free status.”

Professor Eck underscores her point about the Europeans’ bewilderment with American religion by paraphrasing Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting from France in the mid-19th century: “I don’t understand what’s happening here. Somehow they did away with state support for religion and, nevertheless, religion is growing like mad.”

Professor Eck (l.) with students boating on the Ganges River at Varanasi during the Makar Sankranti festival – Photo: South Asian Institute at Harvard

Professor Eck (l.) with students boating on the Ganges River at Varanasi during the Makar Sankranti festival – Photo: South Asian Institute at Harvard

In England and Scotland today, vibrant Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu communities co-exist and have in some ways become “partners” in interfaith relations with folks who have come to realize churches are no longer the only show in town. “There are interfaith energies in England, to be sure. But I think that Europeans are often bowled over by the fact that we in America seem too religious. Why are we still doing all this? They just can’t figure it out,” she admits with a broad smile.

“I think it is just part of the American thing. Yes, even the atheists in America are religious in their atheism and many of the atheists in America want to be part of interfaith organizations. I think that the same spirit of freedom and volunteerism that has characterized religion is also part of what gives us the opportunity to develop a truly pluralistic, participatory society, and that is a special thing. In fact, I think it is a special mission for the U.S., although I don’t think we can necessarily be a model for the rest of the world.

“I do think it is important for people in other nations to see, for example, just how it is that Muslims arepolitically, civically, and interfaithfully active in America.

“We need to make sure that it works here, Professor Eck stresses, “because if a multi-religious society of real differences doesn’t work in the U.S., I don’t think it’s going to work anywhere else in the world.”