The History of Pluralism

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  • Topic: Religion, Religious pluralism, Interfaith
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  • Published : October 12, 2012
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the history of pluralism

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...
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