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‘US Has Much to Learn from Sikhs’: Harvard professor Diana Eck

“The dignity and generosity of the Sikh community in the wake of this violence remind us just how much we have to learn from these neighbors,” Eck added. Photo from


As the Sikh community in the US makes efforts to recover from the tragedy of the Gurudwara shooting, a Harvard professor has said Sikhs have emerged as a role model for Americans who can learn from the dignity and generosity the community.

“Most Americans still know little of the Sikh Americans whose history in the United States, dating to the early 20th century, is now firmly part of our common history.”

“While we catch up on our basic education, however, it is important to know that Sikhs share three distinctly and deeply American values — the importance of hard work, a commitment to human equality, and the practice of neighbourly hospitality,” Harvard University professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies Diana Eck said in an editorial in the Dallas Morning News.
Click here to read the full article

September 2nd, 2012 at 11:55 am

Faith and Race: A Dialogue Worth Having

by Phillipe Copeland

According to the Abrahamic traditions, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Baha’i Faith, the universe itself was spoken into being. This offers a fitting metaphor for the promise of interreligious dialogue, the promise of a new creation. Like the speaking into being of the universe, for interreligious dialogue to fulfill this promise requires attention to detail. We must be attentive not only to what we are dialoguing about but who is engaged in the dialogue.

In my experience, interreligious dialogue is too often limited to issues of religious identity. The exception tends to be gender. Given that women represent at least half of the human race, talking about the intersection of faith and gender is time well spent. However, historical forces and contemporary social, political and social realities have conspired to make each of us not only gendered beings but also highly racialized beings. Race is always in the room when interreligious dialogue is going on whether we acknowledge it or not.

This may appear self evident, but ask yourself how many interreligious dialogues you have participated in where race is not discussed even in societal contexts rife with racial conflict and oppression? The silence can indeed be deafening. Can there truly be a full and rich exchange across faiths if the meanings people are making of race and the spiritual resources they draw on to combat racism aren’t being discussed? For example, when I participate in an interreligious dialogue, I am never only participating as a Baha’i, but as a Black, male, Baha’i living in the United States. Understanding my faith requires understanding how it is embodied in my experience of being a Black man in America.

For example, I have been invited to interreligious dialogue where participants would walk away having learned a great deal about the life and mission of Baha’u’llah (1817-1892) the Founder of the Baha’i Faith. They may have heard about Baha’i laws and spiritual practices. They most certainly would have heard something regarding Baha’i teachings about social justice. What they may not have heard is that Baha’u’llah compared Black people to the pupil of the eye which is “dark in color but a fountain of light and revealer of the…world.” They may not grasp the impact of this metaphor, which subverts centuries of propaganda making darkness an undesirable trait, on my healing from internalized racial inferiority. They might miss the contribution that the multi-racial, international community Baha’u’llah has raised up has had on the salvation of Black men like me. To offer one example, in 2006 I was welcomed along with thirty-one other Black men from the United States to the Baha’i World Center, located in Haifa, Israel. Our recent services, collaborating with Baha’is in Ghana in the process of community-building, were graciously recognized. Men, whom at home were so often the objects of fear and loathing were celebrated like heroes by people from virtually every nation on earth. It was a taste of heaven I will not soon forget. For me to engage in interreligious dialogue and fail to share such intersections of faith and race represent missed opportunities. Others may fail to appreciate an essential aspect of Baha’i teaching and practice. More importantly, they may miss the chance to engage in a dialogue about the role religion can play in freeing humanity from the inevitable consequences of the color line. Surely that is a dialogue worth having.

Thankfully, I’ve had opportunities to bring my racial reality to interreligious dialogues. One of my fondest memories of being a student at Harvard Divinity School was working with a white, male Unitarian Universalist on a series of dialogues about race and culture for students, faculty and staff. As an alumnus, I was able to participate in a panel discussion about faith-based responses to crisis among people of African Descent that included Baha’i, Muslim and Christian perspectives. These conversations deepened the theological reflection of all involved about the intersection of faith and race and were richer for it. In these conversations, I caught glimpses of the promise of interreligious dialogue, of new worlds of racial unity and justice spoken into being.

Phillipe Copeland is author of the award winning blog Baha’i Thought that provides commentary on religion, society, and culture informed by the teachings of the Baha’i Faith. He is a contributing scholar to the multi-author blog State of Formation that is sponsored by the Journal of Interreligious Dialogue. Mr. Copeland is an adjunct faculty member of the Boston University School of Social Work and is a clinical social worker specializing in behavioral health and forensics.

Americans are Polarized on Religion but Agreeable About It

By Katie Glaeser and Emma Lacey-Bordeaux
From CNN

Forget the economy. Debate about contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, even Satan, has attracted just as much attention on the presidential campaign trail in recent weeks.

While culture war issues make headlines galore, an exhaustive study of Americans’ religious attitudes shows the public as a whole might not find the debate so enticing.

Robert Putnam and David Campbell are authors of the recent book “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us” and say that Americans have a knack for being able to disagree about hot button issues without being disagreeable.

“America is very unusual in being able to live comfortably with the people we disagree with,” says Putnam, a Harvard University professor who also wrote the book “Bowling Alone.”

Putnam and Campbell, of Notre Dame University, spent several years surveying thousands of Americans, seeking to understand how voters deal with religious differences.

Their portrait of the American faithful does reveal some rising tension. Putnam and Campbell found that the nation has grown increasingly polarized as more people either strongly identify with a particular religion or avoid organized religion altogether. But this polarization doesn’t always mean conflict.

“If you only read the newspapers, you’d think that Americans really were at each others throats when it comes to religion” Campbell says.

Click here to read the full article

What People Talk about Before They Die

By Kerry Egan
From CNN

As a divinity school student, I had just started working as a student chaplain at a cancer hospital when my professor asked me about my work. I was 26 years old and still learning what a chaplain did.

“I talk to the patients,” I told him.

“You talk to patients? And tell me, what do people who are sick and dying talk to the student chaplain about?” he asked.

I had never considered the question before. “Well,” I responded slowly, “Mostly we talk about their families.”

“Do you talk about God?

“Umm, not usually.”

“Or their religion?”

“Not so much.”

“The meaning of their lives?”


“And prayer? Do you lead them in prayer? Or ritual?”

“Well,” I hesitated. “Sometimes. But not usually, not really.”

I felt derision creeping into the professor’s voice. “So you just visit people and talk about their families?”

“Well, they talk. I mostly listen.”

“Huh.” He leaned back in his chair.

A week later, in the middle of a lecture in this professor’s packed class, he started to tell a story about a student he once met who was a chaplain intern at a hospital.

“And I asked her, ‘What exactly do you do as a chaplain?’ And she replied, ‘Well, I talk to people about their families.’” He paused for effect. “And that was this student’s understanding of faith! That was as deep as this person’s spiritual life went! Talking about other people’s families!”

The students laughed at the shallowness of the silly student. The professor was on a roll.

“And I thought to myself,” he continued, “that if I was ever sick in the hospital, if I was ever dying, that the last person I would ever want to see is some Harvard Divinity School student chaplain wanting to talk to me about my family.”

My body went numb with shame. At the time I thought that maybe, if I was a better chaplain, I would know how to talk to people about big spiritual questions. Maybe if dying people met with a good, experienced chaplain they would talk about God, I thought.

Today, 13 years later, I am a hospice chaplain. I visit people who are dying – in their homes, in hospitals, in nursing homes. And if you were to ask me the same question – What do people who are sick and dying talk about with the chaplain? – I, without hesitation or uncertainty, would give you the same answer. Mostly, they talk about their families: about their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters.

They talk about the love they felt, and the love they gave. Often they talk about love they did not receive, or the love they did not know how to offer, the love they withheld, or maybe never felt for the ones they should have loved unconditionally.

Click here to read the full article

February 13th, 2012 at 10:48 am

Launching On Common Ground 2.0

OCG 1.0by Whittney Barth

Dr. Diana Eck and the Pluralism Project are updating their award-winning resource to explore the religious diversity of the United States.  The first edition of On Common Ground: World Religions in America was released as a CD-ROM in 1996, providing teachers, students, and scholars with an innovative interactive resource in three parts: “America’s Many Religions,” “A New Religious Landscape,” and “Encountering Religious Diversity.”

The Pluralism Project is now poised to launch On Common Ground 2.0 (OCG 2.0), a web-based version of this time-tested pedagogical structure. OCG 2.0 explores religious diversity through introductions to many of the world’s religions, maps of religious centers in the context of the changing religious landscape of the United States, and essay explorations of the challenges that arise in the context of this new religious landscape.

Like its predecessor, OCG 2.0 highlights the Pluralism Project’s ongoing research into the changing religious demography of the United States and the implications of religious pluralism on public life, religious communities, and private institutions.  These findings are presented in a timely, interactive format suitable for students, educators, clergy, community and business leaders, and citizens interested in understanding the realities America’s multi-religious cities and towns. OCG 2.0 is the product of collaboration among student researchers, staff, and faculty. Ryan Overbey, Pluralism Project post-doctoral fellow, serves as the lead technology specialist.

The “America’s Many Religions” section will include essay sets covering fifteen religious traditions and their development in the United States, with select updates to reflect the complexities of a post-9/11 era.  Additionally, a new essay set on Atheism/Humanism will be included to explore the growing presence of these communities in American public life.

The “A New Religious Landscape” section will employ Geographic Information System technology to map the religious landscape of select cities and regions across the country, integrating census data and active links to organizational websites to offer the user a rich and dynamic educational experience. The organizational web links embedded in the maps emphasize the Pluralism Project’s commitment to empowering and encouraging communities to share their own stories.

Finally, the “Encountering Religious Diversity” section will include an updated essay collection that presents a few of the challenges that arise when campuses, hospitals, city halls, and church basements become workshops for religious pluralism.

OCG 2.0 is slated to launch late next year and is made possible by a generous grant from the Lilly Endowment, Inc.  If you have worked with earlier editions of On Common Ground, the Pluralism Project would like to hear your On Common Ground story.  How did you, your community, and/or your classroom utilize this resource? We invite you to share your thoughts with the Pluralism Project by e-mailing or contacting us through Facebook. Want to stay “in the know” on OCG 2.0 updates? Follow us on Twitter @pluralismproj.

Let your story be part of 2.0.

Whittney Barth is the Assistant Director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University

What Does Authentic Interfaith Dialogue Look Like?

All true living is encounter (Alles wirkliche Leben ist Begegnung). —Martin Buber, I and Thou (Ich und Du). Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

by Jalees Rehman
from Harvard Divinity Bulletin

LAST YEAR, OUR LOCAL MASJID (mosque) organized an interfaith dinner and invited clergy and lay members of various faith communities during the month of Ramadan. As in preceding years, the goal was for Muslims and non-Muslims to meet each other and foster an interfaith dialogue within the neighborhood. The event began with an introductory lecture about Islam, followed by presentations relating to fasting and spirituality given by a Muslim and a Christian speaker. During the dinner, I was seated next to some members of a Protestant congregation. We had a very pleasant conversation, covering a wide range of topics, from the concept of fasting to the importance of regularly going to church. However, I realized that many of my sentences began with “As Muslims, we . . .” or “In Islam, it is important . . . ,” and my conversation partners used similar phrases, such as “In our Christian faith, we. . . .” We were not speaking as individuals who were sharing our own personal approaches to our faith, but instead, we were trying to act as representatives for our respective faiths. At the conclusion of the evening, I felt that we had engaged in a very pleasant interfaith conversation, but not in an authentic interfaith dialogue.

Martin Buber’s Ich und Du (I and Thou)1 has been instrumental in defining the characteristics of spiritual dialogue. Buber suggests that the prevailing approach by which humans interact with each other is the Ich-Es (I-It) approach, during which we perceive our partners as objects (Es) and avoid a true dialogue with the DuIch-Es interactions tend to be unidirectional and primarily confirm preconceived notions or achieve specific utilitarian goals of the individual. These interactions do not constitute an authentic dialogue, according to Buber, because the preconceived ideas and goals of the individual lie at the core of the interaction. Buber also discusses the very different Ich-Duencounter, which is characterized by an open dialogue without formal structure and without specific expectations. This allows for bidirectional communication such that the individual and the partner engage in an authentic dialogue that forms the basis of a personal relationship that transforms both, the Ich and the Du. Importantly, Buber says: “The You encounters me through grace—it cannot be found by seeking” (Das Du begegnet mir von Gnaden—durch Suchen wird es nicht gefunden). At formal interfaith events, we often search for ways to initiate dialogue, but this searching comes with a set of expectations that, paradoxically, may undermine the goal to achieve dialogue.

Click here to read the full article

Pluralism Project hosts photo contest for religious diversity

The Pluralism Project at Harvard University is hosting a photo contest highlighting religious diversity in the United States.

From the Pluralism Project website:

We invite you to participate in our second annual Pluralism Project Photo Contest. We are looking for high-resolution digital images that convey the vibrancy of religious diversity in the USA. We are particularly interested in images in the following categories:

  • Religious practices and rituals
  • Religious centers, including festivals, center openings, and parades
  • Participation of religious groups in American civic life
  • Interfaith encounter or social action
  • Women’s leadership and participation
  • Emerging leadership within Muslim and Sikh communities
  • Historic and present day images of the Atheist/Humanist, Bahá’í, Confucian, Native American, Shinto, Taoist, and Zoroastrian communities in the US

One grand-prize winner will be selected; the winning photographer will receive a $250 cash prize and an extended exposé in the spotlight on our homepage,

Click here for full details


Diana Eck on Religion in the Age of Pluralism

Use of new communication venues necessary to spread message of hope

by Deb ChristianDiana Eck Video

Click here to read the full article and watch Diana Eck’s address

CHICAGO (RCCongress 2010), April 9 — Pluralism: more than one of something; diverse; opposite of a single approach or method.

“Pluralism begins with difference. Real religious pluralism means our engagement with one another requires building sturdy relationships,” said Diana Eck, developer and director of The Pluralism Project at Harvard University, in a Friday keynote address to participants in Religion Communication Congress 2010.

Noting the challenges faced in the United States with its complex religious landscape, Dr. Eck noted that, “religious faith is a powerful force in people’s lives and choices. We must find new ways to spread the message of hope through new communication venues in our world.”

The Pluralism Project tries to bring changing views on religion into the open. “Who are ‘we the people…’ now,” she asked. “This is a new world of encounter for many Americans.”

“We are not all the same. Pluralism begins there. Trying to understand these differences is a great human challenge,” Dr. Eck said. “The world is changed with faith practices of those we know little about. How do we deal with religious differences?”

Click here to read the full article and watch Diana Eck’s address