Interfaith Forum
Ninth annual event held at Drew
Jesse Richards - November 20, 1998

Is the religious atmosphere of America today a melting pot, a symphony, or a cacophony? Are we in the process of building an ideal multi-religious society? These and other questions were examined during the university's ninth annual Interfaith Community Forum.

The forum explored how the growth of new immigrant communities and their religious traditions has resulted in major changes in the religious landscape of the United States.

Almost 200 students, professors, and community members attended the forum, held Wednesday evening in UC 107. The event featured Diana L. Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University.

Eck developed and directs the Pluralism Project at Harvard, which studies and documents the growing religious diversity of the U.S. She has received numerous honors and awards, including the National Humanities Medal.

This year's forum was structured differently from previous years, according to Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Karen Prentiss, who moderated the event.

Prentiss explained that in past years, the forum featured representatives from several faiths on a panel, instead of a single speaker with respondents, as in this year's event. This year, according to Prentiss, the forum explored "pluralism in daily religious life."

"The Forum's scope continues to grow," said Dean of the College Paolo Cucchi, who opened the event. "The university is proud to host such an event. ... It allows us to examine issues that too often separate us."

This year's event had another new twist - an interactive CD-ROM entitled On Common Ground, created by Eck and the Pluralism Project, which was projected on a screen for a large part of her presentation. The talk followed the format of topics laid out by the CD. Eck guided the audience through the CD, which was divided into three sections: the current religious makeup and demographics of the country; how that is changing; and how the country is changing as a result.

The CD also included pictures, biographies, and multimedia slide shows with voiceovers and song. It explored the changing religious landscape and how it affects American public life: "This country is a brand new experiment in religious diversity. It's a great opportunity," explained the multi-religious voiceovers of the CD. However, when showing a part of the CD that featured links to 15 of the major religions in the country, Eck mentioned, "The cultures are not separate, like these red dots on the screen. They overlap and build to each other's history, and sometimes conflict."

Eck also talked about the history of religious diversity in the U.S. Since the 1965 Immigration Act, the country has gotten increasingly more diverse, she said. Prentiss added that this country may have the largest number of publicly active religions, recently surpassing India.

"What the Pluralism Project shows so clearly is that we are getting a lot more diverse," said second respondent Mary Segers, professor of political science at Rutgers University. "I was so jealous of my son. He's in middle school and they were studying the Middle East and Islam. When I went to school, we were certainly not studying Islam."

"Professor Eck's work should be a necessary educational tool. It gives people the opportunity to examine other religions and to become more open-minded about these traditions," junior Rachel Holland, one of the attendees, said.

Eck's talk and its responses were followed by a dinner and table discussion among the audience. "It's nice to see that religious integration in our society is being recognized by so many. Not just college students, but so many members of the community," freshman Abbey Harris said in the discussion.

After dinner, the panel answered questions written by the audience during the meal. The first question involved the U.S. response to the persecution of members of the Baha'i Faith in Iran. Dr. Eck outlined the situation, explaining that she serves on the State Department Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad.

Other issues were raised, including what Christianity's role is in the country as other religions arise, how accepting individuals and the law should be of different traditions, how atheism fits into America's religious scene, and the current debate on religious holiday displays.

The panelists explained that the questions highlighted some of today's challenges with religious diversity in this country. The CD also focused on this, pointing to stereotyping, zoning controversies, public school encounters, and debate over school curricula. The CD emphasized grassroots movements to create a pluralistic society, but said that "it's going to be hard work."

The CD used an image of religious unity to demonstrate that hard work. It told the story of a location in Freemont, Calif., where groundbreaking has begun on a Methodist church and an Islamic mosque, built next door to each other. The road leading to the buildings has been named "Peace Avenue."

Much of Eck's talk and its responses focused on presenting a symphony as a metaphor for the ideal American religious society. This is contrary to the familiar idea of America as a ‘melting pot', which Eck explained forces people to lose their cultural or religious identity as they are homogonized into American culture. They described a compromise - that some acceptance of American culture was necessary, but that not all cultural identity needed to be lost. This is the essence of pluralism as put forth by Eck, her respondents, and the On Common Ground CD.

"Religious diversity is not new to this society, but we've been unwilling to see it," Russell Richey, professor of church history at Duke University, said in the first response to Eck's speech. "This ability to see is something to celebrate about this event, and this CD."

Tim Marquis, a junior and resident of the Spirituality theme house, agreed. "Even people who advocate diversity don't deal with religion sometimes. This is the sort of thing that college campuses should be talking about. This event is a good step towards this discussion."