Institute on Religion and Democracy
February 15, 2001
The Pluralism Project at Harvard University sees - and arguably advocates - an America where the predominance of Judeo-Christian beliefs is consigned to history. In this supposedly new America, Hinduisim, Buddhism, and Islam, among other faiths, are equal demographic components of the nation’s religious stew.
Heading the project is 55-year old Diana Eck, a United Methodist lay woman, author, professor, religious gourmand, and a partner in the first lesbian couple to serve as housemasters for a Harvard dormitory. Acclaimed by President Clinton, consultant to major church groups, lecturer in academia and frequently quoted in the media, Eck is perhaps America’s leading champion of new interfaith culture.
In Eck’s vision, the Hindu deities are worshipped under the same roof with Allah, Buddhist meditation co-exists with the Christian sacraments, and no faith claims any monopoly on the truth.
She thinks it is a “scandal” that Christian theology “pretends to circle the wagons around the One we call God” when in truth “the One we call God is not ours.” Only bigoted fundamentalists persist in the notion that some religions are true and some are not. Eck calls for a new “georeligious reality.”
But Eck’s vision is perfectly attuned to the biases of the popular culture, where tolerance too often tolerates only voices that deny the existence of any objective truth. She is a prophet who is not likely to be martyred but instead is almost universally welcomed.
Ecks believes, or at least hopes, that the multi-culturalism that she has experienced at Harvard will be writ large upon America. She shares her pleasure that in the august halls of her university, which Puritan divines erected to train Calvinist clergy, now contain Buddhists chanting and burning of incense.
“Cultural pluralism is changing America’s religious life,” she enthuses. “It is making our spiritual tradition much richer and broader.”
There is of course a degree of accuracy to the demographic claims of Eck’s Pluralism Project. Hundreds of new mosques, temples and pagodas now dot the American landscape. The immigration of Africans and Asians in recent decades has made America more culturally varied, and culture obviously includes religion. Non-Christian groups are certainly more numerous, more prominent and more widely distributed than ever before in this country.
But some of Eck’s claims about our nation’s new-found religious pluralism are exaggerated. For example, she often approvingly repeats the canard that America now has more Muslims than Episcopalians or Presbyterians. She echoes Muslim organizations in claiming there are 5 to 8 million Muslims in America.
But this figure appears to lack firm documentation. A phone call to Eck’s office failed to elicit any supporting evidence. She seems to rely on the estimates of Islamic organizations. But they also, in response to telephone inquiries, seemed unable to provide any studies to prove the claim of 5 to 8 million Muslims in America. Mosques, unlike churches, do not maintain membership lists.
The 1990 U.S. census found 870,000 Americans listed Arab countries as their place of ancestry. (The U.S. census asks no questions about religious affiliation.) But the 1990 National Survey of Religious Identification (NSRI) also found that only one-third of Arab-Americans described themselves as Muslim. Assuming that at least one-third of nearly a million Arab Americans are Muslim, even adding the total immigration from other largely Islamic countries still fails to surpass 2 million. Some studies claim that one of 4 American Muslims is an African American. But even assuming this is true, that still means fewer than 2.5 million Muslims.
The NSRI, a private study that interviewed 113,000 Americans evenly distributed across the nation, is probably the most comprehensive study on Americans’ religious beliefs. Less than one half of one percent of the respondents called themselves Muslim, causing the survey to estimate that there are 1.5 million Muslims in the U.S.
The number of mosques in Americas is also a point of dispute. Some estimate that there are over 1,000 mosques. But the Muslim Student Association, which keeps the most comprehensive database on mosques, lists between 600 and 700. This compares to 11,000 congregations for the 3.5 million member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and 7200 for the 2.3 million member Episcopal Church.
The NSRI study cited above found that 86 percent of American adults identified with some Christian denomination. (The study included Mormons, Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses under this category.) A total of 3.3 percent of the respondents identified with non-Christian religions, of which 1.8 percent were Jewish. Just over 8 percent said they had no religion at all.
These figures show an America that is, at least nominally, overwhelmingly Christian. Indeed, America is statistically more Christian than Egypt is Muslim or India is Hindu. But this reality does not support the intended conclusions of Diane Eck’s Pluralism Project, for which India, with its multiplicity of deities under the rubric of Hinduism, seems to be a model.
“I’ve logged more hours in Hindu temples than anyone I know,” Eck has boasted. She maintains an apartment in Benares, India, because of her frequent travels there. Like many college students in the 1960’s, Eck grew disenchanted with traditional Christianity. The Methodism she learned in Montana was evidently unfulfilling. So she looked to eastern religion for solace. She spent a year of spiritual seeking in India and later wrote a book, Encountering God: From Bozeman to Banaras, chronicling her pilgrimage. Eck has written several other books on religion in India and is planning to write more.
During the 1970’s, while Eck was a graduate student at Harvard, she met her lesbian partner, Dorothy Austin. Eck went on to become a professor of comparative religion at Harvard. Austin became an Episcopal priest and now teaches psychology and spirituality at United Methodist related Drew University in New Jersey. In 1998 Austin and Eck were named as housemasters of the prestigious Lowell House dormitory at Harvard, where they serve as surrogate “parents” for 450 male and female students. The announcement by Harvard’s president elicited lengthy coverage from The New York Times.
Eck later recounted that, during the Harvard interview process for the Lowell House position, she told her interviewers that dormitory parents were expected to be Ozzie and Harriet. But in her case, they could expect a couple of Harriets. Her revelation, she reported, drew only laughter and approval. Her sexual preference had hardly been a secret. Eck and Austin had been active in homosexual causes at Harvard for over 20 years.
But religious pluralism, rather than homosexual advocacy, has gained Eck her academic fame. In 1998 she was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Clinton in a White House ceremony. Eck’s mother, a liberal Democrat state legislator from Montana who also champions homosexual rights issues, proudly attended the ceremony.
The award honored Eck for her leadership of the Pluralism Project and for its most popular product, an interactive CD-ROM called On Common Ground: World Religions in America. The CD is a sound and light show that illustrates partnerships across America between divergent religious faiths. Eck’s favorite example is a Methodist church in Fresno, California, that built a house of worship jointly with a mosque. The CD is aimed primarily at educators. But she also trumpets it to church groups, such as the National Council of Churches and the U.S. Committee of the World Council of Churches, both of which she has addressed.
The Pluralism Project, which Eck has led since 1991, depends on grants from the Lilly Endowment, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Ford Foundation. Despite her fascination with eastern religion, she retains her Methodist affiliation and speaks to church groups as a fellow believer.
“We as churches need to take the leadership in constructive dialogue,” she urged the National Council of Churches General Assembly in 1997. She also warned against “narrow and exclusivistic theologies.” In a radio interview that year, Eck further explained her vision of a “multi-religious reality.”
“We are not a Christian nation alone, not a Judeo-Christian nation alone, not even a Judeo-Christian-Muslim nation alone, but a nation with a multitude of religious traditions,” she declared. “And we need to move beyond tolerance to a deeper knowledge of who our neighbors are.”
But Eck’s tolerance is sorely tested by religions, especially Christianity, which profess to convey some unique, indispensable truth. She has called these kinds of truth claims “idolatry,” a strange pejorative accusation from someone who celebrates the polytheistic worship of India.
“Today if we open our eyes and our ears, there are many ways of theological conception other than the ones we have known as Christians,” Eck has explained. “It is our task, and our joy, to re-imagine what we know about God.” She is convinced that “it is time for all of our theism to be held in a context of global multi-theism.”
The Pluralism’s Project includes two dozen experts on Islam, indigenous African religion, “goddess spirituality,” Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and the Baha’i faith. Experts on Christianity seem to be lacking. The project ’s stated purpose is to “study and document the growing religious diversity of America.”
But rather than study, the Project, under Eck’s leadership, is largely a proselytizing operation. To say that she is an evangelist for non-Christian religions perhaps would not quite capture the true intent. Touting Islam or Buddhism or even traditional Hindusim is not her purpose. She is fascinated by these faiths but would never submit herself wholly to their spiritual disciplines and truth claims.
These religions seem to be merely instruments for a larger objective. Replacing the traditional predominance of Christianity in America with a new goulash of syncretism is instead the likely goal. Eck’s writings and life story hints at one conclusion: The Pluralism Project is the well-funded and well-publicized outcome of a 1960’s spiritual journey that never found a destination.