Harvard Pluralism Project maps religions, conflicts

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2015/12/24/harvard-pluralism-project-maps-religions-conflicts/

CAMBRIDGE – If newcomers to Boston need to find a place of worship, a quick Google search can reveal some options, be it mosque, temple or church.

But for a more holistic view of the Hub’s spiritual resources, Harvard University researchers can offer the fruits of 25 years of labor mapping the metro area’s religious institutions. Their work has included word-of-mouth referrals and on-the-ground research through The Pluralism Project.

The project’s website can also help locate places of worship or congregation for practitioners of more obscure faiths, such as Zoroastrianism and Daoism. While project researchers study the development of religious communities and interfaith work, they’ve also gone well beyond simply mapping places of worship in the area.

Conflict over religious liberty or discrimination based on religious beliefs isn’t going away, and led by Professor Diana Eck, researchers have been documenting cases of religious conflict.

“Our own work has amounted to a kind of mini-portrait or a micro-history of communities that otherwise would not have any micro-history or any at all, really,” Eck said in a recent interview at Harvard’s Lowell House, where she is a co-master, a kind of resident adviser for the students who live in the dorm-like complex. Her quarters were lavishly decorated for Christmas and held the aroma of Starbucks mocha drinks.

The project evolved from Eck’s “World Religions in New England” course, which she began teaching in 1991, and her study of the effects of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The measure abolished a national quota system to draw skilled laborers from abroad and reunite immigrants with family members from foreign lands. She recruited students to conduct research in cities such as Denver, Houston and Minneapolis.

“From the beginning, it was clear that diversity alone does not constitute pluralism,” the project’s website states. “Pluralism requires a degree of engagement with our diversity and the knowledge – both of others and of ourselves – that such engagement brings.”

Now, Eck – a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies – said scholars and lay people alike use the project’s directory or its interactive website to learn more about less-popular religions like Sikhism and Jainism. Hospitals, schools and even government officials have benefitted from their research, which tangibly displays the region’s growing religious pluralism long seen as among the most diverse in the nation.

Their methodology for collecting statistics is “approximate and dynamic,” Eck said. Whittney Barth, the project’s assistant director, added that it’s also often difficult to track religious groups who meet in informal settings such as homes or coffee shops.

The researchers have tracked cases of discrimination, from the racist New Jersey “dot-busters” in the 1990s to the 2012 massacre at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, by Wade Michael Page, a local white supremacist musician.

Religion data have always been difficult to collect, as formal groups evolve rapidly and the U.S. Census stopped asking about beliefs in the 1950s. Groups like the Pew Research Center and the Association of Religion Data Archives have attempted to categorize American spirituality, but each group’s methodology is unique.

Despite the challenges in her field, for Eck, the study of religious pluralism is transformational. She pointed to the solidarity shown at Boston’s Trinity Church several weeks after the Oak Creek massacre, in which six Sikhs died. A memorial service filled the Episcopal church in Copley Square about six weeks after the shooting.

“This transforms the ‘we,’” she said. “‘We the People of the United States of America,’ that’s a very powerful ‘we’ and it’s not exclusive of religion or ethnicity or national origin background, it is, you know, it’s a sense of commitment as citizens that is extremely powerful and important.”

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.