Diversity and Democracy

The Study of Religion in the United States

Realizing that religious difference deeply informs social and political interaction, and that inter-religious communication is key to creating a more just and equitable world, several centers across the country support research projects that facilitate greater understanding of the role of faith in society.

The Pluralism Project at Harvard University

Formed in 1991 to study the evolving religious diversity of the United States, the Pluralism Project expanded in 2000 to include religious pluralism around the globe. Under the guidance of director Diana L. Eck, the project examines religious diversity through various lenses: American religious demography, religious communities, interfaith encounters, and the meaning of religious pluralism within domestic American and international contexts.

The Pluralism Project specializes in qualitative field research, the results of which are made available on the Web site (www.pluralism.org). Recent reports include a review of Gujarati Hindu Temples in Houston, Texas; an inquiry into American Muslim Music; and “International Portraits” of several countries (the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand). The Web site also includes resources grouped by geographical location and religious tradition. In addition to these online resources, the project has produced a number of multimedia resources.

The project enacts Eck’s abiding belief that pluralism is a practice that reaches beyond diversity, beyond plurality, beyond relativism, and beyond tolerance. In Eck’s view, pluralism comes into being only through committed dialogic encounters between diverse groups. The project’s contributors model and encourage this type of sustained dialogue through their work.

The Higher Education Research Institute: “Spirituality in Higher Education”

Since 2003, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) has examined the place of spirituality on American campuses. Principal researches Helen S. Astin and Alexander W. Astin have conducted several surveys to determine the attitudes of faculty and students toward spirituality. Jennifer A. Lindholm serves as project director.

The fall 2004 survey on The Spiritual Life of College Students found that 80 percent of entering freshmen are interested in spirituality. Among other findings, survey results indicated a strong correlation between “religious engagement” and politically conservative views, and a high correspondence between “Ecumenical worldview” and political liberalism. Other results related spirituality and religiosity to psychological health, and detailed the practices and beliefs of freshmen. The survey differentiated between religion and spirituality, but found a high correlation between these two categories.

Spirituality and the Professoriate, a survey of faculty at colleges and universities, gathered similar data on faculty attitudes toward spirituality. Eighty-one percent of faculty surveyed indicated that they considered themselves to be spiritual people, with the extent to which faculty considered spiritual development of students to be an essential goal of college varying according to discipline. Results were partially disaggregated by race and discipline.

The project team conducted a follow-up survey of the 2004 freshmen in the spring of 2007. This data will be used to correlate faculty attitudes with student spiritual development. For more details, visit spirituality.ucla.edu.

Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs

The Berkley Center explores and encourages study of the intersections between religion and public affairs via extensive programming and ongoing database development efforts. Located in Washington, DC, the center provides opportunities for scholars, students, and community members to expand their knowledge of the place of religion in the modern world.

The Center’s programs bring a wide range of prominent scholars, writers, and activists to DC, where they share their scholarship and collaborate toward greater inter-religious understanding through symposia and conferences. Recent events include a symposium on the UN’s Alliance of Civilizations Report (January 2007) and a symposium on the State of West-Islamic Dialogue (October 2007).

The Center’s Web site includes a wide range of resources created by faculty and students. Prominent among these are four databases: Religious Perspectives (which compares scripture from different traditions), West-Islamic Dialogue (which tracks inter-religious events), Faith 2008 (which documents religion’s role in the 2008 U.S. presidential election), and Religion and Development (which indicates the role of different religious groups in global development work). To view the databases or learn more about the center, visit www3.georgetown.edu/centers/berkley/.                            

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