Diana Eck

A New Religious America

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A New Religious America Summary

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Diana L. Eck’s religious sociology book, A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation (2001), considers America’s religious landscape and how it has changed so much over the last century. The book received widespread critical praise upon publication for its daring subject matter and relevant social commentary. Eck is a religious scholar who currently works as a Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard University. She also serves as director of Harvard’s Pluralism Project, which is designed to foster and encourage religious tolerance and acceptance.

In A New Religious America, Eck evaluates what a changing religious landscape means for American going forward. America is no longer a predominantly Christian country, and Americans must accept and embrace this new reality. Eck explores the central issue of how Americans can shape a positive future for themselves by embracing religious pluralism.

Eck defines religious pluralism as engaging with diversity, actively finding ways to bridge the gaps between religions. As she points out in the book, accepting religious diversity isn’t enough—we must engage with it. Eck is one of the founders of The Pluralism Project, which aims to find ways for Americans to build a cohesive society around religious diversity. As such, her main thesis asserts that embracing religious pluralism is essential for America’s progress.

Eck contends the first challenge facing America is a lack of understanding of religious differences. In other words, we think we know what a religion is all about, but we don’t understand it sufficiently. We can’t build a progressive, cohesive society unless we do all we can to understand our religiously diverse neighbors. By understanding each other what is important to all of us, Americans may build an unshakeable society.

Eck considers the reasons for America’s changing religious landscape, looking at legislative and social changes that affected immigration and American attitudes towards discrimination. She also observes how the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act are inextricably linked. Once immigration is again welcomed by America, the religious landscape will change forever. This, to Eck, is a positive side effect of changing attitudes toward racial and social diversity.

Eck is especially interested in the changing role of Asians in shaping America’s future. She reflects on the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which eventually led to all Asian-born individuals being prohibited from entering America. These restrictions slowly unraveled over the course of the twentieth century, and now America is home to one of the largest, most complex Buddhist populations in the world.

However, Eck holds that we still have some way to go before we can consider America a tolerant society. Although different religions co-exist in America, they do not always co-exist peacefully. The onus is not on members of one religion to educate others about their religion. Instead, the onus is on us as the outsider to engage with a different community, learning what we can about it.

For example, a Muslim should engage with the Catholic community, and a Buddhist should learn from the Jewish community. Lines between religions are not hard borders, Eck explains. Different religions present all of us with an opportunity to learn and enrich our own lives. America’s ability to cater to every religion is why it is the most diverse country in the world.

To write A New Religious America, Eck journeyed across the country, visiting local communities and meeting leaders from all faith groups. She explains that, although many individuals did not practice their religion in their home country, they felt the need to reconnect with their religion in America. This is not through a failure to integrate—instead, they have fully accepted American norms and the right to freedom of religious expression.

Eck admits that such diversity brings with it a unique set of obstacles. For example, some might feel unjustly treated if one community secures funding for a temple or sanctuary and their community does not. Critics of A New Religious America note that Eck is reluctant to comment on the negative aspects of a religion, and how some extremist groups make cohesion impossible. Eck, however, believing that her account is impartial and unbiased, does not address these concerns.

A New Religious America touches on another issue—assimilation. Eck notes that some religious leaders in America fear that too much tolerance, and encouraging religions to blend, causes secularization. Leaders note that it is becoming increasingly harder to encourage young people to adhere to their religious roots—for example, far fewer Catholics elect to become priests than ever before.

Eck believes that dwindling faith is an opportunity, not a problem. She asserts that seeking to isolate a religion from outsiders is what causes intolerance and suspicion. By sharing values, exchanging ideas, and celebrating other religions, we find common ground, which is the only way forward for America. America’s future is religious pluralism.