Book Reviews

A New Religious America: How a "Christian Country" Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation by Diana L. Eck, HarperSanFrancisco, 2002; 432 pages, ISBN 0060621591, paperback, $16.95.

While some still characterize the United States as a Christian nation, this book helps us see the diversity that has been quietly growing over the last forty years: the increasing presence of Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains -- not to mention Spiritualists, New Agers, neo-Pagans, atheists, and the unaffiliated. Diana Eck, Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard University and Director of The Pluralism Project, has gathered information from years of study and world travel, and her intent is to interest us in an ongoing challenge which she feels has not been met successfully elsewhere. To this end, she encourages readers to get to know their neighbors of other faiths, to seek out the diversity of religious worship available in their communities, and to learn firsthand about those of other religions, rather than forming opinions from stereotypes or abstract accounts.

How has this growing diversity arisen? Religious and cultural prejudice long limited the immigration of non-Europeans, beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In 1923 the US Supreme Court ruled that a "white person" was defined by a common man's understanding of the term, so that a native Indian "Hindu" (actually a Sikh), who had fought in the US Army in World War I, could not become a citizen based on a 1790 statute granting citizenship only to "free white men." Many naturalizations were annulled until the Asian American Citizenship Act, which reversed the Court decision, was signed into law by President Truman in 1946. Immigration laws continued to ensure that most immigrants were European until 1965, when reforms eliminating preferences based on nationality resulted in a veritable flood of newcomers from all over the globe. Catholic Hispanics form about half of new arrivals, but millions of non-Christians have come from Asia and the Near East, with the number of Asian Americans, for example, rising from 1 million in 1965 to 7.3 million in 1990.

Chapters of the book examine Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism in traditional and new American forms, among immigrants and native-born Americans, while Jains and Sikhs also receive attention. Today there is a great deal of variety within each tradition. On the one hand, as a Vietnamese monk in Phoenix said, "We must take the plant of Buddhism out of the pot and plant it in the soil of Arizona," and in some cases there are entirely American forms of traditional religions. At the same time, old-country traditions are easier to keep alive. Before modern communication and travel, immigrants often did not return to their native land for years, if at all, and communicated only by mail. Now immigrants can keep in touch with family and friends around the world by phone, internet, and videos, while air travel allows more frequent visits back and forth.

Though many accept this new situation, the increasing appearance of mosques, temples, and shrines in cities large and small can still raise eyebrows -- when they are noticed at all. Religious diversity remains virtually invisible in many communities because small groups seeking to maintain their spiritual traditions may begin by meeting in members' homes or rented halls. In time they may move to more permanent rooms, or to a storefront or building, often a disused church, which may not be prominently indicated. Lately, however, more ornate traditional places of worship have begun to appear.

The author urges as many people as possible to study world religions with an open mind, seriously searching other scriptures for concepts similar to their own, rather than focusing on rooting out differences. The Golden Rule, for example, is universal. At the same time, the author insists that pluralism is not based on a noncommittal relativism where all ideas are equally true and equally uncompelling. The objective is not achieving agreement, but achieving and maintaining relationship despite real disagreements and intractable differences.

Astrophysicists show us that there are billions of galaxies and trillions of stars -- an awe-inspiring universal panorama. Undeniably we and all else are parts of a whole, and each, small or huge, is evolving and operating under the harmonious cosmic laws that eventually bring order out of chaos. This worthy book points out that, as nations and as individuals, we need to readjust our thinking to become less parochial and more accepting of others as our fellow human beings. We can appreciate our shared humanity, our similarity of aspirations for family, education, well being, jobs, safety, love, respect, and understanding. The author challenges us to share with her the opportunity of trying to understand all members of the human family, near and far, and of investigating sympathetically the diversity of beliefs and practices that can be found increasingly in our own neighborhoods. -- Jean B. Crabbendam

(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 2003; copyright © 2003 Theosophical University Press)

World Spiritual Traditions Menu

Now we are the children of the earth; in eternity we are the children of the whole universe. Do I not feel in my own soul that I constitute a part of this mighty harmonious whole? Do I not have the consciousness that in this enormous, innumerable collection of beings in which Godhead is manifest -- Supreme Force, if you prefer the term -- that I constitute one link, one step between the lower orders of creation and the higher ones? If I see, clearly see, this ladder which rises from the plant to man, then why should I suppose that it stops at me, and does not lead higher and ever higher? I know that just as nothing is ever annihilated in the universe, so I can never perish but shall always exist, and always have existed. I know that besides myself spiritual beings must exist above me and that truth is in this universe. -- Leo Tolstoi