Who is your neighbor? A new interreligious project seeks to get as many Americans as possible to answer that question.
“We are a nation of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, non-religious people, and more — we live and work together and we need to have faith in each other,” stated Gurwin Singh Ahuja, a Sikh and co-founder of the National Sikh Campaign. Ahuja started the Know Your Neighbor project, unveiled at the White House on Thursday.
As a Sikh, Ahuja fears bigotry over his religion and is aiming to combat that by promoting simple dialogue between neighbors of different religious backgrounds.
The project was launched at a White House event, “Celebrating and Protecting America’s Tradition of Religious Pluralism.”
Its purpose is for Americans of various religious backgrounds to publicly share their beliefs and learn about and respect the beliefs of others. The project’s website features testimonies and stories of encounters between persons of different religions.
Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, was present at the White House event and explained the importance of the project.
"Americans generally believe that minority religions are an important part of their communities," he said. "Most critically, familiarity breeds tolerance and even acceptance. Negative attitudes tend to decline as people interact more with members of lesser-known religions."
Fifteen civil rights and faith-based organizations formed the coalition behind the project, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Interfaith Alliance, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
The project’s website provides toolkits for anyone interested in starting interreligious dialogue in their own community, as well as links to explanations of different religions in the U.S. as disparate as Evangelical Christianity, Islam, and paganism. The ultimate purpose is that with knowledge of religions, neighbors can have more authentic dialogue with each other.
And those interested can take the pledge to “get to know my fellow Americans of all traditions and systems of belief and to share my own,” as well as to “speak out against hatred and misinformation against others when I encounter it.”
As important as the battle for religious liberty is at the policy level, strong relationships between neighbors are critical, Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty explained at the White House discussion.
“That’s what this project highlighted when it first came up,” he said. “Getting to know our neighbors, being neighbors to one another … learning about the rich religious pluralism that is this country’s.” This provides the “foundation” for the vertical relationship between church and state, he continued.
Michael De Dora realized how so many persons around the world suffer persecution for seeking to know or understand different religious beliefs when took his present position as director of public policy for the Center for Inquiry, he explained at the White House panel discussion.
He shared a similarity with these people in having been raised in a certain religion as a child, but exploring new religions as an adult.
“They were encountering all sorts of hatred, societally or from their government,” he said, while in the U.S. he could study other religions peacefully and without the threat of retribution. “That’s what really got me dedicated to the idea of defending freedom of thought for everyone.”