"New" religions face challenges, misconceptions in U.S.

By KEVIN FRYLING, UB Reporter, July 26, 2006

Buffalo, New York (USA) -- Although often overlooked in mainstream American culture, three religions - Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism - are on the rise in the United States. The development of these "new" religions in the U.S. and the challenges their followers face were the topic of last week's UBThisSummer lecture, "New Religions in the New World: Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims in America."

The "World Almanac" estimates there are now more Muslims in the United States than Presbyterians and Episcopalians combined, Jeanette Ludwig, associate professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, College of Arts and Sciences, told those attending the July 20 lecture. Moreover, about 40 percent of the 7 million Muslims in the United States are "homegrown" followers of Islam—born and raised in the United States, said Ludwig, who teaches a course on world religions at UB.

"America in a sense has opened up and changed," she said, but added that religious practices are difficult to maintain in the U.S. "The culture itself doesn't support the maintenance of the traditions," she said.

This presents a significant challenge to American Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, she explained, because religious practices are central to their religions and, therefore, identities.

"Religion is who we are and how we see the world," said Ludwig.

All three religions face misconceptions in the United States, she said. For example, she pointed out that although many Americans perceive Muslims as being Arab, 82 percent of Muslims worldwide are nonArab. In fact, the largest Muslim nation in the world, based on population, is Indonesia—not a country located in the Middle East.

Few people, she added, realize that Muslims have been living in the United States for centuries, or that between one-tenth and one-fifth of the African slaves who lived in America were Muslims. Furthermore, she said, several historical waves of Muslim immigration took place in the U.S.—one of which followed the Civil War—and noted that the first mosque was constructed in the U.S. in 1920 in North Dakota. The modern Muslim immigrant is often better educated and more affluent than the average American, she said.

Misconceptions concerning certain Islamic practices abound in the United States, Ludwig continued, citing as an example the separation of men and women. The traditional clothing Muslim women wear often is viewed as being oppressive, but, she explained, female followers often choose to don hijab-the headscarves and other garments related to modesty-to show support or pride in their faith. However, the decision should be a personal one, she insisted, not one imposed by a father or husband.

American media often question Islam's place in the modern democratic world, yet do not turn the microscope on other philosophies, such as capitalism, said Ludwig,

Distortion vexes Hinduism in America as well, she said. Westerners historically have depicted the religion as being foreign and exotic, making it seem strange and mysterious.

One persistent misconception dating back to the Victorian era is the idea that Hindus worship numerous gods. The religion is in fact monotheistic, Ludwig explained, noting that the confusion stems from the fact that the deity is represented in numerous forms.

Although the first Hindu temple in the United States dates back to 1906 in San Francisco, misrepresentation persists in the U.S. One current court case in California involves Hindu parents who claim a school textbook distorts their religion by overemphasizing such controversial concepts as caste. "People cannot recognize their own religion in the book," said Ludwig.

When religious tenants clash with mainstream American culture, the struggle to maintain them is greatest, she said. For example, Hindus view marriage as a contract between two families—parents broker their son's or daughter's union. However, more couples now are falling in love and seeking permission from their parents to marry, she said. Online services also are increasingly used to find matches.

From Thoreau's interest in the Bhagavad Gita to the Beatles' fascination with the Maharishi, Eastern religions have long captured Westerners' attention, Ludwig said. But, she added, few pursue more than a passing interest or perceive the religions' deeper concepts.

"Americans seem to see religion as some sort of label we can slap on and take off," she said.

In terms of Buddhism, she called the popular use of such terms as nirvana and karma "serious concepts that we have diminished in some respect."

The United States is filled with "bookstore Buddhists," said Ludwig, noting that attempts to market religion diminish and dilute it, eliminating aspects that require true sacrifice and dedication. The result, she said, is magazine articles that promise "30-second enlightenment."

Moreover, advertisers appropriate Buddhist language to sell products, she said, pointing to flat-screen television ads that promise "simplicity."

But despite the challenges, a "new face of Buddhism" has started to emerge in the United States, said Ludwig. More women are involved in the faith, and borders between lay and monastic orders are increasingly blurred. Modern Buddhists can choose to spend several years in monasteries, then re-enter the population. At the same time, critics claim students are being promoted too fast. While there are approximately 1,000 Zen teachers in the United States, Ludwig said only about 150 meet the old, rigorous standards. "How do we maintain quality control?" she asked.

All three religions continue to find their path through the "new world" and not all followers are the same in terms of religious or secular orientation, Ludwig said. There are orthodox, conservative and liberal Muslims, she noted. "There is a great deal hope in American Islam," she added, pointing to liberal and feminist interpretations of the religion coming out of the United States.

The United States remains one of the most religious nations in the world, but Americans must learn more about the nation's "new" religions, Ludwig concluded. Small steps go a long way; for instance, she encouraged school administrators to provide private places for prayer and learn the dates of important Muslim holidays.

"Don't emphasize the differences, but know they're there," she said.