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‘It’s a potluck dinner versus the melting pot’: 6 books for appreciating other religions

Discussions about religion in the U.S. are often fraught. Outside of family, about half of U.S. adults say they hardly ever (or never) discuss the topic, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center poll.

Interfaith leader Eboo Patel wants to change and jumpstart the conversation, from division to cooperation and diverse inclusion.

He shares his faith with others through his own books and the Interfaith Youth Core, a group he founded in 1998 that focuses on college campuses.

“How do we bring people from different religions to these shared values across faiths?” said Patel, author of the new book “Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise.” “We hope to be a part of writing the next great chapter in the way that America engages with religious diversity.”

Patel says that earlier in his life, he was an angry activist and even walked away from his faith in college. But in reading more about other religions, he slowly learned to appreciate diverse faith traditions.

He reconnected to Islam and committed to be an interfaith leader and help, as he puts it, “write the next chapter in the inspiring story of American religious pluralism.”

No matter how they view religion, Patel suggests Americans do what he did: educate themselves on different belief systems, find what they admire about those faiths and learn how they can work together to improve America.

“It’s a potluck dinner versus the melting pot,” Patel said. “The melting pot says we’re going to eliminate distinctiveness, but a potluck says we should bring something to the big, open table that welcomes different contributions from communities, and that’s the way the nation feasts.”

In his own words, here are six books Patel recommends for those looking to understand different religions.

1. “Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet” by Karen Armstrong

As part of my studies, I read Karen Armstrong’s “Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet,” my first deep dive into Islam. I had long taken a dim view of Islam, mostly because it was the religion of my family and I was one of those kids who believed that nothing that my parents did could ever be cool. But Armstrong’s narrative helped me see not only the poetry but the truth in the tradition of my ancestors, and in a way brought my journey full circle. I was especially fascinated by the stories of the Prophet’s mutually inspiring and respectful relationships with the Christians in his midst.

2. “The Long Loneliness” by Dorothy Day

In my first years in college I was a diversity activist fueled largely by anger at an unjust system. One day, out of the blue, somebody mentioned the name Dorothy Day to me and suggested I look into her work. I read “The Long Loneliness,” Day’s autobiography, and was blown away by her love-based vision for radical social action. I started spending time in Catholic Worker Houses of Hospitality, which were communities of people inspired by her vision of living simply and in solidarity with the poor. That was the first step on my path to interfaith social action.

3. “A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches” by Martin Luther King Jr.

To read King is to appreciate just how deeply his vision was rooted in his Christian faith, but also how profoundly he was influenced by people of different faiths, from Mahatma Gandhi to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh.

4. “The Jew and the Lotus” by Roger Kamenetz

This tells the story of a diverse group of Jews who go to visit the Dalai Lama. It was especially powerful for me because I was actually en route to visit the Dalai Lama with a Jewish friend. I loved how Kamenetz described the diversity within Judaism, the resonances between the Jewish and Buddhist traditions and how the encounter of a different tradition can deepen your relationship with your own

5. “The Life of Mahatma Gandhi” by Louis Fischer

It’s the story of how a mediocre lawyer from the Indian state of Gujarat became one of the most inspiring individuals of the 20th century. The themes that resonated most deeply with me were how Gandhi’s Hinduism anchored his sense of justice, and how he was deeply influenced by other religious traditions, including Jainism, Christianity and Islam.

6. “Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey From Bozeman to Banaras” by Diana Eck

This is the story of how a Methodist from Montana was inspired by Hinduism and India to become a professor of Comparative Religions at Harvard, and how she came to realize that religious diversity was one of the most interesting parts of the fabric of America in the late 20th century, a dynamic that required more attention from religious communities, civil society and higher education. It was through this book that I came to know Professor Eck, and she’s someone who has served as a mentor to me ever since I first met her in person in 1999.

Wednesday on the NewsHour, find our full conversation with Patel. Check your local listings for the time.