When many people think of Atlanta's religious climate, the images they conjure up are of Protestant churches on every corner, television evangelists and mega-churches vying for converts. Those images also might include Martin Luther King Jr. and the black church's involvement in the Civil Rights movement, or the monthly treks of the faithful to Conyers in hope of seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary.
The religious landscape of Atlanta, however, has changed drastically in the last 20 years, according to Gary Laderman, assistant professor of religion. Laderman has edited a book, Religions of Atlanta, to be released in June by Scholars Press, that profiles some of the growing number of religious communities in the city. In the introduction to the book, Laderman recalls the Olympic slogan, "The world is coming to Atlanta!" and says that "in many ways, the `world' is already here." He cites the increasingly international nature of religious life in Atlanta, and the growing number of Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Bahái and Christian communities in the metro area.
Former President Jimmy Carter, who wrote the foreward to the book, said, "During my boyhood in Sumter County, Ga., nearly everyone I knew was either a Baptist or a Methodist. If I had lived in Atlanta, I would have been exposed to more religious variety, but the state capital was not much different from my part of the state. Protestants dominated. Only small Jewish and Catholic communities existed." He continued, "Today, the face of religious Atlanta has changed remarkably . . . Atlanta's growth and prosperity have attracted people of ethnic and religious backgrounds that are new to this region."
Religions of Atlanta, which is subtitled "Religious Diversity in the Centennial Olympic City," is a collection of 23 essays that "highlight the broadening and diversifying religious landscape of the Atlanta region," Laderman said. He is careful to note that the book is neither exhaustive nor comprehensive. The writers, said Laderman, include faculty and graduate students from Emory, as well as professional writers from the Atlanta area.
The book includes the expected essays on "Mainline Protestantism in Atlanta," "Southern Baptists at Home in Atlanta," "The Jewish Community of Atlanta" and "African American Expressions of Protestant Christianity in Atlanta," but it also offers a few surprises, said Laderman. There is an essay on "Religion in Atlanta's Queer Community" as well as one on "Atlanta's Civic Identity: Civil Religion in a Southern Metropolis." Laderman said this last essay covers Old South symbolism such as the Georgia flag and "Dixie," as well as New South boosterism.
This book is just one part of a religious pluralism project Laderman has been working on the last year and a half. He and Assistant Professor Nancy Eiseland are involved with a larger religious pluralism project, somewhat modeled after Harvard's Pluralism Project, a part of the Harvard Center of the Study of World Religions. The first step, said Laderman, is to get the book out before the Olympics. Step two involves an ongoing course on religious pluralism in Atlanta, which he is teaching this semester and Eiseland will teach in 1997. That course provides students a view of the local religious landscape, and during the semester they will take a variety of outings, including the Stone Mountain laser show, to discuss civil religion in the South. Laderman and Assistant Professor Joyce Flueckiger are also combining his knowledge of American religions and her expertise in Asian religions to develop a course on Asian American religions. Step three involves a major conference, still being developed.
Harvard's Pluralism Project, according to chair of the Department of Religion Paul Courtright, was developed by Diana Eck in an effort "to get a better fix on the religious climate of the Boston area." Eck has served as a valuable consultant for the Emory program, Courtright said.
"As a department," Courtright said, "we are concerned with the diversity of religious traditions in America. With the Olympics coming here we wanted to foreground the presence of religious traditions in Atlanta." The changes in the religious landscape of Atlanta have "happened very incrementally, often with very little visibility to those who live here," said Courtright. He hopes the book will provide those Atlantans with some insight. Also, he said, he "hopes this helps newcomers to have a better feel for who their neighbors are."
-- Nancy M. Spitler