Head of Aspen Institute’s religion program sees key to healing wounds in humility
"I also believe that we can overcome this fear by opening ourselves up to one another and recognizing our shared humanity," says Dr. Simran Jeet Singh, executive director of the Aspen Institute's Religion and Society Program.<.p>
The newest executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Religion and Society Program, Dr. Simran Jeet Singh, offers humble spiritual guidance amid what cynics may view as a bipolar faith hellscape torn between Christian theocracy and micro-dosing, self-love devotion.
He’s the first to acknowledge that while of course nothing is truly binary, nor should we judge as we strive to lift our souls.
“How do we find optimism? he asked, Socratically. “In Chardi kala, (eternal optimism) is a beautiful concept that embraces the beauty all around us while recognizing life’s difficulties and adversity. It’s about finding joy within pain.”
Before joining the institute in October 2021, Simran was a professor of Buddhist history at Union Seminary and Islamic Studies at Trinity University and has a best-selling book, “The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life.” He emphasized that the Religion and Society Program takes a position of humility, recognizing that no one knows everything there is to know about religion’s role.
He said he believes progress comes from engaging with one another and learning through shared experiences.
“I experienced first-hand the dangers of people’s animus and hatred and knew that progress is not made by convincing one another of one’s opinion,” he said. “Rather, progress comes from opening ourselves up to one another, being in a relationship, and experiencing our shared understanding.”
As a Sikh, he wears a turban and beard, which makes him easily identifiable as a religious minority. He discussed an incident in which a woman told him to go back to his country shortly after 9-11.
Simran’s response was not anger but curiosity.
“I wondered what led the woman to say that to me, and engaged her in conversation, ultimately learning that she was afraid of people who look like me,” he said. “This experience taught me that people are often afraid of what they don’t know or understand.”
Simran said he believes the root of polarization and division in society is fear.
“People fear losing power, status, and privilege and see those different from them as a threat,” he said. “However, I also believe that we can overcome this fear by opening ourselves up to one another and recognizing our shared humanity.”
He said the institute program’s rebranding is helping create equality across religious differences. He used pluralism to describe a vision for a world in which everyone has an equal opportunity to thrive. As someone from a visible religious minority in the United States, he said he works to ensure that others don’t have to go through what he has.
The Religion and Society Program has two main goals.
First, it seeks to help people understand the role of religion in society.
“The program takes a position of humility, recognizing that no one knows everything there is to know about religion,” he said.
Second, the program aims to help advance understanding of religion’s role in contributing to the common good.
“The unwillingness to listen and connect with one another is precisely the phenomenon of polarization that brought me to my role with the institute,” he said.
Simran said he focuses on fostering better understanding and cooperation among individuals from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds. Through his initiatives, he has explored the intersections of religion with various social justice issues, including gender, race, and LGBTQ rights.
He has also been an advocate for amplifying the voices of underrepresented communities and promoting diversity and inclusivity in the public arena.
“I have to say, honestly, that I haven’t yet run into roadblocks bringing inclusion into the institute,” he said. “They have been incredibly supportive and receptive to my ideas and the work I want to pursue. It’s been encouraging and refreshing.”
But what of all the mass shootings, climate crisis, injustice, and economic uncertainty?
“I’m not talking about the ugliness of hate, violence, or whatever pending social issues there are, and there are a lot of them, but I think many of us have had experiences that are hard stuff in life. I find over and over again that when people try and skirt the difficulty rather than taking it as reality and embracing it despite the discomfort and the fear when trying to avoid it, they pretend everything is fine,” he said.
“It’s so easy to give up when you focus on the negative,” he said. “But I think the choice is that there is goodness around us. This is what our spiritual traditions teach us. How do you live in the present moment, not the regret of the past or the fear of the future? It’s not easy to do.”
Singh will be speaking at the Aspen Ideas Fest this summer.
The Religion and Society Program was started in 2012 by Meryl Chertoff, the wife of Michael Chertoff, who served in the Bush administration.
Meryl was sensitive to religious-based bigotry, particularly anti-Semitism, and after the 9/11 attacks, she saw the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment and Islamophobia. She wanted to do something about it, so she started the Inclusive America Project.
She led it for several years then brought on Zeenat Rahman, who worked in President Barack Obama’s State Department. Zeenat later left to lead the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago.
The Inclusive America Project eventually became the Aspen Institute’s Religion and Society Program in 2022. The Aspen Institute is a think tank based in Washington, D.C., tackling a wide range of issues, including public policy, economics, and social justice.