The Center for the Study of World Religions was founded in 1958 with an anonymous gift from a small group of donors who hoped they might make a substantial difference in the world by advancing interreligious understanding and mutual respect for different religious traditions.
Their objectives, stated in the deed of gift, were to "help Harvard University maintain graduate and undergraduate courses in the religions of the world, to train teachers in this field, to give ministers a sympathetic appreciation of other religions, and to stimulate undergraduate interest in the religions of the world."
The founding director of the new center, Robert H. L. Slater, an Anglican chaplain whose scholarly work was in comparative religion, with particular emphasis on Theravada Buddhism, was in accord with what the donors were striving to accomplish.
He had already written about interfaith understanding, about "men who will join hands, not because they hold their own faiths lightly, but because they hold them deeply..., each loyal to his own tradition but anxious to understand others, deriving from his own religious convictions a charity which sees beyond nations, beyond continents to a New World."
Slater, who was director from 1958 to 1964, believed that a fuller appreciation of the religious "other" would come about through the close, personal interactions that occur when individuals share living space and daily concerns, and that a community of students, scholars, and practitioners who both studied and lived together would do much to enhance the more formal model of learning through academic study of texts and traditions.
Under his guidance, the building that houses the Center for the Study of World Religions was constructed, designed by José Luis Sert, then dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Design. The first residents in Slater's "experiment in communication" moved into the new space in 1960; since that time, the CSWR has been home to seven hundred master's and doctoral students and visiting scholars who have—through their research and publications, their teaching and spiritual and intellectual leadership—contributed to diverse faith communities across the globe and influenced later generations of students at institutions of higher learning in the Americas, Australia, Europe, and Asia.
The next two directors, Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1964–73), a scholar of Islam, and John B. Carman (1973–89), a scholar of Hinduism, significantly shaped and revitalized the study of religion at Harvard University, establishing the CSWR at the forefront of how the comparative study of religion should be defined, and later redefined in the postcolonial context. Smith's efforts led to expanding the teaching of "world religions" at Harvard at every degree level. Through their joint advocacy, Smith and Carman were instrumental in creating the undergraduate honors concentration in the comparative study of religion and in incorporating comparative perspectives in the doctoral programs.
With the study of world religions at Harvard well established, Carman initiated efforts to appoint faculty with expertise in previously unrepresented religious traditions, such as African religions—efforts that Lawrence E. Sullivan, director from 1990 to 2003 and a historian of religion specializing in the religions of South American and central Africa, continued to advocate.
During the 1990s, the CSWR also launched a series of multi-year, international research initiatives that brought scholars from around the globe to the CSWR to consider diverse issues that intersect with the study of religion, such as the arts, law, economics, the sciences, and ecology.
Buddhist scholar Donald K. Swearer, appointed director in 2004, worked both to sustain the CSWR's international programs that had grown under his predecessors and to nurture greater collaboration with other Harvard University faculty.
Appointed in 2010 as the sixth director, Francis X. Clooney, S.J., like the directors before him, has recognized the responsibility the CSWR has in fostering open and public conversation about religion in the world, while still preserving the unique residential community of scholars and practitioners the founders had envisioned: one that respects lived traditions, engages in interfaith awareness, and takes seriously what religious communities themselves say about their own traditions.