Empathy and the Religious "Enemy"

Dr. Hillel Gray and Miami students interview a member of the WBC

The project

Empathy and the Religious "Enemy" is an ongoing project of field work, public scholarship, and student engagement, organized by Dr. Hillel Gray. The project's objective is to increase critical-empathetic, non-judgmental understanding of radical oppositional religious groups, such as anti-Zionist Jews, some Black Hebrew Israelites, and Westboro Baptist Church.

Empathy brings emotions, emotional awareness, and perspective-taking into our understanding of human subjects. Empathy combines cognitive perceptions and affective understanding; it does not mean support, approval, or agreement. In times of conflict, the ability to empathize with one's opponents, religious or political, can diffuse potential tragedies like those that have too often scarred the history of religion in America.

Miami students can participate in this project through coursework and independent research, including study-away experiences.

Coursework: REL 402

In fall 2019, Dr. Gray will teach a section of REL 402 with the theme Empathy and the Religious "Enemy." In this course, you will investigate the religious beliefs and practices of radical, oppositional religious groups in the US, their history and social dynamics, and their reception in American society as an "enemy." You will build the critical-empathetic skills needed to analyze such groups, to interact with them, and to engage thoughtfully in public discourse about them.

Recommended prior coursework: REL 101, REL 201, REL 241, or ATH 403, or consultation with the instructor. Before or during the course, students will be asked to pass CITI training modules on human subjects research.

Sample readings:

  • James A. Aho, The Politics of Righteousness: Idaho Christian Patriotism (University of Washington Press, 1995).
  • Rebecca Barrett-Fox, God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right (University Press of Kansas, 2016).
  • Motti Inbari, Jewish Radical Ultra-orthodoxy Confronts Modernity, Zionism and Women's Equality (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

Be aware:

  • REL 402 is listed in the Miami Bulletin as "Basic structures in the history of religions."
  • In Fall 2019, REL 402 will be a 3-credit course. (Depending on when you register, it may show up as 4 credits.)

Financial support for independent research

Students who take Dr. Gray's section of REL 402 have the option of extending their work in that course into an independent research project in a subsequent semester (Winter, Spring, or Summer 2020). If you take that option, financial aid is available in the form of a research stipend, estimated at $250.

To apply for the stipend, you will submit a brief research plan to James Hanges, chair of the Department of Comparative Religion. Research projects eligible for the stipend include:

  • A paper researching any religious group that applies concepts and methods addressed in REL 402. (You might write this paper for another Miami course or as an independent study.)
  • Fieldwork with any religious group, using skills and methods addressed in REL 402. You might, for example, accompany Dr. Gray on his planned research visits to anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews (est. June 2019) or Westboro Baptist Church (est. August 2019).
  • Fieldwork or research on non-religious oppositional groups may also be suitable if your study applies concepts, skills, or methods addressed in REL 402.