FAQ: Frequently asked questions

Why were Westboro Baptist Church and Neturei Karta selected as groups to study? 

The Westboro Baptist Church was selected as a research subject because it serves as an embodiment of an oppositional, polarizing religious group, including being recognized as a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group’s controversial, though physically nonviolent, discipline allows researchers the physical safety to interact in-person with members of the church, despite the church’s assertion of God’s abhorrence toward Jews and Judaism, the academic focus of principal investigator Dr. Hillel Gray’s expertise and training. 

Dr. Gray has dedicated his academic career to Jewish studies. He chose to study the Neturei Karta to research an analogous group to WBC within his own field and because it highlights ethical debates over antisemitism, Zionism, and Israel. He is affiliated with the Middle East, Jewish, and Islamic Studies (MEJIS) program at Miami University.

The religious groups selected for this research are often considered harmful, hateful, and intolerant and, in turn, may be scorned, condemned, threatened, or ostracized. Ideally, the project would expand to learn about other “enemy” religious groups, improve the project’s methodology, and deepen its educational impact.

What does “non-judgmental critical-empathic” listening mean? What does it imply about the groups studied?

Empathy refers to a depth of understanding that uses our capacity to emotionally connect with fellow human beings. Empathy aims for emotionally-informed understanding and accurate cognitive perceptions. Empathy does not mean that project faculty, participating students, or Miami University support or defend the beliefs or tactics of any religious groups. 

“Non-judgmental” describes the researchers’ goal of impartially listening to and interacting with research subjects. Project researchers aim to suspend, or do not express, their own moral and theological judgments in any interaction with or about radical, oppositional groups. This is not a suspension of one’s own ethics, but a suspension of reactions to the “oppositional Other,” so as to create a space for connection and rapport.

Do you teach students to recognize that radical, oppositional religious groups are evil – or at minimum – wrong? 

No, the project aims to be non-judgmental on moral and theological matters. The project intends neither to affirm nor to condemn any particular religious beliefs or practices. Nonetheless, if students seek guidance on how to evaluate radical religious groups, trained faculty are available to consult on ethical judgments and to refer students to religious clergy.

Does “empathy” mean you feel sorry for religious oppositional groups?

No. While emotional reactions vary among faculty and students involved in the project, the project does not aim to foster feelings of sympathy for any religious group, but rather to generate emotionally-informed understanding and accurate cognitive perceptions. It enables researchers to engage with and respond meaningfully to people in vilified groups, despite their apparently intolerable beliefs.

How can I contact you to ask questions and make suggestions?

We are happy to answer your questions and are always open to suggestions about new oppositional groups to study! To get in touch, send us a message on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok. You can also email Dr. Gray at grayhc@miamioh.edu.