Students examine religious intolerance
A handful of Wake Forest students got a crash course in hatred last semester. Lynn Neal, an assistant professor of religion at the university, decided to take the study of religious intolerance beyond the confines of the classroom, by challenging her students to create a Web site that educates the public about instances of hatred based on religion and sparks discussion on the subject.
In Neal’s own words, “Fighting Religious Intolerance: Portraits of Hate, Lessons of Hope” was designed to be “a force that counterbalances religious hatred through the power of education.”
The site was officially unveiled during a special reception held at the school’s Benson University Center Tuesday afternoon.
The project was extremely demanding, but Neal says her students rose to the challenge.
“I can’t even tell you how hard they worked. They owned it in a sense; they went beyond what I expected,” she reported. “It was amazing for me to see them channel such energy and excitement into the project.”
Many of Neal’s former students were on hand at the reception to introduce the site and share the insights they gained from participating in the project.
“It was really eye opening. It was definitely the most interactive class I’ve had at Wake Forest,” Senior Laila Salem said of the experience. “It was intense, to say the least… (but) it came together very well.”
Print and video materials and teaching and discussion aids are among the resources available on the site. Derogatory depictions centered around the themes of anti-Semitism, anti-Mormonism and anti-Catholicism – the primary focuses of the site – are on display as well, complete with commentary and historical information about their origins. Neal says she plans to continue adding more information to the site, incorporating the persecution of other religions such as Islam, Buddism and Hinduism in the future.
The students scoured the internet for text and illustrations to highlight the intolerance that still lurks below the surface of American culture. The deplorable images were plentiful, noted student Stephen Kliefoth.
“I don’t believe any of us were surprised to find these images, but what we were surprised about was the level of quality and quantity,” he said.
Greg Dragas, a second year master’s student, said he found the course to be refreshingly different.
“A lot of classes are more theoretical… I felt like this was a chance to really apply what we learned,” he commented.
A product of the TV generation, Dragas says he wasn’t prepared for the impact the images had on him.
“I didn’t think it would really shock me,” he admitted. “I was actually surprised, shocked … and disturbed by some of these images. It definitely makes you question the story you’re being fed about America being this melting pot… of religious tolerance.”
Neal says she is hopeful that lessons learned from the project will stay with all of her students for a long time.
“This doesn’t leave you. As one student put it, you can’t ‘unlearn’ it,” she remarked. “I think (they gained) a sense that what they learn has value outside the classroom and that they can even create small change and that small change is important.”