Atheist Activist with an Axe to Grind:
Public Education and the Influence of Theology
By David G. McAfee
In a nation founded partly on keeping governmental bodies and religious preferences apart from one another, one wouldn’t expect to see the type of religious/non-religious intolerance that we see in the United States of America. It is hard to believe, however, that a nation that is supposedly separated from these types of transgressions would continue to encourage the printing of “IN GOD WE TRUST” on legal tender and the recitation of “One nation, under God” in our nation’s Pledge of Allegiance. These are well-known examples of religion that has infiltrated a secular nation’s government- but by no means are they the only examples. Often we hear about new lawsuits being brought (often by individuals, sometimes with the help of organizations such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation) against various government entities for allowing religious discrimination to creep into reality in a secular environment.
Very rarely, however, are we personally affected by these devastating acts of discrimination; when we are- it is disheartening to say the least. In a public, state-funded, university we would hope and expect to see a complete separation between the scholarly endeavors of studying religion as a human phenomenon and the preaching of a specific religion as a reality- this, as you might know, is the difference between a Religious Studies department at a secular university and a Theology department at a Christian college or school of divinity. As a secular individual and scholar of Religious Studies, this distinction is particularly crucial in my studies. At the University of California, Santa Barbara, the Religious Studies department exists in a legal, secular, manner. It is in this department which I have studied various religious mythologies and their effects on mankind for the past four years and have earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis in Christianity and Mediterranean traditions. Until recently, I have not experienced any discrimination or proselytization on behalf of the professors in the classroom.
It was only a few months ago that, upon preparing to submit my application for the Graduate Department of Religious Studies at UCSB, I was met with the harshest of discriminatory treatment because of my work as an activist for secularism. I arranged to meet with the head chair of the Religious Studies Graduate Department of UCSB who is also a professor of Religious Studies and Catholic Studies. Little did I know at the time, her scholarly background primarily focuses in theology- and not in Religious Studies. Ann Taves received her Ph.D. from The Divinity School, The University of Chicago, in December 1983 and her M.A. from The Divinity School, The University of Chicago, in June 1979.Taves has also worked as, among other things, the acting Dean at Claremont School of Theology in the Fall of 1996 and various professorships at Claremont School of Theology.
But now, Ann Taves is the Virgil Cordano Chair of Catholic Studies Department within the Religious Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a chair of the Religious Studies program charged, in part, with reviewing applications for potential Graduate Students. I arranged a meeting with Taves in order to ensure that I could submit my completed application in a timely manner- and that I had met all of the requirements for admission, including the recommended GPA requirements, Letter(s) of Intent, and scholarly accomplishments- all of which, by all accounts, my application satisfied. I walked into Professor Taves’s office and greeted her politely. I let her know my intentions to apply for the M.A. /Ph.D. Graduate Program and cited for her my various publications including features in American Atheist Magazine, Canadian Freethinker Magazine, and my own self-published book entitled “Disproving Christianity: Refuting the World’s Most Followed Religion”. Taves instantly turned to her computer- looked up my name- and took only one minute to browse my bookselling page on Amazon.com before saying “I need to word this carefully… you wouldn’t fit in with our department’s milieu because you are an atheist activist with an axe to grind.” When I heard these words, I was absolutely astonished. I told her that I was blown away by her remarks and that she was judging my book- and my work- by its proverbial cover, without doing any further research into the merits of my claims or the philosophical and biblical basis for my condemnation of biblical literalism. She went on to describe my work (which she still has not read) as “unsophisticated” and not up to the standards of the Graduate Department of Religious Studies. I defended my work and informed her that diversity in beliefs should be sought after- not condemned- within any department- especially one focused on the studies of various religions.
After the meeting, I sent Professor Taves an e-mail in which I (politely) criticized her judgmental statements and asked for a fair consideration of my application. I will paste an excerpt from this e-mail below:
“…since our meeting, I’ve been thinking about your mischaracterization of me with which you were able to dismiss me so quickly. When you said ‘… you won’t fit in with our department’s milieu because you are an atheist activist’, I was blown away. Every department needs diversity and a combination of ideas, and people who are passionate about those principles. And, at a secular university like UCSB, I was amazed that that you even brought my religious ideologies (or, more aptly, lack thereof) into the conversation. I am a hard worker, and I love the study of various religions from cultural, philosophical, and historical perspectives. I don’t think that means that I wouldn’t fit in as a graduate student- nor does it mean that I have an ‘axe to grind’- as you put it in our meeting.”
Just last month, I received my official rejection letter from the Department of Religious Studies (which had no specific details regarding the application) and Taves continued to deny her obvious biases and suggested that she didn’t recommend me for the program because of my grades in two classes that I had taken with her years earlier; a ‘B+’ and a ‘C+’. But no amount of back pedaling will change the fact that Professor Taves, a former Professor and Dean at Claremont Theological School, insisted that I wouldn’t be considered as a potential Graduate Student because I am “an atheist activist with an axe to grind.”
If you believe in secular rights to a higher education at a public university in the United States, I encourage you to forward this article to as many people as you can in order to get widest distribution to those who may be in a position to help.
 http://www.religion.ucsb.edu/catholicstudies/about.php. Access date: 30 March 2011