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
Thanks, Orhan. Typo fixed
I am appalled, but not surprised, at this treatment that you have received in what should be a religious-neutral academic setting. You have my moral support in fighting this, and I do hope that you fight this. I will spread the news of this as much as I can. I suggest you contact all the relevant atheist and freethought organizations that would be willing to take your case. Try your local chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State as well as the ACLU and American Atheists and Freedom From Religion Foundation. And if you need financial support for legal defense, just let me know and I will spread the word about that too.
@William I very much appreciate your moral support. The incident has been reported to FFRF and “Americans United for Separation of Church and State”. I look forward to hearing back from them and, in the meantime, some people have mentioned starting a letter-writing campaign to the university in order to condemn the professor’s actions. Any organization help (and definitely spreading the word) would be amazing. Thanks again for your support!
If I may, I suggest something from Buddhism – you are clinging to the notion of attending this university as opposed to the many others that would no doubt welcome you with open arms and THAT is what’s causing your dilemma. As an atheist, you well know that you will repeatedly run into those theists who are quite motivated to put roadblocks in your way. In such instances, you have a couple of choices at least – you can plow through the roadblock causing damage both to yourself and those blocking you – and perhaps some collateral damage in addition – OR you can simply go around the block. Those like this professor rarely see that options are always many. They cannot see beyond their own narrow view to the broader view of reality of which an atheist is capable. In short, try another school. Also, I would add, seeing that you have already published a great deal, of what real purpose is a masters or Ph.D. when you seem to already be well on your way to published scholarship all on your own? Success for you, apparently, isn’t tied to credentials and it needn’t be. What can you possibly learn in a formalized program that you cannot learn on your own and make good use of in further publication? Jus’ sayin’.
@Naumadd I understand where you’re coming from but I attended this university for four years and have a life in Santa Barbara. Not to mention the fact that UCSB is the only university in California with an MA/PHD program in Religious Studies.
You go, guy! I am sure you will turn this lemon into lemonade and this will be a subject for one of your future books. This hits home for me because I have thought that I might have gone your educational route if I could start over. I am sure you will fight this and end up rubbing his win in the administrator’s nose. Make UCSB sorry they ever hired that administrator.
I have reported the incident to FFRF and “Americans United for Separation of Church and State”. I look forward to their responses. In the meantime, please spread the word 🙂
Better to learn their University programme is fatally flawed by prejudice and poor academic standards before you enroll – than after you’ve spent months on a thesis when it’s given a fail grade on the basis of its title page.
Take it as a close shave and thank that professor for having the honesty to recognise his own bigotry and warn you of the consequences if you’d been accepted.
Shame on her. I am writing to her right now to tell her what I think.
Thank you, Breezy! Some people have also discussed beginning a letter-writing campaign to the university in order to condemn the professor’s actions. Either way, thank you for the support!
Keep grinding – axe is no way near sharp enough.
…..lol, think of the utter irony of a theist telling an athiest that they have an axe to grind, hoho.
Dude, first impressions are big.
One, your book was self-published, telling me and probably her that no actual publishing company would touch it (be that the case or not.)
Two, the title of your book, “Disproving Christianity: Refuting the World’s Most Followed Religion” tells me (and clearly her) that you have an agenda and your conclusion is already made, making further study seem just like a way of saying “oh by the way, I have schooling to back up my claims” rather than the continued pursuit of knowledge.
Three, your failure to expect this sort of reaction and prepare a response for it tells me (again, probably her too) that you were unprepared for the interview. Instead of refuting her in person, you gave her time to get other reasons to deny you.
Four, try being an activist who participates at Christian events. Maybe you could try to bridge that gap instead of hacking away at your opponent all of the time, since you’re so interested in their studies. If your repertoire consists only of one ideology, which happens to be known for bashing away at the big religions, and you’re apparently part of that based on a quick google, what do you expect? Find middle ground with casual churches, attend conferences, blog about the pros of Christianity, do /something/ to up your appearance of being an ankle-biter or “axe grinder.”
TL;DR: Seriously, first impressions. I read the /title/ of your book and the header of your blog and I agree, “another atheist with an axe to grind with an interest in studying his opponent in order to best beat it.”
Imagine that you are the chair of the department of Biological Sciences. An applicant walks into your office and among his list of works is a self-published book title, “Disproving Evolution: Refuting the World’s Most Trusted Science” or something to that effect. From Taves’ point of view, would this not be a similar scenario? Would you admit that student? I am not suggesting that it was right for Taves to not admit you – I am just wondering how you think your situation might differ from the one outlined above.
That’s a good question, James. But it ignores the introduction of my article in which I outline the differences between Theology and Religious Studies. If I were applying to a theological divinity school, this type of discrimination would be expected. The difference is that in a Religious Studies program, one is not teaching the validity of any tradition- think of it as a historical or phenomenological approach to ALL religions and even secular studies.
I take your point. But having done graduate school myself (albeit in the history of science) I am in sympathy more with Jared’s comments below. Graduate school is about forming a very close, mentor-mentee relationship with one or more professors in the department. Your research interests must complement someone else’s at the school otherwise you will not find any professor that is willing to work with you, willing to be on your dissertation committee, guide your research, stick his/her neck out for you, help you obtain grants, etc. I know because I have seen the ramifications when it doesn’t play out like that for a student. It is very difficult to pave your own way or go against the grain of your department. It is a weakness, I feel, of the ivory tower in general but unfortunately that is also the reality.
Here is my advice. Finding the right graduate program is an extremely important decision because it will impact you potentially for the next 5-7 years and will shape who you become as a scholar and/or academic. Find a professor who might actually be interested in your work and will nurture your mind, not fight against it. You will be all the better for it.
Bit of an analogy failure there.
Evolution is supported by massive amounts of evidence where as there is not a shred of evidence to support any of the religions of the world, and in fact copious evidence that refutes the truth claims (jebus is the reanimated zombie son of an invisible sky fairy that teleported to earth though the vagina of a jewish virgin, mohammad was transported to heaven on a white horse, etc, ad nauseum) made by religion.
The onus would be on the creotard/IDiot applying to the department of Biological Sciences to provide evidence in support of his “thesis”, this is not the case for an atheist applying to a program in religious studies.
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Grad school works a bit differently than undergrad, as I’m sure you know. And if you have deep-rooted philosophical differences with the grad faculty, you won’t have a good experience. Grad school is more like an apprenticeship than a series of lectures. And the students reflect the nature of the grad school. If a student is working against the grain of the rest of the department, it may make the school look less desirable for future candidates.
In the Dean’s defense, which may be unwelcome here, I think she was right for two key reasons. 1) You would have a much brighter future at a different department, say at Harvard or Berkley, where you would study with academics of a similar bent. Right or wrong, UCSB would hold you back, because you wouldn’t be considered a contribution to their department. 2) As “an atheist activist with an axe to grind,” I assume that you plan to study philosophy of religion. Because if you want to advance your atheistic activism, you need to know the arguments for and against the existence of God. But it would be plane to her, as it is to me, that your work isn’t philosophical. That might’ve been what she meant when she called your work unsophisticated, even only from a glance at the proverbial cover, because it says, Disproving Christianity. A philosopher wouldn’t title her book with “disproving” anything, because it’s easy to dismantle the beliefs of others. Anyone can do it. And, having read it, it’s true that the book raises some great points, but as a Christian who is slightly educated, I’ve heard all of it before. It’s well written and I like your style, but “disproving” may be a bit presumptuous 🙂 Despite that, I highly recommend it (especially to my friends who only read books by Christian authors).
So, your energy might be better spent looking into other schools, rather than fighting one that isn’t right for you. Maybe.
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I, too, am an atheist that has gone through the Public University system. What’s almost ironic about this is that I came through the University of Georgia, in Athens, GA with an MA in Religious Studies, and I never received more than lite teasing about my personal (lack-of) beliefs. In fact, many of the teachers were extremely positive towards me and invited me to discussions and classes I otherwise would have remained ignorant of without their involvement. I was even given a TA position when I applied for my Master’s degree work, and taught my own introduction to Religion courses with the full knowledge of my professors about my personal beliefs.. I find it odd that the traditional liberal enclave of California’s education system turns out more discriminatory than the traditionally conservative state of Georgia’s. I hope you find success in your studies, and don’t let yourself be discouraged by this ridiculous setback.
I understand why Taves’s comment might have been jarring to you, but I think you are missing a key point here. Taves is known as an especially strong advocate for the secular, scientific study of religion. Her most recent work, for example, has argued for greater emphasis on cognitive science and Darwinian approaches to explaining religious experiences and behavior. While this might seem counterintuitive to you, from her perspective you are taking a theological position. Religious studies (at least in theory) takes no position on the validity of religious beliefs, meaning that it does not prove or disprove them. By disproving Christianity, you are making a theological argument about the truth of Christian revelation (this is what is meant by “axe to grind”). It’s fine if you want to do this in your spare time, but it’s a problem if you are citing this book in support of your application to enter the program. Another way to put this is that from the scientific study of religion’s perspective, your work would lack the quality that scientists identify as “objectivity.” This is not because you’re an atheist (there are lots of atheists in religious studies) but because you are an advocate for a theological position.
Finally, the grades you mentioned (especially because they were in religious studies classes) probably would be sufficient basis to deny you admission to the program, regardless of what you said you wanted to study.
I agree with Random Guy and would like to add a few points.
First, if you’re going to factor in Ann Tave’s interests as a scholar, then you might want to look into her most recent published works that are at the intersection of religious studies and cognitive science.
Second, self-publishing is not as strong as having an academic press publish your work. The peer review process is central to the academy. If you’re book had been published in a peer-reviewed journal or academic press, then it would have carried more weight in the admission process.
Finally, no single professor makes all the decisions or is responsible for any single decision. It is done by committee.
It’s one of the top Religious Studies Departments in the world and you don’t seem to be interested in any of the specialties worked on there. Isn’t there a program that would cater better to your scholarly needs?
As a rather overt atheist who is also an associate professor of Religious Studies (in southern Alberta), I am horrified at this situation. We have graduated atheists, Christians of a variety of stripes, and people of a number of persuasions.
The secular study of religion is not ideologically/philosophically perfect but one can learn a lot about other people, society and history. It must be open to everyone or it is self-defeating.
I spent some time in the philosophy graduate program at UCSB; religious studies was located nearby, and the philosophy and religious studies grad students hung out together a lot. I recall there being a lot of atheists among the religious studies grad students in those days. This was in the 90s; I suppose it’s possible that things have utterly changed, but that would be an extraordinarly quick and dramatic shift. Unless there has been such an extraordinary change, it seems likely that the activism was the issue rather than the atheism. They might well have been equally unhappy with someone with lots of Christian activist activities and a self-published book purporting to prove Christianity; that sort of advocacy on any side doesn’t seem to be the sort of thing most religious studies departments do. And perhaps that there are other issues that the department genuinely considers problems rather than merely using as cover as you imply.
You clearly were not rejected for being an atheist. You were rejected for not being academically ready (getting a C in a class you wish to do graduate work in is not a good indication you’ll be able to complete the program, obviously), and because she thought you were an atheist *with an axe to grind.* Anyone applying to that program who is out to prove Zoroastrianism is the one true religion or that Sikhs are all going to hell would probably be rejected too, and rightly so.
Okay, I’m a practicing Catholic and even I think Ms. Taves was being ridiculous as well as inappropriate. It’s her responsibility to see if you’re fit to attend a graduate program, not ready to be Confirmed. She had no right to judge you solely on your religious choices. It’s people like her who make Christians look like hateful jerks.
Growing up, my town was predominately Jewish and Catholic. The priest who came to religious instruction to speak to us was best friends with a rabbi. He taught us to RESPECT other religions. My own best friend was Jewish and we celebrated several religious holidays together simply becasue we cared for eachother, not out of belief of the holiday itself. When I entered a private high school a lot of the other girls were athiest. Was I supposed to not make friends becasue of it? Thinking like that just spreads hate. Ms. Taves was way out of line in making hasty judgements of you simply becasue she didn’t like the subject of your book. You have every right to make your own choices about religion without being penalized for it in any way.
That being said, while I support your right to believe in and speak out for whatever you want, I can’t say that I approve of your book either. What’s the point in disproving someone else’s religion? Do you really care what I choose to do with my Sunday mornings or what prayers I recite in the privacy of my own mind? I don’t follow your blog , I just stumbled across this post, so I have no idea whether you are as judgemental of other religions as Ms. Taves. Based on the content of this particular post, I’m betting not. So I am simply curious as to why you would bother writing a published piece disproving Christianity. Perhaps publishing a book supporting atheism in general wouldn’t be as attention-grabbing as yours, but it would get across your beliefs without offending anyone too harshly. I guess what I don’t understand is why people (fellow Catholics included) feel the need to bash other religions. What’s wrong with you believing what you believe, and me believing what I believe? It’s not as though either of us are hurting anybody. It’s only when people like Ms. Taves make their private beliefs into a matter of public opinion that things get out of control.
There has been an update and resolution to this case. View more here: