Atheist Activist with an Axe to Grind: Resolution
By David G. McAfee
In May 2011, I wrote an article about the discrimination I faced when applying for the MA/PhD program for Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. You can find a link to the original story here. But for those of you who didn’t hear about the case when it happened, I’ll summarize.
I studied at UCSB for four years, coming to the campus directly out of high school at age eighteen. I majored in Religious Studies and English and, as graduation grew near, I decided that I wanted to pursue my education in Religious Studies in Santa Barbara in the form of the RGST Graduate Program, having had a successful and enjoyable tenure there. To clarify, I majored in Religious Studies, the study of religions from a phenomenological approach, which is not to be confused with Theology— the study of Christianity as a fundamental truth. Though I am not a religious person and, in fact, often oppose religion in its more extreme and violent forms, I find the historical and comparative aspects of Religious Studies extremely helpful in understanding how the human mind works and why people believe the things that they do. At a public university, like UCSB, and in a nation bound by a separation of Church and State, like America, this course of study should be acceptable for somebody of any or no faith; or so I thought.
Prior to submitting my application, I was recommended by an advisor to contact Ann Taves, professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the committee handling Graduate-level applications for the department; I was instructed to set up a meeting with her in order to “put a face to my application.” I had taken two classes with her in the past, but hadn’t had any significant interactions, positive or negative. I did as I was told and set up the meeting via e-mail and met with her a week later.
When I walked in the door to her office, Taves seemed friendly enough. She asked me about my aspirations and I told her that I wanted to be a writer and that I had self-published a book the year before. Upon hearing this, Taves turned to her computer and immediately Googled my name; the first result was my Amazon.com page for my book: Disproving Christianity: Refuting the World’s Most Followed Religion. I could see her computer monitor and, while I was a little bit nervous, I was sure that writing a book of compiled biblical criticisms in my spare time couldn’t be used against me— especially because this work was completely separate from my UCSB course studies. I was wrong. Taves turned to me and said “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.” Sure enough, my application was denied. Whether or not this interaction was the reason for the rejection, Taves’ behavior was inappropriate, unprofessional, and illegal.
It was these words, and her refusal to apologize when confronted by e-mail, that led me to seek justice— if not within the university, then in public opinion. I wrote the article Atheist Activist with an Axe to Grind and received plenty of criticism by Christians who said that, as an atheist, I shouldn’t be studying religion in the first place. But more importantly, I received numerous messages in support of my cause; and the article was even picked up by popular atheist websites including Friendly Atheist and was even mentioned by Washington Post. Readers wrote letters of support to the school and to the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs for UCSB, who approached me and asked me what I hoped to gain from this.
Clearly, with this incident of religious intolerance, I lost my appetite for continued enrollment with UCSB in any fashion; so a secondary review of my application or admission into the program would not suffice. And, though I maintain that the professor’s actions were illegal, I did not seek to defame the campus by taking my case to trial as a result of one administrator’s behavior. Instead, I asked for the one thing that could demonstrate that the Religious Studies department would not tolerate this type of behavior in the future and acknowledged the error. I wanted to be sure that non-religious students who enjoy studying religion would not be discriminated against in this way; I asked for a formal letter of apology from the head of the Religious Studies department at UCSB, Jose Cabezon.
Less than a month later, thanks to the many letters of support sent to the Religious Studies department on my behalf, and after an extensive investigation by the UCSB Office of Student Affairs, I received just such a letter. It stated the following:
“I am writing on behalf of the Religious Studies department to apologize for any comments that may have been made by Professor Ann Taves during a conversation you had with her on November 23, 2010, about your interest in UCSB’s graduate program in Religious Studies. While I was not present during that conversation, I want to assure you that it is the firm policy of the Religious Studies department not to discriminate against applicants on the basis of religious beliefs or lack thereof. If Professor Taves implied otherwise, then this was inappropriate. Issues of religious beliefs, activism, or activities unrelated to one’s own academic work should not be considerations in the admissions process.”
The letter is scanned below. I want to thank everybody who supported me throughout this ordeal. I’ve decided to attend Graduate School elsewhere, and I am satisfied with the result of the investigation. Thank you all.
-David G. McAfee