Atheist Activist with an Axe to Grind: Resolution

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 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

UCSB Formal Apology Letter

UCSB Formal Apology Letter

7 responses to “Atheist Activist with an Axe to Grind: Resolution

  1. It’s not exactly an apology since no wrongdoing is admitted but it does confirm the principle that a student’s personal beliefs should have no part in evaluating their fitness for academic programs.

  2. I fought this battle as a student at UNM, though as an undergrad. I have my BA is Religious Studies, but the process was…intense. And even to this day, I cannot tell you how many times, upon hearing about my degree, I have been asked if I was studying to be a preacher’s wife. So congrats on your win!

  3. I was nice to see that when I tweeted you predicament a while ago, that many others picked it up and retweeted it, showing me that people are still interested in showing support and seeing justice served.

  4. Curiously, even as an atheist, you admit you that atheism is a religion: “Clearly, with this incident of religious intolerance, I lost my appetite for continued enrollment with UCSB in any fashion….”

  5. Congratulations David,
    Somehow I missed your message, but I am so very glad you fought the good fight and won. Perhaps with the changes being made in facebook I will not miss important news about you. I have over 2500 people in my facebook now and it is getting difficult to manage. Rest assured I have set you as a close friend so I hope to not miss important news about you as we go forward.

  6. Ditto!
    Carneades of Ga.; Skeptic Griggsy

  7. This design is wicked! You certainly know how to keep a reader entertained.
    Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start
    my own blog (well, almost…HaHa!) Fantastic job.
    I really loved what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented it.
    Too cool!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s