Atheist Rejected from Grad School Because of His Activism? April 30, 2011

Atheist Rejected from Grad School Because of His Activism?

David McAfee is a University of California, Santa Barbara student applying for a spot in their Religious Studies program for grad school.

I don’t know David and I don’t know if he’s a worthy candidate. But he has a lot of writing about religion to his credit:

… features in American Atheist Magazine, Canadian Freethinker Magazine, and my own self-published book entitled “Disproving Christianity: Refuting the World’s Most Followed Religion”.

Not a bad resume for an undergraduate.

So put yourself in the position of the person looking at his application. What would you pay attention to? Hopefully, a sample of his writing (and, therefore, his ability to research, understand, and communicate his thoughts about religion), his grades, recommendation letters, etc.

What would be irrelevant? His personal beliefs. Those shouldn’t matter. This isn’t a Christian school where everybody has to be in lockstep with the school’s interpretation of the Bible.

So it’s disturbing to learn what Ann Taves, the Chair of the Catholic Studies Department at UCSB, did during an interview with David:

Taves instantly turned to her computer — looked up my name — and took only one minute to browse my bookselling page on 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.”

Umm… what?

She didn’t say, “Your writing lacks proper research,” or “Your undergraduate grades don’t cut it,” or “There are more qualified applicants.”

She said his personal beliefs would make him unfit to study in the department. She didn’t even seem to consider the possibility that an ardent, out-of-the-closet atheist could be objective when it comes to discussing and debating religion.

Of course, the official rejection letter didn’t say that. And David says Taves later blamed his grades.

But, if this story is true, it shows incredibly poor judgment on the part of a school official. To reject someone outright because of his beliefs — and not the quality (or potential quality) of his work — reeks of discrimination.

David is filing a grievance claim with the school and has a few suggestions of how others can help him.

This is ultimately a game of he-said, she-said because there’s no proof of Taves’ statement. But I would hope the matter would be looked into by her superiors.

(Thanks to Kathy for the link)

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  • I have to admit a self-published book and some articles in a friendly publication don’t sound like ‘credentials’ of note to me. The alleged anti-activist statement in the interview is definitely grounds for an inquiry even if David has no academic qualifications whatsoever.
    If I were totally objective, I would wonder how it is that an applicant was in an interview with a Department Head who 1) had not googled his name and 2) chose the interview as a good time to google his name. It’s also somewhat unclear how he knew she was googling his name. He indicates it was in response to quoting of his atheist writing credentials. Still, he indicates that he had taken classes from her before.
    Obviously the university should provide a response to this, such as proof that they have accepted atheist candidates and that the operate in good standing, that they are open even to those with a critical view of the topic, and that David is either accepted or that there is clear evidence that his application falls below academic requirements.

  • Cortex

    It’s unlikely that he’d get an interview if his application wasn’t already good enough for admission, so the professor’s statement sounds pretty weak to me.

    Just goes to show, yet again, that religion can’t even stay in the game without stacking the deck.

  • CanadianNihilist

    I hope this leads to Ann Taves’ dismissal. I know it will not, but it would be nice.

  • Ann Taves is co-chair of the cognitive science of religion consultation at the American Academy of Religion. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the kind of scholars involved in CSR, but it’s full of atheists, including some very outspoken ones. It’s hard to imagine her rejecting someone for a graduate program simply on that basis. It is easy, however, to imagine someone being rejected if they are only about grinding the atheist axe because it doesn’t provide a firm foundation for a master’s thesis. It’s also possible that there is no one in the faculty who is able and willing to supervise such a thesis.

  • Patrick

    Jason wrote: “I have to admit a self-published book and some articles in a friendly publication don’t sound like ‘credentials’ of note to me.”

    You have to remember the level at which this is taking place. For an undergraduate to have done anything at all is an accomplishment. It shows they have drive, and probably puts them several steps above everyone else applying for the position.

  • bigjohn756

    Ms. Taves knows that she can allow neither anyone who can think nor anyone who has their own opinion to participate in a religious studies curriculum. Such a person would disrupt the important continuation of college level religious indoctrination.

  • cass_m

    Candidates who don’t accept the core theories of a department frequently don’t make the cut. Think of a creationist wanting to do Grad studies in a science department. What about a holocast denier seeking to attain an advanced degree in Modern European History. S/he would have to have exceptional qualifications to make the cut and they could create a lot of undesirable stress within a department. If David were applying for a space in a philosophy department I think he would have a case but if a religious studies department is forced to accept his application this would be a bad precedent for all departments.

    That said, clearly there should have been better screen in advance so he could have been sent a “best wishes on your future endeavours” letter.

  • @cass_m

    There have been examples of creationists in science programs (Marcus Ross being the most famous example). He is a young earth creationist who completed a PhD in Paleontology at the University of Rhode Island. While there was certainly some controversy surrounding his case and some armchair quarterbacking saying he should be kicked out, the bottom line was that the faculty and everyone directly involved stated that he had demonstrated the ability to perform acceptable research in the field, and the fact that he didn’t believe a word of what he said in that research was not relevant and could not be used to prevent him from earning his degree.

  • Doug

    Cass, you’re 100% wrong. First of all, comparing atheism to creationism and Holocaust denial? Each of those are stances in direct opposition to overwhelming mountains of evidence, and the failure to see that marks a candidate student as unfit to perform good research in the fields they are applying to. Religious studies, on the other hand, does not assume the reality of the religious doctrines being studied. Your comparison would be apt if McAfee denied the existence of Catholicism, but as it stands they have no similarities.

    Moreover, it was not simply the student’s lack of belief that (so he says) got him rejected – it was his ACTIVISM. This points to not a problem with his views as related to the subject-matter, but his outspokenness about a subject the Chair disagreed with and didn’t want to have associated with “her department,” or more likely, with herself.

    If true, this is grossly unjust and I hope she gets canned.

  • Richard P.

    This is ultimately a game of he-said, she-said because there’s no proof of Taves’ statement.

    You don’t mean to suggest a christian would lie do you? I can’t imagine that would happen. It would make jesus sad.

  • JJR

    He should apply to the Religious Studies program at Rice University. I was friends with several students in this Department when I was there as a German Studies grad student; they were all extremely well read and quite unapologetic atheists one and all, just like me.

    Granted, the cross section I socialized with were the ones who hung out at Valhalla (our grad student pub in the basement of the Chem building), so his mileage may vary…

  • Trace


  • flatlander100

    He was rejected for being “an atheist activist with an axe to grind.” I’ve got no problem with that, provided that “Christian activists with axes to grind” are also rejected for the same reason.

    Which puts the school in the position, it seems, of welcoming only Christians [or Muslims or Jews or atheists] who are not activist Christians, or Jews, or Muslims, or atheists.

    Odd standard for a Religious Studies program, que no? “We want only the tepid and marginally committed to study with us here. If you’re more than a lukewarm whatever you are, go someplace else. You won’t fit in.”

  • I have to admit a self-published book and some articles in a friendly publication don’t sound like ‘credentials’ of note to me.

    My own activities as an atheist activist were discussed during my interview for a different dept in a different uni. I believe that my blogging and my admining of a Christians vs Atheist dscussion board helped me earn my position to study for a doctorate. Having people read your work even in a non-academicly rigorous publication is still good.

  • Josh Evolved

    The best defense that he has here is to find out the grades of prior, or incoming, Religious Studies students at UCSB and compare them to his own. If they are similar then he might have a stronger case, however if his grades are below even the low end of anyone admitted to the program then he can’t win.

    If his grades are equivalent to the rest of the people in that program (falling within what has usually been accepted) then he has some solid evidence pointing towards discrimination.

    He obviously can’t prove what she said, but proving that his grades aren’t actually an issue adds credibility to his claim.

  • Lance

    She is a bigot and I hope she gets fired for her discriminatory actions.

  • He should consider filing a legal complaint with his state’s nondiscrimination agency on the grounds of religious discrimination. And then he should go find another school to go to, because there’s no way he can expect to be treated fairly there in the future under the circumstances.

  • John

    WHY is an atheist wasting his college time studying RELIGION of all things??

  • Gibbon

    cass_m is actually right. The views that McAfee has expressed in his writings do display a certain personal bias on the subject, a bias that from what I can tell goes completely against what scholars in Religious Studies understand of religion. As someone who is actually completing a bachelors degree in Religious Studies and as a result have learned a fair bit about what scholars understand of religion, I can confirm that McAfee’s views go against that current understanding.

    I will also point out that in light of a discussion I had with one of my tutors, published material like McAfee’s, which I would include amongst the writings of the popular atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, are generally not accepted as scholarly/academic contributions. Such material would be unlikely to improve, and may actually hurt, an applicant’s chances of being accepted into a post-grad programme in Religious Studies.

  • fiddler

    @gibbon and @cass
    This is not a “support christianity” course, it is Religious Studies. If being an outspoken atheist would be too disruptive or “not a good fit,” being an outspoken theist would be far worse. The atheist is there to learn the content, whether or not he might use his knowledge to further his activism. The religious person is there with previously held biases that will work counter to learning honestly about other religions.

  • Didn’t you post recently about a Pew Forum study showing that atheists tend to be more religiously literate than members of the religion itself? You’d think his atheism would be seen as a qualification for working in the Religious Studies department. 😉

  • Joe

    Although I can’t speak specifically about Religious Studies programs, I am a graduate student who helped in my department’s recruitment process. I can say that one of the things we try to assess is “fit with the program”. Although it is also not common for someone to get to the interview process without having had their grades, GPA, references, test scores, other work, etc checked out first (usually in a structured format). I can also say that as someone who is studying organizational selection practices, it is a common practice in academia (as well as most other organizations). There is scientific evidence suggesting that this practice doesn’t have much evidence to justify its use. Sadly, there is also evidence suggesting even people who are trained in HR commonly believe they are good at such practices.

  • Richard Wade

    “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.”

    That is worded carefully?? What the heck would she have said if she was not being careful?

    I sure hope we get to the truth on this. I’m not going to assume anything until we get some more evidence.

  • PCE

    It seems that anyone with an “axe to grind” would probably find trouble in finding approval for a major that for the most part requires objective observation. Any super religious or super atheist will more than likely be weeded out. The social sciences like to be friendly.

  • WHY is an atheist wasting his college time studying RELIGION of all things??

    Why do people study anything? To understand it better. Do you think that people study racism because they are racists? War because they are war-mongers? Fascism because they are fascists?

    I don’t know about you, but I’m interested in how people are religious– where it comes from, and what its relationship is to thought and behavior. Only a stunningly naive person would assume that they know those things simply because they have rejected religion personally.

  • Baconsbud

    Gretchen will courses in this religious study the main post is about, really say why people are religious? I feel it is easier to know why people are religious by talking directly with the individuals.

  • Baconsbud, a religious studies program is in fact about studying religion, so yes you will get answers about why people are religious. A theology program involves studying doctrine and is a different thing entirely. “Who is God?” and “What is religion?” are different questions. An atheist rejects the former question, but can absolutely address the latter.

  • I have a Masters degree in anthropology from UCSB, meaning that I was immediately downstairs from religious studies and had routine interaction with grad students from the religious studies department. Based on my experience with these folks, I have a hard time believing that someone was denied a place because they were an atheist activist. It seems more likely that it was called into question whether they were wanting into the program to study, or to try to prove a point.

    Put another way – I entered my graduate program telling my advisor that I was interested in studying the interaction between the Spanish colonists and the native peoples of California. That is a perfectly legitimate line of study. If, however, I had told them that I wanted to use archaeology to prove that the Spanish colonization was legitimate and good, or that the Native Peoples were simply helpless victims of the Spanish, in other words, if I had told them that I had a particular position I was wanting to push prior to study, that would not have been legitimate. If someone as an atheist wants into a religious studies department to study religion, there’s no problem with that at all. If they want in to push a particular agenda prior to commencing study of the subject, well, that’s just bad research.

    There were, as of a few years ago, plenty of atheists at UCSB, including in the religious studies department. Many of them did good work. Regardless of their views on religion (in fact, probably because of their views on religion), all of them approached their research questions in an honest manner, without a particular conclusion in mind. I don’t know about this fellow, but it sounds as if there were concerns that he would not do so.

  • Rich Wilson
  • i’m skeptical. there are all sorts of ways of saying, “you wouldn’t fit in here” and if she chose to say that with a poor choice of words, it can still be true about some candidates. i worked in college admissions for a long time, and there were a lot of people who, despite paper qualifications, wouldn’t have been a good match for the school. perhaps he was too closed minded about essential topics in religion, or had personality traits that suggested he’d be disruptive in the classroom. we don’t know. i’m not ready to call this anti-atheism. i know too many atheists from divinity school. that sort of discrimination isn’t a problem. but i seriously doubt a bigwig in the AAR is an anti atheist bigot. that organization is too highbrow and academic for common bigotry like that.

  • cass_m

    @Doug – actually my comparison is between core values of departments. History departments accept documents with known provenance. Science is based on the scientific method. Religious studies could well require a belief (or that ability to understand such a belief)in a god OR a value system that has an authoritative text.

    Like Chicago Dyke I am quite sceptical of this account. His report smacks of the same rhetoric one hears when an YEC doesn’t get a science position. As Richard says, if that was tactful – well tell us how you really feel.

  • Winnie

    I’m with Chicago Dyke and Joe. I’m a grad student myself, as I’m sure many others here are, and one of the key components in graduate admissions is fit with the program. Perhaps David’s goals or approach to studying religion just didn’t mesh with the general goals and approach of the faculty at UCSB. Trust me, when students don’t mesh with their professors, everyone ends up unhappy and frustrated.

    No doubt Professor Taves worded things in an unfortunate way, but it really seems difficult to say at this point that this is discimination.

  • walkamungus

    Go to the “update” link Rich Wilson provided, and read the comment by “Ian.” I’m with that. A self-published book and a blog? Not good evidence of fitness for graduate study. The statement about “and any other materials you would like considered” should be a warning flag to this guy: “You have one more chance to give us something showing you’re capable of graduate work.”

  • Aj

    I agree with many here that people who want to push an agenda are not good candidates, but lets be honest here, religious studies is riddled with religious people pushing agenda without any obstacles, in mainstream academia. I don’t know about this particular school, but I can see atheist “activists” being dismissed while active religious people are welcomed.

  • walkamungus

    Hemant, I think you saw the “persecuted atheist activist” flag and didn’t really stop to think about this.

    She didn’t even seem to consider the possibility that an ardent, out-of-the-closet atheist could be objective when it comes to discussing and debating religion.

    It seems to me that she figured out (and since he’s an undergrad in the same program, probably not only figured out but knew) that *this guy* couldn’t be objective when it comes to studying religion. The academic study of religion isn’t about whether or not it’s believable, or whether or not it *should be* believed.

  • @AJ:

    You wrote: “lets be honest here, religious studies is riddled with religious people pushing agenda without any obstacles, in mainstream academia”

    I don’t know about other departments, but, as I mentioned above, I have spent a fair bit of time with folks from this particular one, and your description doesn’t match my direct observations.

  • J

    You have to understand this from an academic perspective. The study of religion is decidedly not about proving religions wrong. David seems to be doing just that. He has no scholarly objectivity. David would have been rejected if he had published a book on why Buddhism is the only “right” religion, too. It doesn’t matter what kind of bias you show. If you show ANY bias, you’re not cut out to be a scholar of religion. That doesn’t mean you can’t make valuable contributions to society.

  • Mike Kirby

    “out-of-the-closet atheist”? Since when are atheists in the closet? There’s nothing shameful about atheism. Why would anybody think there was?

  • If that is the only reason for not making it, then that is what my peeps call, bull of the sh*t.


  • MV

    There seems to be many people here that don’t understand research. And that have been involved in research. And that is a bit scary.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to come into grad school with an agenda. There is nothing wrong with wanting to prove a certain point of view. That is, as long as you are willing to accept that the data you collect might not prove that point or agenda and be willing to accept that.

    Having said that, it is certainly true that certain projects and points of view aren’t going to be compatible with certain departments. And some things you just can’t do in grad school. But if a religious studies program isn’t interested in whether a religion is true or whether the things it believes really happened, then it really isn’t any better than theology. And neither of them belong in a college or university.

  • mikeytwice

    Just came across this.  Think you’re overstating what was going on here.  I’m not a UCSB grad student, but I was admitted there, and I’m openly atheist.  So are other students in the program.  I doubt the problem isn’t that he’s atheist so much as that he “has an axe to grind.”  Two things there: 1) as another commenter mentioned, graduate school is all about fit.  You need an advisor who’s interested in your research project, and 2) if you want to do New Atheist type work, a religious studies department isn’t for you.  Scholars of religious studies shouldn’t be in the business of making theological claims, and asserting atheism is making such a theological claim in some sense.  If he’d proposed an anthropological study of atheist groups or something, that’d be different.  

    Most importantly, almost no graduate programs accept undergraduates.  Those that do only accept undergraduates who are of exceptional caliber.  His published works are polemical more than they are scholarly.

  • mikeytwice

    Just thought I’d add that I would have been Taves’s student.  I don’t know her well, but she seems far from the bigot that some are making her out to be.

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