The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Rejected Atheist Student? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

I recently learned that a student applying to be a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara's Religious Studies department was rejected. He claims that his rejection is a case of religious discrimination, and that he was rejected essentially for being an atheist.

I'm not buying it.

The problem is that he says that the reason that he was rejected is that he is perceived as applying to the department because he, as the school official that informed him of his rejection put it, he's an "atheist activist with an axe to grind." He took this to mean that he was rejected because he is an atheist and an outspoken one at that. Having been a graduate student at the institution to which he applied, and having had a fair amount of interaction with the graduate students and faculty at the department to which he applied (which was directly above my own office - down the hall and up a flight of stairs), I think that it was the "axe to grind" rather than the "atheist" part that is causing him grief.

Keep in mind, we are only getting the rejected student's description of events, and what he describes, while he clearly thinks it's discrimination, is actually vague enough that, even if he is reporting it with complete accuracy, it could mean something very different than what he thinks it does.

First off, he wasn't told that he was being rejected because he was an atheist, or because he was an atheist activist, but because he was both of these things and, specifically, "has an axe to grind." Look at this guy's blog. Look at the self-published book that he's selling via the sidebar. He is clearly intelligent, clearly articulate, and clearly has an axe to grind.

I don't necessarily disagree with alot of what he has to say. In fact, I think he and I are on the same page on many, likely most, issues regarding religion. But being a scholar of religion (religion in the generic sense, not specifically Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc.) requires more than simply having one's facts straight. It requires that you be able to comprehend that the people whom you are studying are doing things that make sense to them, regardless of how they look to an outside observer, and it requires being able to show enough respect to the believers (even if you do not respect their beliefs) to be able to try to make some sort of social or psychological sense of what they're doing even if you don't believe a word of it. The blog and the self-published book rather strongly suggest that Mr. McAfee is not currently capable of this. And given that this is amongst the material that he included with his application, he seems to show little enough self-awareness that it should come as no surprise that he was rejected.

Of course, I could be reading this all wrong. Maybe his application was stronger than it sounds. The problem is that, based on his own description of the matter, while he may sound like a victim to someone not familiar with the process of admitting students into a graduate studies program, to someone who is familiar with that process, it sounds like he's just whining.

Let me re-frame the matter by describing how such things play out in my own field. If someone entered a graduate program in archaeology, and expressed an interest in studying how archaeologists have failed to include the interests and ideas of the descendants of the people we study, that would be a perfectly legitimate approach. It's a valid area for research, and one that should be considered more carefully by archaeologists.

If this same person included material written by them describing archaeologists as nothing but grave-robbers and thieves...well, then that implies that rather than wanting to make legitimate criticisms from within, they are wanting in to the program for some other, less academically rigorous, purpose.

So, there is no reason why an atheist, and even an atheist activist, could not be a perfectly responsible religious studies scholar. In fact, I happen to know that many are. But when someone produces documentation to support their application that appears to be more directed towards making a statement about the subject than seriously studying it, well, it's understandable that this prospective student would be turned away.

Was he rejected for being an atheist activist? Perhaps. But based on the material that he presents, it seems more likely that he was turned away because he had made it clear that he couldn't separate his emotional reaction from his research.


RBH said...

In fact, it almost puts me in mind of creationists (like Jonathan Wells in biology or Marcus Ross in geology) who earn legitimate secular degrees in one or another science mainly to have a credential to paste on their anti-evolution work.

That may be unfair to the applicant, but it's one bell it rings faintly in my head.

Anthroslug said...

I had a similar thought. When I read about this on other blogs, I noticed that many of the commenters who cry foul whenever a creationist claims that they were rejected from a biology department because of their beliefs - pointing out that it's not their beliefs, but their unwillingness to critically engage with the material that really matters, were uncritically accepting this as a case of discrimination without asking a few basic questions such as: was the guy actually told he was being rejected because he is an atheist, or was he being rejected because he demonstrated a disinterest in doing the type of research for which the department exists?

I've gone through the fellow's blog. He's smart, he's articulate, he's a little too full of himself (but he's also 22 and living in Isla Vista, so that's to be expected), but I agree with alot of what he has to say regarding religion. However, that doesn't mean that he has the right attitude to engage in what essentially amounts to the sociology of religion, just as I don't have the right attitude to work in forensics, even though I know I could get the academic qualifications.

David G. McAfee said...

There has been an update and resolution to this case. View more here: