Professor at religious college may be fired for inviting an atheist to address his class

Pacific Union College is a Seventh-Day Adventist school in Angwin, California—the only four-year college in the Napa Valley. And, as a religious school, it’s been subject to considerable unrest over the past few years due to a renegade professor of psychology, Aubyn Fulton.  As Insider Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education report, Fulton may be on the verge of being fired—for inviting an atheist speaker to address one of his classes. It wasn’t just an atheist, either, but Ryan Bell, a former Seventh-Day Adventist preacher who left the faith after spending  “a year without God.” At Spectrum, Fulton explained why he invited Bell. Here’s part of the reason:

I did not invite Ryan to persuade my students to give up their faith (this should be obvious and go without saying, but I have seen that it is not). I invited Ryan to share his personal story (his journey from fundamentalist to atheist) and to talk about his newest project (“Life After God” – which I highly recommend to interested parties) which is aimed at supporting people who are struggling with religious doubts. Obviously, supporting people struggling with religious doubts is a big part of the mission of an Adventist Christian liberal arts college as well.

. . . I made the decision to invite Ryan to my class because in my judgment his story and current project was uniquely relevant to the specific learning objectives of the course, one of which is to help students better appreciate the tensions and the compatibilities of faith and learning. This has been a learning objective for our Department and this course for many years, and no administrator has ever challenged it. For any conversation about faith and learning to be honest, it must include the real option of arriving at an anti-faith position. To censor or ban that position is to invalidate the faith development of the majority of students. In the course I invited Ryan to speak to, we regularly schedule class periods devoted to the faith and learning conversation, almost always by people who have clear and unapologetic commitments to Adventist faith. My judgment was (and remains) that it is appropriate to occasionally invite someone to participate in this conversation that has different commitments. This is how students learn.

Sadly, that’s not how students at a religious school are supposed to learn. At Pacific Union, they’re apparently supposed to absorb the dictates of the faith, and never, ever challenge it. So, when the College president Heather Knight heard about the invitation to Bell, she simply rescinded it, ordering Fulton to disinvite his atheist speaker. Then, according to a post on Fulton’s Facebook page, Fulton was told he’d be fired:

Screen Shot 2016-06-11 at 8.38.05 AM

This isn’t the first time Fulton has crossed swords with the college. In 2013, he was threatened with firing for supposedly teaching a class that questioned the Church’s ban on premarital sex. That caused two members of his department to resign (one was going to retire anyway), and the chairman of Psychology to step down.

Is it okay for Pacific Union to fire someone who shakes the faith of its students? Normally that’s seen as a prerogative of religious schools. You may remember a professor at Wheaton College who was recently asked to leave after she not only wore a hijab, but said that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Heresy!!!! Allah ≠ Christian God!

But, according to Fulton’s Spectrum piece, his College includes an academic freedom statement in both the faculty handbook and faculty contracts. I don’t know exactly what it says, but Fulton argues that it permits him to at least challenge his students’ beliefs. I agree.

The President, of course, denies that this is an abrogation of academic freedom—it’s simply an adherence to faith:

“My decision to ask to have Ryan Bell disinvited was not an infringement on Dr. Fulton’s academic-freedom rights, not an act of censorship, not even an attempt to overprotect our PUC students,” [President Knight] said. “It was a decision to honor the spiritual mission, goals, and aims of our faith-based institution. We are allowed to make those kinds of distinctions in terms of what kind of acts on campus further our religious aim and which do not.”

As the saying goes, that’s a distinction without a difference. But it is a difference between a liberal secular education and a liberal religious education: the former must challenge ideas; the latter must avoid such challenges.

Knight, however, denies that she’s already made a decision to terminate Fulton. For his part, Fulton maintains that he remains a believer, but that his College’s response shows the intellectual weakness of his religion, which simply cannot abide the challenge posed by a one-hour session with a former Adventist. As he said in Spectrum:

The censorship of my class and the banning of Ryan Bell strengthens the atheist argument that religious faith is incompatible with intellectual honesty and exposure to a wide spectrum of perspectives and evidence. I of course am not an atheist, and I dispute the claim that faith is incompatible with an open and honest search for truth. I wrote my doctoral dissertation in psychology on mature religious faith. My argument then, and my subsequent 28-year teaching career at PUC, has been based on the premise that religious maturity is undermined by attempts at indoctrination and censorship of alternative views, and is strengthened by exposure to and genuine exploration of a spectrum of viewpoints. Mature religious faith requires open and honest confrontation with all critical voices, and is best formed in what psychologist Gordon Allport called the “workshop of doubt”. As I told my class last week, if I thought it were true that exposure to contrary positions was damaging to faith, then I would be an atheist too. Fortunately, this is not true. Sadly, the censorship of Ryan Bell at PUC last week made it that much more difficult to argue that Adventist education is anything more than indoctrinating students to parrot back the beliefs and thoughts of their elders.

Shame on Pacific Union College. Fulton is too good for them.

photo_76861_square_650x650

Fulton. (Source: Pacific Union College)

h/t: Kurt

42 Comments

  1. Posted June 11, 2016 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    How many ex SDAs read this blog? How many have been “assaulted” by the church for exploring beliefs incompatible with the fundamentals?

  2. Posted June 11, 2016 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Yes, Aubyn Fulton is too good for PCU. And I hope this shameful action by PCU will help open Fulton’s eyes to the truth about religion and intellectual honesty. I imagine he suspects already.

  3. Posted June 11, 2016 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    I (can’t help but) wonder what Aubyn Fulton’s belief about human freewill is….

  4. Posted June 11, 2016 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    “it was a decision to honor the spiritual mission, goals, and aims of our faith-based institution.”

    so … this was just an honor killing, then.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted June 11, 2016 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

      I believe the appropriate word in this case is shunned, not fired.

  5. GBJames
    Posted June 11, 2016 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    sub

  6. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted June 11, 2016 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    I’ve heard of Catholic colleges having atheist speakers but it’s usually someone like Michael Ruse (and more often then not a Jesuit school). Anecdotal evidence suggests gay speakers get invited more frequently.

    But recently a girl’s Catholic school in Ireland disinvited Atheist Ireland’s Michael Nugent.

    The status of atheist student clubs at Catholic schools seems quite erratic. Some Catholic schools have welcomed them and others have nixed them.

    • darrelle
      Posted June 11, 2016 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, Michael Ruse seems like a pretty safe bet. So safe I’m not sure he should really count as an atheist speaker.

  7. rickflick
    Posted June 11, 2016 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Academic freedom and faith are antithetical, it seems to me. If all the instructors at the school held views similar to Fulton’s, I think there would be a rather marked and steady loss of students to “the dark side”. As a survival meme, the religious virus adopts shields and blinder designed to keep the young safely inside the intellectual bubble established by their parents. I’m not surprised the see Fulton given the boot.

    • sshort
      Posted June 11, 2016 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      Epidemiologically sound, that.

    • Diane G.
      Posted June 12, 2016 at 3:07 am | Permalink

      I’m always amazed when anyone expects to find true academic freedom at a private religious college.

      • rickflick
        Posted June 12, 2016 at 7:05 am | Permalink

        “The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.”

        • Diane G.
          Posted June 13, 2016 at 2:06 am | Permalink

          *like* 🙂

          Peter Pan?

          • rickflick
            Posted June 13, 2016 at 8:30 am | Permalink

            Yes, Tink. “It is only the gay and innocent and heartless who can fly.”

            • Diane G.
              Posted June 14, 2016 at 4:18 am | Permalink

              “Heartless” must have had a different connotation in Barrie’s time!

              • rickflick
                Posted June 14, 2016 at 7:22 am | Permalink

                That was my take too.

  8. DrDroid
    Posted June 11, 2016 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    A smart guy, and I applaud his attempt to expose his students to ideas that challenge SDA dogma. But I have to wonder how badly his neurons have been mangled in his decades long battle to reconcile faith and reason. Talk about cognitive dissonance! He is on a slippery slope and I’m sure the PUC President knows it.

    • Ken Phelps
      Posted June 11, 2016 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      As an ex-Adventist, I have to agree. Trying to be an intellectually honest fundamentalist is simply impossible. Adventism is saddled with a commitment to biblical literalism and the bat-shit crazy ramblings of Ellen G. White, and there is no, repeat, NO way around this fact.

      I sort of empathize emotionally with Adventists who try to bring the church into the liberal sphere so that they don’t have to leave their social comfort zone, but intellectually it’s bullshit. Without the crazy theology, it’s not Adventism anymore. If you want to be mainstream, join a mainstream church. Quit trying to polish a turd.

      • Posted June 11, 2016 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

        too bad there is no flair on this site. I’d love to see what people would choose. exSDA would be one of mine and I would love to know others who share that background. Thanks self-identifying.

        • Diane L.
          Posted June 13, 2016 at 11:20 am | Permalink

          I am a former SDA. Spouse attended PUC. Never felt “assaulted” by church as you questioned above, but have felt the sadness/pity from those who worry I’ve been deceived. Cognitive dissonance, striving for intellectual honesty — that’s what drove me.

          • rickflick
            Posted June 13, 2016 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

            Dear Diane L.,
            I’m very happy to see you learned to think for yourself. Let’s hope others do too.

            • Diane L.
              Posted June 14, 2016 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

              Thanks for that, rickflick. It was a slow and mostly painless process. The “magic of reality” is a wonderful thing.

  9. Posted June 11, 2016 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this, Jerry! Also, here is the open letter I wrote when these events transpired:
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/yearwithoutgod/2015/10/27/an-open-letter-to-the-president-of-pacific-union-college/

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted June 11, 2016 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      Excellent letter, especially: “The truth, if it is the truth, needs no special protection.”

  10. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted June 11, 2016 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Well, that totally sucks. I note first how different the Presidents’ reaction is to the usual policy of for example not firing someone for teaching Creationism in a public U science class.

    Also the President said “It was a decision to honor the spiritual mission, goals, and aims of our faith-based institution.” That mission apparently does not include exposing students to the real world. This institutions’ goal is to make special snowflakes.

  11. Heather Hastie
    Posted June 11, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    I can’t help thinking that many of staff of religious colleges and universities are scared of atheists because deep down they know they’re right. Doubt is a part of faith, and only natural for the intellectually curious. As others have pointed out, it takes a great deal of cognitive dissonance to maintain religious faith when it is critically examined, and the more removed from reality the beliefs are, the harder it is to continue to hold them.

    • Pierre Masson
      Posted June 11, 2016 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      Very well put!

  12. colnago80
    Posted June 11, 2016 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    You may remember a professor at Wheaton College who was recently asked to leave after she not only wore a hijab, but said that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

    Actually, the professor is incorrect. Christians and Muslims do not worship the same god. The Muslim god, Allah, is a single individual. The Christian god is a triumvirate consisting of the father, the son, and the holy ghost.

    • Doug
      Posted June 11, 2016 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      Good point, although not all Christians believe in the Trinity. Which means that not all CHRISTIANS worship the same god.

      • GBJames
        Posted June 11, 2016 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

        Given the nature of faith, no two Christians worship the same god. Same goes for Muslims and the rest of the faithful.

      • colnago80
        Posted June 11, 2016 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

        Most mainline Christian churches do not consider non-Trinitarian churches to be Christian (e.g. Mormons).

    • Posted June 11, 2016 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      Ha – this again. If there is one god, then they worship the same one, but have different are partially misunderstood perceptions of that one god.

      If there is no god, then they worship and idea and they have different ideas.

      In neither case are they different gods in any real sense.

    • Robert Bray
      Posted June 14, 2016 at 10:44 am | Permalink

      In Mexico, much of South America and parts of Medieval France, the deity really in charge is THE Goddess: Notre Dame, Nuestra Señora, Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary. The male Trinity mainly whiles away eternity playing dominoes and drinking rum or calvados.

  13. Posted June 11, 2016 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Having attended one year at a fundamentalist Christian college in my very young years, I remember no efforts on the part of school or faculty to be intellectually rigorous. The modus operandi was more full time indoctrination. We were required to sign a pledge of all the things we couldn’t do. We attended chapel daily and the usual numerous Wednesday and Sunday church attendances. And, revivals. If there were non-fundamentalists or (heaven forbid!) atheists, they knew to keep their mouths shut.

  14. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted June 11, 2016 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Another (a)theist hero is swallowed whale.

  15. Christopher Bonds
    Posted June 11, 2016 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Fulton sounds like a pretty cool guy.

  16. Posted June 11, 2016 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    🐾

  17. Ken Kukec
    Posted June 11, 2016 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    “My decision to ask to have Ryan Bell disinvited was not an infringement on Dr. Fulton’s academic-freedom rights, not an act of censorship, not even an attempt to overprotect our PUC students,” President Knight said. “It was a decision to honor the spiritual mission, goals, and aims of our faith-based institution.”

    Knight draws no substantive distinctions, presents no analysis. She merely re-labels a noxious thing to try to squelch its pejorative sting. A naked ipse dixit.

  18. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted June 11, 2016 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    Prof Fulton is certainly doing his CV no harm over this. Sad that he’ll need it.
    Where’s my “BURN the HERETIC!” placard?

  19. Geoffrey Howe
    Posted June 11, 2016 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    In an attempt to be fair, I must consider a tables-turned approach.

    What if Jerry Coyne invited a Creationist to speak in his class?

    Coyne and Fulton are both paid to teach certain things as true in their classes. Regardless of the intellectual backing, it is part of their duties, and they cannot teach as factual that which the college does not accept.

    HOWEVER! Fulton didn’t say the atheist speaker was correct. Nor would Jerry say the creationist is correct. I suspect the intent in both cases would be to see if your education (rational or otherwise) can survive a collision with someone who can disagree with you.

    And that would be fine to me (as long as the contradictory speaker and students were all civil). It’s a good idea even. I’d certainly say that refuting a Creationist is a good way to demonstrate what you’ve learned about evolution.

    So, this college is being no better than the regressive left, fighting speech with censorship rather than superior speech. Not that I’d expect a bunch of theologians to put out superior speech, but I’d much prefer they give it an honest try.

  20. Posted June 13, 2016 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    “For any conversation about faith and learning to be honest, it must include the real option of arriving at an anti-faith position. To censor or ban that position is to invalidate the faith development of the majority of students.”

    That’s remarkably intellectually honest and courageous for any theist, let alone an SDA. Probably sure to get him fired, unfortunately.

  21. Robin
    Posted June 22, 2016 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    He is a future atheist. He’ll join our ranks one day


%d bloggers like this: