Ryan Bell Disinvited from Speaking at Pacific Union College

Former Adventist Pastor-turned-humanist, Ryan J. Bell, was disinvited from speaking to students at Pacific Union College "to keep the institution true to its mission as a Seventh-day Adventist institution of higher learning owned and maintained by the Adventist Church," university president Heather Knight said.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://spectrummagazine.org/article/2015/10/29/ryan-bell-disinvited-speaking-pacific-union-college


The modern universities of America disinvite folk all the time. There are several examples of such, and free speech is diminishing on campuses because the students don’t want to be “offended” by an idea that they don’t like. I read about it at least twice a week. (see RealClearPolitics web site for the last few weeks if you want examples of the limitations of free speech, there is one this morning, in fact)

So, for a religious organization to disinvite an atheist who used to be a believer and who was scheduled to speak to the psychology dept does not seem out of bounds. Hard for the pot to call the kettle black.

Am I in favor of free speech? Yes. But our institutions do not have to give every viewpoint, as the world will supply whatever a student desires to hear if they so choose. We have a mission and it is legitimate to limit our presentations to our beliefs. The law recognizes that.

Public universities, on the other hand, should present all views, within the law. Restriction there is out of bounds, but it happens all the time. the PUC president was correct in his assessment, and Bell should not have been invited in the first place.


As it turns out, Heather Knight is a woman, for what it’s worth.


I am not an atheist, I believe in a God as modelled by Jesus Christ, I do not believe in a supernatural intervening God.

I like many of Ryan’s philosophies and ideas they are not rampantly anti Christ. He truly demonstrates critical thinking and assessment skills, these test for truth and expose error.

By dis-inviting Ryan from PUC Heather Knights letter clearly shows her attempt to keep students passive and apathetic, and tries to manipulate their thoughts, frightened that they will be exposed to the great challenges of the great thinkers and scientist of our time.

Iam a big fan of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hopkins, Thomas Paine , and atheist David Attenborough famed BBC wild life presenter. Yet I am a greater fan of Jesus Christ because I was able to use my critical thinking and reasoning skills while being exposed to great ideas and challenges in comparing the thoughts of these great men, testing for truth to ensure my faith is not a blind faith, but a reasonable faith open to change ( present truth ) when more truth is presented and proved using scientific methods and research.

To think PUC student will miss out on hearing a great mind, just because the hierarchy wants to protect and patronise intelligent student who are quite able to think and make decisions for themselves. What a sad tragedy for PUC students that their hierarchy is acting in the name of God, NOT !


She did the manly thing. Seriously, The President made two correct decisions. She honored the reason parents sent their children to PUC, and she established the purpose of a Church related college… If Des Ford could not speak his mind, the certainly Ryan Bell had no standing. Tom Z


Are Seventh-day Adventists not confident in their beliefs? In other words, if students are caused to critically think about their SDA beliefs, is the fear they will leave the church?


Ryan Bell was “disinvited” no doubt due to political pressure/PR…not too hard to see this one. He is both a hot potato and red herring to the Adventist church and will remain one due to his very public views and stances.

Adventists do consider their college-age adults as children most of the time and I can see how there could be many who don’t want this kind of “exposure” to the atheistic pathway of Ryan Bell. Though I can understand this way of thinking, it does little in the way of preparing young adults for the real world. Having said that- I am not sure that “exposure” is the aim of the SDA school system.


Speaking as an ex-SDA, now nonbeliever, I think it was the correct decision given the mission of the school. The concern that exposure to new and different ideas will make some students reject SDA teachings and even religion itself is a valid concern. Religious beliefs sometimes survive careful reasoning, and sometimes they don’t. The reasons depend on all sorts of things, but pretending that religious beliefs automatically hold up if the person is thoughtful and prayerful about examining them is just that - pretending.

It is a common belief that people do not reason their way out of either the SDA faith or religious belief in general. They instead reject God due to sin issues or psychological problems or some other personal defect. However, thoughtful, prayerful people are losing their faith in accelerating numbers right now, and it is partly because they are exposed to ideas that end up making more sense to them than their original ideas did. If the school does not want to be blamed for adding to those numbers, it is wise to limit exposure to those ideas. If the school wants to strengthen those beliefs, they are better served by bringing in someone who doubted but ultimately kept their faith, rather than someone who doubted but ultimately lost their faith due to believable reasons that the student hadn’t really thought of before.

Ryan is also correct to hold up the mirror and show that this is what is going on. If it makes you feel better that PUC did this, then your student is probably at the right place.


Listening to serious people and ideas one disagrees with may be the best way to affirm one’s own opinions and beliefs. It is never wrong to explore the reasons for your beliefs.


All this activity and controversy is not unlike the Sutter’s Mill area around 1852. The one thing that (should) tie everybody together is the quest for gold- The Lord Jesus Christ. And once you find your fortune in Him, the way His kingdom works is that you don’t vacate the area with your loot. You stay in and around the river, which is the fellowship of believers, and the unsaved world. The church is sometimes beautiful, tranquil, and lovely. Sometimes it can be raging, cruel and heartless. Sometimes the surrounding towns (various denominations) are warm and hospitable, sometimes they harbor ruthlessness. But as long as you have your gold safe and sound (Your commitment to Christ), you have it all! You stick it out through the storms and the setbacks and the mud. You have tremendous discouragement at times, but your diligence and steadfast participation will surely be rewarded in His time.

It is a travesty when somebody has participated for years and is building up treasure in heaven and they go ahead and throw the whole thing away. They become focused on the struggle, the labor, the cold water, the mud, the obstacles and they bail…Abandoning their gold fortune in the process.

Don’t throw out the gold with the mudwater.

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Ryan has been a self-proclaimed atheist for quite some time now, so the college had to have known that when they first extended the invitation. I wonder why the position of the college, articulated so clearly by President Knight, did not come to bear at the time of the initial invitation?

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While it was not included in this article, President Knight stated that her office was not informed of the invitation in advance.


Universities were originally established by the Christian church, some as early as 1100 in Italy and later in Paris and England. The professors were theologians, but there was a free flow of ideas; exploring new concepts and most importantly, developing critical thinking for young men who would be future thought leaders.

Having graduated from the University of San Francisco, a Catholic school, all ideas were examined and explored in efforts to teach discernment of the flurry of ideas in the world today. In addition, the school required all candidates for graduation to write a spiritual autobiography telling of their journey taken to adopt a philosophy of living spiritually. It didn’t matter what religion or if an atheist. Does PUC require such a spiritual essay from its graduates? How many SdA universities require such an essay? This should be an absolute requirement for all bachelor’s degrees, and especially, those graduating from Andrews with a M.Div.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”


And did that bring you to a closer relationship with Jesus and a commitment to go to all the world to spread the good news? The purpose of an Adventist educational institution is very different. They are not just there to be a copycat educational institution with the Adventist name on it and a little bit of religion thrown in. Something LSU and a few others need to learn.


In my opinion, any person that is interested in Ryan’s story has access to it and can even reach him personally on the Internet as well.
I support the School’s decision to not having him speaking on campus. What for?

And I don’t understand the rationale of those who are criticizing the decision either. Maybe they should abolish all rules in their own homes and then come up with their criticism against the school’s administration.

Why are you mixing LSU into it? You definitely don’t know what is happening around here. Well, it’s not the first time I see you speaking out of total ignorance!


I think President Knight was correct in rescinding the invitation. She and the college had both the right and, given the college’s reasons for existing, the obligation to do what she did and it sounds like she did it in the most sensitive manner possible. I don’t know Ryan Bell, but based upon what I’ve read, it would seem his presentation would be made attempting to sway young people at PUC to follow Bell’s path. That would be at odds with the stated mission of the school.

I attended PUC a few years before Ryan Bell. I was there two years and then left to attend a public state school because I felt that since the college had a primary dogmatic set of belief’s about Christianity and Adventism, that it led to dogmatic belief’s in all subjects (hard to have an open mind about everything if your position is that your mind is closed on at least one thing). I’ll note, I was there a few years after Ford which caused a clampdown at PUC on anything that was not orthodoxy.

I finished my collegiate experience at Cal State Long Beach. I could not have found a greater contrast to PUC if I had tried. At PUC there were 1,200 students. At Long Beach it was 37,000. At PUC everyone knew your name including all of your teachers. At Long Beach you were one of the faceless masses. At PUC, any questioning of orthodoxy, especially religious was discouraged. At Long Beach, you could question anything, but nobody did because nobody cared. It was freeing because you could question everything without stigma. But at Long Beach, social mores were also in place, just different - you were ostracized for being a person of faith, versus at PUC, where you were ostracized for questioning any part of the SDA faith.

While I’m glad I changed schools and I learned a lot, ultimately my college experience was better at PUC than at Long Beach. I have friends still from PUC and none from Long Beach. There are lots of reasons for that not based upon dogma, but the campus environment benefits by adhering to it’s mores and standards.

I have a daughter who is a Sr. in high school (SDA school). She will decide what school to attend. As parents we are doing the best to describe the advantages and disadvantages of both religious and secular college education. These are tough decisions. I met my now wife on the very first day at PUC. We’ve been married 28 years. That wasn’t why I chose PUC, but marrying someone of the same basic belief system has been important to us. If my daughter attends a public school, it’s less likely she will marry an Adventist. On the other hand, we’ve raised her to think for her self and I’m proud that she considers her faith as part of her decision making process.


Of course they will. There is lots of experimental evidence supporting this hypothesis.


Jared Wright said, “Former Adventist Pastor-turned humanist, Ryan J. Bell, was disinvited from speaking to students at Pacific Union College “to keep the institution true to its mission as a Seventh-day Adventist institution of higher learning owned and maintained by the Adventist Church,” university president Heather Knight said.”

Maybe there is still hope for my alma mater. This was a good call. The question remains as to why he was invited in the first place.

Keith Paulusse said, “By dis-inviting Ryan from PUC Heather Knights letter clearly shows her attempt to keep students passive and apathetic, and tries to manipulate their thoughts, frightened that they will be exposed to the great challenges of the great thinkers and scientist of our time.”

Nonsense. Left-wing universities do this all the time; dis-inviting “politically incorrect” speakers, usually those of a conservative bent. Why should the students on campus have to listen to someone who has left the church and become an atheist? The can go off campus to hear him if the want to, just as we did back in the 60’s and 70’s when Robert Brinsmead was banned from campus.


Pago, as you quoted me and asked me a specific question, I hope the webed will allow me to answer your question directly.

Do you not think that every individual should know why he has the faith he claims? Or that he is not simply following the crowd as the path of least resistance, which is easy in an SdA college?

I totally agree that no school should be a “copy-cat” educational institution, but do you also believe that everyone, young or old, should know what he professes to believe? Do you believe that they should not examine why they have a particular belief when it is well known that many second and third generation young people simply inherited their traditional religion?

FYI: In all the 65 years I had lived before attending USF, I had simply been born into Adventism and was a “good” member, serving in many offices of the church. But had never seriously studied WHY I was an Adventist. Writing a spiritual autobiography was a very introspective task, unlike a term paper on facts previously studied. At the end of that paper I realize there was one simple fact that was the most important to me: God is love. All the rest was superfluous. Without that one concept, nothing in any religious practices is worth a penny.


As a member of the faculty at PUC, I feel I should at least weigh in briefly. I do no know what the right decision should have been in this case, and I think that what happened had more to do with public perception and a less than transparent approach by those who invited Ryan Bell to campus.

First, anyone who decides to invite someone like Ryan Bell, who is extremely controversial to conservative SDAs and even to many moderates and liberals, has to know that such a decision will be vigorously questioned. As I understand it, Heather Knight had not been informed of the invitation. Technically, inviting someone to show up for a class does not obligate the professor to inform the president, but (and I think this is a big but), if a professor has any clear sense that there might be strong objections to inviting certain people, it represents good judgement to let the president know so it can be discussed before making the invitation. If I wanted to invite Richard Dawkins to talk at one of my classes, and anything is possible, I would need to talk to the administration first to see of from a PR perspective we could sell the idea, which brings me to my second point.

I do not think the situation under discussion is about content, but rather about perception, and although we would all like to think perception should be ignored, the world just doesn’t work that way. The ideas that Bell likely would have discussed while on campus might well have been allowed, in fact such discussions about religion, philosophy, humanism and atheism are regularly discussed in a variety of classes on our campus. Students read texts for their classes that range anywhere from outright atheistic in philosophic content, to deeply Christian. As a part of my Foundations of Biology class, I hold an optional extra credit reading club for my students where we read Darwin’s Origin of Species, cover to cover. We are constantly giving our students a broad exposure to scientific and philosophical ideas that are antithetical to our SDA Christian beliefs. This is as it should be at the college level.

Thus, although the content of Ryan Bell’s planned presentation may have been perfectly acceptable, his name recognition among SDA circles would likely have caused a strong negative response from parents, constituents and even board members of PUC. Although ideally, responses from none of these groups should prevent someone like Bell from coming to PUC and giving a class presentation, we all know that it doesn’t, in fact, and likely never will, work that way. Stakeholders in institutions do have influence. It is an influence that we academicians continually push up against to maintain appropriate intellectual and academic freedoms in the higher learning community, but we must do so carefully, so as not to shift the focus from ideas to individuals. I doubt that anyone who knows Ryan Bell’s reputation would expect that it would be easy to invite him to speak to a class on an SDA college campus. From a PR perspective he is most definitely a hot potato, which is unfortunate, because he might have had some useful things for our students to hear.

So, here is my take on this controversy. For whatever reasons or motivations, those who invited Bell to come, failed to inform the administration of their plans. They may have thought that they didn’t need to inform anyone, as there is no officially required process whereby invitees are vetted. I would be extremely surprised had it not crossed their minds that inviting Bell might not meet the approval of the administration, but as they say, better to do now (instead of asking permission) and ask for forgiveness later. I have a tendency to take that kind of approach myself, even though I know it is not always the best way to proceed.

At some point Heather Knight discovered that Bell was coming to the campus. As the president of the college this has to be a nightmare, because at this point, there is no right decision to be made, she is damned if she does nothing and damned is she does something. If she had decided to ignore Bell’s coming to campus, she would have gotten some pretty nasty feedback from, most likely, quite a lot of parents and constituents, and the college could even suffer financially as a result, and she would be to blame in the eyes of the board and constituents, because she did nothing.

Of course, as we know, she decided to take some action instead, by disinviting Bell. She is now paying for that, by being bad-mouthed by numerous other individuals from faculty and students to more liberal minded outsiders who see her action as just another misguided anti-intellectual, religious zealot trying to shield the students of her institution from the evils of humanism and atheism.

I believe that Knight has taken the only pragmatic action she could have, especially given that she was not even made aware of the invitation until about a week before he was to arrive (as far as I am aware). Of course, there could have been a third option. Knight could have published a press release saying something to the order of that even if she did not think it was the best idea to have Bell here on our campus, in the interest of critical inquiry, it is better to have him here than to bar him from coming. Given the time frame, though, that would be a tough move and carries risks of its own.

In my personal opinion, this whole episode should have gone down differently. If those inviting Bell had asked the president’s advice, and had talked about the benefits vs. the risks of having him here, there might have been a possible way to have him come and have it be a more positive experience. I realize such an outcome might have been a long shot, but that also makes me wonder if that is why this route was not tried in the first place, because those who wanted to invite him knew, at some level, that the administration would not allow him to be invited.

So, to sum up, I think the controversy is not so much over ideas, but over personalities and perceptions. Because institutions like PUC depend on the good will of their stockholders, academic freedom can sometimes seem to suffer. I don’t believe it has to suffer though, because there are many ways to approach the critical analysis of ideas and philosophies. As academicians we need to continually find creative ways to do that, without waking the sleeping tiger of conservatism, fundamentalism and intolerance. I have nothing personally against Rob Bell, but inviting him to discuss a topic, because of his perceived reputation, automatically awakens these watchdogs of the academy, and believe me, once you wake them up, academic freedoms get even harder to maintain.

Lastly, I would like to say that I am friends with most of the players in this drama, and I hope I still am, even though they may disagree with my opinions about the meaning of this unfortunate situation and how it might have been handled better. Academic freedom is worth fighting for, but sometimes certain battles are best not fought. I wish this had been one of them.

P.S. On an alternative not, inviting Ryan Bell to PUC may be comparable to inviting Michael Behe to speak for a biology class at UCLA. For those who may not remember, Michael Behe is a well known proponent of Intelligent Design, a philosophy that is verboten in secular scientific circles. PUC is not the only institution of higher learning that limits academic freedom. We must keep trying to maintain appropriate levels of academic freedom, but some kinds of ideas and certain kinds of individuals are simply not going to invited to freely share everywhere.

Uh, let me add this to my original message to answer this question. I don’t require it due to time constraints. Almost no Freshman Biology class anywhere requires the reading of the book. Truth be told, the Origin if Species is mainly of historical importance anyway, as Darwin had no clear grasp of natural selection like we do today in the Modern Synthesis. Incidentally, almost all my students opt to read it for the extra credit, and we meet weekly so I can help them understand what Darwin is trying to say and compare it with out understanding based on the Modern Synthesis (sometimes referred to as Neo-Darwinism).

[Note: I have edited the following comment because I think I may have been too harsh using the word “ethical,” since Aubyn has been known by me to always act in a very ethical manner. So, although I think inviting Ryan Bell may represent poor judgment on his part, he will have to decide himself whether he acted unethically or not, I cannot make that kind of judgement.]

Let me clarify, @Margaret22. I chose to use the term unethical with some forethought, and I now think not enough forethought. I too know Aubyn very well and highly respect him. In fact we are allies on most issues, including the one under discussion, as well as LGBTQ+ issues. but we do sometimes disagree on strategy. This is the nature of my comment regarding his choice to invite Ryan Bell as unethical, a word which I think, on further reflection to be inaccurate, and may be better expressed as displaying poor judgement (similar to my poor judgement in choosing the word ethical in relation to this).

Regardless what I think my students may be ready for or able to handle, there are people whom, if I wanted to invite them, I would have to ask myself the question about whether there are other factors than academic freedom that I should consider. I have to weigh my choices with these other factors in mind, one of which is the effect invitations of certain people might have on the reputation of the institution. I imagine that such thought probably went through Aubyn’s mind, although this is an assumption on my part, since they would have gone through my mind.

The dilemma here is, should I invite someone that I am pretty certain will cause serious repercussions to the institution, and that will put administrators in a position that forces them to face the kinds of dilemmas the PUC President had to face in this case. I think it represents poor judgement to put others into such a situation, if there is any way to avoid it.