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Did a State-Run New Mexico Science Museum Coordinate with Atheist Groups for 2014 Darwin Day — and Then Cover It Up?


Two residents of New Mexico have raised a serious concern. They claim that a publicly operated, taxpayer-funded science museum in Albuquerque — the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (NMMNHS) — co-sponsored “Darwin Day” events back in February that bashed religion, and then tried to cover it up.

In early February, those two citizens — Mike Edenburn and James Campbell (the former an engineer, the latter a physicist) — learned that the NMMNHS was cosponsoring events for “Darwin Day” on February 9 and 12. They noticed flyers being distributed by the museum advertising the events, which were hosted at the museum itself, listing both the museum and various atheist-skeptics groups as “sponsors.” Some talk titles sounded anti-religious. For example:

  • A representative of “Freedom from Religion-Albuquerque” presented “A Brief comparison of Science and Religion,” asking “Is one or the other false or corrupt and dangerous?” The answer was given during the presentation: “dogmatic religion must not be allowed to retard social progress any longer.”
  • Another leader with “Freedom from Religion-Albuquerque” presented on “Evolutionary Science & the Continuing Battle for Truth through Science” and bashed “religious extremists” who disagree with evolution.
  • Talks titled “A History of Strong Natural Selection for Religiosity” or “Evolution of Morality” claimed religion and morality exist because they evolved naturally.

Dr. Campbell then sent a letter to the governor of New Mexico:

I just became aware of an upcoming program at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History (NMMNH) called Darwin Days 2014. This program will spend two days (Feb. 9 and Feb. 12) celebrating the birthday and life of Charles Darwin. The program is jointly sponsored by the museum, New Mexicans for Science & Reason (NMSR), the Humanist Society of New Mexico, and Freedom from Religion, Albuquerque. Is it appropriate for a state-funded museum to join forces with organizations such as the Humanist Society and the Freedom from Religion group to promote an anti-religious agenda? It is my understanding that the religion clauses of the first amendment require that states “pursue a course of complete neutrality toward religion” (Smith v. Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County, 1987). The agenda for the NMMNH program on Darwin includes a talk by Ron Herman from Freedom from Religion, Albuquerque, who will compare science and religion to decide which is “false or corrupt and dangerous.” It seems unlikely that he will conclude that science is “false or corrupt and dangerous.” Jerry Gilbert of the Humanist Society of New Mexico will make a presentation in which he will talk about “religious extremists.” Are these appropriate presentations to be sponsored by the State of New Mexico through its Museum of Natural History and Science?

Four days later Campbell received a letter in reply from Veronica N. Gonzales, Cabinet Secretary for the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, assuring him that it was all just a big misunderstanding. Ms. Gonzales acknowledged that the museum sponsored the Darwin Day lectures on Sunday, February 9, but said it had nothing to do with the events on Wednesday, February 12, and their anti-religious content. This was convenient, since only the Wednesday lectures seemed to be anti-religious. She explained:

Unfortunately, a misunderstanding occurred when the New Mexicans for Science and Reason, a group that holds their monthly meeting at the museum, incorrectly listed NMMNHS as a sponsor of their monthly meeting, which also has a Darwin Day theme. It is their meeting that has religious content. It is my understanding that New Mexicans for Science and Reason sponsor our Sunday lectures, and they innocently made one flyer containing all Darwin Days activities. I also want to point out that our official publications, Time Tracks and Voices in Science, only mention the Sunday lectures.

Mr. Charles Walter, Director of NMMNHS, has directed his staff to contact the New Mexicans for Science and Reason and make it clear that the museum is in no way sponsoring their monthly meeting, and that they must remove the NMMNHS’s name from any flyers implying that the museum is a sponsor of their event.

Because a flyer distributed by the museum clearly stated the museum was cosponsoring both the Sunday and the Wednesday lectures, and because the museum’s website had said the same, Campbell and his friend Mike Edenburn suspected they weren’t being told the whole story. So they filed a public records request to try to determine what really happened. The documents they received confirmed their suspicions, and much more. They show:

  • NMMNHS actively solicited and recruited pro-evolution atheist and skeptic groups to help plan its 2014 Darwin Day events, making no apparent attempts to involve those skeptical of Darwinian evolution (or religious groups) in the events.
  • NMMNHS worked closely with atheist-skeptic activists from these groups to plan its 2014 Darwin Day events — with all parties working together to plan the events on Sunday, February 9, as well as the anti-religious lectures on Wednesday, February 12.
  • The individual representing the NMMNHS and heading the planning committee periodically sent out anti-religious ideas, arguments, and activist tips to the team.
  • During the planning stages, NMMNHS staff and atheistic group leaders agreed that the Darwin Day events themselves would attack intelligent design and creationism, but sought to frame the program so it wouldn’t be perceived publicly as if that’s what they were doing.
  • The NMMNHS and the atheist-skeptics groups cooperated to publicize 2014 Darwin Day events, with all parties knowingly listing both the museum and the group as “sponsors” of all the events, including the anti-religious lectures on Wednesday, February 12.
  • Once James Campbell filed his inquiry with the governor’s office, the planning team scrambled to cover up the collaborations and feed him false information about what really happened. For example, there was no evidence of a room rental agreement between the museum and NMSR prior to Campbell’s letter — because in the minds of both groups, they were putting on a joint event.

If this is all true, then it seems that by soliciting only atheist groups to help plan the Darwin Day event, this government-run museum, a division of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, engaged in preferential treatment of atheists — arguably a form of viewpoint discrimination and a violation of religious neutrality — and failed to give equal access to differing viewpoints on the topic of Darwinian evolution. This whole situation seems like an endorsement of atheism by the museum. To make matters worse, the museum has tried to cover all this up — evidence the museum knows it did something wrong.

I will have more to reveal tomorrow.

Photo source: Wikipedia.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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