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Public Documents Refute New Mexico Science Museum’s Attempt to Whitewash Atheist Collaboration


Yesterday I explained that two New Mexico scientists are charging that the state-run New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (NMMNHS) collaborated with atheist-skeptic groups to put on its 2014 Darwin Days lectures. The lectures were intended to bash religion. The museum then sought to cover this up.

The NMMNHS is identified on its website as a “Division of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs.” Needless to say, if the terms of the story were reversed — a state-run museum joins exclusively with Christian groups on Christmas Day to bash atheism or other religious beliefs, then seeks to cover its tracks when challenged — you’d never hear the end of it. And rightly so. This is an important story, revealing what appears at this stage to be a major violation of free speech as well as of the separation of church and state.

The problem isn’t at all with atheist groups having access to the museum. However, that access needs to be provided equally to all. A state agency can’t lawfully give preferential treatment or what amounts to state endorsement to any faith — atheism included — while disallowing equal access and involvement to others.

Because this is so important, in what follows I’m going to go into a fair amount of detail, including otherwise routine emails exchanged among staff and volunteers for the museum and local atheist leaders. The reader will forgive me, I hope, for the length of this post, but the facts need to be shown.

As I said already, physicist James Campbell learned in February that the NMMNHS was distributing a flyer that listed the museum, as well as three atheist-skeptic groups, as co-sponsoring the museum’s Darwin Day events on February 9 and 12. The events on February 12 included lectures bashing religion. As I mentioned earlier, this included:

  • 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.

When Campbell inquired about the seeming endorsement of atheism, he was told the museum had nothing to do with the atheist-skeptic events. Because a flyer distributed by the museum clearly stated the museum was cosponsoring all these lectures, and because the museum’s website had said the same, Campbell and his friend Mike Edenburn filed a public records request.
Here’s what they learned.

The NMMNSH actively recruited atheist groups to participate in its Darwin Day events:
Last August, the NMMNHS appointed one of its head volunteers, Jim Peavler, to oversee planning of the museum’s 2014 Darwin Day events. From the outset, Peavler made clear his intention to involve atheists only. On October 23, 2013, NMMNHS’s Darwin Day planning officially began when Peavler sent an e-mail to many NMMNHS staff members and volunteers asking them to “start coordinating with other pro-rational thinkers and educational groups we wish to team with, so we will be ready to get the word out to the media and the public right after New Year’s.” (emphasis added) Judging from the email traffic, nobody from the museum objected to any of this.

“Pro-rational” here is simply a euphemistic way of saying “anti-religious” or “atheist.” That this was his intended meaning is made clear by seeing just which groups the museum then invites to participate. In the same e-mail, Peavler notifies Doug Simon, Shared Resources Volunteer Coordinator at the NMMNSH, that “A notice nearly identical to this one has been sent out to all members of the New Mexico Humanist Society.” That e-mail stated:

We are hoping to partner with the New Mexico Humanism Society on a Darwin Day Program. If you would like to be in the loop as plans evolve, sign-up at the Volunteer lounge or e-mail… (emphasis added)

No other groups were named at the time. Thus, we see museum staff actively recruiting atheistic groups (and only atheistic groups) to “partner” with them for Darwin Day.

We see extensive joint, close collaboration between the museum and atheistic groups:
On October 30, 2013, Peavler sent another e-mail to NMMNSH staff, volunteers, and others. His purpose was to schedule a meeting to “discuss (and entertain) some ideas for programs, people or organizations we might invite to participate.” He adds, “if you are surprised to be getting this e-mail [it] is because I’ve taken the liberty of inviting you to participate, audiences we would like to reach.” One of the invitees was Dave Thomas, president of New Mexicans for Science and Reason (NMSR), a vocal “skeptics” group that is strongly hostile to intelligent design (ID) and, though they might officially deny it, has a basic orientation that’s obviously atheistic. Thomas is a well-known anti-ID activist who is actively involved in “skeptic” activities. He would play an integral part in the planning process.

On November 5, 2013, Peavler sent another e-mail with the subject “Formation of Darwin Day(s) Committee.” His purpose was to organize another planning meeting. Included among recipients of this e-mail were not only many NMMNSH staff and volunteers, but also local atheist-skeptic activists such as Cheryl Gatner (New Mexico Atheists), Marilee Harrison (activist affiliated with Humanist Society of New Mexico), Bill Kimbrough (Vice President, Humanist Society of New Mexico), Zelda Gatuskin (President, Humanist Society of New Mexico), Lisa Durkin (who gives “parenting seminars” on “giving your child the voice of reason at school” for the Humanist Society of New Mexico, as well as anti-ID lectures for NMSR), Joseph Frank (“Spiritual Humanist” minister), Dave Thomas (President, NMSR), and Randy Wall (member-at-large, Humanist Society of New Mexico).

Peavler writes: “I want to thank everyone who has volunteered (so far) and especially am grateful to the Humanitarian Society of New Mexico, and the New Mexicans for Science and Reason for jumping right into the middle of this with lists of folks willing to help.” Of course the former group was a typo — the “Humanitarian Society of New Mexico” does not exist; he meant the “Humanist Society of New Mexico.”

This mixed group of NMMNSH staff and volunteers, atheist-skeptic activists, and local academics worked together to plan the Darwin Day events. There was no attempt to involve local pro-religion groups or those skeptical of Darwinian evolution (though such groups are certainly active in Albuquerque).

Dave Thomas helped solicit speakers, including biologists Paul Watson and Rebecca (“Becky”) Reiss. Nothing wrong with that, except that the content of their lectures was exactly what you’d expect from atheist-skeptic activists. Paul Watson’s talk, “A History of Strong Natural Selection for Religiosity?,” provided an evolutionary explanation for the origin of religion. As for Becky Reiss’s lecture, she replied to Dave Thomas saying she’d “be delighted to give a talk debunking the creationists use of genomics.”

On December 19, 2013, Peavler sent another e-mail to the planning committee, which by now was a composed of a mix of individuals affiliated with NMMNSH, local academics, and atheist-skeptic activists. This e-mail also included among its recipients a new activist — Jerry Wesner, past president of the Humanist Society of New Mexico. In all, about one third of those on the planning committee were atheist-skeptic activists. Peavler’s e-mail stated that these organizations “want to participate and share sponsorship” of Darwin Day events at NMMNSH.

On January 8, 2014, Zelda Gatuskin, President of the Humanist Society of New Mexico, wrote an e-mail to various NMMNSH staff and volunteers, local academics, and atheist-skeptic activists. She notified them that she was initiating publicity for a “Darwin Days Kick-off” event with local radio and newspapers, including KUNM, the Albuquerque Journal, an Albuquerque weekly rag, the Alibi, and “others.”

The next day, Debra Novak, Director of Education at NMMNSH wrote an e-mail to Gatuskin, noting that NMMNSH was completely fine with the museum sharing sponsorship of Darwin Day with the atheist-skeptic groups. She stated “I do not know where NMSR and Humanists want to be on the Presented or In association list — the museum is fine with all of us having equal billing or not.” (emphasis added)

This directly contradicts the museum’s later claims that it saw some of the atheist-skeptic events as separate from its own.

On January 9, 2014, another anti-religious group joined the planning process — Freedom From Religion Foundation Albuquerque (FFRFA). Dave Thomas forwarded to NMMNSH staff and volunteers an e-mail from FFRFA activist leader Ron Herman asking if FFRFA could contribute a speaker to the Darwin Day event, saying “If you could give us an hour, we would still like to be involved.”

The following day, Tish Morris, a volunteer with NMMNSH, passed around a “Darwin Days DRAFT Schedule” to various NMMNSH staff and volunteers, as well as Dave Thomas and Jerry Wesner. The schedule listed the following groups as “Co-Sponsors” of the “Darwin Days” event: NM Museum of Natural History & Science, Explora, New Mexicans for Science and Reason, The Humanist Society. The draft schedule mentioned that in addition to NMMNSH staff and volunteers, Thomas and Wesner had attended a Darwin Day planning meeting on January 8, 2014.

Morris’s draft schedule listed Becky Reiss’s lecture under the title “What’s in Your DNA?,” even though she earlier called it “a talk debunking the creationists use of genomics.” The schedule also listed potential talks including Dave Thomas on “New Findings That Would Have Thrilled Darwin,” Paul Watson on “A History of Strong Natural Selection for Religiosity,” and Ron Herman on (among other topics) “arguments against intelligent design.”

Soon thereafter, internal disagreements and communication problems led Jim Peavler to hand over leadership of the Darwin Day planning process to Debra Novak, who again is Director of Education at NMMNSH. On January 21, Novak wrote to Peavler and Michael Sanchez, Naturalist Center/School Programs Educator at NMMNSH, affirming that they had a “partnership” with atheist-skeptic groups for the Darwin Day events:

I would agree that this event seems plagued with miscommunication at this point, but I still expect it to be a spectacular event, especially for a first year effort. The NM for Science and Reason and the Humanist Society are all viewing this as a successful partnership sure to attract a different demographic that their previous years Darwin events.

On January 21, Freedom From Religion Foundation Albuquerque leader Jerry Gilbert (also involved with the Humanist Society of New Mexico) expressed interest in being involved with the Darwin Day event. Introducing himself to Jim Peavler, he wrote:

I would like to request that the Freedom From Religion, ABQ Chapter be given some time to speak about Darwin. Our focus is the separation of church & state, & evolution has been a major target of some religious extremists. … FFR would very much like to be added to the program…

Gilbert ultimately gave a talk at the Darwin Day event titled, “Evolutionary Science & the Continuing Battle for Truth through Science.”

Peavler forwarded Gilbert’s request to Debra Novak. She wrote back to him, saying “At this time we have two programs — Sunday 9-4 for the general public with a lecture series and a Wednesday lecture series for an adult audience from 7-9 pm.” Thus, she felt that “we” — “we” meaning at least the museum if not the atheist-skeptic groups as well – “have two programs.” Clearly, the museum saw itself as sponsoring both days of events — on Sunday and Wednesday. She then directed Gilbert to Mike Sanchez to work out the details of the “time and date(s) that you would like to be included” since Sanchez is “taking care of scheduling for the final program” — more evidence that the museum was helping to plan the Wednesday events.

The same day, Ron Herman of Freedom from Religion Foundation Albuquerque wrote to Debra Novak, Dave Thomas, and Michael Sanchez: “I would like to request a more extensive amount of time on Sunday or Wednesday … I would like to give a talk I gave at a Humanist conference in 2008 titled ‘A Comparison of Science and Religion.'” Novak then wrote back to Herman suggesting that his talk be scheduled for Wednesday night of the Darwin Day event.

On January 24, Zelda Gatuskin wrote an e-mail to Debra Novak and Randall Gann (Public Information Officer, NMMNSH). She sought to clarify their involvement. She wrote:

I believe this is the complete list of community organizations presenting Darwin Days in association with NMMNHS:

New Mexicans for Science and Reason (NMSR)

Humanist Society of New Mexico (HSNM)

Freedom From Religion-Albuquerque Chapter (FFR-ABQ)

My proposal/request from the outset was that groups signing on to the event and participating in planning and publicity would have a presence in the Multi-purpose Room throughout the day on Feb. 9. Specifically we would like to have a table along the side for our literature and information our upcoming meetings, with a volunteer or two available to talk with the public and answer questions. We would simply be there to interact with those who approach.

Do you see any non-atheist groups listed that are working with the museum to plan of the Darwin Days events? No. And it sure feels like state endorsement of atheism.

Peavler sent out anti-religious material to the planning team:
On January 5, 2014, after everyone returned from a break during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, Peavler welcomed the team back saying something about a holiday, but nothing about Christmas or other traditional winter holidays. Instead he reconvened the dialogue by citing a holiday celebrated almost exclusively by non-religious as an alternative to religious winter-holidays: “I hope everyone had a satisfying Solstice Celebration.” I mention this simply because it gives a sense of the culture at the museum.

On January 30, Jim Peavler sent an e-mail to the group of Darwin Day planners (NMMNSH staff and volunteers, local academics, atheist-skeptic activists), which forwarded a post from Jerry Coyne’s blog Why Evolution Is True, attacking religion.

The e-mail touted a proposed resolution from U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, endorsed by the American Humanist Association, and mocked the “useless Day of Prayer.” The e-mail lamented that at one Darwin Day event at a church, “there will be not the slightest questioning of the harmony between faith and Darwinism” as well as another event, called “execrable” because it “is clearly aimed to enable religion.” The e-mail concludes: “I would never again participate in events there — not as long as God is on the menu. Darwin would roll over in his grave were he to see celebrations like this in his honor.”

The planners sought to use the Darwin Day events to attack “intelligent design” and “creationism,” but wanted to hide that fact from the public:
On January 13, 2014, Jim Peavler sent an e-mail titled “Darwin Days Planning” to Debra Novak, Tish Morris, as well as Doug Simon, Shared Resources Volunteer Coordinator at NMMNSH, and Charles Walter, Director of the NMMNSH. Peavler discussed a meeting he had with Charles Walter, where they apparently discussed concerns about how to “handle intelligent design”:

Another issue was how to handle intelligent design. A couple of our participants have excellent programs that include discussion or intelligent design. We believe it will be possible to discuss ID without making it seem to be an attack (as much as I would enjoy, personally, attacking it). I don’t think it would be a good idea for us to get our 1st Darwin days into a controversial battle with those people. We don’t, at this time need a massive picketers milling around under Spikey. Therefore, we recommend discussing how science leads to things of real value such as materials, medicines, procedures, and other kind or answers to practical problems using notions from the Theory of Evolution, whereas ID does not even ask questions that lead to practical matters.

These are striking comments. Museum personnel wished to influence the public against ID yet were unwilling to say so directly. Recall biologist Becky Reiss, who said she would “be delighted to give a talk debunking the creationists use of genomics.” Yet as a title for his presentation, she chose the benign-sounding “What’s in Your DNA?”

In an e-mail dated January 17, 2014, Debra Novak wrote to Jim Peavler:

Based on the titles that show up in Tish’s schedule document it does not seem that we will be pushing anyone’s Intelligent Design or Creation buttons…

Thus, the titles were designed not to “push buttons” but instead to get people in the door, where the intended pro-evolution message would be delivered.

Of course no ID proponents picketed the Darwin Day events, even though local ID proponents knew all about it.

In another e-mail from Jim Peavler to Debra Novak on January 20, Peavler wrote that he had discussed with Walter “how to handle the currently politically hot ID folks.”

We see a close collaboration between the atheist-skeptic groups and the museum to publicize the Darwin Day events:
On January 28, Tish Morris wrote to Ayesha Burdett (Bioscience Curator at NMMNSH), and Mike Sanchez (Naturalist Center/School Programs Educator, NMMNSH), explaining:

Our co-sponsor with this is Dave Thomas of New Mexicans for Science and Reason. He did the Darwin Day flyer. The word version is attached…

Thus, NMSR was viewed as a “co-sponsor” for the Darwin Day events. No one from the museum objected to this characterization. On January 30, Thomas sent an e-mail to a group of Darwin Day participants, including NMMNSH staff and volunteers, local academics, and atheist-skeptic group leaders, with “the final version of the flyer.” He pledged, “I will print a bunch and send them to Sheila at the museum.” “Sheila” refers to Sheila Bednarski, Customer Service Representative at NMMNSH.

Thomas’s flyer (see here) listed talks by Todd Williamson (Curator of Paleontology at NMMNSH), Dwight Jennison of the NMMNSH, Becky Reiss (biologist at New Mexico Tech), Dave Thomas (listed on the flyer as being from “New Mexico Tech” but also with NMSR), Paul Watson (speaking on “A History of Strong Natural Selection for Religiosity), Ron Herman of “FFR-ABQ” giving a “Brief comparison of Science and Religion,” Jerry Gilbert of “NSM” discussing “Evolutionary Science & the Continuing Battle for Truth through Science,” and Jim Travis of “the Humanist Society of NM (HSNM)” discussing “Evolution of Morality.” Thomas’s flyer listed the following groups as “Sponsors” of the series:

  • “The New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science preserves and interprets the distinctive natural and scientific heritage of our state through our extraordinary collections, research, exhibits and programs designed to ignite a passion for lifelong learning. We inspire a greater appreciation, understanding and stewardship of science and our natural world. Website www.nmnaturalhistory.org.”
  • New Mexicans for Science & Reason (NMSR) is a non-profit group with the goals of promoting science, the scientific method, rational thinking, and critical examination of dubious or extraordinary claims. NMSR meets at 7 pm on the second Wednesday of each month, in the Multi-Purpose Room of the NM Museum of Natural History and Science, 1801 Mountain Road NW. NMSR publishes a monthly newsletter, NMSR Reports, and hosts dozens of articles on its website, www.nmsr.org.”
  • Humanist Society of New Mexico Our mission: The Purpose of HSNM is to educate our members and the public concerning humanist ideals and humanist approaches to solving personal, social, and environmental problems, while providing a welcoming and supportive community for NM humanists and freethinkers. Website: hsnm.wordpress.com”
  • Freedom From Religion, Albuquerque A chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation FFR-ABQ is working to keep state and church separate and to educate the public about the views of non-theists. We call ourselves ‘non-theists’ or ‘freethinkers,’ which means ‘a person who forms opinions about religion on the basis of reason, independently of tradition, authority, or established belief.’ Website: www.meetup.com/FFRABQ/”

Thomas’s flyer was distributed by the museum shortly thereafter. No one from the museum ever objected to it; they behaved as if it was a perfectly correct description of what was going on.

In another e-mail, Thomas wrote, “Feel free to print and distribute.” Zelda Gatuskin replied to Thomas’s e-mail promising to forward the flyer to the media, “as well as our HSNM members.” Ron Herman of FFRFA and Dave Thomas of NMSR agreed to do interviews about the event. They were asked to work with Randall Gann, the public information officer of NMMNSH, to coordinate media efforts.

On February 2, Jim Peavler wrote an e-mail to Debra Novak (Director of Education at NMMNSH) and Jerry Gilbert (Humanist Society of New Mexico and Freedom From Religion-Albuquerque) stating:

Our intention, I believe, is to grow the [Darwin Days] event over the next several years to become a regular annual event in Albuquerque, sponsored by several interested organizations and educational institutions. It is not (strictly speaking) a museum event, but a community event being hosted by the museum. So, the name of the event belongs to the event, and is not ours to change unannounced.

The name of the event (both days) is Darwin Days.

Clearly Peavler intended the Darwin Days event to be a collaboration between the museum and other organizations.

On February 3, Tish Morris expressed a desire to forward Dave Thomas’s flyer to the museum e-mail blast list and to museum volunteers. On February 4, Cirrelda Snider-Bryan, Early Childhood Educator at NMMNHS, asked to post the flyer on Facebook.

So what do we have here?

First, the museum actively recruited atheistic groups — and only atheistic groups — to be involved with planning Darwin Day events.

Next, the museum and the atheist-skeptic groups closely collaborated to plan the Darwin Day events The apparent intention was to put on lectures that would attack religion and bash intelligent design, among other things. There was no hint that certain lectures were only sponsored by the atheist-skeptic groups, and not the museum. Event planners reasoned, however, that it would be best to conceal the agenda behind neutral-sounding lecture titles.

Finally, the atheistic groups and the museum worked together to publicize the Darwin Day lectures, with the museum approving and using a flyer developed by an atheist-skeptic group listing all the organizations and the museum as sponsoring all of the events.

Tomorrow we’ll see how the museum scrambled to cover up the fact that it had collaborated with these atheist-skeptic groups.

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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