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Breaking: Freedom From Religion Foundation Opposes Teaching Evolution in Public Schools 

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Editor’s note: We have received some queries as to whether this post is true or a gag. While liberally mixing in truth (see the hyperlinks), it is indeed an April Fools Day joke!

The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) was founded in 1976 by a prominent American atheist and abortion advocate. As the foundation’s website explains: “The history of Western civilization shows us that most social and moral progress has been brought about by persons free from religion.”

The website also features a quote from Charles Darwin’s unabridged autobiography: “I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true… this is a damnable doctrine.” Appropriately, FFRF has in the past honored prominent Darwinists Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Lawrence Krauss (among others) with its prestigious “Emperor Has No Clothes” award.

Opposition to Intelligent Design

Although FFRF devotes most of its energy to stamping out public displays of Christianity, it has also opposed the teaching of intelligent design (ID). According to ID, it is possible to infer from evidence in nature that some features of the world, including some features of living things, result from intelligence rather than unguided natural processes. Since ID contradicts Darwin’s core (and atheism-friendly) belief that evolution was unguided, FFRF has long regarded ID as a form of religious creationism. As such, FFRF argues that ID cannot legally be taught in publicly funded institutions.  

The crowning achievement in FFRF’s crusade against ID was its 2013 takedown of Professor Eric Hedin (pronounced he-DEEN) at Ball State University (BSU) in Indiana. Evolutionary biologist and FFRF Honorary Board member Jerry Coyne led the charge. Up until 2013, BSU physics professor Eric Hedin had taught an interdisciplinary honors elective that emphasized “the relationships of the sciences to human concerns and society.” It explored differing viewpoints on a number of issues, including intelligent design, and the assigned readings included critics as well as defenders of ID. Hedin had prepared the class in accordance with university regulations through the usual processes.

FFRF wrote a letter to BSU complaining that Hedin was engaged in religious proselytizing. BSU ended up cancelling Hedin’s course.

I Saw the Light

The following September, University of Washington evolutionary biologist David Barash published a piece in the New York Times titled “God, Darwin, and My College Biology Class.” Barash wrote:

Every year around this time, with the college year starting, I give my students The Talk. It isn’t, as you might expect, about sex, but about evolution and religion, and how they get along. More to the point, how they don’t.

He continued:

The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator. 

According to one student, Barash then had his class of 200 undergraduates sing his version of a Hank Williams classic: 

I’ve wandered so aimless, life filled with doubt.
I didn’t know what truth was about.
Then Darwin came like a stranger in the night.
Praise evolution, I saw the light!

I saw the light, I saw the light.
No more darkness, no more night.
No higher power, but I’m oh so bright.
Praise evolution, I saw the light!

Inspired by Barash, FFRF added the following logo to their stationery, “Praise Darwin: Evolve Beyond Belief.” Two members of FFRF’s Executive Board of Directors had misgivings about adopting the logo. “It looks too much like religion to me,” one of them said privately. But the logo remained. 

Two years later, Darwinian philosopher Michael Ruse published Darwinism as Religion, which pointed out that Darwinian evolution has always functioned as much as a secular form of religion as anything purely scientific. Two more Executive Board members became uneasy at FFRF’s position on evolution. But the four dissenters were in the minority, and FFRF’s position remained unchanged.

No Criticism of Darwinian Evolution Allowed

Then, early in 2020, FFRF received word that a high school student had secretly taped a biology teacher making disparaging comments about the theory of evolution. Outraged, an attorney for FFRF wrote to the school district that “no controversy exists in the scientific community regarding the fact of evolution, and the teaching of alternative theories or a controversy is not only inappropriate and dishonest, it is unconstitutional.” The tiny rural school district lacked the resources to challenge the FFRF, which has a legal staff of ten attorneys and two legal assistants. So the superintendent merely replied that the teacher in question would “comply with the New York State Education Law and the U.S. Constitution.”

On February 28, 2020, the FFRF issued a press release announcing: “N.Y. public school reins in proselytizing teacher, per FFRF advice.” According to the press release, the teacher’s “anti-scientific rant was both unconstitutional and pedagogically deplorable.” 

The incident was subsequently reviewed by an FFRF Executive Board member (not one of the four original dissenters) who had training in both biological science and constitutional law. She knew that controversy over evolution does exist in the scientific community. Furthermore, she noted that FFRF’s letter to the school district cited several court decisions but left out the most relevant one: Edwards v. Aguillard (1987). In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that teaching creation science in public schools is unconstitutional, but questioning the scientific validity of evolution is not unconstitutional and may in fact be encouraged. FFRF’s criticism of the teacher had been dead wrong. The board member agreed with the four dissenters who had already concluded that Darwinism was functioning as a religion.   

Breaking with Precedent

At an emergency meeting a week ago, a majority of the members on FFRF’s Executive Board of Directors voted that Darwinian evolution is, in fact, a religion. The board resolved that FFRF would henceforth oppose public funding for it and work to prohibit its teaching in public schools and universities. 

Yesterday, FFRF issued a brief press release confirming the board’s decision:

After long and careful deliberation The Freedom from Religion Foundation has recognized that Darwinism, like Christianity, is a religion. So the foundation now opposes the teaching — or even the mention — of Darwinian evolution in publicly funded institutions. Let freedom ring!

In other news: Today is April Fools’ Day.

Photo: A (genuine) sign in Harrisburg, PA, from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, by Jason / CC BY-SA.