Interview: Teaching Science and Skepticism at Partners for Secular Activism

by Susan
Education Officer and National Coordinator–United Coalition of Reason

Dr. John R. Shook is a scholar and professor living in the Washington, D.C. area. He was a professor of philosophy at Oklahoma State University from 2000 to 2006, and then joined the faculty of the Science and the Public online Ed.M. program at the University at Buffalo, and he continues to be an instructor of science education for this online program.

Also, since 2006, he has worked for several secular and Humanist organizations, including the Center for Inquiry, the American Humanist Association, the Humanist Institute, and the Institute for Humanist Studies, and for several years he was President of the Society of Humanist Philosophers.

He is now the President of Partners for Secular Activism, an online education non-profit organization. Shook has authored and edited more than a dozen books about science, pragmatism, naturalism, ethics, politics, and religion. He authored The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists and Believers (and Everyone in Between), and he also edited a volume of Paul Kurtz’s writings on skepticism. He and Phil Zuckerman are editing the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Secularism. John has published many articles about naturalism, secularism, and humanism in academic journals and magazines such as Free Inquiry, The Humanist, Humanist Perspectives, Think, and The Philosopher’s Magazine.

He kindly agreed to an interview.

UnitedCoR: What is your new educational project?

Dr. Shook: SecularActivism.org is the project of Partners for Secular Activism, a 501c3 nonprofit educational organization that I founded in 2014. Our primary goal is offering online classes about secularism, skepticism, humanism, and related topics. Our classes are for adult enrichment and education. A typical class may offer some material reaching a college level of complexity, but our classes are not accredited anywhere. We instead aim for reaching as many people at the local grassroots level as possible.

I had started the online education program of the Center for Inquiry in 2008, and I wanted to continue this kind of service to the secular community after leaving CFI in 2013. Many instructors have taught courses during 2014-16, and additional instructors are presently designing new courses.

UnitedCoR: How is it different?

Dr. Shook: Many secular and humanist organizations offer a variety of educational programs, and many of them are accessible online. See the large list on our website.

The mission of Partners for Secular Activism is to facilitate education about secular, scientific, and civic issues and activities for the public. Courses announced by PSA are kept inexpensive ($69), they are open to anyone, and they deliver educational value for everyone. We have to charge money because instructors should be paid for spending so much time online communicating with their students. Our students take these classes very seriously, and many return again and again for more. We have had over 800 students take courses to date, from nearly every state in the US and many countries around the world.

We constantly seek out great educators who can communicate and instruct about real-world information and concerns. Ask us how we can specially design educational courses and programming for you to offer as an educator, or for meeting your organization’s specific learning needs. You can also read the mission statement on our website.

UnitedCoR: What are courses at SecularActivism.org like, and how can they help people get more involved in local secular activism?

Dr. Shook: SecularActivism.org does not offer self-guided classes, and we aren’t involved with MOOCs – those “massively open online courses” where watching videos of lectures won’t ever get your questions answered. We offer Very Interactive Enrichment Webinars, or VIEWS.

Our classes are always available, anywhere you go, and it is easy to take the classes on a tablet or a smart phone. Every class is just one month long, and our online classrooms and their discussion threads are accessible 24/7, so you can participate at your own pace, at any hour of the day. Instructors will not be on live video and you won’t be either – there is nothing on camera and no particular time of day you have to be present. If an instructor posts a pre-recorded video, you can view it at your convenience. There’s nothing ‘live’ to be missed, and instructors respond individually and promptly to all questions and comments.

Classes are designed for a range of people, from those who are relatively new to the non-theistic and nonreligious way of life, all the way to people pretty familiar with the principles of atheism, skepticism, Humanism, and secularism. Each class provides introductory instruction, as well as advanced levels. Classes are ideal for anyone at a local level who wants to quickly upgrade their knowledge and get up to speed on timely topics that always come up at local meetings. PSA wants to elevate the level of knowledge at the local level, and invigorate local activism with the best relevant information.

UnitedCoR: How can local organizations work with SecularActivism.org to advance their own activities?

Dr. Shook: Contact me at [email protected] to inquire about discounts to local organizations. We can also design online classes to meet the needs of local groups, and help groups plan education topics for a coming year. Would your group like to get online access to a prominent intellectual figure in the movement? PSA can try to make that happen!

UnitedCoR: You’ve had a lot of influence and work within many secular organizations. Where do you see non-theism moving, and how can local organizations create lasting impressions in their areas?

Dr. Shook: I have observed how local organizations—whether their focus is atheism, or skepticism, or Humanism—get larger and more influential by guiding their members towards making a positive difference in their communities. Put principles into practice! Your own members, and the wider community, will figure out what you stand for when they can perceive what your organization will stand up for. Be visible by working towards positive change that benefits the larger community, rather than being heard only when complaining about negativities affecting only yourselves.

A local secular organization can try to influence local politics, but that influence is only earned by first being part of positive improvements to community life. And that community effort requires communal cooperation. Find allies on issues that really matter! There are always available allies on urgent issues that involve civil rights, or education, or public health, or charity, or any number of civic matters. When your organization is there for others, then they will probably be there for you. And that seems like a Humanist idea worth pursuing!

Thanks to Dr. Shook for taking time out of his teaching schedule, family life and activism to provide us with this interview. You can learn more about Dr. Shook’s work and academic life on his personal website, or follow him on Twitter (@John_Shook).