CPBD 026: John Shook – Naturalism, Humanism, and Democracy

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 10, 2010 in Podcast


(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

Today I interview philosopher John Shook. Among other things, we discuss:

  • atheist vs. theist debates
  • replacing religion with a positive alternative
  • fear of death
  • humanism
  • explanations of religion

Download CPBD episode 026 with John Shook. Total time is 1:09:48.

shookJohn Shook links:

Links for things we discussed:

Note: in addition to the regular blog feed, there is also a podcast-only feed. You can also subscribe on iTunes.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

John W. Loftus March 10, 2010 at 8:23 am

Luke, thanks for mentioning my blog. I heartily recommend your site as well. John is a friend of mine and we’ve talked about a project in the future which should be very interesting, should it come to fruition.

John is right, as is Paul Kurtz, that we need to work on a planetary ethic. My aims are more modest at this point in time. I’m doing the nasty work of pushing evangelicals off of dead center. My goal is a negative one. I want to force Christian believers to discard the Bible and to think for themselves unfettered by the shackles of that superstitious, barbaric book. Where they end up after that is not something I focus on, although I also try to push believers in the direction of atheism. Since Christianity is on the rise we need people in every generation who are willing to do the dirty work. That’s me. Someone’s got to do it. ;-)


lukeprog March 10, 2010 at 9:50 am


I’m quite aware of how much you link to my blog. :) Keep up the good work on your blog, too. I can’t wait for The Christian Delusion.


Charles March 10, 2010 at 7:51 pm


You are on quite a roll with these podcasts. Keep ‘em coming!


lukeprog March 10, 2010 at 8:02 pm

Thanks, Charles.


Ken Pulliam March 11, 2010 at 10:08 am


I had not heard of John before. Excellent interview; extremely informative. Keep up the good work!


svenjamin March 11, 2010 at 10:46 am

It was good enough that I typed a few notes as I was listening…

I appreciate that he recognizes that religion is a powerfully motivating force on several different levels, and that simply refuting a few religious claims isn’t sufficient. Religion offers much more than some peculiar beliefs. Shook noted towards the end of the podcast that religions are the effective “largest repository” of moral thought, at least historically, and that it is perhaps more expedient to mobilize that to get important issues addressed than to eliminate religion and philosophize up some new moral systems, and then finally address pressing issues.

I agree with his list of three major social contributions of religion for which secularism must offer viable alternatives: morality, political authority, and explanatory models. I think this is an important observation for a secularist, but it still falls short. Religion is an immensely powerful source for creating communal bonds. What does secularism have to offer in place of the weekly ritual gatherings and holidays of Christianity? Of the weekly respite from “the real” world enjoyed in the company of fellow believers? Of the sense of being a part of something greater? Of the emotional release of liturgy and communal singing? Of the moral and social reflection that a good pastor enjoins? Of the strong sense that one has a cosmic duty to put ones ego in order? I highly recommend that chapter on what “Religion as a Way of Life” meant in pre-modern Euoropean society in Oscar Handlin’s classic study “The Uprooted.”
Some of these are within reach for the deep-thinking atheist. But most people are simply not that intellectually inclined. As an anthropologist, I interpret the proliferation of new age and neo-pagan religious movements and other subcultures as symptomatic of the void left by a secular culture that religious services previously filled.

I once wrote a short paper showing how “the show” in the straight-edge subculture corresponds to Durkheim’s conception of religious ritual as affirming the social ties of the tribe in “primitive” religion. The band fills the role of the ritual specialist or priest. The audience is a local ‘crew’, which actively participates in the songs. The songs, in turn, have a pre-determined structure governed by the norms of straight-edge musical forms, and there are specific styles of dancing/moshing appropriate for different stages of the song. All of this serves to reinforce the communal identity of the local subculture. I can go even further: they have sacred texts in the form of the songs that proved to be the genesis of the straight-edge subculture. There are doctrines governing behavior, dress, and even food taboos.

Notice also the awesomeness of the European metal bands that have taken inspiration from their mythological heritages. One of my personal favorites is Amon Amarth, which draws heavily on norse mythology: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbuQ1iEBP2s

Anyway, this is just a long way of saying that secularism doesn’t have an alternative to the ritual, community, and mythology (read: “sacred stories” not “stuff that’s false”) features of religion.


Haukur March 11, 2010 at 1:14 pm

That was a great comment, svenjamin. Personally I prefer “Victorious March” by Amon Amarth. The lyrics are pretty over the top, though.


svenjamin March 11, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Victorious March is also one of my favorites, among many. Embrace of the Endless Ocean is possibly one of their finest moments: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tTKxGhf2Yyw

I linked Hermod’s Ride to Hel as it is a narrative, of well, Hermod’s Ride to Hel, which is the Norse element of a set of strikingly similar myths about a failed journey to the underworld to rescue a prematurely departed loved one. Such stories are examples of how religions have given us compelling images of human experience. Imagine what it is like to “know” that the gods themselves suffer the pain of loss. \m/


Jake de Backer March 11, 2010 at 10:59 pm

Holy shit, European Death Metal fans. I would’ve assumed I was the only frequenter with an appreciation for that material. “With Oden On Our Side” & “Versus The World” are two of my all time favorite metal albums.



Haukur March 12, 2010 at 5:41 am

Check out this cute Brazilian girl who does vocal covers of Amon Amarth.

Oh, and Slavic pagan metal is good too – check out Arkona. And for a surprisingly compelling video of a Slavic pagan ritual check out this Jarga thing here.


RA March 12, 2010 at 6:40 am

So Luke, how did you rate the Shook vs. WLC debate?


Garren October 15, 2010 at 8:21 pm

One of my favorite episodes. Shook is both principled and practical.


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