The Sound of Dead Languages

Have you ever studied a dead language? Unless you were studying for the Protestant ministry, most likely that language was Latin. Although the high school I attended growing up offered French (it had an excellent Spanish program for years, until the teacher left), friends in college told me their schools also offered Latin, and more often than not there was a Latin Club. I guess that’s supposed to look good on your college application. In any event, the dead language I learned in college was Koine Greek.

This wasn’t Classical Greek nor Modern Greek, mind you. Koine Greek was the common trade language in the 1st century C.E. Up until fairly recent times, many theologians referred to Koine Greek as ‘Holy spirit Greek,’ because it was distinct from Classical Greek, and of course they believed God wrote the New Testament (using the apostles and prophets more-or-less as pens). What changed were modern archeological discoveries, including papyrus preserved in Egypt from that time, which amounted to bills of sale, receipts, and other mundane documents.

People studying Latin apparently intend to be able to speak it. Such is not usually the case with Koine Greek. In my university program we studied it solely to be able to read the New Testament text ‘in the original language’ (note that does not mean ‘in the original manuscripts,’ because of course all we have are copies of copies). We would read out the text in class, but there was no concern over whether our normative classroom pronunciation was at all similar to the language as it was spoken centuries ago.

In the video above, some clues as to to how Latin was spoken when it was yet alive are discussed. As for me, I’ll happily stick to languages descended from that ancient tongue, such as Portuguese, Romanian, and – in a hybridized sense – Hatian Creole.

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Fluency…In Six Months?

The Future – And End – of Our Species

The video above presents a scenario in which sentient beings visit our planet 100,000,000 years from now. It takes as a fundamental assumption that our species will be gone by then. In fact, it’s pretty much guaranteed it will be.

First, the our galaxy is huge and full of unknowns. A meteor took out the dinosaurs, and other mass exctinction events have taken place over millions of years as well. Something out there or down here could overwhelm us in a way for which we aren’t prepared.

Second, we could obliterate ourselves with nuclear war, or something worse if even more destructive weapons are created. After the Cold War this has felt like a distant possibility, but with 15,000 nuclear weapons distrubuted among 9 countries, something could always happen. The United States and Russia continue to maintain their nuclear armaments on ‘high alert’ status, ready to launch within minutes of the command. Elect the wrong person to the US presidency, and it could be all over for us.

Third, climate change could get us. I tend to doubt this one, because although we stand to lose lives over this in heat waves, flooding, and other natural disasters, as a species we seem likely to survive.

Fourth, there’s a more cheerful reason why our species may not exist millions of years from now: evolution. The genus homo has existed for around 2.5 millions years, but anatomically modern humans have only been around for 200,000 years. Think about that. 300,000 years ago there were no humans like we know of today. Given 100 million years, how could humans like us still exist? And yet, though our species will be technically extinct, we really won’t be gone if our far distant decendant species exist. In fact, there could be numerous species throughout our galaxy that trace their origins back to us and this world. In fact, Earth could even still be home to some of them.

In terms of deep time, homo sapiens sapiens is guaranteed to go extinct one way or the other. How we’ll go into that eternal oblivion is the open question. Our task is to think of the next several hundred years, starting with the world now and the following few generations. Individually, it seems wise to me to practice mindfulness and make the most of the one life we know we have. 

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The Good That De-Extinction Of Other Species Can Do For Humanity 

Given than I’m vocally pro-GMO, it really shouldn’t come as any surprise that I’m also in favor of cloning extinct species back into existence. Not dinosaurs, of course. Aside from their DNA being long-destroy, this simply isn’t their world any more. Then again, it could be very worthwhile to genetically modify modern birds, like chickens, to enhance their vestigial dinosaur DNA. No, what I think should be restored are any and all species that went extinct after anatomically modern humans evolved. Obviously, there are limits to what we can do given the lack of good DNA in many cases.

This isn’t just about righting a wrong done to extinct species. It’s a simple fact that countless species have died out over the millions of years of life on this planet. It’s a fact of life, so to speak. For me it’s a matter of both scientific discovery, and also soul-searching on the part of humanity as a whole. The scientific value should be obvious. This other part, what you could call spiritual, is less so. Up to this very day, human activity is pushing various species toward extinction. While the species restored through cloning and related methods won’t know or care that they’re back, we will know and we will care. Individuals will continue to make terrible choices, but we as a whole have an obligation and an opportunity to take ownership of what we and our ancestors have done.

It could change us for the better.

The video above is from about 3 years ago. I looked into it, and it appears that the research to restore the species described continues. I’m hoping they find success.

This is from about three years ago. I’ve checked, and the work to clone these species back into existence continues.

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Unitarian Universalism 101

To get the most out of the sermon below, you’ll need to watch the clip from The Colbert Report first. It’s incorporated into the message, but was omitted from the sermon recording.

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The Romanian Humanist Association

The photos set above is from a Humanist Camp that took place in Romania earlier this month.  Did you know there’s a Humanist association in Romania? I imagine most Humanists outside of Europe haven’t given it much thought. I was pleased to find out about them, as I intend to start making visits to Romania in coming years. I could potentially meet some Romanian Humanists. It would be interesting to hear how they deal with being non-theists in a very theistic culture. Given the ongoing ‘culture war’ in the United States, I might learn something useful from their character and experience.

Although most of Europe is very secular, and Romania doesn’t have an established church, this nation remains very religious. Here’s part of what Wikipedia has to say about it:

Romania is a secular state, and it has no state religion. However, Romania is one of the most religious countries in the European Union and an overwhelming majority of the country’s citizens are Christian. The Romanian state officially recognizes 18 religions and denominations.[1]81.04% of the country’s stable population identified as Eastern Orthodox in the 2011 census (see also: History of Christianity in Romania). Other Christian denominations include Roman Catholicism (4.33%), Greek Catholicism (0.75%-3.3%), Calvinism (2.99%), Pentecostal denominations (1.80%). This amounts to approximately 92% of the population identifying as Christian. Romania also has a small but historically significant Muslim minority, concentrated in Northern Dobruja, who are mostly of Crimean Tatar and Turkish ethnicity and number around 64,000 people. According to the 2011 census data, there are also approximately 3,500 Jews, around 21,000 atheists and about 19,000 people not identifying with any religion. The 2011 census numbers are based on a stable population of 20,121,641 people and exclude a portion of about 6% due to unavailable data.[2]

Each country has its issues with the very religious. Brazil is mostly Catholic with a rising number of conservative evangelicals and neo-Pentecostals, all grasping for power. The United States has a vocal, significant minority of evangelicals with mostly unscrupulous leaders (as shown by their support of Donald Trump’s candidacy for President). Romania, for its part, seems to be largely influenced by the Orthodox Church. 

Rather than merely feeling negative about it, consider that in all these countries there are Humanist groups. Also, as Neil deGrasse Tyson has said, ‘The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.’ With activism and education, perhaps in a few generations we can all leave the last major vestiges of superstition behind us.

If you understand Romanian or are willing to use Google Translate, check out their online presence.

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What Unitarian Universalists Need to Take Into Consideration About The ‘Nones’

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The Unitarian Universalist Association, born in 1961 from the merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of American, has long been a home for heretics, Humanists, and other religious dissenters. Now, in 2016, it is at a crossroads. The direction it takes could decide whether the denomination will begin to decline as have the mainline Protestant churches, or if it can actually grow in numbers and strength with the rise of the ‘nones.‘ 

Some describe the religion’s recent history as having been dominated by a divisive Humanism, and they express relief that this seems to be fading away. The Humanists, for their part, don’t see it that way at all, and increasingly feel dismissed or even pushed out of congregations with the relatively new denominational emphasis on ‘the language of reverence.’ At a UU conference this year I heard someone who has spent decades in the ministry saying that UU congregations need to begin adopting more of the terminology and practice of “the other churches.” He said, “that’s what people want.” Is it, really? Which people?

Unitarian Universalists come from a variety of backgrounds. While some were raised as UUs, many were previously Roman Catholic or some variety of Protestant. UU congregations have also served over the years as havens for atheists and agnostics looking for community without much talk of any gods. People joining from other religions are likely what has kept the UUA numerically stable over recent decades. However, this stability isn’t going to last forever.

In the 1960s and 1970s, mainline Protestant denominations began hemorrhaging members. It isn’t a coincidence that conservative evangelical denominations began to flourish at the same time, while new evangelical denominations were also born. It then seemed as though this growth was a vindication of conservative evangelical theology, and a judgment of sorts on mainline Protestantism’s perceived lack of convictions. What was happening, more objectively, was that those wanting a more traditional, ‘biblical’ faith were voting with their feet. At the same time, some left church behind entirely, never to return. That is to say, many who left mainline Protestantism found their way into the evangelical fold, but not all. Church membership on the whole diminished.

This shift among Christian churches continued into the 80s and 90s, and gave us the Religious Right. I myself was converted through TV preachers (but not seedy televangelists like Oral Roberts) away from Catholicism when I was 17. Then, the Internet came along, providing easy access to information and people with different beliefs, and globalization became our reality. Encountering good people of other faiths or none challenged our provincialism, and facts made us question long-cherished beliefs. Beyond that, I’m not sufficiently qualified to write about all the factors that have led to the decline that evangelical churches have now also begun to experience.

Fortunately, Pew Research Center has been asking the ‘nones’ in the United States just exactly why they’ve left church behind. The responses shed some light on the subject, confirming a lot of what many of us felt we already knew. The insights to be gleaned from this report have very real implications for Unitarian Universalism.

Religious “nones” are by no means monolithic. They can be broken down into three broad subgroups: self-identified atheists, those who call themselves agnostic and people who describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” Given these different outlooks, it is not surprising that there are major gaps among these three groups when it comes to why they left their childhood religion behind. An overwhelming majority of atheists who were raised in a religion (82%) say they simply do not believe, but this is true of a smaller share of agnostics (63%) and only 37% of those in the “nothing in particular” category.

When a survey came out in the past year or so showing that ‘nones’ now compose a significant portion of the U.S. population, some atheists were crowing about it. They made the false assumption that ‘none’ = atheist, and that’s simply not the case. People who have left their childhood faiths have a variety of reasons for doing so, and that includes such things as an aversion to ‘organized religion’ and the conviction that people can be ‘spiritual but not religious.’ Granted, as we shall see, non-theism is also a factor.

One-in-ten religious “nones” who say they were raised with a religious affiliation are now classified as “inactive” religiously. These people may hold certain religious beliefs, but they are not currently taking part in religious practices. And most of them simply say they don’t go to church or engage in other religious rituals, while others say they are too busy for religion.

These are the type of people who may eventually join a UU congregation, if they hear about it, when they start having kids. Having grown up experience fun children’s programs and dynamic youth groups, it’s only natural that they’d want the same experience for their children. Without specific convictions, or preferring a more open approach in general, UUism is a natural fit.

…[18%] say they are religiously unsure. This includes people who say they are religious in some way despite being unaffiliated (e.g., “I believe in God, but in my own way”), others who describe themselves as “seeking enlightenment” or “open-minded,” and several who say they are “spiritual” if not religious. 

These ‘religiously unsure’ are another set of ‘nones’ that could easily find their place in a UU congregation, especially given the 3rd and 4th Principles of Unitarian Universalism:

  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning

You can believe practically anything and find a warm welcome in Unitarian Universalism. Of course, conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists of the various religions wouldn’t want to be a part of fellowship as diverse and progressive as the UUA. That said, a Unitarian Universalist can always change her mind. For example, a doubting, liberal Christian could join as such, and years later become a Humanist, without ever having to change churches. Life for her in the congregation and association at large would carry on as usual. At the same time, Unitarian Universalists can expect to be challenged in their personal outlooks, as they’ll be attending services and volunteering alongside people of different perspectives.

One-in-five express an opposition to organized religion in general. This share includes some who do not like the hierarchical nature of religious groups, several people who think religion is too much like a business and others who mention clergy sexual abuse scandals as reasons for their stance.

Unitarian Universalism isn’t a proselytizing faith. We aren’t going to attempt to convince people to accept even our freethinking, congregational approach to ‘organized religion.’ This fifth of the ‘nones’ should be left in peace. Let them know that UUism exists, sure. If ever they appear at a UU gathering, it will be on their initiative.

About half of current religious “nones” who were raised in a religion (49%) indicate that a lack of belief led them to move away from religion. This includes many respondents who mention “science” as the reason they do not believe in religious teachings, including one who said “I’m a scientist now, and I don’t believe in miracles.” Others reference “common sense,” “logic” or a “lack of evidence” – or simply say they do not believe in God.

Re-read that last quote. Did you see the numbers involved? HALF of the ‘nones’ don’t believe in ‘religious teachings’ often citing science, logic, and/or lack of evidence. Whether atheists or agnostics, these are people the UUA needs to do some long hard thinking about. While many atheists and agnostics have good personal reasons for wanting to avoid this type of organization, others (like myself) want a church-like community without the ‘woo woo.’ This is becoming a fresh reality with groups like Sunday Assembly and Oasis, which are growing while churches are shrinking.

To get many of the ‘nones’ into UU congregations all that’s needed is better marketing. People who want a place to take their kids, or where they can think for themselves without having to accept any dogma, will find their way in once they know that Unitarian Universalism exists. What about atheists, though?

Does the UUA really want to adopt the failed model of mainline denominations, thinking “that’s what people want”? (It seems more likely to me that UU ministers who have studied at Christian seminaries are prone to feel an affection for those traditions and want to promote them.) Instead, why not seek to become become truly inclusive and find ways to welcome even more of the ‘nones’ into this liberal religious tradition? This will require a lot of listening to the concerns of ‘secular’ people, and an examination of current terminology and practice. This is an opportunity to offer the benefits and community life of UUism while also receiving the gifts and talents atheists and agnostics bring. This is a growth opportunity, in every sense, that the UUA stands to miss out on if steps aren’t taken now.

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