Little Altar Boy

When I was a child and through my teens, there was one voice that was always there. Well, not always there, but always available when the thousand things I’m always thinking about would get thought out, when the hundreds of adjustments to be made were completed, when the tens of friends would be off friending with other people, when a handful of moments were there solemn and for the taking. The voice belonged to Karen Carpenter.

Her death made her a constant in the universe, never getting older, never doing anything newer. Never being anything that what she was at the moment I learned of her death. Always the same, always utterly knowable.

Even at Christmastime, Karen was there, whether singing cloying and cursed carols or more contemporary and nuanced personal statements about the supposedly most wonderful time of the year.

Over the years, I have outgrown the unnuanced hypocrisy of the holiday season in America, just as I have outgrown the need for the self- and soul-flagellation that attends Christianity. Jingle the Bells, Hark the Heralds, Fa the La-La-La’s if you must—and plenty of us must—but please don’t be offended by my utter neutrality towards the festivities that seem to just borrow against the next year’s good will.

Nuanced moments, times, people, events are those that stay with me; complexities and subtleties abound to be savored, studied, analyzed, observed, enjoyed, revisited, reconsidered, re-dismissed. I learn so much about my own thoughts, about my own feelings, about my own age, about my own time, by playing myself against static pieces or by letting a song play me with a fine hand.

One of the songs that appeared on the Carpenters’ Christmas album, that I still cannot forget, is called “Little Altar Boy”:

Little altar boy, I wonder could you pray for me?
Little altar boy, for I have gone astray
What must I do to be holy like you?
Little altar boy, oh, let me hear you pray

Little altar boy, I wonder could you ask your Lord
Ask him, altar boy, to take my sins away
What must I do to be holy like you?
Little altar boy, oh, let me hear you pray

Lift up your voice and send a prayer above
Help me rejoice and fill that prayer with love
Now I know my life has been all wrong
Lift my your voice and help a sinner be strong

Little altar boy, I wonder could you pray for me?
Could you tell our Lord I’m gonna change my ways today?
What must I do to be holy like you?
Little altar boy, oh, let me hear you pray
Little altar boy please let me hear you pray!

How can a man who has no need for a god-concept, no wont of cosmic cash-in at the end of life, no visceral attachment to the machinations of religious bureaucracies find anything of value in a song like this? I often ask myself that very same question. The question is yet another thing that I savor, study, analyze, observe…you get the picture. The revisitation serves to measure me. Serves to measure time. Tick! asks the question. Tock! waits for the arrival of an answer, or preferably, better questions.

This year, as my partner comes at me from the godless-left (as the Sacred States of America come at me from the moral-values-right), I ask myself again: what is it about the song—most specifically, Karen Carpenter’s rendition of the song—that refuses to stop speaking to me?

The singer of the song is regretful, wishing to make a change, wishing to become better. And asking for help. Help is being asked of an innocent, who the singer believes has a better chance of being heard, and thus the singer has a better chance at getting what she needs.

Asking for forgiveness, while most often a selfish-demand to be relieved of a past burden, can sometimes be nothing more—and nothing less—than the natural outburst proceeding from a moment of clarity, a moment of realization, a moment of self-understanding. When you can hold your own past, your own present, your own self in the palm of your own hand for even an instant, you’re floating free of everything that holds you back.

The song is a prayer, a supplication to the innocent to help them remember the realization and help them do something with the burst of insight after the moment has passed. And like any prayer, it’s a request of someone else to keep despair at bay until the singer can do it for herself.

Most of the people I know are not christian. None of my friends here in San Francisco attend church services. None vote Republican. None attempts social engineering before first attempting to engineer themselves into better people. None of them want someone else to do all the work.

All take pride in their own accomplishments while also acknowledging where they got help. All appreciate love and care and decency. All are self-described progressives or liberals. All are happy to help when they can.

Even the godless used to admit to sin. Now sin has become Sin, and is defined by Holy Proscription by the christians. Even the godless used to ask the heavens, “why me?”. Even the godless would show gratitude in moments of fatalistic benevolence. Even the godless could be able to say they were “blessed”.

So this year, at least, for me the song is about humility. The humility to admit that you don’t know something; the humility to own up to self-limiting behavior. It’s about asking for help and doing your best whether you get the help or not.

And in becoming a better person, a more decent human being, a more respecting and respectable individual, a more nuanced and fully realized soul in our ever-more-caricaturish society, share what you gained with others. Let them stand on your shoulders, because no matter what you’ve accomplished, you’ve been helped along the way as well.

I’m Completely Out of Touch

I have been told by people that don’t know me, that because I am not Christian, that the Law is the only thing preventing me from stealing from others, or from killing others.

Yeah, in the absence of Christ’s Love™, it seems, it’s quite impossible to be possessed of decency or morals: only my mindless adherence to the letter of the U.S. Law is saving y’all from being killed and stolen from by me.

I suppose I should also be apologizing to Sam for asking him to believe that I love him, apologizing for my gender—for how can two men really love each other? Preposterous!—and making restitution for the false expectations I’ve given him. While I’m at it, I should apologize to Jesus, huh? Because I’m a radical who flouts the status quo in hopes of ushering in profound changes that lead to a better society.

In all seriousness, folks, I had no idea there were so many children, teens, college folks and supposedly fully-realized adults who were petty usurpers of decency, possessed of prehensile souls.

Coming Out of Christianity

I swear to God[dess] that if regular junior high school curriculum included…

…the world would be a far more relaxed, content place. There’s be more good thinking going on, less pigeonholing of the Infinite, and no destructive clamoring over doing Heavenly work by way of making this life a living Hell.

Humans are special, we just don’t need an old book and an ancient modality to tell us that.

Aquinas, Gödel and Occam, Oh My!

It’s amazing to me the lengths that Christians (well, Catholics, insofar as they are still Christians) go in order to tell you that science doesn’t matter and that it doesn’t come close to capturing the essence of human (and divine) existence.

I agree! But the point at which they make a statement like this is the point that they also start trotting out so-called science to back up their belief constructs. Unfortunate. This is what happens when the Little Church in the Dell comes to the Big City and tries an extreme makeover on society by attempting to harness political machinery.

What ever happened to the Substance of things Hoped For and the Evidence of Things Not Seen? I, for one, think that there’s always room for a little (or a lot) of faith. It’s dogma that wears me down. Think they’re the same thing? Think again. Faith only becomes dogma when someone else tries to tell you the color and timbre and texture your faith is supposed to be. And where it’s supposed to be aimed.

And how you’re supposed to get out in the world and make more of the Faithful, either through procreation or through propagation of that Faith. Either way, they want missionary positions filled (groan, sorry, I know).

I have faith in my family. Faith that they are there for me when I need them. Faith that I will set aside whatever occupies the fore if my family needs me. Faith that my love for my partner is for life. Faith that he loves me in kind. Faith that I am capable of trust. Trust in things like love and life and Good Will.

I also have a certitude that there really is no such thing as Altruism, but that broad-enough and indirect-enough and long-term-enough self-interest is indistinguishable from altruism.

Frank Herbert once wrote: “‘What do you despise?’ By this are you truly known.”

So what do I despise? I despise closed minds. I despise liars and those who take pleasure in the misfortune of others. I despise the self-imposed ignorance of those who short their own brainpower in favor of their religion. I despise xenophobia, especially the kind that masquerades as love.

Most of all, I despise hypocrisy and duplicity, and the ignorance that seems to generate both.

Well, that was fun, but I never fully agreed with Frank Herbert on that. It never allowed for creative acts, for things beyond just neutral.

I might suggest that for the lion’s share of Christians (no pun intended), grasping at Jesus Christ is a desperate attempt to equalize all the individuals in a given society so that all the bonafide special and talented individuals are lost in that old “we’re all special in God’s eyes” bromide. We continue to increasingly celebrate the mediocre while becoming increasingly paranoid about those with wild talents.

I abide the ideal of freedom of religion, so long as the set of religions also includes the empty set (i.e., freedom to practice no religion or faith). It’s a natural tendency for the dogmatic to frame and label the world according to their own carefully constructed belief systems. Their identities, individual and collective, are tied up in requiring boundaries around things, including their own god.

Well, my identity is tied up in other things. You won’t find a satisfactory theism-relative label for me.

Forgive the crass dipping into boolean logic, but here’s where I stand:

  • If there is a god, she’s outside of our closed system and cannot be knowable by any measure.
  • If there is not a god, I still cannot escape our closed system and, like any closed system according to Gödel, there are unreachable truths AND unreachable falsehoods.

Kinda boring, I know. But this is where good old Occam comes in with his Famous Razor: the world around us—if you avoid the overweening assumption that the universe is just God’s Terrarium—becomes a magical place.

With Theism, you get “god did it”. Without assuming Theism, you get a wonderment that’s good for the soul.

Andrew Sullivan & Neville Chamberlain


Besides being British, that’s what both men have in common.

The other night on Real Time with Bill Maher, Andrew Sullivan suggested—almost insisted!—that the “Hollywood left” are to blame for handing the election to the Right:

ANDREW SULLIVAN: Well, Bill, Bill, congratulations to you because you did your bit to help George Bush win the election. And so did the entire Hollywood left, who galvanized people in the middle of the country who are tired of being patronized, condescended to and demeaned. I mean, if you want—

As Sterling said in Jeffrey, “Ooooh! Get her!”

Naturally, it’s not the fault of the Bush-approved messages that rained on Ohio, Pennsylvania and all those Crazy Swingers about the gore of a partial-birth abortion and of gay people bringing the hell-rains down on hopeful and decent society.

Nor is it the fault of the Republican machine that starts with a message-of-the-day and ends with the myriad voices of the rageful right aping the message without thought, without consideration and certainly without regard for decency, veracity or even plausibility.

No, Andrew, it’s none of that. It is we; we who demean the christians and their unnatural lifestyle unprovokedly? We must agree to respect those who take comfort in irrefutable delusion; who imagine an Absentee Father in Heaven who’s waiting for them after they’ve spent a lifetime in a lifestyle dedicated to bringing pain and disadvantage to those who don’t accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour (that spelling was for you, Andrew)?

SULLIVAN: —as people in Hollywood who demean people of religious faith. We’re getting into this cycle in which one side is continually polarizing the other until we have no discourse left at all.

Being the Thatcher-lover and Reagan-buttboy that he is, Mr. Sullivan seems to forget that it was the Reagan Right in the late 1980s who latched onto the word ‘liberal’ and turned it into ‘Liberal’, who convinced followers that a media that was increasingly being governed by large-corporate interests was actually a bunch of hippies, who convinced everyone that unchecked corporate and government aggression was the key to clean air and clean water, a full belly and a full wallet.

And Mr. Sullivan wonders why we associate being dogmatically and rabidly christian with being learning-impaired.

No, Mr. Sullivan, our salvation doesn’t come from making sure they don’t think we’re hate them. They’ve already convinced themselves of that. Our salvation comes from making them grow up. Our salvation comes from making them aware of how much they have benefited and will continue to benefit from our efforts. Oh, we already know the good works they’ve done for all of us; their christian humility insists they let us know at every turn how full of grace and full of decency they are.

And they’ll tell us when we aren’t paying enough attention. Whether we are or not.

Those who can fabricate a Hand of God can fabricate just about anything.