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James Baldwin and Margaret Mead on Religion

“If any particular discipline … does not become a matter of your personal honor, your private convictions, then it’s simply a cloak which you can wear or throw off.”

NOTE: This is the fifth installment in a multi-part series covering Mead and Baldwin’s historic conversation. Part 1 focused on forgiveness and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility; part 2 on identity, race, and the immigrant experience; part 3 on changing one’s destiny; part 4 on reimagining democracy for a post-consumerist culture.

“Fear is the basis of religious dogma,” Bertrand Russell wrote in his magnificent 1925 meditation on why religion exists. Nearly half a century later, two other intellectual titans considered the dark side of religion at the height of the civil rights and women’s liberation movements. In the summer of 1970, Margaret Mead and James Baldwin sat down for their remarkable public conversation, the transcript of which was eventually published as A Rap on Race (public library). For seven and a half hours over the course of two days, they discussed issues of astonishing timeliness today — including the injustice perpetrated in the name of religion.

Art by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

In a sentiment that calls to mind Mark Twain on slavery and how religion is used to justify injustice, Baldwin tells Mead:

I remember the photographs of white women in New Orleans, several years ago, during the school integration crisis, who were standing with their babies in their arms, and in the name of Jesus Christ they were spitting on other women’s children, women who happened to be black, women with their babies in their arms. I have never been able to understand that at all. To put it in rather exaggerated primitive terms, I don’t understand at all what the white man’s religion means to him. I know that the white man’s religion has done to me. And so, I could — can — accuse the white Christian world of being nothing but a tissue of lies, nothing but an excuse for power, as being as removed as anything can possibly be from any sense of worship and, still more, from any sense of love. I cannot understand that religion. And I really mean that. I am not joking when I say I cannot understand it. I mean, I can have a fight with a bartender or I can have a fight with you, I think, but I can’t have a fight with a baby, with a child.

The last Warsaw Ghetto deportation, 1943
The last Warsaw Ghetto deportation, 1943

With his mind’s eye on one of the most iconic and heartbreaking photographs from the Holocaust, Baldwin adds:

There is a photograph from the Second World War which is haunting my memory — stays in my memory forever. It’s of a little Jewish boy about five or six, and by the time I saw this photograph he was dead. The Gestapo had just surrounded him. He was standing in a street looking down at his shoes: a beautiful little boy, and he looked the way little boys look when they’ve peed on themselves. You know, he just did not know what had happened to him. And they were going to take that little boy away and kill him because he was a Jew. And this is in the name of Christianity! I know that human beings do this all the time, but I never understood it.

When Mead protests that she doesn’t believe the Nazis perpetrated this atrocity “in the name of Christianity,” Baldwin — who was a preacher for three and a half years — counters:

BALDWIN: The first European power to sign a concordat with Hitler was the Pope. And I am old enough to remember the Italian-Ethiopian war, when the pope of that church which stands in Rome sent out white Italian boys with his blessings to rape Ethiopia.

MEAD: They also used to bless the Germans when they were going to rape the French, and the French when they were going to rape the Germans. You are dealing with a period where people blessed every army.

BALDWIN: What I am dealing with is the morality beneath all this.

The point, of course, isn’t to vilify any one religion — we live in a world of enough antagonism, and we have hard enough a time cultivating the capacity for true compassion in which, as Tolstoy and Gandhi agreed in their famous correspondence on why we hurt each other, our civilization’s only true salvation lies. The point — Baldwin’s point in saying this, and mine in resurfacing it after all these decades — is that religion is merely a technology of thought, and like any technology it can be used for noble purposes and it can be used for vile ones. The point, above all, is to remember that no doctrine or dogma will ever provide a shortcut for the critical thinking and moral wisdom for which each of us is responsible in how we contact this world.

And yet Mead argues that both she and Baldwin — people in America and most of the West, that is — got their sense of morality from the Christian tradition. She considers where the broader moral idea of universal brotherhood originated:

MEAD: Muslims don’t believe in loving everybody as brothers. They only love Muslims as brothers. They don’t really have an idea of universal brotherhood… You can find it in Buddhism, but you didn’t get it from Buddhism. Now, that’s the point. You and I, what we have in the belief in the brotherhood of man, of all men, of the power of love, we got out of the Christian tradition.

BALDWIN: Did we? I mean, I accept the premise. I know what you are saying. But at the risk of being difficult, did we? I wonder. It seems to me that there are lots of ways to read the New Testament, and in my experience no pope, except perhaps John XXIII, can possibly have read it… What I am trying to get at is if any particular discipline — whether it be Christianity, Buddhism or LSD, God forbid — does not become a matter of your personal honor, your private convictions, then it’s simply a cloak which you can wear or throw off.

A Rap on Race is a remarkably prescient read in its totality. More highlights from it can be found here. Complement this particular focal point with Dostoyevsky on why there are no bad people, Flannery O’Connor on dogma and the difference between belief and faith, and Isaac Asimov on religion versus humanism.

Published November 19, 2015




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