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Raised by a strict stepfather who was a Pentecostal preacher, James Baldwin found himself, in his words, "hurl[ed] into the church." That is, in religion he looked for reasons for and comfort from his experiences. He describes his religious beginnings as occurring one night at a prayer meeting in which
...everything came roaring, screaming, crying out, and I fell to the ground before the altar. It was the strangest sensation I have ever had in my life.
After this experience, he became "a bigger drawing card than my father"; however, Baldwin came to realize that his religious experiences were more emotional than spiritual. Nevertheless, he did recognize the devotion to religion may have kept him from engaging in other areas that were illegal and dangerous. Later, having become disillusioned after reading Dostovesky and perceiving the hypocrisy in the church where religion was a shelter for what he perceived as hatred, self-hatred, and despair, he abandoned his faith in Christianity. In the black churches, for instance, Baldwin perceived religion as a refuge for many and a remedy for suffering as a hope for a better life in the next, but it did not make them stronger. Ironically, however, Baldwin himself looked back on his time as a preacher as succor to his own personal crises. And, since he never identified himself publicly as an atheist a recording of his singing "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" was played at his funeral
In a documentary film made in 1953, Take This Hammer, Baldwin concluded of the Christian churches in America,
...these churches are absolutely meaningless and almost blasphemous…more social club than spiritual institution…the Christian church in this country has never, as far as I know, been Christian.
He identified many white liberal Christians as perceiving themselves as "missionaries" who would improve the lives of black people. Baldwin castigated them, saying in his documentary, "Liberals are looking for an alleviation, a protection of their own consciousness" rather than truly working for equality of race. Baldwin once wrote,
If the concept of God has any use, it is to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God can't do that, it's time we got rid of him.
At one point, he visited Elijah Mohammed, leader of the Black Muslims, but Baldwin concluded that Elijah's "revelations" about Satan having created "white devils" made no more sense than Christianity. He concluded that many had joined Elijah Mohammed in their need to find a spiritual leader who would address their fears and situations and offer them hope and identification. And, although he respected Malcolm X, Baldwin was opposed to the separation of races or war among them.
Perhaps the most telling statement about religion is that of Baldwin describing how his participation in religion altered his worldview and affected his writing, "I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked." Perhaps, too, the fact that he never became an atheist attests to his admission that a person needs this "illusion" and part in the spiritual world because the temporal world is, as Wordworth wrote, "too much with us."
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