Recognized as one of the foremost black writers of the 1920s, Richard Wright remains in the consciousness of America through his words and his works. In his book entitled, Native Son, Richard Wright explores the theme of being a black man living in the early 20s and how it is to deal with the challenges of living in a white society with a black family. While this piece has never been regarded as a literary masterpiece for its literary style and prose, the ideas and attitudes that are embodied in the book continue to be an influence on the social and intellectual history of the United States of America. Particularly revealing and interesting is the view that Richard Wright has on religion as outlined in this book.
Before arriving at a better understanding of how Richard Wright views religion, it is important to first outline the framework of the story, Native Son, and provide a brief background on the influences of Richard Wright. This fictionalized memoir of Richard Wright covers his childhood and the early years of his adulthood. The first part is called the “Southern Night,” which deals with the events that transpired during his childhood in the South, and “The Horror and the Glory,” which chronicles his younger adulthood in Chicago.
As with any biography, the scenes begin from the early memories of consciousness that the author, Richard Wright, has in his childhood. This particular memory was not a good one as it narrated how he accidentally burned down his house, thus precipitating the struggles that he would face in his life. The burning of his house soon led to the separation of his parents and him being shipped off to live with different relatives and households, even in an orphanage for a brief period of time. With the separation came the hardship that Wright had to endure for the rest of his life. Soon hunger and poverty became regular bedmates of Wright as his mother was forced to maintain several jobs and even Wright and his siblings were forced to do odd jobs just to be able to eat.
As if fate had not already dealt him quite a blow, Wright was not only forced to contend with his daily survival and sustenance but he was also forced to deal with an overbearing and overzealous religious fanatic of a grandmother who was convinced that Wright, with his bookish and studious ways, was a sinner. Against the backdrop of the daily struggles of Wright and his family, Wright has to contend with the constant nagging, preaching and indoctrination of his grandmother. Predictably, Wright rebels against this indoctrination by continuing in his ways. He largely ignores the preaching of his grandmother and finds his utopia in his studies and the books that he reads.
The violence that follows Wright around is another major theme in this book that also highlights his aversion to religion. When he does not follow the teachings of his grandmother, he gets castigated and beaten up. To make matters worse, he is not only subjected to the same kind of treatment at this grandmother’s house but also in school where his Aunt is a teacher. There are many events in the book where he is beaten up by his relatives because they feel that he is a sinner and that he is very disrespectful. As will be explained later, these beatings acted as a form of negative reinforcement for him to reject religion even more.
Amidst his struggles to survive, Wright also has to deal with the racism that blacks were subjected to during that time. Not only did this prevent him from getting any real skills, as during his experience as an apprentice at an optical shop, but it also reinforced his thinking on the inequalities in society and thus his embracing of the communist ideals in the later years of his life. He begins to consider the manner by which all intellectual curiosity is discouraged or frustrated, not only by the whites but also by the blacks who have seemed to accept their station in society. As this discourse will explain, this also led to his dislike of religion because he felt that religion at that time prevented people from questioning and instead encouraged the acceptance of something that was unproven.
It is against these series of events that Richard Wright not only tries to highlight the struggles of a black man in a white society but also reveals to the reader his disdain for religion. The dislike for religion of Richard Wright is premised on a few basic principles. His experiences with his grandmother planted the seed that prompted him to reject religion and its principles. While he realized that religion was integral to the unification of the family, it also bred certain ideals and principles that he did not subscribe to. The racism that he experienced in the south and his eventual shift to communist ideas (though these sentiments were quickly disillusioned when he moved to Europe) reinforced his anti-religious sentiments. Thus, the combination of these two provided Wright with his justification to reject religion, which he also deemed as secular.
It is easy to see the view the Richard Wright had on religion even at the outset of the story. The very first paragraphs, where Wright begins to narrate his misfortunes in life, seem to suggest a view that does not regard religion highly.
"At the age of twelve, before I had had one full year of formal schooling, I had a conception of life that no experience would ever erase, a predilection for what was real that no argument could ever gainsay, a sense of the world that was mine and mine alone, a notion as to what life meant that no education could ever alter, a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering." Chapter 3, pg. 100
There is no hope that glimmers from this words rather there is only the dark cloud of despair that hangs heavily on every word, emphasizing the sadness that becomes a major theme in his life. As Richard Wright begins his narrative, the reader is exposed to his world and sees that there is nothing that resembles the hope, forgiveness and even peace that religion espouses. As such, this leads Richard to think that religion is false for after all, if there was a benevolent God, how could he allow his mother to endure all the pain and hardship that she was enduring.
As previously mentioned, the process of Richard’s rejection of religion was primarily based on this encounter with his grandmother and the fate of his mother. Richard chose to go against societal norm and embrace religion. Instead, Richard had refused to go to church and attend mass, saying that there was no use going because he did not have proof of the existence of God. As his Aunt and his grandmother try to convince him to go, he explains that he will only believe if he is able to actually witness an angel with his own eyes.
His “doubting Thomas” approach to religion elicits the same kind of reaction and violence that negatively reinforces his rejection of religion. While Richard does eventually give in to have himself baptized, an act which is said to cleanse one’s soul of original sin, this is not to be confused as an acceptance of religion. Rather, this act is Richard’s way of showing his love for his mother which he holds more dear to him than his beliefs with regard to the practices of secular religion.
At this point, this narration of experiences shows just how Richard Wright viewed religion. The fact that he strongly believes in the need for empirical evidence in order to believe in God shows the frame of mind that Richard possessed. He was an intellectual who believed in what actually exists. He could not grasp an idea that could not be proven or a belief that could not be verified. This failure prompted him to theorize that religion was no longer what it stood for but was just a bunch of meaningless ceremonies and traditions. The fact that he allowed himself to be baptized can be taken as an active protest against religion showing that despite subjecting himself to the traditions of the church it has not changed him or his ideals of it.
Richard Wright has now developed a thinking that religion did not serve any purpose in his life. It’s failure to live up to its teachings and tenets were very obvious to him, particularly in the predicament of his own mother who was a devout church member yet always seemed to be forsaken by God. The teachings on suffering and sacrifice did nothing but reinforce his thinking that these were useless since his mother sacrificed everything and suffered so much in her own life.
Perhaps one of the other reasons why Richard Wright viewed religion with contempt was the fact that it ran contrary to his own beliefs and views. Richard was an intellectual. His view of the world was greatly influenced by what he learned from the books that he read and also from the things that he learned in school. As such, the writings in his books held what he regarded as truth. They would be similar to what he would call his own bible. The problem here is that the beliefs of his grandmother and aunt were that books were the devils writings. In essence, the result was that Richard was made to choose between the truth as found in one book, the bible, and the truth that was found in his other books. His set of books held the verified truths while the bible only had anecdotal evidence that was not very convincing to him.
In a Negro community that was brought together by the church, the behavior that Richard exhibited ostracized him from the others. His beliefs against religion led several to consider him as a black who thought he was white. This isolation only compounded the situation and his feelings for the church and religion. Instead of the community accepting him and trying to bring him into the fold and perhaps even religion, their actions isolated him and made him resent religion even more. Since Richard is "no longer set apart for being sinful," his family leaves him alone. Chapter 5, pg. 123
When Richard eventually, albeit temporarily, embraced the ideals and teachings of communism, it further reinforced his view of religion as the “opium of the masses” and also played on the inequities that he faced when he was younger. The lack of equal opportunity and the racism that he felt was in part attributed to the failings of religion. Going back to the argument that if there was a God his mother would not have to suffer, it can be argued that the fact that racism and discrimination existed even in a predominantly religious community shows the fallibility of the church as a religious organization. These inequalities were taken as inconsistencies and the failure of religion to even adhere to its own doctrines. In comparison, Richard saw in communism a chance at equality. The socialist message that it espoused greatly appealed to Richard. The theme of social change, unity, racial tolerance and equality was deeply appealing to Richard as well.
If religion is a means to fill a void in a person’s heart, as many devout Catholics claim, then the socialist idealisms and writings that Richard encountered in his life were his means of filling in that void. Through the writings and this book, Richard Wright sought to challenge people not to accept societal norms and religious dogma. Instead Richard sought to encourage people to stand up for their rights and exercise their freedoms by speaking up and speaking out. He wanted to challenge people to be more than they thought they could be in the same way that he did for himself. Closely tied up with his rejection of religion, Richard wanted to show people that it was possible to reject convention and tradition. For him, the only truth that exists is one that can be real and that became the guiding force in his life.
As Richard says, “at the age of twelve I had an attitude toward life that was to . . . make me skeptical of everything while seeking everything, tolerant of all and yet critical…”