Ta-Nehisi Coates and Atheistic Pessimism

In 2013, the author Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an essay, “The Myth of Western Civilization” that’s proven to be prophetic:

Democracy is a struggle, not a trophy and not a bragging right. This is not a matter of being polite and sensitive. It is understanding that we live on the edge of the volcano, that the volcano is in us.

…I am an atheist. (I have recently realized this.) I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely. I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.

Coates warns that although democracy and human rights are real achievements, they’re also more fragile than we realize. Hatred, war and destruction are always lurking around the edges of things, even when all seems peaceful, simply because human nature is fallible. You can never tell when the winds will change and bring a strongman or a violent demagogue to power.

Since these words read like a textbook on what’s happened in the world in the last few years, you’d think he would get more credit for being right. But no. Recently, there was an article on the Guardian by Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins taking Coates to task for his pessimism about race relations in America, which it blames on his atheism:

Coates’s belief that white supremacy is fundamentally woven into the fabric of the United States is built on a larger metaphysical assumption that without the existence of God the entire world bends towards injustice… The real problem for Coates, then, might ultimately not be white supremacy, but rather the non-existence of God. It is the non-existence of God, according to his argument, that rules out the possibility of any collective redemption not just in the United States, but the world writ large.

This is an unfair way to construe Coates’ argument. He explains why he’s pessimistic, and it’s not because of “the non-existence of God”. It’s because the world is a chaotic place and human beings are more influenced by narrow conceptions of tribalism and self-interest rather than higher moral principles.

Now, there’s a certain sense in which this critique might be accurate: If you’re a religious person who isn’t a white supremacist, then you presumably believe that God is opposed to white supremacy and will eventually eradicate it from the earth. That faith-based belief in preordained victory might make you more optimistic than the facts would otherwise warrant. I assume this is what Steinmetz-Jenkins was getting at. However, it’s not as simplistic as equating atheism with pessimism and religious faith with optimism.

Even if you believe that God is against white supremacy, that tells you nothing about how long he intends to let it continue. After all, the Bible tells us he’s often slow to take action against injustice. For example, God let the Israelites languish in slavery in Egypt for four hundred and thirty years (Exodus 12:40). The U.S. is only a little more than half that old. Thus, even a radically progressive Christian view is perfectly compatible with believing that God won’t do anything about America’s white supremacist policies for several hundred more years – or several thousand (2 Peter 3:8). To living people suffering under the burden of racism, that’s cold comfort indeed.

I wanted to point out an unremarked-upon assumption of Steinmetz-Jenkins’ article: that it’s wrong to be a pessimist. He seems to believe that optimism is the appropriate response no matter the situation. In that light, Coates’ view strikes him as unbearably bleak, lacking any hope in “national redemption”.

But why should we automatically adopt that stance? Because we don’t believe goodness is fated to triumph, an atheist’s view of optimism versus pessimism should be based on evidence. When we see the world getting better, that ought to make us more hopeful for the future; when we see it getting worse, the opposite. And if you think Coates is too pessimistic, I just say, have you looked at the world lately?

To be clear, I don’t believe that atheism robs us of hope. I’ve said the opposite many times and I still believe it. What it does do is strip us of false hope.

If you’re an atheist, there’s no basis for believing that everything fits into a larger plan that’s all for the best even if we can’t see how. Nor is it possible to believe that a messiah or a miracle will swoop in to save us at our darkest moment. To an atheist, there is no foreordained outcome to history; there’s only the course of events that our choices create, whether for better or for worse. Here’s how Coates puts it:

I think that those of us who reject divinity, who understand that there is no order, there is no arc, that we are night travelers on a great tundra, that stars can’t guide us, will understand that the only work that will matter, will be the work done by us. Or perhaps not. Maybe the very myths I decry are necessary for that work. I don’t know. But history is a brawny refutation for that religion brings morality.

Is it possible that blind faith will give us a reason to fight on, even when all seems lost, and lead to triumph where a rational evaluation of the odds would have counseled pessimism? Yes, that’s possible. But it’s equally possible that blind faith will lead to dangerous complacency in the face of onrushing disaster.

And as Coates points out, religion has often been the cause of evil, rather than its antidote. That’s just what we should expect from morality based on the supernatural, morality which says that the hidden will of an unseen deity is the only variable we need to consider in our ethical calculus.

The ivory-tower reasoning of “we need religion to give us hope in human goodness” ignores the ways that religion has actually been used throughout history. Especially in the U.S., religion has always been the root of racist injustice and the biggest obstacle to racial reconciliation. Whether or not you have hope for the future, any worldview worth holding has to recognize this fact.

Featured image by Eduardo Montes-Bradley  CC BY-SA 4.0

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