Is atheism the reason for Ta-Nehisi Coates' pessimism on race relations? | Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins
‘Since god does not exists, Coates argues, there can be no collective hope or national redemption.’ Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

In February 2007, Ta-Nehisi Coates had lost his third job in seven years and was scrambling to find work to support his family. A little more than a year later he published a well-received essay on the black conservatism of Bill Cosby, which launched his career at the Atlantic.

What followed was a number of widely read blogposts and essays, most notably The Case for Reparations, interviews with President Obama and eventual celebrity status with the publication in 2015 of Between the World and Me, a book about race in America. Coates is now a leading intellectual of his generation; second place might not even be close.

Coates’s latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power, is pulled in two different directions. His attempt to narrate how the first black presidency triggered a racist backlash that gave rise to Trump is intertwined with an autobiographical account of his unexpected rise to fame.

As Coates honestly remarks: “I am trying to remember that the best can happen to you in one moment and the worst can happen to your country in the next, and even still you can allow yourself to forget, get lost in your own story and forget that this really is chaos”.

In fact, Coates’s entire worldview rests on a theology of global chaos. We were Eight Years in Power describes this theory of chaos as black atheism. Remarkably little attention has been given to the pivotal role this idea plays in his work.

Since God does not exist, Coates argues, there can be no collective hope or national redemption. We live, Coates tells us, in an amoral universe in which the powerful have little desire to help the powerless. This Coates describes as his general theory of life, one in which “no one was coming to save me”.

What specifically makes black atheism black, according to Coates, is the recognition that white people, like all peoples, are inclined towards self-interest and therefore appeals to moral conscience or universal laws about racial injustice are bound to have little effect.

Assumedly chaos, in rather rare instances, can lead to unexpected success stories like Coates’s: “It is, I think, the very chaos of America that allowed me to prosper … The chaos of America, and perhaps more aptly the chaos of New York, made it seem that anything could happen.”

But it is a chaotic amoral universe that also explains why Coates is committed to a deeply held view that white supremacy is built into the very DNA of this United States and therefore will not “perhaps ever” be defeated.

Coates arrived at this pessimistic view by reading European historians Tony Judt and Timothy Synder, who promote a tradition of liberal moderation opposed to the great political ideologies of the 20th century, specifically Marxism:

I don’t have any gospel of my own. [Tony Judt’s] Postwar, and the early pages of [Timothy Synder’s Bloodlands], have revealed a truth to me: 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’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. He points to the egregious history of racial injustice in this country, and the atrocities committed by the Nazis and Soviets, through the books of Judt and Snyder, to prove his point.

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.

Strangely, Coates echoes the atheistic outlook of libertarians like Ayn Rand who denied the possibility of collective redemption since people were fundamentally driven by self-interest.

Yet despite all the horrors he locates in history, atheism entails no necessary ethics or politics. In fact, as Coates is more than aware, atheism and the absence of a moral arc is, for many, what makes collective hope and national redemption possible. Religion is often by its very nature exclusionary. Atheism can, for some, allow for a real coming together.

If Coates has accused his leftist critics of stressing class over race an equal argument can be made that he prioritizes a rather conservative atheistic philosophy over both. A theology of global chaos and not white supremacy accounts for his pessimistic political outlook.

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