The Future of White People
Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his recent book We Were Eight Years in Power, professes to be an atheist. By that he does not mean that he does not believe that God exists. He means that for him and for other African-Americans there is no hope for a better world. The book is an extended meditation on the eight years of the Obama presidency and his conclusion is very dark: there is no prospect for significant change for the lives of the majority of Black Americans.
The background to this way of talking is not unfamiliar. Most people's religion in our world involves belief in a deity who is a person. We can pray to God, we can ask for God's help in great life crises. We can celebrate the life events – births and deaths – of this personal God. This God is a creator. He shall be referred to as male – we say "God, he…" Most white people certainly think of this God as white. Being a person, God has the attributes of person s. He is kind, he is powerful, he did not only make the world but he can change the course of events for faithful who pray really hard.
But many people have trouble with that sort of conception of God. We are told that that God is good but all around us people suffer terribly. Many people work too hard, many die of terrible diseases, many are left alone when parents or spouses die. There are the victims of wars, of droughts and famines, of hurricanes and tsunamis. If the world we live in is the work of a benevolent God, we must conclude that this God is terribly incompetent or simply does not pay any attention to us. What ever super human powers this God may have, judging by the state of the world, He does not care to use them in favor of the millions and millions who faithfully pray to Him.
One way to escape these difficulties and doubts is to deny that God is a person. Yes there is a spiritual dimension to our lives. Many of us may believe that the world is capable of amelioration, that it makes sense for us to struggle to improve the world in this way or that. There is hope. Looking at the actual state of the world at the half million Syrians killed in the civil war in that country, to mention just one of many examples, having hope for a peaceful future may well require an act of faith. But sometimes human beings do well and are chartable to each other. It is not time to give up hope.
But according to Coates this is not true for African-Americans. Having been exploited and oppressed by Whites for 500 years, since the early 1600s, Coates denies that there is hope for Black Americans. Their situation seems hopeless to them. In spite of centuries of brave and dangerous struggle for freedom and equality, he tells us, there is no hope for them and for that reason he calls himself an atheist.
For white people it still makes sense to have hope. It makes sense for them to be politically active, to spend their time and energy supporting improvements, agitating for a more perfect democracy, defending the rights of those two are being threatened by the forces of political reaction. Since these possibilities of improvement are open, we have an obligation to work towards a better world, a world that is kinder, more peaceful, more generous in opportunities for everyone.
But this openness to betterment is not guaranteed. It is possible for us, at least for white people, to ignore our obligations to better the world until life for everyone becomes a grim and more often than not hopeless struggle for survival. It is easy for us to destroy its natural processes which now allow us to grow food. If most of the globe is made infertile by extended droughts and other regions become uninhabitable from extreme heat or extreme cold or regular deluges of rain, we will loose the power to improve our lives. The possibilities we now have can easily disappear or if we take measures utterly hostile to our continued existence.
If we follow the theology that Coates hints at when he declares himself to be an atheist, we do indeed have an obligation to use all our powers to make this world better, to fight against the people who praise ignorance, who ignore facts in order to enrich themselves, against the owners of coal mines who deny that burning coal destroys our environment, against the growers of tobacco who deny that smoking causes many terrible diseases. To be religious is, in part, to believe that there is a better future ahead. But this future is enormously precarious. We are close to destroying it. We are well on the way of making our situation as hopeless as we have already made it for many people of color.