Sunday, January 05, 2014

Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

I don't have any gospel of my own. Postwar, and the early pages of 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.

I'm also not a cynic. 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.

Having mocked him before over his XKCD-style agnosticism, I have to give credit where due. It's nice to see someone thinking out loud, accepting uncertainty, and revisiting convictions.

I have a very vivid memory of a similar, well, conversion, if you want to call it that. Memorial Day, 1996. I had recently finished reading a book about World War 2; I'm mostly but not absolutely sure it was Alan Bullock's Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. Whatever the case, the sheer immensity of the horror and suffering across Europe as described in the book had deeply impressed itself on me, enough so that I entered into a period of, if not genuine depression, certainly existential malaise. I had never been a religious believer, but I had grown up surrounded by enough of the typical spiritual-not-religious worldview to have unthinkingly accepted some sort of vague "purpose" to it all, some "higher truth", some way in which it all came out in the wash eventually. Soundgarden's Down On The Upside had just been released days earlier, and I recall listening to the song "Applebite" on repeat for hours that morning, morbidly transfixed by the line "Grow and decay, grow and decay/it's only forever." The photo on the cover of the New York Times that morning was a black-and-white shot of two young blond girls in front of their home waving an American flag, which, along with the song, served as some sort of meditative anchor for all my brooding, nihilistic thoughts about the impossibility of any sort of cosmic meaning or justice in a universe that could passively observe the worst of what humans were capable of.

There was no epiphany that brought an end to it; over the next few years, I just eventually regained my psychological equilibrium, grew into the truth of that realization and wore it comfortably. My ability to believe in any sort of benevolent big scheme of things had been traumatized. I would eventually get to a point where I could relinquish it willingly, rather than feeling like it had been brutally stripped from me. I had to clearly see the utter lack of need for spiritual or religious beliefs, rather than have them argued or beaten out of me. For me, that came about through reading Alan Watts, but that's a whole 'nother story.