A friend recently told me that her mother had been accused of bigotry for suggesting in an archeology journal that knowledge of Christianity was a necessary prerequisite to the study of Latin and Greek texts in the centuries AD. I'm not quite sure of all the details; it seems like a spectacularly stupid accusation, even for an academic to make! But, as we were talking, what struck me was that without a knowledge of Christianity you cannot even understand what Christian atheists talk about.
I was lecturing last week on Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the so-called 'Father of Anarchy', who claimed to be not merely a methodical atheist (i.e., let's behave as if God doesn't exist) but a contre-atheist (i.e., and let's battle against the God Squad). Now, Proudhon has a most ingenious way of formulating his pro-anarchism. For him, all European political structures are rooted in a model that comes from the Ten Commandments. Oddly enough, in this respect, Proudhon would completely agree with someone like Joseph de Maistre, who himself is often called the 'Father of the Counterrevolution'. But Proudhon's argument is that this formulation of law communicates the notion of an absolute God. Consequently, an absolute God in theology leads to an absolutist Church, an absolutist State, and the absolutist money system of capitalism. That at least is his argument. And since in the scientific age we have now understood that Christianity is wrong, then we must clear out its political and economic residue. Now, that reasoning is itself wrong in about a dozen ways, but the dangerous thing about Proudhon is that he sees the theological basis of these absolutisms (which he opposes naturally) as the result of centuries of development, from the dawn of Christianity to the nineteenth century. And that is where he makes one of his fundamental mistakes.
Of course God is absolute in his qualities, but if we understand that absoluteness as a voluntaristic thing - e.g. God's omnipotence means that if God says a circle is a square, then it's a square - then, whatever God we're thinking of, it's not the God of the Catholic tradition. That absolutist God is more like the God of Jean Calvin, damning and predestining with no regard for freewill, and collapsing for justification into circular argumentation: it must be just because God did it, who is entirely just.
As I explained these things to my students, a gleam of understanding came into their eyes. In their schools they've been given a multicultural, Lego-fied model of religion in which God just means a ragbag of distant and ineffable qualities. I'll grant you it takes a closer knowledge of history to realise that the God of Aquinas is not understood the same way as the God of Calvin. After all, Proudhon himself clearly missed the point.
But, coming to my own point, one of the silliest and saddest ironies of the national embarrassment which surrounds Christianity in this country is the ignorance that it necessarily induces about atheism in the west. John Grey has even argued that Richard Dawkins is a kind of Christian; his very atheism smacks of it, is shaped by it, because formulted in reaction to it. Do they not realise they are sawing off the very branch on which they are sitting?
To sum up, how can we understand Proudhon unless we know what God he is talking about? And how can we understand modernity, the modern State, and reaction to it unless we have the means of understanding somebody like Proudhon?
So, give me an atheist over a multiculturalist any day of the week.