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Bronze-level articleSophisticated theology

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Sophisticated theology[1] is a term that primarily New Atheists use. It is a snarl word describing certain theological schools or arguments put forward as religious apologetics to try and refute atheism.

Religious people objected that atheists (specifically New Atheists, even more specifically Richard Dawkins) only address "unsophisticated" arguments (or straw man arguments) about the existence of God. Atheists, they argue ignore the "sophisticated" arguments that might actually answer their objections, that was the origin of the term, "Sophisticated theology". Incidentally objectors never seem to bring in such conclusive theological reasoning with their complaints.

Technically what the New Atheists are asking for in terms of arguments is philosophy (specifically philosophy of religion) rather than theology itself, though this distinction is somewhat arbitrary.


[edit] Criticisms of Dawkins and New Atheism

The highly unsophisticated Richard Dawkins, no doubt being shrill and middlebrow.

In his 2006 bestseller The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins argued that the existence of God is so vastly improbable a hypothesis that it should simply be dismissed. Quite a few critics, both believers and non-believers, criticised Dawkins' work arguing that Dawkins did not know or understand theology very well. Due to this unfamiliarity with the subject critics claimed Dawkins had created a straw man of what theology actually says about God and God's existence. Two key examples were literary critic Terry Eagleton's review in the London Review of Books,[2] and biologist H. Allen Orr's review in The New York Review Of Books.[3]

Eagleton's review argued that, in his coverage of religion and fundamentalism, Dawkins made only "the occasional perfunctory gesture to ‘sophisticated’ religious believers", and admonished Dawkins for not engaging with appropriately sophisticated schools of theological thought:[2]

What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope?

This sort of response precisely evades the substance of Dawkins' argument. Would there be any particular point in reading Rahner or Eriugena? Such extended reading wouldn't inform or counter the central thesis of The God Delusion. Eagleton's review doesn't tell us how Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope are relevant to Dawkins's argument,. The significance of Raher and Moltman seems to be both argument from authority (name-dropping these somewhat esoteric thinkers) and an ad hominem suggestion that Dawkins is closed-minded and insufficiently well read. Dawkins responded to this criticism in his preface to the paperback edition of The God Delusion (2007). Dawkins stated he would gladly have addressed these theological works, even if it affected the book's readability and popularity, if he thought for a moment that they would shed any light on his central question of God's existence.

Orr's review derided Dawkins in a similar way for his "middlebrow" approach to both theological and secular thought. Orr gave as examples the way Dawkins repeated cited popular peers like Douglas Adams and Carl Sagan rather than more scholarly thinkers such as William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Like Eagleton, Orr also objected to Dawkins' dismissal of theologians along with fundamentalists:[3]

Having no patience with the faith of fundamentalists, he also tends to dismiss more sophisticated expressions of belief as sophistry (he cannot, for instance, tolerate the meticulous reasoning of theologians).

Controversial theologian and Christian apologist Alvin Plantinga focused his criticism of The God Delusion on some of Dawkins' apparent assumptions. For example Plantinga suggests Dawkins appears to assume the Abrahamic God would have to be inherently complex to design the universe. (Apparently, an intelligent being that talks to humans counts as a simple hypothesis). When he addressed these issues, Plantinga also commented on the book's lack of philosophical engagement and finesse, describing Dawkins' "forays into philosophy" as "at best jejune", and liable to "receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class".[4] Michael Ruse later made similar comments: "Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion would fail any introductory philosophy or religion course. Proudly he criticizes that whereof he knows nothing."[5] Ruse has more than once claimed New Atheists do too little philosophy.[6]

[edit] The New Atheist response

Several atheist commentators and bloggers disagreed strongly with the tendency for critics to assume Dawkins' arguments were not "sophisticated" enough. Jason Rosenhouse, commenting on Orr's review, defended Dawkins' "middlebrow" approach:[7]

Of course it’s middlebrow! It was intended as a popular-level book published by a mainstream outfit that people are actually intended to read. Dawkins frequently refers people to other books that give more detailed coverage of the topics he was discussing.

PZ Myers, also commenting on Orr's review, coined the term "Courtier's Reply" (a reference to the Hans Christian Anderson story, "The Emperor's New Clothes") to describe arguments which focus on an opponent's ignorance of a topic, rather than focusing on the what the opponent actually says or writes.[8]

From there, two things happened. First, some members of the atheist blogosphere (such as Jerry Coyne) reacted to the criticisms of Dawkins. These atheists claimed critics were trying to suggest some "sophisticated theology" existed which really did prove God, "if only one knew of it or understood it". Some Christians had used the phrase "sophisticated theology" referring to things they expected authors would need to study and understand before those authors could make valid criticisms of religion.[9][10] Of course, "sophisticated theology" is not a genuine subclass of theology, and is not a term routinely used by academic theologians, if at all.

And so, a meme was born. In the years since The God Delusion, the phrase has become common in the atheist blogosphere, one example was when PZ Myers' used the phrase ironically in a September 2007 blog entry.[11] The arbitrary and spurious notion of "sophisticated theology", and the importance of addressing it, has become a major theme in dialogue between theists and atheists. An example of this is the 2011 public debate between biologist Jerry Coyne and theologian John Haught, which Haught later refused to published. Commenting on blog, Coyne sarcastically used the phrase "sophisticated theology" to describe Haught's arguments:[12]

[Haught] lost the debate; his ideas were exposed for the mindless theological fluff that they were; and I used his words against him, showing that even "sophisticated" theology, when examined under the microscope of reason, is just a bunch of made-up stuff, tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Coyne has repeatedly referred to "sophisticated" theology in other contexts, for example criticising Plantinga:[13]

And yet when I read [Alvin Plantinga], I realize again that "sophisticated theology" is but a thin veneer of fine words applied over the rickety plywood of unevidenced faith.

Some commentators have explored similar issues without using the phrase "sophisticated theology". Singularitarian and atheist blogger Luke Muehlhauser covered the subject in a blog addressing the Courtier's Reply and the related argument which he calls the "not my theology" reply.[14]

[edit] See also

[edit] Footnotes

  1. Jerry Coyne wants the credit for this.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Terry Eagleton, "Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching", London Review of Books, 19 October 2006.
  3. 3.0 3.1 H. Allen Orr "A Mission to Convert", The New York Review Of Books, 11 January 2007.
  4. Alvin Plantinga, "The Dawkins Confusion: Naturalism ad absurdum" — originally found on Christianity Today, reposted to the Richard Dawkins Foundation website, 1 March 2007.
  5. Michael Ruse, "Why I Think the New Atheists are a Bloody Disaster", "Science and the Sacred" at beliefnet.com, 14 August 200.
  6. Michael Ruse, "New Atheism: A Disaster Comparable to the Tea Party", March 20, 2011.
  7. Jason Rosenhouse, "Orr on Dawkins", ScienceBlogs, December 22, 2006.
  8. PZ Myers, "The Courtier's Reply", Pharyngula, 24 December 2006.
  9. e.g., Letter to the editor published in Third Way Mar 2007 in response to a review of TGD. Writer is a Christian, calls Dawkins a fundamentalist and calls for a "more sophisticated theology" unironically.
  10. e.g. reply to Eagleton - lots of use of "sophisticated" for theology in the comments
  11. PZ Myers, "Sophisticated theological arguments are unanswerable", Pharyngula, 4 September 2007.
  12. Jerry Coyne, "Theologian John Haught refuses to release video of our debate", Why Evolution Is True, 1 November 2011.
  13. Jerry Coyne, "Alvin Plantinga: sophisticated theologian?", Why Evolution Is True, 30 December 2011.
  14. Luke Muehlhauser, "The Courtier’s Reply, the Not My Theology Reply, and Straw Men", Common Sense Atheism, January 6, 2010.
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