Bronze-level article

Sophisticated theology

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The highly unsophisticated Richard Dawkins, no doubt being shrill and middlebrow.
Going One God Further
Icon atheism.svg
Key Concepts
Articles to not believe in
Notable heathens
For the lead fallacious argument employed by sophisticated theologians™, see our article on the courtier's reply.

Sophisticated theology™, and related phrasings, is a neologism used to deride theological schools and arguments which seek to refute atheism based on the alleged "lack of sophistication" of atheist rhetoric.

Christian critics of New Atheism originally coined the term at some point, but atheists quickly and sarcastically adopted it. Believers claimed that atheists (specifically New Atheists, even more specifically Richard Dawkins) were only addressing "unsophisticated" arguments (implying they are straw-man arguments) about the existence of God. Atheists, they argued, were ignoring the more "sophisticated" arguments relevant to the question. Of course, said objectors never produced examples of conclusive theological reasoning to support their complaints; while they sometimes pointed to the work of such theologians as Alvin Plantinga as examples of solid theological reasoning, those figures turn out to not have answered the question either.

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.

Jerry Coyne later claimed credit for the coinage.[1]

Criticisms of Dawkins and New Atheism[edit]

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. He also covered some philosophy of religion and apologetics.

Quite a few critics, both believers and non-believers, criticised Dawkins' work, arguing that Dawkins did not know or understand theology very well. Critics claimed that, due to this unfamiliarity with the subject, Dawkins had created a straw man of what theology actually says about God and God's existence. Two key examples were literary critic (and theist) Terry Eagleton's review in the London Review of Books,[2] and biologist (and atheist) 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? Neither has addressed the strength of God as a hypothesis; Eagleton's review doesn't tell us how Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope are relevant to Dawkins's argument. This 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. In his preface to the 2007 paperback edition of The God Delusion, 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 as a hypothesis.

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 repeatedly 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).

Theologian and Christian apologist Alvin Plantinga focused his criticism of The God Delusion on some of Dawkins' apparent assumptions. For example, Plantinga disagrees with Dawkins' assumption that 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] Atheist 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 that New Atheists do too little philosophy.[6] William Lane Craig is very keen on using both the sophisticated theology™ and courtier's reply to any and all who write or say something which doesn't jive with his particular theology and has used these tactics in responses to not only Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, but even to claim that Stephen Hawking gets his cosmology wrong(!)[7]

The New Atheist response[edit]

Several atheist commentators and bloggers disagreed strongly with the tendency for critics to assume that Dawkins' arguments were not "sophisticated" enough. Jason Rosenhouse, commenting on Orr's review, defended Dawkins' "middlebrow" approach:[8]

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 what the opponent actually says or writes.[9]

Some Christians, responding to The God Delusion and other New Atheist books, used the phrase "sophisticated theology" in reference to things they expected authors would need to study and understand before those authors could make valid criticisms of religion.[10][11] Atheists then picked up on the phrase and started using it sarcastically, and the phrase became increasingly common in the atheist blogosphere.[12]

The notion of a more sophisticated theology™, and the importance of addressing it, has become a major theme in dialogue between theists and atheists, e.g. the 2011 public debate between biologist Jerry Coyne and theologian John Haught, which Haught tried to block from publication. Commenting on his blog, Coyne sarcastically used the phrase "sophisticated theology" to describe Haught's arguments:[13]

[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:[14]

And yet when I read him, 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.[15]

Also, if one grants this approach, then e.g. Christians would have to carry out a detailed study of Islamic TheologyWikipedia before deciding that Islam was invalid.

Other uses of the phrase[edit]

  • The word "sophisticated" is not used in this sense by anyone else — there is no proper subclass of theology called "sophisticated theology".
  • Separately, the phrase "sophisticated theology" is also a phrase used by critics for the work of theologians and philosophers of religion such as Barth, Tillich, Hauerwas, Vanhoozer, Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Moltmann, Niebuhr, etc., and for alternative theologies such as feminist, liberationist, postmodern, queer, etc.


  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, 14 August 200.
  6. Michael Ruse, "New Atheism: A Disaster Comparable to the Tea Party", March 20, 2011.
  7. William Lane Craig on Hawking and Mlodinow’s Grand Design on Craig's Reasonable Faith website. For a response, see for instance Reality 2, William Lane Craig 0: Craig's criticisms of "The Grand Design" from The A-Unicornist website.
  8. Jason Rosenhouse, "Orr on Dawkins", ScienceBlogs, December 22, 2006.
  9. PZ Myers, "The Courtier's Reply", Pharyngula, 24 December 2006.
  10. e.g., Letter to the editor published in Third Way March, 2007 in response to a review of TGD. Writer is a Christian, calls Dawkins a fundamentalist and calls for a "more sophisticated theology" unironically.
  11. E.g. reply to Eagleton - lots of use of "sophisticated" for theology in the comments
  12. PZ Myers, "Sophisticated theological arguments are unanswerable", Pharyngula, 4 September, 2007.
  13. Jerry Coyne, "Theologian John Haught refuses to release video of our debate", Why Evolution Is True, 1 November 2011.
  14. Jerry Coyne, "Alvin Plantinga: sophisticated theologian?", Why Evolution Is True, 30 December 2011.
  15. Luke Muehlhauser, "The Courtier’s Reply, the Not My Theology Reply, and Straw Men", Common Sense Atheism, January 6, 2010.