No True… Reason

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We’ve all heard variations on “No TRUE Christian  judges or condemns others.” Or “No TRUE Muslim  supports violence.” It’s one of those arguments one hears from both the secularized moderate believers who pick and choose what to believe, and the hard line fundamentalists who take their holy text literally. These two groups  use the argument very differently ( and often against each other)  yet they DO share a point of similarity.

Both groups make absolute claims about the nature of their faith and those who share it then when they’re shown evidence that demonstrates that those claims are false they respond with  “well then they’re not true Christians!”  ( or Muslims, or Hindus etc) This argument has a name; it’s called the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. It is, at it’s simplest, a rescue of a false generalization by re-characterizing the generalization.  Basically the person making the statement simply redefines the term in question to make their argument unassailable.

The “No True Scotsman” fallacy was advanced by the British philosopher Anthony Flew.  His example went as follows:

Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again”. Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing”. The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Heraldagain; and, this time, finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing”

Obviously this fallacy is not limited to just religious people. It does, however, crop up regularly and predictably in religion. It demonstrates perfectly, I think, not just the irrationality of their thinking but the desperation with which they cling to these ideas even in the face of evidence to the contrary.  For example: when confronted with the violence and atrocity fostered and promoted by the Catholic Church throughout it’s history they’ll say “well that’s not true Christianity” all the while glossing over the fact that their beliefs are the result of a text designed by that church and spread through the very means they deplore.

The NTS fallacy provides an ever present “get out of jail free card” to the moderate theist who is confronted with the violence and intolerance of their religion. They’ll tell you that suicide bombers aren’t TRUE Muslims, and anti-abortion terrorists aren’t TRUE Christians; they’re just violent people who misuse their faith to sate their violent impulses.  Of course in order to make this line of thinking work you have to gloss over the specific injunctions to violence and intolerance at the core of most religious  faiths, but the moderate theist or “open-minded” apologist is generally expert at such intellectual acrobatics.

On the other side of the coin the fundamentalist can use the NTS fallacy to justify spreading their  hatred and even violence against not just disbelievers, practitioners of other faiths, and people with “objectionable” lifestyles, but against followers of their own faith as well. If the moderate Muslim or secularized Christian isn’t a true Christian then any protection offered by the faith can be safely withdrawn or overlooked.

The danger of this kind of thinking is that the definition of “true” in the NTS fallacy is dependant upon the person making the statement. A “true Scotsman” is a Scotsman like me. A True Christian is a Christian who interprets Christianity like I do.  This kind of thinking  further insolates the believer from evidence of reality  and the actual impact of religious belief. It creates  even more  division and elitism in a system already rife with both.

The kind of thinking demonstrated by the NTS fallacy is just plain dishonesty, an unwillingness to accept an obvious truth. In Flew’s example the truth is that Scotsmen are obviously as capable of sex crime as Brits. When it comes to religion the truth is that an objective look at its doctrine will show you that religion often demands  intolerance, hatred, ignorance and division.  To come to any other conclusion you have to cherry pick or use false reason like that in Flew’s fallacy.

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Posted on March 9, 2013, in Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I think perhaps a Christian needs a reason to change their beliefs which cannot come from an argument. Some type of event may need to take place. As long as they can dismiss others as being “untrue” versions, how could a mere argument ever get through?

    • That’s likely true although I’ve known a few “recovered” Christians who were convinced by the merits of a particular argument or set of arguments. Speaking for myself my goal is, as I state in the “About” section, to cause people to consider what they believe and most importantly WHY they believe it.I think the goal should be to plant the seeds, to cause people to consider. Too many people profess beliefs simply because they’ve never given them any thought, or because they have no idea what those beliefs actually entail. If more people took the time to consider the nonsense they profess to accept as truth, or to investigate the harm such nonsensical beliefs has actually done throughout our history I think there would be a good many less theists in the world. I’m of the opinion that the world can only be improved by a move away from ancient superstitions and toward a rationalist humanist outlook. Thanks very much for the comment. .

  2. Do you really believe there is something wrong with judging and condemning? If you do then you are a colossal hypocrite. What are you doing writing this article, I wonder? Everybody adheres to absolute truth claims and judges people and ideas accordingly, even if they are in denial about doing so. The Internet encyclopedia of philosophy defines the no true Scotsman fallacy as when “the reasoner recharacterizes a situation solely in order to escape refutation of the generalization.” Christian theology has always had certain behavioural criteria for christians, and that if they dont adhere to them they are not to be considered true christians ( which is where excommunication and anathema comes from). it isnt a response “solely in order to escape refutation of a generalization “. In fact, your argument can be characterized as a no true Scotsman fallacy. Your contention, I’m assuming, is that all religious people are, generally, or as a rule, bad people. Your responses to ones who are not is to dismiss them as not being true believers.

    • No, I don’t believe that. I believe that judging is an important step in interaction at any level and I believe that some attitudes and actions deserve and require condemnation in order to promote a harmonious society. I have, however, heard the “true Christians don’t judge others” statement from various kinds of Christians many times which is why i used it as an example. I consider it a perfectly valid example of what I was talking about.

      As for your statement that Christian theology has always had certain behavioral criteria for Christians,which christian theology are you referring to? There are several thousand variations, each with their own unique criteria. When you say something like “Christians don’t judge others” and then respond to examples of Christian judgement with “well true Christians don’t judge others” that’s exactly the NTS fallacy.

      Your characterization of my argument as an NTS fallacy is wholly incorrect. The error is founded in the fact that you assume incorrectly. I don’t contend that religious people are necessarily bad. Some are, then again some atheists are bad too. What I do contend is that religious people are probabilistically wrong. That their “faith” is more than likely the result of either 1) long standing indoctrination,or 2) some deep seeded psychological need not fed by the secular world. 3) Some gross misunderstanding about the actual workings of reality.

      I don’t demonize the general run of religious people. I demonize those who follow the hateful ancient superstitions of their bronze age books to the letter resulting in intolerance, hatred, violence and the spread of ignorance and disinformation. I speak against those moderates and apologists who make it impossible to deal with fundamentalism in the only manner that has any hope of working, by addressing the root of the problem. The ideas themselves. Thanks very much for your comment.

      • I really don’t get why people can’t just calmly disagree with you without retorting to name-calling. “You are a colossal hypocrite” doesn’t exactly encourage a fruitful discussion.
        You, on the other hand, have a given a perfectly balanced and calm response, which honors you.
        On an unrelated note, it is funny that atheists should use the word “demonize” quite often.

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