No True… Reason
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.