No True Scotsman

There’s a logical fallacy that’s very popular in particular groups. It will become obvious who in a moment. The fallacy, known as “No True Scotsman” is employed when Person A asserts that a Person B does not fit the label they have applied to themselves because Person A does not like their behavior. The phrase No True Scotsman, coined by Antony Flew, is often clarified with a story:

A man from Glasgow is reading his morning paper when he comes across a report of a heinous crime and exclaims, “No Scotsman would ever do do such a thing!” 

“But it was a Scotsman,” says another man.

The first man reexamines the article with disbelief and upon finding the man’s words to be true says, “Aye, but no true Scotsman would’ve done such a thing.” 

Another classic example goes like this:

Scotsman A: You know, laddie, no Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge.

Scotsman B: Is that so? I seem to recall my cousin Angus (who is from Scotland) puts sugar in his porridge.

Scotsman A: Aye… but no true Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge.

The “No true Scotsman” fallacy argument sustains itself by exempting any counter examples to its claim. If Scotsman don’t put sugar in their porridge, then Angus cannot be a Scotsman, evidence of his Scottish roots notwithstanding. The word ‘Scotsman” is redefined from a person who hails from Scotsman, to a person who hails from Scotland and does not put sugar in his porridge. The argument proceeds from an arbitrary alteration to the common understanding of what a Scotsman is to invalidate any counterexamples being offered to the original argument.

This brand of circular reasoning is especially prevalent where people wish to disavow members of a group with whom they are affiliated. Sometimes people want to put distance between themselves and other people who identify with the same gender as they do.  (“Real men do x.” is a common variation on this.) Other times people wish to discount individuals affiliated with their pet social movement, political party, or—most often in my own experience—people they disagree with within their religious community.

Time and time again I’ve heard Christians write off the actions of other Christian groups because they don’t like their views or the way they live out their ideology. “Real Christians don’t go out of their way to hurt grieving families the way that Church does,” says one person. “Real Christians aren’t afraid to stand up to a corrupt culture,” says another person. Both of these individuals label themselves “Christian,” and feel it is within their power to redefine the word according to what they believe a Christian should be. Yet neither of these individuals their churches, or their denomination is the arbiter of “true” Christian behavior. A “Christian” is technically defined as any individual professes to follow the teachings of Jesus as portrayed in the New Testament. Or perhaps a more accurate definition would be any person belong to a religious sect which embraces a version of the standard Christian canon, and is historically and ideologically descended from the religion movement begun by followers of Jesus in the Middle East during the mid-first century. Of course the 40,000+ denominations within Christendom guarantee that there are different Bibles, different supplemental ‘inspired’ texts, and—not surprisingly—different interpretations of what it all means.

Usually when Christians say “They’re not real Christians,” or “That’s not real Christianity,” they are expressing not only disapproval, but a sense of betrayal. They feel that the individuals or groups in question have betrayed the core values of Christianity, and thus excluded themselves from the Christian community through their ideology and behavior. Sometimes this may seem like a fair criticism. For example, a denomination that does not profess the divinity of Jesus can hardly be said to “believe in Jesus” the same way a devout Methodist does. Yet that same devout Methodist has likely rejected the laws of the Old Testament of which Jesus said, “Not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished,” (Matt. 5:17-19). Debates still rage within Christendom about just what “everything” means. Just how “Christian” someone is entirely depends on what part o the Christian tradition one values most. No True Scotsman is a kind of positive bias towards one’s self. It assumes that the person speaking is the model of whatever group they claim to represent, and anyone who act differently is somehow “less than” what affiliation with that group signifies. 

Considering how a group appears from the outside can be valuable in recognizing the positive bias of the “No True Scotsman” argument. Consider, for a moment, how both Christianity and Islam are evaluated by most middle-class Americans. From within the Christian tradition it seems obvious that white supremacist groups such as the Aryan Nations do not in any way represent Christianity, and yet many have no problem conflating the religion of the September 11 hijackers with that of the approximately 1.6 billion Muslims living the world today. Both the hijackers and the Aryan Nations are terrorist groups which use the same scriptures and adhere to many of the same customs as their mainstream counterparts. Yet Christians are more readily able to dissociate the racism and cruelty of white supremacist groups from their own religions tradition, than to recognize the extremism of the hijackers as inconsistent with mainstream Islam as it practiced around the world (there is also the issue of theocracy versus theology to be considered). 

What makes No True Scotsman truly harmful, however, is what it does the movements claimed by those who employ it. Unsavory characters, or people with dangerous ideas won’t stop claiming membership in our communities simply because we disown them. And since churches, political parties, and ideological movements grow primarily by self-affiliation, pretending those with different interpretations of our creed do no exist only sends the message to outsiders that the movement is inconsistent, lacking in self-awareness, or at worst, simply a cover for the very radical  sectors from whom we desire distance. Ideological movements of any kind stunt their own development and improvement when, instead of facing the unsavory corners of their community, disavow the existence of those corners.  Individuals who care about the ideological trajectory of their organization—where their church is going, how their party is developing—should embrace the debate, and use their membership in the organization as an opportunity to shape the narrative about that organization. An organization is strengthened when its members refuse to take cover, and instead take responsibility for its place in the conversation. 

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