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The True Fallacy of the Fallacy of the True Scotsman

November 10, 2014

No, this is nothing to do with the recent referendum in the northern parts of the UK – as a Swede living in England, I don’t really have the right to say anything on that issue!

Instead, I want to discuss a logical fallacy which atheists often accuse us Christians of employing: the “No True Scotsman Fallacy”, the desire to disassociate oneself from being lumped together with undesirable members of one’s “group”.1 Basically, we’re told that in our attempts to defend our faith, we can’t say that somebody who claims to be a Christian isn’t a Christian.

I have had it thrown at me a few times recently, sometimes with a smug “I thought I heard bagpipes”, sometimes as a sincere attempt at educating me about logic. But sadly methinks those who wield this weapon against Christians are often guilty of a few other fallacies…

  • Assuming that the word “Christian” always means the same thing to everybody. Well, I guess that’s not really strange, as it’s a reasonable assumption. Unfortunately, in this case there are two competing definitions.
  1. a) Cultural Christian: in surveys, self-identifies as Christian rather than Muslim, Hindu or any other religion; lives in a country generally considered “Christian”; gets married and buried in a Christian church; and might even go to church occasionally. By this definition, yes – Hitler was a Christian. By this definition, there are an awful lot of Christians in jail. But by this definition, a number of people who call themselves atheists or agnostics are also Christians. A recent survey tells us that some 20% of Anglican clergy don’t believe in a personal God1 – but despite this denial of a rather basic aspect of Christianity, they would still considered “Christians” by most people!
  2. b) Biblical Christian: this is the definition that I and most other apologists use. A Christian in this sense is somebody who calls Jesus their Lord and Saviour, believes Jesus died to provide forgiveness for their sins and rose again from the dead, and endeavours to live according to God’s will. This is how the Bible defines a Christian, and when we discuss what Christianity is all about, this is the definition we have to adhere to. The fact that for historical reasons, most of the Western world is considered “Christian” in the cultural sense, is irrelevant: if Christianity is founded on the Bible, we must surely let the Bible define what it really means to be a Christian!

If this seems to be exactly what the True Scotsman fallacy disallows, consider this: is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? That actually depends on which definition of “fruit” you use. If you use the biological (technical) definition, tomatoes are fruit. If you use the ordinary, every-day definition, tomatoes are vegetables. So it’s not impossible for two competing definitions to be used at the same time, by different people or in different contexts. You just have to be aware of it!

The four suicide bombers of the 7/7 attack in London were all British – but I’m sure most people would agree that “no true Brit would do that”! They fulfilled a technical requirement for citizenship, but did not represent or identify with Great Britain as a nation – we could say they were never “proper Brits”. In the same way, there are many who have the formal label “Christian”, but still don’t fit the biblical definition. If somebody chooses to ignore basic Bible teachings, they are not “proper” Christians. Hitler clearly did not submit to Jesus as Lord, and thus cannot be counted as Christian, even if he was christened a Catholic and went to church sometimes. Most British people do not believe in the resurrection, and are thus not proper Christians, regardless of how many times they tick the “Church of England” box on official forms.

Now you may think I’m just defining Christianity to fit my specific version of it. That’s not quite true. I quite happily include churches and people that I disagree with on many issues: Anglicans, Calvinists, Dispensationalists… There are many groups I have serious disagreements with, but if they believe Jesus died for their sins and rose again, and that we’re brought into the kingdom of God by trusting in Jesus rather than through our own effort, I consider them “proper Christians”, even if we disagree on certain issues.

  • Assuming that what Christians do is what defines Christianity. Now, there’s obviously some truth to this; but it’s very far from being the main thing. There are bad Christians, there are mistaken and misguided Christians, and every Christian is a sinful human being! But actually, that has no bearing on the discussion.

Maybe your Christian neighbours are racists. Maybe a Christian CEO is a tax dodger. Does that make any difference to whether Jesus is who the Bible claims he is? Does that affect the message of the gospel? Not at all. It’s a shame that there are people who claim to be Christians while dishonouring him through their lifestyle, but it doesn’t make any difference to the claims of Jesus; if anything, it demonstrates all the clearer that the Bible is correct in saying everybody is a sinner…

You could almost say that using the “no true Scotsman” argument is in itself a fallacy: by painting all Christians with the same brush as the Crusaders or Westboro Baptist Church, our opponents are trying to make Jesus (and us) “guilty by association”.3 This misses the point. Either Jesus rose from the dead or he didn’t. It’s a matter of fact that can be investigated.4 And I’m not trying to convert anybody to “my religion” – I just want as many people as possible to get to know Jesus and become citizens of his kingdom. I don’t preach “religion”, I preach Jesus. I don’t want people to be like me (perish the thought!) but to be like Jesus.

So in future, when people bring up the old “Hitler was a Christian” argument, I’ll just ask: even if that were true (which I deny), does it have any bearing on the matter under consideration? Does it affect whether God might exist, or whether Jesus rose again? Or is it really another fallacy: a red herring,5 detracting from the real question: what is the truth?



From → Christianity, Faith, Jesus

  1. The major problem theists run into and why they inevitable commit the fallacy of no true scotsman, is the egocentrism we all share as humans. That is we make the assumption that because we identify ourselves as X than every member of X must believe the exact same thing, or very near close to it.

    Atheists can be guilty of committing this fallacy, but it usually comes up when theists try to disavow someone from the herd for committing acts that many generally find reprehensible. (This isn’t to indicate all Christians share the belief of Westboro, but that a person can be a Christian and do terrible things as well as have terrible beliefs. The crusades being a great example of Christians behaving badly.)

    Thus, if you claim to be a Christian, and believe slavery is wrong, you believe every Christian agrees with this claim, even though the bible makes it clear that under Jewish Religious law slavery is permissible, and Jesus never contradicts this. If another Christian comes along and quotes Deuteronomy as a justification for their belief in the ownership of slaves, a Christian who disagrees with them will claim they are not a true Christian. (This comes up in debate a lot, because slavery is antithetical to our current moral understanding. Rather than morals coming from what god dictates, we know morals are an evolved social mechanism. This is why monkeys, dolphins, and other advanced mammals exhibit moral behavior.)

    The definition you identify as the biblical definition of a Christian is generally the one most people would agree to: “A Christian in this sense is somebody who calls Jesus their Lord and savior, believes Jesus died to provide forgiveness for their sins and rose again from the dead, and endeavors to live according to God’s will.” (We can ignore cultural Christians, because typically the no true scotsman doesn’t come up unless a person profess a belief in Jesus Christ.)

    The problem with this definition is that it invariably leads to the no true scotsman, because the definition of a Christian (non cultural) is based upon a belief and is very broad. Thus, the only person making the claim to be a Christian, or hold a belief that Jesus Christ is god, is really able to determine if they are a Christian. For instance Mormons believe Jesus is lord and Savior, so do Catholics, but many Christians don’t consider them to be Christians. This is because of egocentrism, some Christian sects have different dogmas and teachings from other Christian sects and so because they define Jesus differently they must not believe Jesus is god. Since this definition relies on belief, you must take a person at their word if they state that they believe Jesus is God, and their personal savior they are a Christian.

    A perfect non religious example is your analogy of the attacks on 7/7, an event that I personally experienced while studying in London. Your claim that most Brits would say, “no true Brit would do that!” is in fact an example of the no true scotsman fallacy, because it implies status based upon an action, which many find reprehensible. However, in that instance what is being communicated is egocentrism. “I wouldn’t blow up a bomb and I’m British, therefore no true Brit would blow up a bomb in a subway.”

    Unfortunately, one can’t claim Brits don’t engage in terrorism, because In fact, Brits have committed acts of terrorism. One only need look at the example of Guy Fawkes. The act of terror committed by Muslim Fundamentalist is not one that most Brits would engage in, but it is not defining of what it means to be a Brit. Again, ego centrism abounds. The same can be said for Muslims who commit acts of violence, a Muslim who disagrees with their acts will say, “they are not true Muslims” and “Islam is a religion of peace.” Yet for many Muslims the violence engaged in by the bombers on 7/7 is justified and legitimized by Islam.

    This differs from the example of Hitler, because under your definition, the biblical definition, Hitler could be a Christian. Mostly the Hitler example comes as rebuttal to the claim that Hitler was an atheist, which is incredible common belief and a rhetorical attempt to, “poison the well.” This can also be seen in examples of Christians pointing out that Stalin and other mass murderers were supposedly atheists, in an attempt to paint all atheists with the same brush as totalitarian murderers. Now, I agree mostly the use of this example is a poor rhetorical device regardless of who is using it, because the intent is to say if one person held this belief and did terrible things than all persons who hold this belief will do terrible things, which most people probably would agree is not true. (We atheists hear this coming from Christians and theists a lot too, so I feel your pain.)

    The distinction in this instance is that Hitler is recorded to have said, that it was his religious beliefs that drove him to commit genocide and violence. As a result, if Hitler’s Christianity led him to believe slaughtering millions was appropriate and good as a Christian it provides evidence that Christianity isn’t always good. While not all Christians agree with Hitler, some do, just as some also believe slavery is appropriate. This is important, because if Hitler can be evil and still be a Christian it is proof that morality does not come from a belief in god(s), and immorality does not come from not believing in a god(s).

    “My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison. To-day, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow my self to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice… And if there is anything which could demonstrate that we are acting rightly it is the distress that daily grows . For as a Christian I have also a duty to my own people.” –Adolf Hitler, in a speech on 12 April 1922 (Norman H. Baynes, ed. The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, April 1922-August 1939, Vol. 1 of 2, pp. 19-20, Oxford University Press, 1942)

    Now in answer to your last question, with regard to the question of the authenticity of the Jesus hypothesis, does it matter whether Hitler believed Jesus was his savior? Yes, but not very much. I’ll admit and most intelligent atheist will agree that, Hitler’s beliefs are largely irrelevant to the question of whether Jesus is a god. (A claim whose original authorship is anonymous and dubious at best.)

    However, what it does evidence, is that being a Christian does not in of itself make a person more moral, or good. It also calls into question, the claim that in order to enter Heaven all that is required is one accept the belief that Jesus Christ is god, and is a personal savior. Because do you really want to be in Heaven with a person like Hitler? Since that is what you get if Hitler was indeed telling the truth about his beliefs. (Based upon the Pauline concept that it’s sincerity of belief and not good works that buys one a ticket to Heaven.)

    What this example really shows is that Christianity like all mythologies holds real power on earth in the minds of its believers and adherents, and that very often these beliefs can lead people to do very evil things, such as commit genocide. (See old testament where god demands the Israelites commit acts of genocide, which they follow.) The other thing Hitler’s religious belief evidences is that ultimately there is no benevolent otherworldly power, intervening in our lives, lest why would a benevolent deity allow for the mass genocide and misery caused by the second word war to be preformed in its name?

    So no it’s not a red herring, least not always a red herring, and pointing out one has committed the no true scotsman fallacy is not a fallacy itself, instead it is a way to point out that one is being egocentric, or holding that because “I identify as a Christian every one who is a Christian is prevented from doing things I wouldn’t do because I believe them to be evil and Christians don’t do evil things.” Really what it shows is that readers of the bible and Christians can disagree about what the message of the gospels is. This is especial true since the four gospels are all anonymously written texts, the oldest of which weren’t written until decades after the event was supposed to have taken place, and have a good number of contradictions between them. Overall this alone is more proof that a divine hand was not the inspirations for the texts and that the claim of Jesus’ divinity is the same as the claim of every other person who thinks they are god — unsupported bunkum.

    • Wow – what a serious, hard-hitting but courteous reply! Thank you!

      Your comments first made me wonder if I maybe needed a third category: “seriously misguided Christians” – i.e. Christians who do trust in Jesus and confess him as their Saviour, but have got some aspect of following him seriously wrong… But then I thought: no, that’s not necessary: we all fall in that category. No Christian has got it completely right, and so there will always be differences between serious, committed Christians. (Slavery is one interesting case in point; no space here to discuss that, but let me just point out that slaves in ancient Israel lived with the household and were supposed to be released after seven years – they were more “bonded labourers” than what we today mean by “slaves”.)

      However, my attempt at a biblical definition was narrower than just believing Jesus is God; it also involves believing he died for your sins (i.e. you can’t earn your place in heaven) and that you should endeavour to live according to his standards, not your own. In reality, neither of us can see the heart of another person, to determine if they really belong to Jesus – only God can do that. But what I can do is say, Look: the behaviour and beliefs of certain people completely contradict what the NT calls for; they’re not typical believers. Maybe they’re sincere but just seriously misguided; if so, you still can’t use them as an example of “normal” Christianity!

      Hitler still doesn’t fit in that category. Yes, he might have been a practising cultural Christian to begin with – but even the quote you include betrays that his anti-Jewish fighter Jesus isn’t the Jesus of the NT, who was himself a Jew and refused to fight back! Saying that Jesus shed his blood to fight “against the Jewish poison” just betrays that whatever his beliefs were, they weren’t biblical. And later on, it’s quite clear that he is no longer even a cultural Christian:

      In the long run, National Socialism and religion will no longer be able to exist together. … The heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity. (July 1941)
      It’s striking to observe that Christian ideas, despite all St. Paul’s efforts, had no success in Athens. The philosophy of the Greeks was so much superior to this poverty-stricken rubbish that the Athenians burst out laughing when they listened to the apostle’s teaching. (Oct 1941)

      As for the 7/7 bombers, I think you misunderstand me. I didn’t mean simply that “I wouldn’t blow up a bomb and I’m British, therefore no true Brit would blow up a bomb in a subway.” I mean that Britishness (at least by popular definition) includes respect and wanting the best for the country. Guy Fawkes is a perfect example: he and his companions thought they were doing the right thing for England; the 7/7 bombers had no such motives. Thus I think most people would still say that “despite their formal citizenship, they were not proper Brits”.

      I have a number of Albanian friends who have received British / American / Italian citizenship; but they still consider themselves Albanian, and their primary loyalty will always be with their ethnic homeland. Are they “proper” Brits / Americans / Italians? Or is there another dimension to this identity issue, one that is harder to measure?

      I think so; and that applies to following Jesus as well. There are many who claim to be followers of Jesus, but who show that they’re not really committed to him and his kingdom. Pointing this out hardly qualifies as having fallen prey of the true Scotsman…

      In any case, you seem to understand and agree with my point about truth. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether Hitler was a Christian, an atheist or neither. What matters is whether there is a God, whether Jesus rose from the dead, and whether there will be a day of judgment where we’ll all stand guilty before a holy God. I won’t try and argue the issue of the reliability of the gospels here, there are better resources for that if you’re interested. But I feel I need to comment on a couple of things you say:

      However, what it does evidence, is that being a Christian does not in of itself make a person more moral, or good.

      First, many of the people held up as examples of bad Christians don’t seem to make any effort at living like Jesus, and are thus not “proper” Christians anyway. But even without that caveat, this is very hard to gauge: how do you know if a person would have been more or less morally good if they had had different beliefs? Would I have been a worse person than I am without Jesus? Yes, probably – but how do I prove that? Would you be a better person if you submitted to Jesus? Again, yes, probably – but I can’t prove it one way or the other!

      It also calls into question, the claim that in order to enter Heaven all that is required is one accept the belief that Jesus Christ is god, and is a personal savior.

      No; you have to accept that Jesus is your personal Saviour, repenting of your sins and submitting to him as Lord. I see no evidence anywhere that Hitler did that; so the risk of meeting him in heaven is very slight. But if somehow he repented and believed properly at the very end, the Hitler I’d meet in heaven would be very different from the one we know from history: he would be purified of all evil and hate – just like I won’t be the lustful, indecisive, procrastinating people-pleaser I can sometimes be in this life. Jesus actually changes people, if they will just let him. And the glory of the gospel is that every sinner can be forgiven and transformed – and all of us need it.

      • The idea of a real or true Christian is ephemeral. It’s based upon divine revelation and the interpretation of ancient manuscripts. To paraphrase Tomas Paine, “one man’s revelation is another man’s heresy.” This is true of any theistic hypothesis about the world, and not unique to Christianity, but why Christians have historically killed other Christians who have a different interpretation of their revelations and ancient manuscripts.

        As I said in the first response I concede that your definition of a biblical Christian is the most accurate. The problem is that this is a question of an individuals subjective belief and not a question of their actions. Where Christians, like yourself, too often get hung up is on the second part, “that you should endeavor to live according to his standards, not your own.”

        Because there is no objective means of determining what Jesus’ standards were, it is a subjective question to say whether one’s actions meet the definition of a person attempting to live with in the boundaries of endeavoring to live by his standards. For example do you follow all of the old testament religious codes? Except the dietary restrictions Jesus explicitly stated were no longer in question, Jesus states the old laws are still valid. (See Mathew 5:17) Christianity has evolved over time in order to allow for individuals to ignore the laws that Jesus followed, such as circumcision.

        “What I can do is say Look: the behavior and beliefs of certain people completely contradict what the NT calls for; they’re not typical believers.” Unfortunately, whether you want to admit it or not, this statement shows the subjectivity and futility of the endeavor. What you are doing is engaging in egocentrism, which basically translates into “because I do not believe the action is in keeping with that of what I believe a typical Christian would engage in they are not a true Christian.” Which, by definition is the no true scotsman fallacy, because there is no such thing as a true Christian or a true Scotsman.

        It is this type of arrogance from the religious, who claim they have a unique channel to the “truth,” that is off putting to us atheists, and why you get frustrated and angry responses from us when you engage in it. It’s also the reason for sectarian violence both among Christians and other faiths. It’s the reason that theism is poor at establishing an objective truth about the universe and reality.

        For a person to be a Christian all that is required is a professed belief and an honest attempt to live in the way that they believe their god (Jesus) dictates. The problem is from the very beginning there have been disputes over what this entails, precisely because there is no objective methodology to determine what the will of god is.

        Your question regarding nationality is based upon a presupposition that there is such a thing as a proper Brit. Instead nationality as well as being cultural is a legal definition, so someone is either a citizen or not, and there is no such thing as a proper Brit, Scotsman, Albanian etc. Instead this is analogous to being pregnant, someone is either pregnant or they are not. As such someone either believes Jesus is god or they don’t. (Agnosticism aside, because someone who professes the possibility is talking about a factual position and not a personal belief.)

        Your claims about the suicide bombers on 7/7 is completely baseless, as every piece of evidence indicates they believed what they were doing was right/correct/moral, and in keeping with the dictates of their religion. Theism inevitably leads to this kind of act.

        Does the belief in Jesus change people? Yes, of course, but not always for good. Not to get caught up in the Hitler issue, but the bible is pretty clear that your god is okay with genocide, he commands the Israelites to effectively commit genocide on a large number of rival tribes. Hitler, along with a large number of other Christians, reject the teachings of Paul, and look to the Gospels like Mathew, which condemn the Jews for the death of Jesus. While I would never assume you are an anti-Semite, simply because you are a Christian, there is no prohibition on a Christian being an anti-Semite, nor in engaging in genocide against the Jewish people as retribution for what is believed to be their collective guilt over the killing of your god.

        While you and I may agree these acts are reprehensible, it is clear that not all Christians agree, and the disagreement doesn’t effectively prevent them from being “true” Christians, just as believing slavery, polygamy, does not preclude one from being a, “true” Christian. The only thing that would effectively preclude someone from being a Christian is if they said, I do not believe Jesus is god.

        With regard to the slavery issue, I think you really need to go back and read your bible. It is a common misconception, mainly put forth by religious apologists, that Jewish and early Christian slavery was merely bonded labor. Leviticus makes it exceedingly clear, on plain reading that Jewish slaves were bonded labor to be held for seven years. The exception being if the Jewish slave agreed to perpetual slavery, due to the slave’s master providing a spouse and possible offspring who the Jewish slave would have to leave.

        However, non Jewish slaves were held in perpetuity, passed down to children, beaten, abused, used for sexual pleasure, and traded as property. ( Leviticus 25:44) Exodus even establish the number of days a slave must survive a beating in order for the owner to not receive punishment. (Exodus 21:20-21 & 21:26-27) Further the Jewish prohibition on tattoos and piercings is due to the tradition of piercing the ears of their slaves, and to set them in distinction from their neighbors who were not Jewish and thus could be kept as slaves.

        Again, the point of this is to show that since Jesus never prohibits slavery, and according to your divinely revealed old testament, Slavery is permissible within Christianity and owning slaves would be in keeping with the New Testament calls for. So one who believes in an immoral and terrible institution, human bondage, may still be a Christian and in fact accepting Christianity and trying to live like your Christ could lead one to take on the ownership of slaves, engage in violence, reject property, live like a wander aesthetic, hate homosexuals, treat women as property, and believe people of other faiths who practice ritual magic should be burnt at the stake.

        Ultimately, the problem is that theism is a flawed methodology for establishing objective truth, because of its ephemeral and subjective nature. The god that you hear in your head, heart, gut, is you. This is why so many people believe their god has the same hatreds and prejudices that they do.

        This same subjectivity is also why you continue to engage in a logical fallacy, despite it being pointed out to you multiple times. Because there is no such thing as a true scotsman, claiming that someone cannot be a true scotsman because they wear underwear beneath their kilt is a fallacy. As such the same is true when you attempt to claim that someone is not a true Christian, because they act in a way different from the way you do.

      • Well, we’re obviously going to disagree! Just to repeat: I think the idea of a true/proper member of a particular group etc is deeply ingrained in our thinking, whether it’s technically a fallacy or not. If I joined the Conservative party and then started arguing for an increase in welfare spending, I think they would quickly kick me out for not being a “proper” Tory! And the UK government seems to agree, since they’ve just decided to remove citizenship rights from Brits who fight for ISIL…

        You say: ‘What you are doing is engaging in egocentrism, which basically translates into “because I do not believe the action is in keeping with that of what I believe a typical Christian would engage in they are not a true Christian.” Which, by definition is the no true scotsman fallacy.’

        I admit that there is a certain fuzziness at the edge, and in most cases it’s maybe better to say “I can’t reconcile that behaviour with faith in Jesus” than to pronounce judgment on somebody’s faith. Still, there are people who are so out of sync with the majority understanding of Christianity that I cannot consider them brothers or sisters in Christ.

        I find it quite amusing that you keep talking about believing “Jesus is God” as the main criteria for being a Christian! While I agree with that, a large number of people who consider themselves Christian don’t (e.g. Jehovah’s witnesses, unitarians, many liberal theologians etc). And I would argue that that’s not actually enough: you can believe Jesus was God on earth and still not submit to him as Lord and Saviour.

        Some of the issues you raise are too big to answer properly – and they have been discussed in detail in many books and websites. Let’s end by agreeing that truth matters, and the question of whether Jesus did rise from the dead or not is a factual matter: it’s either true or not.

        If it is, it’s your duty to find out what that entails; if it’s not, Christianity is a huge mistake. But this can’t be decided based on whether I or Hitler or Obama or anybody else behaves like a Christian. It’s sad that Christians can’t agree completely on what it means to follow Jesus; but if the tomb really was empty, follow him we must!

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