Logic Me This: No True Scotsman
‘Logic Me This’ is a regular series on Teen Skepchick where we examine various logical fallacies in an attempt to help you think more like a Skeptic.
The other day, as part of an ongoing dialogue I have with a Christian friend of mine, she happened to tell me: “Make sure you understand what a true Christian believes.”
It was in response to the point I made that sometimes some religious people do stupid things in the name of their religion, and ended up winding back up to our ol’ friend Harold Camping, of the recent rapture.
And all I could think was “GAH! No True Scotsman!”
I guess I ought to explain this fallacy a bit more before I launch into things:
This idea became better known because of the work of Antony Flew, in his book Thinking About Thinking: Do I sincerely want to be right?
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 Herald again 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.”
—Antony Flew, Thinking About Thinking
Generally speaking, if you make the statement “All A are B“, then you might be offered the counter-example “Well, such-and-such is an A, but not a B“. It can be instinctive to reply: “Well such-and-such can’t be a True A“. This is the No True Scotsman fallacy in a nutshell.
Now, I guess there are lots of things I might be able to say about what my friend was saying about True Christians. But at the end of the day, I can’t even think how to begin defining what a True Christian might be. Not just because I come from a Catholic background and Catholics apparently aren’t True Christians (never mind history….), but because there are so many different denominations of Christianity, and they all have slightly different interpretations of the Bible and what they think is most important. So when she tried to claim that Harold Camping wasn’t a True Christian, well, I wasn’t quite sure what to say. He obviously believes the Bible and the main tenets of faith it outlines, but just because he happened to skim that part in Matthew 25:13, doesn’t mean he isn’t a True Christian.
But never mind all that, it is actually more important to be able to detect fallicious thinking in your own arguments. It might be tempting to say of somebody who calls themself a skeptic but denies climate change not a true skeptic. Likewise for a skeptic who happens to be religious or who happens to mess up and buy into a particular kind of alt-med. Or an Atheist who converts back to a religion, was never a true Atheist. Skepticism and Atheism mean different things to different people. Just because I can’t see a way to suspend my disbelief long enough to believe that Jesus did indeed die on the cross to save us from our sins doesn’t necessarily mean that some other Atheist may be able to do so and thus no longer be an Atheist.
Extra credit: Here is an excellent YouTube explaining this fallacy.
Image credit: Here