Guest Post: What Would Jesus Do with a No True Scotsman Fallacy?

Since I’m out of town this weekend enjoying an herbal conference, being all hippie and magical, my partner has written a guest post. I’ve wanted him to post about some logical fallacies since I allude to them frequently but don’t always do a great job of explaining what they are. Last week I mentioned the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. This week, he has chosen to expound on that topic a bit more. Enjoy! I’ll be back with lots to talk about next week!

As humans, we find it easy to align ourselves with those we admire and distance ourselves from those we find repulsive. At stake are our reputations; we know that we will, inevitably, be linked in the public’s mind to those who are similar to us or hold the same label. Observably, the public scene, whether political, social or religious, feeds on poisoning as many wells as it can. If a lawyer mentions his occupation at the dinner table, his audience will likely lump him in with shyster lawyers, about whom derogatory jokes abound. If a politician uses the term “libertarian” to describe herself, she will swiftly be attacked by the news based on Ron Paul’s or Rand Paul’s list of beliefs regardless of her own personal stances. If someone takes the label “Christian,” his link to Hitler by Hitler’s avowed association with Christianity will haunt the poor bastard’s religious discourse for years to come, nullifying his claims that Christianity is a peaceful religion. And inevitably, when confronted with Hitler’s Christianity, many Christians immediately respond that Hitler was obviously not a true Christian. Upon hearing this, an astute opposition replies that the Christian has committed the No True Scotsman fallacy, which quite often sends the Christian into hysterical histrionics.

The No True Scotsman fallacy (NTS) originates with an old story about two Scottish men drinking tea. Macgregor notices that McDougal takes his tea with cream. “No true Scotsman drinks his tea with cream!” says Macgregor. “I drink my tea with cream!” McDougal answers. “As I said,” exclaims Macgregor, “no true Scotsman drinks his tea with cream!” At its logical core, No True Scotsman (NTS) takes this form:

  1. No true Scotsman (group A) takes cream in his tea (group B).
  2. MacDougal (group C) takes cream in his tea (group B).
  3. Therefore, MacDougal (group C) is not a true Scotsman (group A).

Scottish Flag

NTS contains a couple different fallacies. Macgregor equivocates as he subtly changes the definition of “Scotsman” halfway through the conversation. Whereas “Scotsman” refers to an ethnic group of people born in a certain region or possessing citizenship to that region, Macgregor implies that drinking plain tea is an essential part of being a Scotsman. Also, Macgregor proves his premise (that no true Scotsman drinks tea with cream) by concluding that no true Scotsman drinks tea with cream—a prime example of begging the question, which is a subspecies of circular reasoning.

NTS fallacy enjoys flagrant use among modern Christians. The end of the 20th century saw a tremendous Christianization of America with the Moral Majority movement. Slogans like “What Would Jesus Do?” and “Who Would Jesus abort?” become increasingly popular. In the past few years, liberal Christians have tried to answer this movement with slogans like “Who Would Jesus bomb?” and “Who Would Jesus execute?”. Each of these slogans captures NTS fallacy neatly; each implies that Jesus equals Christianity and that no true Christian would commit or even support whatever action is mentioned, whether bombing, aborting, or executing.

Christians blatantly employ NTS fallacy as a buffer against association with other Christians with whom they disagree in doctrine, dogma or actions. Many Christians argue that “the effort to justify a mother taking the life of her unborn child is the absolute contradiction of Christianity.” The Facebook group called The Christian Left routinely characterizes conservative Christians as not Christian at all and having “nothing whatsoever to do with Christ.” Rick Santorum, a 2012 presidential candidate for the Republican party, argued that anyone disagreeing with him regarding Islam is part of “the American left who hates Christendom…they hate Western civilization at the core. That’s the problem.”

Intriguingly enough, both conservative and liberal Christians employ similar defenses when caught employing NTS fallacy. Both claim Jesus’ words in Matthew 7, where he says that people will be known “by their fruits.” They imply that the opposition’s lifestyle, beliefs and actions are such that no true Christian would embrace. Most of these Christians aren’t consciously trying to equivocate or beg the question (well, some are definitely trying and succeeding). The main intellectual problem is the premise.

Do true Scotsmen take cream in their tea? Indeed, some do. Do some Christians support abortion? Yes. Other Christians oppose it but support the death penalty, while still others oppose the death penalty but support socialism. The definition of “Christian” is the real question, which is where things get really slippery and Christians start equivocating.

When asked, some Christians argue that a “Christian” is a person who has faith in God, is saved, or is headed for heaven. But most Christians claim these, as do persons of multitudinous other faiths that Christians would likely exclude from Christianity. Narrowing Christianity to those who follow Jesus is no help either, for it seems many people of other religions respect and follow Jesus and his teachings better than many Christians, all of whom claim Jesus for themselves. Jesus, as a figurehead for Christianity, has also been appropriated to represent America, with both liberal and conservative Christians vying for this dubious honor. Funny thing: it turns out “Jesus” has as many definitions as “Christian” does.

Jesus

At this point, many Christians retreat to the idea that being a Christian means you believe the Bible is the word of God. However, Hitler also claimed this, as do Christians who support abortion, socialism, and other things conservative Christians find unchristian. Many Christians change their definition of “Christian” so many times during one conversation that one must wonder whether they even know what they believe or are simply regurgitating the countless contradictory definitions they’ve heard from years of numerous preachers’ ramblings.

Defending himself and Christianity against accusations of NTS fallacy, Thomas Shirk argues that “‘Christian’ is a label referring to religious and philosophical beliefs being held by the believer.  Since Hitler’s actions, words, and expressed philosophies and professed beliefs are outside of, and in many cases contrary to, the belief set of Christianity, it is…valid to say that Hitler was not a Christian.”

But Shirk has simply staved off the inevitable. He argues that no true Christian deviates from the Christian belief set; Hitler deviated; therefore Hitler is no true Christian. That’s all well and good, except that Shirk neglects to tell us what exactly the “Christian belief set” entails. We are left to assume that anyone who disagrees with Shirk is unchristian and that therefore “Christianity” equals whatever Thomas Shirk says it does. Conveniently, Shirk defines a Christian is one who believes what Christians believe, effectively equating the two ideas. Sure, Shirk avoids NTS fallacy. But in doing so, he employs ambiguous circular reasoning and fallacious ad hoc to avoid the question.

Probably the most controversial, current example claims a category unto itself: the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, KS. They embody all of the above definitions of “Christian,” yet both liberal and conservative Christians unite to levy NTS fallacy against them with reckless abandon. Westboro are Baptists and Calvinistic. They believe in God, Jesus’ deity and humanity, biblical salvation, biblical authority, and almost every belief which conservative Christians hold most dear.

And guess what? Westboro Baptist Church are Christians. Get over it. As long as no one is arguing that a position or belief is invalid because Westboro or Hitler believed it, Guilt by Association fallacy is not present. A religion’s history is a valid discussion topic in determining its constituents’ beliefs (past and present), its likelihood for violence, or its prominence in public society and government.

Many Christians search for a painless escape as they employ No True Scotsman fallacy to avoid uncomfortable associations with Christians they find abhorrent. However, the importance of delving deep into the definition of Christianity should not be sidestepped in favor of lazy intellectual security. As Bertrand Russell opined, “in all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” Instead of employing fallacies to avoid discussion, talk about the differences in your Christianity from that of Hitler or Westboro. Honest dialogue will open you and your opponents to friendship, common ground, genuine disagreement without malice, and a healthy atmosphere that will affect everyone for the better.

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2 thoughts on “Guest Post: What Would Jesus Do with a No True Scotsman Fallacy?

  1. Well thought out. Well written…but I would expect nothing less from the guest author.

  2. lanamhobbs says:

    Reblogged this on Lana Hobbs the Brave and commented:
    An excellent description of the problems with a no true Scotsman fallacy and what people should do instead of using it.

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