Finding the People Who Fuel my Passion

I’ve spent the past week at a couple of conferences. One of the conferences is still underway, so I’m going to keep my post short this week. Both conferences have been wonderfully stimulating, spurring me to rekindle my love for the work (not just professional) I try to do in the world. One of the recurrent themes has been around finding one’s “people” and building strong support networks.

It’s true that it’s important to surround yourself with people who help to keep you fueled and passionate, and at these conferences I certainly felt and feel surrounded by those kinds of people.

But the interesting thing to me is that the people who feel like “my people” aren’t just those who would agree with my values. Rather, the people who make me feel truly stimulated, excited to do my work, and engaged with myself and the world around me are the ones who prompt me to think more deeply about an issue than I had previously thought.

Sometimes that comes through agreement that prefaces a deeper exploration (I call this the “yes, and” response), but sometimes it comes through a disagreement that invites curiosity.

Those are the kinds of people I want to surround myself with.

Not the ones who will pat me on the back about how right I am or stomp their feet in the solidarity of groupthink but the ones who lean into controversy and doubt with the faith that it’s worthwhile to struggle and question and who don’t see disagreement as the end of the discussion but as the beginning of a mutual exploration.

“My people” don’t necessarily think like me; they help me think. It’s an important distinction for me.

Surviving 1984: Unpacking the Language

Okay, I’m returning to Lifton’s criteria for identifying totalism (previous posts can be found here and here) and want to talk about the role of language in totalistic situations. If you’re familiar with my blog or know me, you probably know how much I love language and words. I think language, in some ways, is one of the closest things we have to magic. By taking sounds and stringing them together, we have developed a way of communicating our private thoughts and experiences to others. Wow! Right?

Language is so so so so important to any society. Language, in a sense, grants existence to something. If you have a word for it, you can talk about it, understand yours and other’s experience around it (to an extent if not fully)…and you notice it in the broader world. That’s why language can be important for marginalized people.

Language can be very personal, but it’s also generally shared. Without the sharing of meaning, the sounds make no sense. It’s through the consensus of a group deciding that such-and-such means a certain thing that language is born.

Now, in loading the language, Lifton is talking about the way that a group of people, be it a government, organization, or family, will begin to use language in a specialized manner unique to them. They might have a slightly different connotation for a word from the broader society or they might have specialized words that only exist within their culture.

That alone, is not necessarily indicative of totalistic influence. Every group will have a tendency to have a sort of specialized private language. On a large level, dialects can be seen as a regional example of how a language (like English) can be vastly different in one area like Scotland from how it is in a different area like the midwest of the United States.

However, there are examples of less location-bound groups as well. If you pick up a journal on neurobiology, you’ll instantly see this specialization before your eyes. Unless you are well-versed in the language used, much of the writing may seem incomprehensible to you.

However, if you know the specialized language, that gibberish will turn into something meaningful.

Sometimes specialized language results from the natural evolution of culture, e.g. dialects. Other times, specialized language becomes a kind of shorthand which can convey ideas faster than spelling them out in simpler terms, e.g. scientific terms. The benefit is the swiftness of communication amongst the members of the group; the cost is that outsiders have a harder time understanding.

So, every group does this to an extent. When does it become a problem?

I’d say it relates to the use.

When you pick up a scientific journal, you might see something that seems like gibberish to someone inexperienced in the ideas, but generally the purpose is not to confuse or stunt critical thinking. Rather, it’s an attempt to create an efficient flow of ideas to further the exploration of the topic.

Sometimes though, specialized or loaded language can serve the opposite function—phrases or words can become a means of separating one from outsiders. It can become a way of shutting down conversation, stopping the exchange of information, or halting critical thinking.

That’s when it becomes dangerous.

Sound bites and slogans become the rallying cry of a group but fail to take the idea beyond the surface. The complexity of dialogue is reduced to a single phrase that, rather than encouraging a deeper exploration of an issue, instead serves as a sort of e-break to the discussion.

Once loading the language begins and is accepted as part of a group’s culture, there’s a distinct feeling that continuing the conversation beyond the acceptable phrases and stunted thoughts would be an unthinkable act, one followed quickly by shame (How could you think that?!) or accusations of betrayal (I thought you were one of us!). Questioning becomes anathema because the language suggests that the “truth” is obvious and only the dumbest or most horrible human being would think otherwise.

If this is sounding familiar to a group that you are involved in, what do you do?

Well, part of this is going to tie directly into the milieu control that I wrote about earlier. Loaded language is one way of controlling thoughts and information, so an important antidote is to begin exposing yourself to alternative sources of information.

But you can also begin digging deeper into the language itself. If the group has not entirely wedded itself to the idea of using language as a means of control, it may be possible to dig deeper with others, but you may also find that (like fighting the milieu control) you have to do it somewhat secretly. It’s at least worth testing the waters. Instead of accepting a standard cliché, ask questions. Pay attention to the way that phrases are used. If there’s a consistent pattern in which answers are trite and used to deaden the conversation, that tells you a lot about the role of words and phrases within the group.

Try questioning what an outsider’s perspective might be.

What alternative meanings might someone else have for a phrase or word? Why might they hold that alternative meaning?

If you encountered someone who didn’t share your group’s specialized terms, would you be able to talk them through what you meant…or even have a conversation about the concept without the specialized terms?

If someone doesn’t automatically accept the “truth” encapsulated in your sound bite, are you able to take the conversation deeper and talk about where you both differ in perspective in a reasonable way that doesn’t assume “I’m right; you’re wrong” or pressure the questioner to end up agreeing with you in the end?

If all you can do is return to the original idea, circling around it like a moth at a light, you might not have fully fleshed out the meaning of the concept or your own position within it. More than likely, it’s serving as a security blanket, curbing the doubts or stopping the conversation from proceeding into unstable territory.

If you find that to be the case, expanding your exposure to the concept and different perspectives on that concept might be in order. Very rarely will you encounter a single way of conceptualizing something outside of totalism.

The more blasphemous or unthinkable this seems to the group, the more likely loaded language is being used in a totalistic method. The more that the complexity of human existence is boiled down into absolutes captured within the span of a sentence or two, the more likely the language is being used to deny rather than enhance critical thinking.

However, one who is well-versed in the loaded language also has the opportunity of using it to subvert the control as well. In some ways, if you cannot get out of the totalistic environment, becoming adept at playing a game with the language to undermine the thought-stopping simplicity can be one way of asserting your own individuality and keeping your mind from becoming dulled. (My partner is the one who taught me this strategy. In the cult, he was remarkably adept at using the language in such a way that it questioned the assumptions around doctrine rather than supporting the thought-stopping.)

Of course, that comes with its own risks, for language, as the vehicle for ideas, is a dangerous tool. Totalistic environments cannot afford to lose control of the use of language.

Nevertheless, just as Lifton asserts that the milieu cannot be perfectly controlled to prevent doubts from arising within an individual, I do not think that loaded language can entirely prevent one’s own personal evolution. Language evolves because individuals make changes. We see the power of personal creation whenever someone coins a word.

Without the general acceptance of that word, it will not be adopted into the language of a group, with a shared meaning among the members, which means that a personal unpacking of language requires the courage to truly question the very foundations of one’s beliefs and a willingness to reject the comfort and belonging that comes with participating in loaded language. However, such an approach can transform the inner world of the individual and the relationship of the individual to the outer world.

Once again, if you are interested in reading more about totalistic control, check out Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism by Robert Lifton. George Orwell’s 1984, which inspires the title of this series, is a good example of much of what Lifton talks about. 

Cult Spotting 101: Evaluating a New Group Before You Join

Wow, it’s been a long time since I did a post for my Cult Spotting 101 series! I’ve got a new one for readers today.

If you’re not familiar with this series, I link to a source (or in this case sources) and ask readers to take a moment to identify any red flags that might indicate cause for concern about cultic practices or teachings. It’s designed to give readers a chance to exercise their skills in identifying potentially problematic groups.

Why? Because the best safeguard against cults is learning how to recognize the signs.

This week, I’m looking at the Sisters of the Valley (aka, the weed nuns). They’re a relatively new group, consisting of two Sisters who make Cannabis products to sell online. They don’t have a doctrine or body of teachings to analyze. Rather, we’re going to practice evaluating what they say about the group as if it were a new group we were interested in joining.

They’ve been really popular as a share on Facebook, therefore we’re going to start with one of the videos that has been circulating.


Watch it, make notes about the things that give you pause for concern. If you’re really dedicated, feel free to peruse their website and a Tech Insider article on them as well.

Then, as always, come back here for my breakdown of my own thoughts.

***************

Welcome back!

When I first heard about these “nuns” and saw this video, my initial reaction was excitement. As someone who appreciates the value of herbs and is interested in seeing Cannabis used for herbal purposes more, I was psyched that people were dedicating themselves to such a cause.

However there were also a few things in the video that took some of my excitement down.

Environmental Control

In the documentary, the nuns describe how they “live together, work together, pray together.” That phrase threw up a flag about potentially unhealthy isolation.

Isolation is one of the foremost ways that abusive people and groups use to control others because, by isolating someone, the group essentially becomes a gatekeeper through which all information must get filtered. Control the environment, and you control who people see, what they read and hear, what the group norms are, etc.

Because we have such a strong drive to belong, what we surround ourselves with heavily influences our own beliefs and values. Having exposure to a range of ideas, worldviews, and personalities is healthy because it fosters critical thinking. Without opposing viewpoints, even horrendous things can come to seem normal (e.g. many children growing up in abusive homes don’t realize that other children aren’t beaten like they are. What they experience seems normal to them because of the environment).

But in addition to the potential for excessive isolation from the outside world, environmental control can also interfere with necessary self-reflection. The concern isn’t just that they describe a communal living situation but that they describe doing everything together.

Wherever there is a group that allows for little interaction with non-group members and also severely limits the time that individuals can be alone with themselves, that’s problematic. Granted we’re seeing a 60 second documentary that obviously has a priority of what to present and may not think their vibrant social life is all that important, but their choice of words is important information that needs to be taken into consideration.

Behavior Control

In the documentary video, the nuns say that “all day, every day” is devoted to crafting and cultivating Cannabis and the products derived from it. That’s a lot of time dedicated to one’s work, even if you feel called to it.

Gardening/farming for a living doesn’t exactly fit into a 9-5 work week, and absent some of the other things I might not be so concerned. However, these “nuns” also wear habits to demonstrate their devotion.

In the Tech Insider article, one of the sisters comments: “We live together, we wear the same clothes, we take a vow of obedience to the moon cycles, we take a vow of chastity (which we don’t think requires celibacy), and a vow of ecology, which is a vow to do no harm while you’re making your medicine.”

Despite claiming that they aren’t part of a religion, they clearly have a whole litany of things beyond making their products that they have to do. There isn’t a lot of information given about what their vows constitute, but a few of the words that stand out include “obedience” and “chastity.”

Gathering information about whether to join a group is a little bit like playing the detective. Most of the time, people will be putting their best face forward, and identifying toxic elements often involves reading between the lines a little bit. When you get key words like that above, that should make your spidey sense tingle. Hone in on that and get more information before proceeding forward.

Spiritual Elitism and Special Knowledge

Their website explains that they are not part of an “earthly religion,” but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own brand of religion. The nuns claim to be part of “an order of New Age Progressive nuns” (stated at the beginning of the documentary).

All of their products are cultivated with prayer, and they claim on their website to prepare everything “during moon cycles, according to ancient wisdom” though they don’t indicate what this ancient wisdom is or where it came from.

I hope my readers know me well enough to know that I have absolutely no problem with a self-designed spirituality; however, whenever a group, even one claiming to have that kind of spirituality, seems to indicate having any kind of “special knowledge” that isn’t available to others, that should make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up on end.

Combined with a stringent expectation of behavior and communal living that leaves little room for outside involvement or personal solitude, there is a lot of room for a prescriptive spirituality determined by one and obeyed by the others.

The fact that there are only two Sisters currently doesn’t give me much comfort. Their blog post described how Sister Kate was meeting with other “Sisters” and “Brothers” about opening up other venues. The Tech Insider article points out that they hope to have other abbeys spring up. Would they have to follow the Sisters’ brand of spirituality?

“Once you’ve experienced the growing with your own hands and the turning of that into medicine, it is very hard to walk back into a different kind of life.”

This quote from the documentary was the first thing that set my radar off. It simultaneously expresses difficulty in leaving and returning to a previous life as well as a sense that only in this lifestyle can life be fulfilling.

Most groups think they have something to offer others, but when a group starts trying to convince you that they and only they have fulfilling or holy lives or that you have to join them in order to obtain your desire (to help people, to be healthy, to make money, to reach heaven), proceed with extreme caution.

Substance Use

“It’s time for the people to revive their spirituality,” Sister Kate declares, “and we believe the path to that is through Cannabis.”

While I don’t think substances should never be used for spiritual purposes, I am very cautious about them being prescribed for spirituality. Substances require safeguards and an extremely safe space because they lower inhibitions and make people more suggestible and easily manipulated. If there isn’t a dedication to protecting the autonomy of individuals in a communal spiritual space, the use of substances can quickly become an abusive practice.

Blending Business with Spirituality

Perhaps more concerning than just the Sisters designing a New Age spirituality is the way it gets tangled up with the business.

In the blog post on their site, Sister Kate described having meetings with others who she hoped would join her cause. Tech Insider gives a prime example of the doublespeak surrounding whether she’s establishing a religion or a business, at once calling these other hoped-for establishments “franchises” and “abbeys.”

At the end of the article, Sister Kate expresses how she hopes the habits will be an identifying mark of the abbeys.

“We would like it to be such that wherever you saw women in their blue jean skirts, white blouses, and hats … those women know about cannabis.”

So on the one hand, they’re purporting to be expanding their business, but their business expansion comes with the hope of expanding their brand of spirituality, lifestyle, and habits (pun intended).

Suddenly it doesn’t sound so much like a business as it does a religious group that happens to sell products. The difference might seem to come down to semantics, but the semantics are significant.

Summing it up

If my initial excitement had gone further into a desire to be part of this movement, how might I handle these red flags that indicate the potential for environmental control and isolation, limited information and access to reality checks, behavior control, spiritual elitism, and muddying the distinction between business and spiritual lifestyle?

I wouldn’t have enough information just on this to feel certain about whether they were indeed a toxic group, but I would have enough to indicate that I shouldn’t jump into this group head first.

We’ve taken the first step of evaluating some sources, including their own words to describe themselves. If we were dealing with a group that had been around long enough to have ex-members, speaking with them might also be a valuable source of information about what life is like on the inside and what they faced when they decided to leave.

I would also eventually want to talk to current group members and ask questions, paying attention to the way they answer, not just what the answer is. Do they seem open to questions and push-back? Do they give vague answers that don’t really contain helpful information?

Any red flags that came up in the initial evaluation would be something I would want to feel certain had been sufficiently addressed, either in direct conversation or through observation of how they interact. If it seemed impossible for me to answer my questions without fully joining the group, I would walk away.

Disclaimer: My use of this documentary or group as an example doesn’t constitute an accusation that the group is necessarily a cult. The documentary could just be over-simplified, highlighting what seems unusual, quirky, or interesting while failing to show other aspects of the nuns’ lives . . . or it could be a warning of something deeper. That’s why I’m giving you practice with spotting red flags, wherever you may find them. They are a symptom that should alert you to be careful and use your critical thinking.

Intelligence . . . You Keep Using that Word

Ignorant: a state of not knowing what a pronoun is, or how to find the square root of 27.4, and merely knowing childish and useless things like which of the seventy almost identical-looking species of the purple sea snake are the deadly ones, how to treat the poisonous pith of the Sago-sago tree to make a nourishing gruel, how to foretell the weather by the movements of the tree-climbing Burglar Crab, how to navigate across a thousand miles of featureless ocean by means of a piece of string and a small clay model of your grandfather, how to get essential vitamins from the liver of the ferocious Ice Bear, and other such trivial matters. It’s a strange thing that when everyone becomes educated, everyone knows about the pronoun but no one knows about the Sago-sago.

Terry Pratchet, The Hogfather

I’m keeping it short this week because I’m taking the GRE this Saturday. To be honest, a gun is looking rather less painful than sitting through hours of this trollop.

The last time I took a standardized test, I was under the impression that they were a fantastic measure of intelligence. I wanted to get a perfect score and managed to get high enough that I attracted the attention of Harvard.

Of course, I ended up going to Bob Jones University instead, but that’s a story for a different time.

A lot has changed for me since I took the SAT and ACT. For one, I forgot almost all of my high school math, despite being able to take and pass a statistics course in undergrad.

Unfortunately, reviewing math isn’t all that the GRE requires, as I quickly found out from my study books. In addition to needing to know how big a rectangle will fit inside of a cylinder that has a radius of ___ and a height of ___, I also need to be able to read the test-makers’ minds.

Perhaps the GRE is more obvious than the SAT was, or perhaps I’m just more aware now than I was before, but this time around, I can see that the standardized test isn’t really a measure of intelligence.

From The Princess Bride

From The Princess Bride

Harvard liked me based on the numbers they saw after my SAT, but looking back at who I was, I can see that the SAT failed to measure anything of significance about my readiness for college, my critical thinking skills, or my awareness of the world. Had they measured that, I probably would have failed.

Now, as I prepare to apply for graduate school, my performance on the GRE will determine how much credence schools give to my application, but are they really getting a measure of how well I’ll do in grad school? Are they getting a measure of my critical thinking skills? Of my tenacity? Of my ability to question and seek out answers?

Will my performance on the GRE give them an idea of how well I can help others in counseling? Will it tell them whether I can develop my own studies or wisely critique another’s?

Have you seen this cartoon yet? Far too true.

A favorite that I’ve seen floating around Facebook alot.  Source: I think is WeKnowMemes.com Please correct me if I’m wrong. 

No. It’s not designed to do that. It’s just designed to test my willingness and ability to play the game.

If I’ve already graduated from undergrad, moderate deductive competence would assume that I already possess the “high school” prerequisites they are attempting to measure, which means they aren’t interested in whether I know how to do geometry or algebra or whether I can really use “recalcitrant” in a sentence. (Recalcitrance is one of my best qualities. I don’t know why that answer never won me a job interview!)

More importantly, if they are truly attempting to measure my critical thinking and problem solving skills, they would give far more weight to the process than to the “right answer,” which tells me that they’re not even interested in my ability to think.

They’re interested in whether I can think like them. 

It’s pissing me off–not because I don’t think I can do it, but because I shouldn’t have to. Conformity shouldn’t be the gatekeeper of higher education.

Cult Spotting 101: Spying Unhealthy Spiritual Teachings

I came across this article the other day in my Facebook newsfeed and wanted to scream with rage when I read it. I honestly don’t know if the article is being true to the actual philosophy of Karma or if it’s just a botched up amateur version of a complex idea, but the amount of bullshit is astounding.

Once the rage settled a little, I realized it’s also a really good example of cultic thinking. I want to use it as a teaching tool–kind of like those practice sheets you get in English class that ask you to go through and circle grammatical mistakes. If you like how this works, let me know. I’m considering making it a series and would be happy to comb through more articles and videos to give you all some practice.

To test your cult radar, first read the linked article and see if you can pick out the cultic teachings, then come back here and compare your answers.

The laws given in the article sound sweet on the surface. They seem to promise people control of their lives, the ability to gain everything they want, and perfect peace and happiness.

It sounds almost like magic!

 Whatever we put out in the Universe is what comes back to us.

Except that underneath all that surgery positive speech are three warning flags for a cult: thought control, emotional control, and victim-blaming.

Thought Control:

If what we see is an enemy, or someone with a character trait that we find to be negative, then we ourselves are not focused on a higher level of existence. -Law of Humility

Sounds like a nice little admonition not to judge, right? Except that instead of just encouraging tolerance of differences, this law dictates outright suspending judgment in order to be “spiritual.” Critical thinking becomes a karmic sin.

If that still doesn’t sound bad to you, think about all of the times that you use your judgment to determine when someone is trustworthy or when someone is dangerous. There’s more involved here than merely letting other people live their lives. It doesn’t leave any room for using judgment to protect ourselves from the malevolence or destructive behavior of others.

But that’s not the whole of this law. What you can’t think about, you can’t speak about, so in addition to censoring thoughts, this law also acts to silence victims.

Looking backward to examine what was, prevents us from being totally in the HERE AND NOW. -Law of the Here and Now

Oh such a positive message about not getting stuck in the past! /sarcasm

I’ve seen this one floating around a little bit, and it never quite makes sense to me. It’s not only dangerous, it’s downright dumb. Our past is what got us to our present. It has lessons to teach us for the future. You might as well cut off your head because it doesn’t walk the road for you!

Looking back is healthy. It gives you a chance to assess your life, the good and the bad. It’s necessary for a healthy life. As with most cultic teachings, you can see a grain of truth in the statement. You do want to live in the present, but living in the present doesn’t require you to cut off your past.

Emotional Control:

If what we want is Happiness, Peace, Love, Friendship… Then we should BE Happy, Peaceful, Loving and a True Friend. -The Great Law

Initially, this one sounds pretty good. It doesn’t say anything outright about suppressing emotions. However, the implication is that these emotions (peace, love, happiness) are the only ones acceptable and that they have to be deliberately pursued. A limited range of emotions becomes the goal.

Why is that bad? Let’s take a look at the next quote.

When our focus is on Spiritual Values, it is impossible for us to have lower thoughts such as greed or anger. -Law of Focus

This one is more obvious about the emotional censoring. I could focus on the irritating way that they fuse a motivation (greed) with an emotion (anger), but I think it’s far more important to talk about “negative emotions.”

Grief, anger, fear, worry—they’re not fun, but they are essential to a healthy soul. Emotions are the psyche’s way of alerting us to what is happening. They are neither thoughts nor goals. They are merely signals.

Suppressing an emotion is like disabling the check engine light in a car because you want the car to be “healthy.” Just because the light doesn’t bother you after you disable it doesn’t mean that the problems aren’t there. If you disable the signal, you miss the chance to address the cause of the signal.

Can you see how this could be a means of censoring thoughts too?

Cutting you off from emotions cuts you off from your full human experience. Cults can’t keep and control members who are whole. They have to pare people down to the thoughts, emotions, and desires that keep them malleable, which means that fear and guilt are exploited (if you commit this karmic sin, you’ll have bad things happen to you) while anger and doubt are demonized. Whenever you see a “spiritual” message that says anything about cutting out an emotion or thought in order to be more spiritual, sirens should go off in your head immediately.

Victim-blaming:

Would you believe that it’s not just for sexism? 😉

Victim-blaming isn’t unique to cults, but it is their favorite tool. To make people want to change in such a destructive way, you have to first convince them that they are bad.

 Whatever we put out in the Universe is what comes back to us. -The Great Law

Remember this one from the beginning? Did you catch the victim-blaming?

This phrase could actually fit into the thought control category too because it requires some serious suspension of logic to believe that in a world of billions of people who all have free will, only your actions have an effect on you. However, I place it here because the more sinister message is that you cause your own circumstances.

So, if you happen to get laid off or get cancer, it must be because you are reaping your karmic payback. Or if you are raped, beaten, molested, kidnapped, caught in a tornado, or electrocuted by lightning, it must be because of something you did to attract that.

Whenever there is something wrong in my life, there is something wrong in me. -Law of Responsibility

Just in case the previous law wasn’t clear enough, they’ll throw this one in too. So again, if you get laid off or get cancer, it’s because you’re bad. If you are raped, beaten, molested, kidnapped, caught in a tornado, or electrocuted by lightning, it must be because there’s something wrong with you.

Not with your abuser. Or the economy. Or nature.

Just you.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of the problematic teachings in the article, so feel free to comment with another if you feel like that kid in class who is jumping out of his/her seat with a raised hand.

If you picked up on these without my help, good job! Make use of that perception. It will protect you from manipulative people.

If you were surprised to see that there could be any negative interpretation of these karmic laws, you might want to educate yourself a bit more on cultic or manipulative tactics.

As a disclaimer, I’d like to say that just because I used this as an example of cultic thinking doesn’t mean I think that the author or the site is necessarily part of a cult. The laws could just be ill-thought, overly simplistic, or badly written . . . or they could be a warning of something deeper. That’s why I’m giving you practice with spotting red flags, wherever you may find them. They are a symptom that should alert you to be careful and use your critical thinking (you know, the thing that was condemned in the Law of Humility).

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.