What's Wrong with the "No True Scotsman Fallacy"?

Imagine two British gentlemen sitting in an English garden engaging in conversation about the Queen's knights. The first makes the assertion, "All of the Queen's knights have been brave."

The second, a more circumspect individual, responds, "But what about Sir Robin? He wasn't brave at all."

"Well," responds the first, "that's because he wasn't a true knight."

What, if anything, is wrong with the response of the first British Gentlemen? Anyone familiar with the ongoing debate between Christians and Atheist/Skeptics on the Internet probably believes that the first of these two gentlemen has committed the "No True Scotsman" Fallacy. If you are unfamiliar with the fallacy, it probably means that you have not been engaging in these types of debates because it is almost never used anywhere else. There is a reason for that: it really isn't much of a fallacy. Perhaps I should say that the "No True Scotsman" Fallacy is No True Fallacy, but that would be a little harsh.

For those unfamiliar, the "No True Scotsman" Fallacy seems to be increasing in popularity over the Internet and is usually raised when a Christian claims that some bad person who has somehow claimed to be a Christian is not really a Christian, e.g., Adolph Hitler. A good, lengthy description of the "No True Scotsman" Fallacy can be found in an article by that same name on a atheist website entitled IronChariots.org. A less comprehensive but still informative version can be found on a website titled "Logically Fallacious" where the fallacy is given the following description:

Description: When a universal (“all”, “every”, etc.) claim is refuted, rather than conceding the point or meaningfully revising the claim, the claim is altered by going from universal to specific, and failing to give any objective criteria for the specificity.
Logical Form:All X are Y.
(it is clearly refuted that all X are not Y)
Then all true X are Y.
Example #1: In 2011, Christian broadcaster, Harold Camping, (once again) predicted the end of the world via Jesus, and managed to get many Christians to join his alarmist campaign.  During this time, and especially after the Armageddon date had passed,  many Christian groups publicly declared that Camping is not a “true Christian”. 

I still have all of the textbooks from the logic courses I took in college, and nowhere in any of these books do I find a description or even a reference to the "No True Scotsman" Fallacy. As I read through academic articles about logic that are available to me through my college's website, I don't see many philosophers appealing to the "No True Scotsman" Fallacy to make their case. So, where did this fallacy come from? According to an article on ExampleProblems.com, the "No True Scotsman" Fallacy was first conceived by Antony Flew in 1975 (when he was still immersed in his God-denier phase) in a book entitled, "Thinking about Thinking," however, it doesn't seem to be used abundantly since that time. This leads me to conclude that the "No True Scotsman" Fallacy has most likely been given legs over the Internet and has not been seen as particularly helpful by those who are professionally taught to logically consider thought-forms. In other words, while the "No True Scotsman" Fallacy originated with a true philosopher, it appears to have been largely adopted by Atheists/Skeptics championing the fallacy over the Internet because they can use it to make Christians look bad when they don't agree that Hitler was a Christian. You know how it goes:

Christian: Christians wouldn't kill millions of people.
Atheist: What about Hitler? He said he was Christian and was a member of the Roman Catholic Church.
Christian: Hitler wasn't a true Christian.
Atheist: Well, you've just committed the "No True Scotsman" Fallacy, which means that you have lost the argument. 

Okay, maybe the Atheist doesn't say it exactly like that, but that's the basic rub. All the Atheist/Skeptic has to do is think of some evil person who isn't like Christians claim and any effort to distinguish the evil person becomes a violation of the "No True Scotsman" Fallacy. Checkmate.

Not quite.

What's wrong with the "No True Scotsman" Fallacy? The problem is that it is a fallacy of equivocation. But it isn't simply the equivocation on the part of the person who is making the assertion that "All X are Y"; rather, it is the equivocation in the term X by both of the parties. Consider my example of the two British Gentlemen, above. Apparently, the first British gentleman is violating the "No True Scotsman" Fallacy, right? Well, he may be violating the fallacy as written, but he is not committing a logical fallacy. 

The problem in the example is that the two British gentlemen actually disagree on the definition of what constitutes one of the Queen's knights. I am certain that both of them would agree that one of the necessary factors to be a knight is to be knighted by the Queen. The second gentleman, however, probably assumes that being knighted by the Queen is the only qualification needed to be a knight. The first gentlemen apparently disagrees. He appears to believe that being knighted by the Queen is not enough to become a "true knight." Instead, he has additional qualifications to make someone a "true" knight that the second British gentlemen is not recognizing. The first British gentlemen believes that being a knight requires that the knight be brave, and it is likely the he has other characteristics in mind when he speaks of a "true knight" such as chivalry.

You see, to the first gentleman, the word "true" has meaning and isn't merely a dodge as the "No True Scotsman" Fallacy asserts. There really isn't a fallacy in the conversation -- only a clarification of terms is taking place. The first knight has additional qualifications to make a knight a "true" knight, whereas the second has only one qualification. Neither is wrong nor has either committed a fallacy -- they have just not spelled out their particular understandings of what constitutes a knight or "true knight" to each of the parties in the discussion.

With a little thought, anyone can think of thousands of examples. Suppose Thomas, a person who clubs baby seals, joins Greenpeace and pays the dues. If it is argued that all members of Greenpeace would never club a baby seal to death, but it turns out that Thomas is discovered in the Arctic clubbing baby seals to death, would the Greenpeace member be wrong in asserting that Thomas is not a true member of Greenpeace? Of course not. Thomas if violating the purpose of the organization.

Suppose that Olivia, a woman who believes that no one should be permitted to own guns, joins the NRA and pays the dues. Isn't it safe to say that I can still assert that all NRA members favor an interpretation of the Second Amendment to the Constitution that allows most people (felons and a few others excluded) to own guns even though someone can point to Olivia as being a member of the NRA who opposes the ownership of guns? I think I could confidently insist that Olivia is not a true member of the NRA. Would it make sense to contend that I was committing the "No True Scotsman" Fallacy and therefore had lost the argument if it means that Olivia should be considered representative of the NRA's positions on gun control?

Note that both of the examples include organizations that stand for something. If the only qualification needed to be a member of the group is simple membership then the "No True Scotsman" Fallacy may work. For example, if I were to say, "No graduate of Centerville High School would ever commit a crime," and you were to point out that Craig, a graduate of CHS, had committed armed robbery, my retort of "Craig isn't a true graduate of CHS" would seem to be "moving the goal posts" and fallacious. So, there is a circumstance where the "No True Scotsman" Fallacy works, but it is really quite limited. The fallacy is not as broad or robust as Atheists contend.

So, is Christianity more like being a member of Greenpeace or is it more like being a graduate of Centerville High School? Even the shallowest of investigations should result in the conclusion that it is more like being a member of Greenpeace. Christianity isn't just about joining a church or claiming to be a Christian. Rather, Christianity is a commitment of one's life to God. Jesus noted that not everyone who claims to follow him is really his disciple. ("Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter." ~ Matthew 7:21) The Bible says that those who are Christian will exhibit the fruits of the Spirit. ("But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control." ~ Galatians 5:22-23a)  1 Corinthians 5 instructs Christians to remove the wicked people who dwell among the people of God demonstrating again that not everyone who is in a church is to be automatically understood to be a Christian. (1 Corinthians 5:12-13)

This leads to the conclusion that a Christian does not commit a logical fallacy when he denies that some wicked person or another is not a true Christian. The word "true" does have meaning, after all.

Knowing that Atheists/Skeptics will continue to try to hammer Christians by applying the "No True Scotsman" Fallacy where it shouldn't be applied, how should Christians respond to this argument? I think that the better way is to be watchful for when the Atheist/Skeptic is trying to set up the fallacy and respond by asking a question about what the Atheist/Skeptic means by asking a question in response that will clarify what it means to be a Christian. An example might look like this:

Christian: No Christian would hate a homosexual.
Atheist: What about Fred Phelps? He and his church picket at funerals claiming that "God hates fags."
Christian (seeing the "No True Scotsman" Fallacy about to be inaccurately applied): So, do you think that Fred Phelps is a Christian?
Atheist: Of course he's a Christian, he's the pastor of a Baptist church.
Christian (now having a clearer understanding of what the Atheist/Skeptic believes to be the definition of Christian): That's interesting, because I think that being a Christian is more than merely being the member or even the Pastor of a Church, don't you? I mean, if you were to decide to join a church but still didn't believe in God, would you automatically be a Christian?

You see, this is a way to work around the claim that one is committing the "No True Scotsman" Fallacy. Not that the Christian would be committing the fallacy by asserting that Fred Phelps isn't a Christian, but it avoids having to convince the Atheist/Skeptic who is distracted by spiking the football that her understanding of the "No True Scotsman" Fallacy isn't accurate.


P.S. Yes, I know that Sir Robin is a fictional character, so let's please have no one accuse me of being ignorant on that basis (I may be ignorant on another basis, and I would welcome that being pointed out, but let's not get nitpicky).



Joe Hinman said…
great post Bill. I am glad to see you using graphics too,. brightens up the place. I agree withy your analysis, I've always said the no true Scotsman idea is a fallacy can only amply where membership in the club is a birthright, If it's voluntary one can always say "you are not behaving in a manner befitting someone in our group." Scotsmen are born not made so they doming of some thing is not prerequisite for being a Scotsman.

Saying someone doesn't stack up to the ideal of being a Christian is not the same thing because one chooses to be a Christian. Thus one might get it righty or wrong, you can't get being a Scotsman wrong if you are born in Scotland.

Of course atheists want religion to be seen as a disease so you cant choose it., It takes you over the only cure is constraint hatred.
Don McIntosh said…
Nice work! Informative and well written.

In the dialogue toward the end, I really like the Christian's closing rebuttal to the claim that Fred Phelps must have been a Christian because he pastored a nominally Christian church: "That's interesting, because I think that being a Christian is more than merely being the member or even the Pastor of a Church, don't you? I mean, if you were to decide to join a church but still didn't believe in God, would you automatically be a Christian?"

Great point. For another example: if a soon-to-be public atheist, Dan Barker, is up on a platform in a church playing gospel music, but thinking the whole time the religion he professes is complete nonsense, he's clearly not a Christian. And of course, the argument cuts both ways: Darwinists will go to quite some trouble to demonstrate that Michael Behe, despite his impeccable professional credentials, is not a "real" scientist because he entertains justified doubts about the theory that all of life descended from a common ancestor by strictly undirected natural processes. What's interesting there is that the practice of science, unlike Christianity, is not supposed to be defined or distinguished by adherence to certain doctrines.
im-skeptical said…
A few points:

The accusation of "no true Scotsman" is not used exclusively be atheists.

Your point is valid to the extent that there is a commonly understood objective rule that defines the group to which it is applied. What is a Christian? Most people would agree that it is defined as someone who believes that Jesus is the son of God and the savior of mankind through his sacrifice. This might be called the lowest common denominator that is common to all Christians. You may argue that that's too broad because it doesn't entail certain additional attributes that you think are essential to Christianity. However, others would disagree with your specifics. That's why there are so many different Christian denominations. But they are all Christians, even if you don't think so. Did Hitler share that lowest common denominator? Yes, he did. That makes him a Christian. And by the way, that's what makes Phelps a Christian, too. Or a murderous tyrant like Constantine.

Yes, this is a fallacy of equivocation. It is based on using an alternate definition for a term. And it isn't always used in conjunction with the word 'true'. Is Sir Robin a Queen's knight or not? He was knighted by the queen, but he ran away from his foe. He doesn't live up to the ideals of the Queen's knights, and if that is included in the standard definition of "Queen's knight", then you might have a case. But I think most people would agree that being knighted by the queen is the definitive attribute.

If you want to make an honest argument about the Christianity of Hitler, you should start out by admitting that he IS a Christian, but he fails to live up to the standards if Christianity for the following reasons ...
BK said…
Joe and Don, thanks for the comments and enjoy encouragement. I'm-skeptical, I couldn't disagree more with virtually everything you wrote, however I don't have time to respond right now. Maybe tomorrow.
BK said…
Okay, im-skeptical, let's start at the beginning. First, you say, "The accusation of 'no true Scotsman' is not used exclusively be atheists." Okay, I didn't say it was. I wrote, "it appears to have been largely adopted by Atheists/Skeptics...." So, I disagree with your opening statement if you are suggesting that I said anything different.

Second, I find it rather amusing that you, as a non-Christian, think that you have a better grasp on what is a Christian. I also find it amusing that you have completely ignored the Bible verses I cited in the original post that showed that not everyone who claims to be Christian is actually a Christian. Instead, you say that a person "who believes that Jesus is the son of God and the savior of mankind through his sacrifice" is a Christian. Should I point to you that the Bible notes that "even the demons believe", yet they are not seen as Christians because their works demonstrate that they are not? (James 2:18-20) I can also point many of Jesus' teachings on what it means to be a disciple of Christ (see, any number of verses in Luke) which shows that the road is much more difficult than merely accepting Jesus as Savior.

You have adopted a shallow definition of what it means to be a Christian, and I certainly agree that a Christian must meet this "lowest common denominator that is common to all Christians." But being a Christian is much more than those "lowest common denominators" as the Bible teaches in verse after verse, and the fact that you want to try to limit it to that is just proving my point. You have defined Christian in a broad and shallow way and so when you try again and again to establish that Hitler was a Christian, you are applying this anemic definition of Christianity. I, meanwhile, am applying a much more Biblical understanding and can confidently assert that if you really think that's all that's involved in becoming a Christian you are not understanding that Christianity is a way of living that comes from one's belief. Is there a fallacy in my using a more accurate and fuller definition? No way.

And no one (other than people anxious to smear Christians) is going to accept that Hitler was a Christian. So no, you are not going to ever hear me respond to that false accusation the way that you suggest would be better in your final paragraph. Hitler was not a Christian, period. His fruits make that crystal clear.
im-skeptical said…
So, I disagree with your opening statement if you are suggesting that I said anything different.
- You said: "usually raised when a Christian claims that some bad person who has somehow claimed to be a Christian is not really a Christian, e.g., Adolph Hitler"

I find it rather amusing that you, as a non-Christian, think that you have a better grasp on what is a Christian.
- There are different definitions of the word 'Christian'. When I say Hitler was a Christian, I mean someone who professes that faith, as he did. It's not a question of grasping what it means.It's a simple definition. You mean someone who exhibits that qualities of behavior as expounded in Christian teachings. So if we come to agreement on definition, we can both agree that Hitler was a Christian (by one definition), and that he wasn't (by the other definition).

And no one (other than people anxious to smear Christians) is going to accept that Hitler was a Christian. So no, you are not going to ever hear me respond to that false accusation the way that you suggest would be better in your final paragraph. Hitler was not a Christian, period. His fruits make that crystal clear.
- Hitler himself claimed to be a Christian. And he was not trying to smear Christians by doing so. The people in the Nazi regime were Christian. Their doctrines were derived, at least in part, from Christian philosophies. In particular, their racism was very much Christian in origin.
BK said…
First paragraph - as you note, I said "usually". You said "exclusively."

Second paragraph - Thank you for clarifying what you mean.

Third paragraph - If you believe that everyone who claims to be a Christian is a Christian, you should know that neither history nor the Bible support your point of view.

And with that, I leave it to the readers to decide who is right. Thanks for the challenge.
Lee Hartsfeld said…
The NTS move (as Flew called it) consists of changing a contingent proposition to a logically necessary one after it's been shown to be false. The former type of proposition is falsifiable; the latter is not. The fallacy is all about avoiding falsification.

The difference between " No Scotsman/Christian/atheist" and "No TRUE Scotsman/Christian/atheist" is not the essence of the NTS fallacy. Yes, the ad hoc insertion of "true" is the "move" that Flew describes, but by itself it's no fallacy, any more than a personal insult is a logical fallacy when made outside of the context of an argument. It's all context. I can see how someone would mistake "so-and-so isn't a real Christian" for the NTS fallacy, but the similarity is purely on the surface. After all, the motive for switching "no..." to "no true..." is to avoid being wrong. It's a consequence of the NTS dodge that certain people (or behaviors) are excluded from the definition of "Scotsman." By endlessly discussing a byproduct of a false move, we're doing nothing more than missing the gist of that fallacy.

The NTS fallacy has been cited nonstop at atheist blogs since at least as early as 2005.

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