Tactics: "No True Scotsman Fallacy" fallacy

Time to talk some X's and O's. Ever run into this kind of argument?

Skeptic: "I reject Christianity because of the evil things Christians have done in the name of God."

If you respond with something to the effect, "those were not true Christians who did that" ... be prepared to be accused of committing a logical fallacy. The ostensible fallacy is called the "No True Scotsman Fallacy" (NTS). I have never personally had this term used on me ... but I have faced variations of the underlying argument. As far as I know, this is a contrived fallacy that does not exist in any logic textbooks ... it just floats around on the web. It gets its name from this formulation of the purported fallacy.

"No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge".

Countered with:
"My friend Angus is a Scotsman and likes sugar with his porridge".

The following rejoinder to this exception is:
"Ah yes, but no TRUE Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge".

In other words, the definition of a Scotsman is twisted to mean whatever you want it to. Likewise, the argument goes, we Christians are guilty of shifting the definition of Christian around to avoid the embarrassment of the crusades, inquisitions, and witch trials.

What is really going on here? Is this really a fallacy? How would you respond?

Sound off in the comments. I will add my $0.02 there.


BK said…
That's a hilarious fallacy. It sounds like a Monty Python sketch. :)

It seems to me that the "no true Christian would" do something would not be very convincing to a skeptic regardless of how this may be resolved. This is especially true where they have personally known Christians who have been two-faced in some respect (and we probably all have been to a degree). I certainly agree that some of the people who engage in the more heinous crimes are not really Christian because they would not act that way, but being part of the Crusades which were allegedly about bringing Jesus to the Muslims does not strike me as a bad motivation.

I suggest that the best way to respond is to simply acknowledge that we aren't perfect. People have made mistakes in the name of Christianity. But our claim is not that Christians will perfectly live out there faith, but rather that if all people tried to live out their faith, the world would be a much better place.
The idea that "no true Christian" would do those things should ring hollow to skeptics and believers.

If one were to say that no true Christian would deny Jesus, then one need only look to the actions of Peter and the rest of the disciples upon Jesus' arrest.

It is a sobering reminder that some of the world's great evils are committed by well intentioned persons. As the adage goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
BK and Robert:

I agree with you both that Christians sin all the time. No need trying to rebut that. I think we would do best to admit that we are all hypocrites and sinners ... and that is why we need redeeming.

Still, was the inquisition really a result of Christ's teaching? Is torture and execution really part and parcel of a biblical worldview?

Clearly this is not the case. The skeptic has made an implicit assumption: anyone claiming to be a Christian is living in radical submission and obedience to Christ as Savior and Lord. Is this the case? Don't we have clear teaching that not everyone who claims Christ will be claimed by Christ?

Which leads me to the form of this argument that I usually face. So and so was a Christian once, but they rejected it when they could no longer believe in face of the overwhelming evidence against it. Michael Shermer is a classic case. If you read his story, this guy was leading a Bible study at one point. He prayed to receive Christ, attended church ... had all the externals ... then bagged it all because he could not find anyone to answer the PoE.

I have had atheists tell me, yeah, I was a Christian once ... but I bagged it ... been there, done that ... I tried it but I could not keep believing given the weak evidence.

Do you challenge them, and say, well you obviously were not a true Christian? What say you?
Anonymous said…
What you say will depend on who you are trying to convince. If you want to convince outsiders, you had better not give the impression of having a double standard. If you want to use conversion accounts of how unbelievers came to Christ, you’d better be prepared to deal with de-conversion accounts that go the other way. Similarly, if you make generalizations about how unbelievers say or do certain things based on the fact that one or more unbelievers has said or done such things, you’d better be prepared to deal with the counter that Christians do certain things because one or more professed Christians has said or done them. If you try to compare Christians, based on their ideals or best actual examples, with unbelievers, based on actual examples you’ve chosen, you’re making an unfair comparison and people will notice. And on the question of who is or is not a true Christian, are you claiming that you are able to decide that yourself?


You asked, "are you claiming to know who is a true Christian?"

Only God knows the heart, so no, I am not making that claim. However, we do have scripture such as:

3We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. 4The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 5But if anyone obeys his word, God's love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: 6Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.

1 John 2

So there is the reality of a person's walk that bears witness to their relationship to Christ.

You raise good points. If we are going to use human examples as our evidence of the truthfulness of Christianity, then we best be prepared to deal with the Michael Shermers out there. Which is why I asked the question in such a provocative way. I was hoping to get a good discussion going ... which you have helped to get going, so thanks.

I don't like to put myself in the position of judge of a person's religious experience ... I come off sounding patronizing and high browed. Still, there are people who use their experience of falling away from the faith as evidence that Christianity is false. Once you present that as evidence for your atheism, should you not expect some challenges to the authenticity of your experience?

It seems fair game ... but how best to proceed? I am trying to tease that out in this discussion.
Anonymous said…
Two thoughts.

First, the "no true Christian" argument usually comes up, in my experience, when Christians claim that any "ex-Christians" were never Christians to begin with, since no true Christian could ever lose faith with Christ. Thus, while alleged ex-Christians may honestly believe they were Christians, they weren't.

The other objection (that you cited) comes up a bit differently than you described it (again, in my experience). The conversation usually begins with a Christian saying that atheism leads to immoral behaviors and citing specific atheists as an example. Then, when specific Christians are cited as indicating that evil can be found in any group of people, the reply is given that those weren't true Christians.

The fallacy in these arguments seems fairly clear.


Tanx for the visit and comments.

A couple of thots to your couple of thots ;-)

re: "Thus, while alleged ex-Christians may honestly believe they were Christians, they weren't."

Some of this speaks to one's understanding what us reformed folk call the perserverance of the saints. Kind of a weird term ... but basically, those who God effectually called will indeed persevere to the end. They won't "fall away" as it were. While I believe this be true, it does me little good to tell someone who is claiming to truly have been a Christian once, in effect, "no you weren't". It gets us into into trying to exegete his personal experience ... I am on much firmer footing exegeting God's revealed word. So, I try to find a way to turn the conversation to talking about the nature of saving faith versus the common misconceptions of faith that are floating around out there. Usually I uncover a misunderstanding of what faith means. Many have head knowledge of Christ, for example, but never trusted Christ's finished work on the cross.

Re: "The conversation usually begins with a Christian saying that atheism leads to immoral behaviors and citing specific atheists as an example."

There is the problem. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, not just the atheists. We all like sheep have gone astray. A Christian who defends his faith in the manner you are describing is making a huge mistake.

Now, I will argue that atheism as a belief system leads naturally to certain consequences ... after all, ideas have consequences. When the atheist brings up a counter example of Christians acting badly, I agree with him and talk about sin and redemption. However, what I point out is that the "wicked" Christian is not acting consistent with what Christ taught. The atheist who acts selfishly and manipulatively, by contrast, is acting well within his worldview. If evolution is true, we are "selfish genes" and have no objective morality.
Anonymous said…
I'm an atheist so you may not like my thoughts about this, but here they are:

* The bible says humans are faulty, so noone is able to live completely according to the bible. If the argument is valid that a true christian can not do evil things, then there are no true christians.

* According to my dictionary (The Webster Concise Dictionary) a christian is a professor or follower of the religion of christ. It does not say that it is impossible for them to to bad things.

* Jesus contradicts himself in the bible, e.g. (Matt 5:22) vs (1 Pet 2:21-22), (Luke 18:20) vs (Luke 14:26) so it is impossible not to go against at least something that Jesus said or did.

* Christians dispute among themselves in many moral issues, such as death penalty, abortion etc. To claim that either view is not true christian is equivalent to saying that anyone who interpretes the bible differently from you is not a true christian. This would probably make you "not a true christian" in the view of the majority of christians.

To answer your question: I don't think you should deny that these people are christians. Then you would be guilty of the "No True Scotsman Fallacy". Instead you should explain that you interprete the bible differently and that you think these people were wrong. Agree that they were/are christian, but disagree that they are right. This would look much better in the eyes of an atheist.

I just wrote an essay on my webpage "The No True Scotsman Fallacy Fallacy Fallacy". You are welcome to visit it if you like, but don't try to email me because the address is not in use. (See link below).
Anonymous said…
One more comment, to The Dawn Treader. Atheism is not a belief system, but just the lack of belief in god(s). Atheism does not say that it is your moral obligation to act selfishly and manipulatively. In fact, atheism does not say anything about morals at all. Atheism is not a coherent world-view and atheists have different morals. If evolutionary theory says that the most fitted will survive, then it is your personal responsibility whether the consequenses of this fact should be to facilitated or prevented.

Besides evolutionary theory has nothing to do with atheism. The proposition existance/nonexistance of gods does not tell anything about evolution. Evolutionary theory may very well be false even if atheism is true. Many christians accept the theory of evolution, but I suppoes they are not True Christians™. After all, Jesus did not know of evolutionary theory, so no true christian would believe it. Neither would they believe in the theory of gravity, because Jesus was unaware of that theory.

Atheists may do bad things, but that is never because of atheism per se because atheism does not tell us how to live our lives at all. If an atheist does bad things it may be because of an ideology (as in Stalin or Mussulini), or because they are psychopats, but not simply because they are atheists. I'm an atheist and I don't believe I'm obliged to do anything just because evolutionary theory acts in certain ways. Why would I need to do that?

You're simply drawing a straw man of atheists and how we reason.
Anonymous said…
Sorry, that last anonymous was me. I had no intention to be anonymous but forgot to type my name. Also, the link in my first post is in the name, not below as I assumed it would be.
Hi Fredrik,

Thanks for reviving this post.

Re: "Atheism does not say that it is your moral obligation to act selfishly and manipulatively. In fact, atheism does not say anything about morals at all."

So "no true atheist" would say atheism says anything about morals, eh? ;-)

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