Having had an extraordinarily busy week I’ve yet to contribute to some rewarding conversations and topics going on recently, nevertheless, I have had a chance to read an excellent explanation of the No True fallacy created by the late Anthony Flew in his 1975 book Thinking about Thinking, a great thinker of his time (although his mind certainly failed him here!).
“By Thomas Shirk”
“No true Scotsman!” During any debate with a Skeptic, one is likely to hear this crowed at them. Usually, it comes after they point out that Hitler claimed to be a Christian or a similarly vindictive polemic. One would of course find it necessary to divorce one’s religion from comparison with such an odious figure in history, so one quite rightly points out that Hitler was no Christian. Simply claiming to be a Christian does not make it so!
“No true Scotsman!” screams the Skeptic, and then acts as if he has made some crushing point and you should run to the nearest Church of Freethink and convert to Atheism.
Or perhaps one, such as JP Holding does here, is arguing that the Bible does not say that one should accept it on blind faith, that true biblical faith is loyalty and trust. Then some skeptic slips in with a declaration of the “No True Scotsman” Fallacy.
Often times, believers will move on and try a different tack, or perhaps even change the subject. Sadly, too few will answer the charge; after all a logical mistake is a logical mistake!
Or is it?
What exactly IS the “No True Scotsman” fallacy (hereinafter NTS)? Does it really mean that we must acknowledge Hitler as a Christian? Or accept that blind faith is what God wants of us?
The NTS fallacy is a type of non sequitur (OSC: a conclusion or statement that does not logically follow from the previous argument or statement.); a logical fallacy in which one reaches a conclusion that is not in any factual or logical way an extension of the premise. The story goes:
Macgregor and McDougal are 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,” replies Macgregor, “no true Scotsman drinks his tea with cream.”
The logic of this story, a fallacy, is expressed thusly:
* No true Scotsman drinks his tea with cream
* MacDougal drinks his tea with cream
… MacDougal is no true Scotsman
This logic is generally recognized as a fallacy, known as the No True Scotsman fallacy. Atheists love to use this in order to force Christian apologists to accept their definition of everything from the meaning of the word “evolution” to something Christians should know better than they: what it means to be a Christian!
But is debating the bona fides of Hitler’s claims to Christianity really an example of the NTS fallacy? Or debating what the Apostles meant by the word “faith”? This essentially means that if set (X) does not intersect set (Y) then an object (Y) is not an (X). How is this fallacious?
It isn’t! Only when set (Y) is not demonstrated to be nonintersecting to (X) does the expression become a fallacy.
In the NTS story, “Scotsman” is set (X). Drinking tea with cream is set (Y). MacDougal drinks his tea with cream and is thus an object in set (Y). The fallacy is that the definitions do not clash; there is nothing definitionally nonintersecting about X and Y. So an object in set (Y) can also exist in set (X).
OSC: Thomas Shirk is being a little technical in the article, for which I’ll quickly clarify in plain speak: To be a Christian means to believe in, and conform to a set of behaviors (including the behavior to believe in God, His Son, atonement etc), meaning, when a person says someone else isn’t a “true” something they’re saying they’ve failed (often willingly so) to conform to various tenets of the thing they’re claiming to belong to (including failing to “believe that” God exists or “believe in” their saving plan of salvation). Furthermore, an obvious disqualifier would be for a supposed believer to rather than affirm core Christian beliefs possess a belief set of contrary ideas (There’s no God, nor Son, nor atonement). The character in the no true fallacy is in error because they wrongly suppose a person’s ethnicity as having something to do with their taste in beverages, which clearly isn’t true in reality. Although in the case of Flew he was writing about “The Brighton sex maniac” who’s no Scot according to the story, the Brighton attacker however later turns out to be upstaged by an even worse Scottish sex attacker! Although the defense is that they’re no “true” Scot now (i.e No true Scot would do such a thing). But why wouldn’t an attacker of that sort be Scottish, there’s nothing about being Scottish that stops someone from also being a sex attacker.
The word “Scotsman” refers to a racial/ethnic category; it has absolutely nothing to do with how one takes one’s tea. This eliminates the first premise of the argument. By invalidating the premise, the argument becomes a fallacy.
So how does this relate to apologetics? Too often, the self-impressed Skeptic will operate, or expect others to operate, under the misimpression that the NTS fallacy refers to ANY instance of eliminating an object (Y) from set (X). But as demonstrated above, the fallacy is becomes valid when set (X) and (Y) are “nonintersecting”! Since “Scotsman” has no relation to culinary tastes, the sets are capable of intersecting.
Suppose, instead of the quibbling over their tea, the story went like thus:
Boris Ivanovich and Scotty McDougal are drinking tea while at a UN meeting in Brussels. Boris, a big fan of “Braveheart” finds out during their conversation that Scotty is a Scotsman. “I too,” exclaims Boris, “I’m a Scotsman!”
“Are you from Scotland?” Scotty asks, “Or your parents perhaps?”
“No, no of course not,” answers Boris, “I and my entire ancestry are from Russia!”
“Well then,” Scotty quips, “You are no TRUE Scotsman, then!” Scotty in this case would not be committing a fallacy: since the word “Scotsman” is a racial/ethnic label referring to those born, or with ancestry, in Scotland. Since Boris, born of Russian parents in Russia, does not meet these criteria, he is in fact not a Scotsman, no matter how big a Mel Gibson fan he is.
So when one says that Adolf Hitler is no true Christian, one is not committing the NTS fallacy. “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 (barring a deathbed conversion for which there is no evidence whatsoever) valid to say that Hitler was not a Christian. Set X (Christianity) does NOT intersect set Y (Hitler’s beliefs [Nazism]), and thus object Y (Adolf Hitler) is not an object X (Christian).
OSC: So, where’s the lesson to be found in how atheists use the No true story here in modern times, times where there’s no question as to its reasoning being fallacious, well, whatever its wording the final paragraph would read something like: Either through lack of maturity, experience, humility, integrity or intellect (or even a combination of the previously mentioned things), atheists are refusing to seriously interact with what it means to be a Christian or be held to Christian duties. This behavior would only be an annoyance if it were consistent, sadly it’s not even that, an example can be shown by how the secular culture protect Islam in the face of terrorism clearly inspired by it’s religious tradition, “That’s not Islam!” They cry: “Those aren’t REAL Muslims!” They may then enter into a rant about how it’s Christians (real Christians I imagine) who caused the crusades, slavery and the oppression of women in between. Pure hypocrisy.
In conclusion, Skeptics need to either learn to understand the basics of the logic they claim to be able to hurl about, or find a different field to criticize from. Of course, the more likely outcome is that they will claim I’ve committed the NTS fallacy upon the fallacy itself!
The No True No True Scotsman fallacy, perhaps? No, just Skeptics who need to either understand logic or abandon attempts to use it as a criticism!