Friday Fallacy is back (at least for now)!
In this edition we will be covering a fallacy that has been given the intriguing name “no true Scotsman.” So, what’s this all about then?
The concept was identified and named by philosopher Antony Flew in 1975 through the use of a parable. The story goes like this. Hamish McDonald, a self-respecting Scotsman to be sure, sits down to his morning newspaper, wherein he reads the headline, “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again.” Sniffing with disdain, Hamish declares to himself, “No Scotsman would do such a thing!” Brighton, you see, is not a part of Scotland. However, the next morning’s newspaper carries a shocking story of an Aberdeen man who was arrested for acts so vile that the Brighton Sex Maniac would seem mild and prudish by comparison. Upon reading of this monster, Hamish is shown to have been incorrect in his earlier assumption, since Aberdeen is indeed part of Scotland. But his cognitive dissonance is readily soothed: “Ah,” says he to himself, “no true Scotsman would do such a thing!”
The trick that is being performed here is an ad hoc reinterpretation of the terms under consideration in order to protect a claim from falsification. Counter-examples to the claim are dismissed, ostensibly because they are not examples of the object in question at all, while in reality this dismissal is arbitrary, because it is achieved by moving the goalposts from an understood interpretation of the evidence to one that puts the original claim out of bounds from questioning, since any proposed counter-example can then be dismissed. What is a “true Scotsman?” Any “Scotsman” whose attributes don’t support the claim being made. This is a form of begging the question that relies on an ad hoc alteration of the originally understood meaning of the terms being considered (another fallacy called equivocation).
Basically, prefixing any word with the qualifier “true” in an attempt to fend off counter-examples to a claim you are making qualifies as a use of “no true Scotsman.”
So, what is an example of the Armstrong cults doing this? One obvious answer is their disavowal of “mainstream” Christianity as not Christian, when all they really mean is that mainstream Christians aren’t Armstrongists. So, when the Christians are taken to task for the many atrocities committed in the name of Christianity up through modern times, both mainstream Christians and Armstrongists alike can join in the chorus of “No true Christian would do such a thing!” Likewise, the counter-cult outfits like ESN ministries will try to distance themselves from their Armstrongist blight by crying, “No true Christian would reject the Trinity or ‘Judaize’ by observing the Holy Days!”
They do this because they pretend (equivocate) that the term “Christianity” refers to some concrete reality those they disagree with fall short of. It doesn’t. Christianity is a highly sectarian religion based on the worship of Jesus Christ. It is an abstract concept, not a physical artifact, and its attributes morph to fit the mindset of the believer and the teachings of the particular sect. There are some basic tenets that tend to apply across sects, but the overlap is not necessarily consistent. A Venn diagram of Christianity would show little overlap among some sects (Armstrongism and Gnosticism for example), and it could be extended to include all three Abrahamic religions (but only the true Abrahamic religions, of course!), and beyond that to include all religions that ever existed. What you would see is a non-linear continuum with a “boundary” between Christian religion and non-Christian religion that can only be described as “fuzzy.”
So, the next time someone hits you with a “no true Christian would do X” argument, just turn around, lift up your kilt, and show them what you think of their capacity for logic–that is, if you are a true Scotsman.