Common Religious Claim: “No true Scotsman …”

When you confront some believers with examples of truly outrageous religious behaviour, the common rebuttal is “Ah but they are not real believers, no true believer from my faith would …“. Now that indeed might be factually correct, but they are missing the key point, so let us now take a quick look at all this.

First, what is this term “No True Scotsman“, where does it come from? Well, it is an informal logical fallacy that was originally described as follows by philosopher Antony Flew in his 1975 book “Thinking About Thinking: Do I Sincerely Want to Be Right?

Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again.” Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing.” The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again and this time finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing.”

Such thinking is quite common among religious people as they attempt to hold a specific belief and also come to terms with the actions of some believers. I have a recent example for you.

While engaged in a debate with some Muslims the topic of stoning was raised, and so I pointed out a truly horrendous example. In 2008 a 13 year old girl in Somalia called Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow was brutally raped by three men. When she attempted to report this rape to the al-Shabab militia who control Kismayo when she lived, they put her on trail in a Sharia court for adultery. The BBC reports the details here

“Don’t kill me, don’t kill me,” she said, according to the man who wanted to remain anonymous. A few minutes later, more than 50 men threw stones. …

Numerous eye-witnesses say she was forced into a hole, buried up to her neck then pelted with stones until she died in front of more than 1,000 people last week…

According to Amnesty International, nurses were sent to check during the stoning whether the victim was still alive. They removed her from the ground and declared that she was, before she was replaced so the stoning could continue.

After presenting the details of this vile murder committed by some Islamic religious thugs, I asked the Muslims I was talking to at that time if they condemned it. They refused to do so. I was completely stunned … it is clearly spherically wrong, no matter what angle you view it from it remains wrong, yet they refused to condemn it.

I do find that most Muslims I chat to have a sufficient degree of human decency to immediately condemn this example without hesitation, and so this refusal was an exception. When I later explained to another Muslim about the refusal, he was also equally surprised and said, “Look, let me go and chat to them and find out“. He did indeed do exactly that, then came back the next day and explained that they did in fact condemn it. I probed a bit and quickly discovered that they had simply generalized about the manner in which “true” Islam handles adultery, and so it was simply an implicit claim that the specific case I cited was not “true” Islam.

Alas yes, you have it, when faced with an outrageous incident, the “No True Scotsman fallacy” had indeed once again popped up in order to cope this. During our conversation I was given a lecture on “true” Islam and how those who commit such atrocities are not “true” Muslims. In response, I explained that the concept of “true” and “false” Islam has no meaning. The word “Islam” (as with all belief systems) is an umbrella under which a vast diversity of thought shelters. For example, I could never assert, “Muslims do not believe in Evolution”, because many quite happily do, even within communities where it is a public part of their belief. There might indeed be apparent unity, but probe a bit and you find that is an illusion. For example all may claim that they desire “Sharia” law (the infallible law of God—as opposed to the human interpretation of the laws – fiqh) … but in truth, there is no agreement on the precise details of what is and is not Sharia law, so when faced with “Sharia” outrages, many will simply dismiss it with the thought that it was not true “Sharia”.

Islam of course has no monopoly on this. Catholics believe that you must be Catholic to be a “real” Christian, and that all other variations are simply wrong. Evangelicals will take a similar stance, they are “Born Again”, and anybody who is not is not a “Real” Christian. We might rant about the utter insanity of Westboro Baptist, and guess what, most other believers will agree with us because the Westboro folks are not “true” Christians.

So what is the problem here?

Most humans, with or without a belief, are decent honourable humans who strive to do what is right. Where things go horribly wrong is when irrational beliefs are followed through to a literal conclusion. It tricks good decent people into behaving in the most abhorrent manner by convincing them that what they are doing is the high moral ground. For example, I’ve personally witnessed good decent moderate believers openly declare that being gay is immoral and so they quite happily discriminated against gay people simply because their belief had tricked them into taking this crazy stance.

There is no such thing as “moderate” and “extreme” beliefs, nor is there any “true” or “false” variations of a belief, so don’t be fooled by a “No True Scotsman” claim. Instead we have many  believing many different utterly irrational things that are simply not true, and some variations are truly quite abhorrent, so in order to cope, other believers simply dismiss them as “fake” believers. The one thing they all have in common is then none of them has a single jot of evidence to verify anything at all.

When you embrace an irrational belief you are putting yourself at risk of being tricked into not just believing some truly outrageous things, but also tricked into doing some truly outrageous things.


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