Recognising the “No True Scotsman” fallacy in religion

First, lets start with a clear understanding of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.  This is basically where you challenge others about some rather unpleasant or even quite appalling actions by some group, and quickly discover that “they” are not “real” members of the group.

The term was first deployed by philosopher Antony Flew in his 1975 book Thinking About Thinking: Do I sincerely want to be right? There he writes …

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.” —Antony Flew, Thinking About Thinking

Note what has happened …

  • When faced with something really bad, he claims that no Scotsman would behave that way
  • Then when faced with evidence that proves that first claim incorrect, he asserts, “no TRUE Scotsman would do that”

Well, this is exactly what happens in the minds of religious folks when you point out some of the truly appalling consequences of religious belief. I personally faced this specific form of justification a couple of days ago when having a friendly chat with some Muslims.

That dialog started when somebody claimed, “Its a myth that women are oppressed and considered 2nd class citizens in Islam“.  In response I gave a few obvious examples:

  • Women are forbidden to drive in Saudi Arabia
  • The testimony of two women can equal that of one man
  • etc..

Basically it was a subset of the examples we are all familiar with. So how can anybody, when faced with such facts, truly stick their original claim? Easy, you just play the “No True Scotsman” fallacy as a quick get-out-of-jail free card. And so of course the answer is, “Ah, but they are not true Muslims, no true Muslim would do that”, or to be more specific, the actual words were, “This is oppressive men who are refusing to obey their religion”.

So how do you handle this? Well, the initial claim being made was that, “Woman are not oppressed in Islam”. Even after the deployment of the fallacy, it remains false, woman still cannot drive and a variation of Islamic belief does indeed oppress in this manner.

Lets look at another more familiar example:

  • Christians believe crazy stuff, for example they believe that bread and wine literally turn into Jesus
  • “Ah”, says a Baptist, “thats not correct, its symbolic, Catholics are not real Christians”

Ask a catholic about this, and they would of course confirm that belief and then observe that the Baptists are not real Christians.

What we learn from this is the following:

  • Within all belief systems there is a considerable amount of diverse beliefs
  • From the viewpoint of the members of a specific faction, only they hold the truth and all others are not real believers at all.

The other interesting observation is that the way we use specific words such as “Islam” and “Christian” does indeed vary. When we as non-believers deploy such words we tend to refer to a category that includes all the variations within that category. However, individuals within a specific faction would only apply the label to members of their specific faction. Here are some examples:

  • Evangelical: Only those who have accepted Jesus into their heart are Christians
  • Pentecostal: Only those who have been baptized in the spirit and have talked in tongues are Christians
  • Catholic: Only those who attend Mass each week are true Christians

In reality all are indeed variations of Christian belief, and each do indeed hold to their own specific variations of irrational belief.

And so back to the initial claim, does Islam oppress woman? Yes it does, and right across the various factions and cultures it happens in a many different ways, the claim that “they” are not true Muslims does not stand, they all believe in the same God and get their beliefs from the same book.

Oh yes, one other thought, this is not a specifically religious fallacy. Yes, OK they really do overuse it all the time, but we can all be prone to do the same. For example, it might be tempting to assert that “true” atheists don’t believe in ESP and Bigfoot, but that is not factually correct. Atheism is simply rejecting the concept of God, other non-religious claims such as ESP and Bigfoot can indeed be embraced by the non-religious. It is indeed quite possible to be skeptical about religion and yet retain a belief in many other irrational claims.

We are human and very prone to embrace lots of crazy stuff, so I personally attempt to encourage and nurture a skeptical view for all claims, both religious and non-religious, so when you are faced with any claim, look for observational evidence, and beware of “True” Scotsmen.

1 thought on “Recognising the “No True Scotsman” fallacy in religion”

  1. No True Scotsman would subscribe to this fallacy!

    beware of “True” Scotsmen.

    Be afraid – be very afraid.


Leave a Reply