Reading Time: 7 minutes

The No True Scotsman fallacy is a well-used fallacy in debates about religion with religionists. As wiki defines:

No true Scotsman is an informal fallacy, an ad hoc attempt to retain an unreasoned assertion.[1] When faced with a counterexample to a universal claim, rather than denying the counterexample or rejecting the original universal claim, this fallacy modifies the subject of the assertion to exclude the specific case or others like it by rhetoric, without reference to any specific objective rule.

The use of the term was advanced by British philosopher Antony Flew:

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 anAberdeen 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”.[2]

When the statement “all A are B” is qualified like this to exclude those A which are not B, this is a form of begging the question; the conclusion is assumed by the definition of “true A“.

The defence of accusations against Christians for X, Y and Z is often “well, that person cannot really be called a Christian”. Which leads on to calls for a usable definition of Christianity, which then entails Christianity being defined (in arguably an obvious manner) with precisely the denomination or worldview that is held by the person you are arguing with.

Let’s put this in a famous context:

For the past two nights on his Fox News show, Bill O’Reilly has been expressing his offense at the idea that Anders Behring Breivik, the suspect in last Friday’s terror attacks in Norway, is being described by the media as a Christian.

On Monday night’s show, O’Reilly was outraged that The New York Times described Breivik as a “Christian extremist” in a page-one headline, declaring that being an “anti-Muslim bigot” is what drove him, “not Jesus, not being baptized.” O’Reilly went on to assert that this was part of “a movement in the American media to diminish and marginalize the Christian philosophy.” Later in the show, O’Reilly said the Times‘ headline was done to “give jihadists quarter or something like that, diminish the threat of them,” asserting that “the liberal media is so protective of extreme Islam, when it hates the left. … At The New York Times, they would all be hung.”

O’Reilly continued his obsession on Tuesday’s show during a segment with The Washington Post‘s Sally Quinn. As Quinn pointed out that Breivik called himself a Christian, invoked the name of Jesus and discussed the nature of his faith, O’Reilly insisted that “there’s no evidence that ties this guy to Christianity,” dismissing Breivik’s self-description by claiming that “Mussolini called himself a Christian.”

Unfortunately for O’Reilly, while Breivik may not be a Christian in an orthodox American way, he clearly identifies as one. As Salon’s Alex Pareene details:

Breivik chose to be baptized at age 15. He self-identified as “Christian” on his Facebook page. He thought “Christianity should recombine under the banner of a reconstituted and traditionalist Catholic Church” or, later, under a new (traditionalist) European Church.

Breivik is not an American-style evangelical Christian. He is not a “fundamentalist” in that sense. Though he does identify with American cultural Christian conservatives. And he considers himself to be fighting in the name of “our Christian cultural heritage.” He supports a reconstituted Knights Templar devoted to winning a war against Islam in the name of Christianity.

All of this says “Christian terrorist.” His goals — the restoration of a pure Christian world in its “traditional” home — were analogous to the stated of goals of al-Qaida.

Does he go to church? Does he believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ? Is he a biblical literalist? I have no idea. There’s plenty about him that would lead a devout Christian to consider Breivik “not a ‘real’ Christian.” Here’s the thing about that: The same is true of all self-proclaimed Muslims who commit acts of terrorism.

He’s a sick perversion of Christianity, sure. But if he “doesn’t count” as a Christian solely because no one this evil should “count” as a Christian (which is O’Reilly’s other argument — “no one believing in Jesus commits mass murder,” he said) then no terrorist should “count” as a representative of his faith.

But O’Reilly wasn’t done. He went on to invoke the “No True Scotsman” fallacy (as others have), essentially claiming that Breivik couldn’t be a Christian because “they’re nonviolent.” When Quinn noted that most Muslims would not consider accused Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan a Muslim, O’Reilly objected: “I’m not saying he was a good Muslim. I’m saying that he was a Muslim terrorist because he carried a business card that said ‘Soldier of Allah,’ and he committed his crimes in the name of Allah.” He added, “The guy in Fort Hood, he was acting in the name of his religion. He killed because he believed that Allah told him to kill. The guy in Norway didn’t kill because he thinks Jesus wanted him to kill those people. Jesus had nothing to do with it. He wasn’t even cited. And using the word ‘Christian’ to label this guy is dishonest.”

O’Reilly is trying to have it both ways here. He presumes that Hasan and other Islamic extremists are Muslim because they claim to be committing their terrorist acts in the name of Allah, but he insists that Breivik — who considers himself a Christian and has clearly stated that he committed his terrorist acts in the name of restoring a Christian Europe — couldn’t possibly be a Christian because he didn’t behave like an orthodox Christian. It’s a clear double standard.

O’Reilly got in one final, surprisingly mean dig at the end of the segment. When Quinn reiterated her argument that you should take someone at their word on what religion they identify with, O’Reilly retorted, “Benito Mussolini would have liked you, Miss Quinn, that’s for sure, because that’s what he was doing.”

And this is what happens when Christians are accused of doing bad things. They are not true Christians.

But ISLAM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Well, of course, EVERY vile and violent act committed by a Muslim is BECAUSE they are Muslim, naturally….

And Bill O’Reilly appears to be the first to claim this. What I would like to do here is to bring in some psychological research to quantify this fallacious cognitive behaviour.

From a recent survey at the Public Religion Research Institute:

Americans employ a double standard when evaluating violence committed by self-identified Christians and Muslims.

More than 8-in-10 (83 percent) Americans say that self-proclaimed Christians who commit acts of violence in the name of Christianity are not really Christians. In contrast, less than half (48 percent) of Americans say that self-proclaimed Muslims who commit acts of violence in the name of Islam are not really Muslims.

/images/managed/gowsmall.jpg

Wow. I mean, wow. If that is not fallacious reasoning, then I’m Lady Gaga. For a superb piece of cognitive gerrymandering, see Norway’s conservative Pro Deutschland group who said:

As Christians and Conservatives, we want to express solidarity with the victims of the attacks of July 22. The hate that is driving Islamic assassins and fanatic individuals a la…Breivik is foreign to Christians and Conservatives.

So Breivik is no longer Christian, he is merely a “fanatic individual” and, not only that, but STILL Islam is somehow brought into culpability or association! This is the No True Scotsman 2.0 fallacy!

Christian conservative commentator and well-known idiot, Glenn Beck, offered his own cognitive dissonance, this time in partly justifying the shooting by ‘otherising’ the victims, comparing them to the Hitler Youth:

“There was a shooting at a political camp, which sounds a little like, you know, the Hitler youth. I mean, who does a camp for kids that’s all about politics? Disturbing.”

Our very own commenter here, JohnM, does the same:

A common ignorance among the masses. But no… There is no such thing as anti-Semitic Christians. Jesus is Jewish. He’s the lion of the tribe of Judah. If you don’t love Jews, then you’re not Christian. Being anti-Semitic automatically disqualifies you as a follower of Christ. You cannot love Christ and hate Christ at the same time. Source

I could have picked out more, but you get the point. This all reflects in-group and out-group cognitive biases. And if one finds someone in their in-group doing something horrible, cognitive dissonance will try to place that person not in the in-group, but in the out-group. Breivik is turned from an in-group Christian into an out-group “fanatic individual” with a neat cognitive side-step.

We know from the work of Blogowska, for example, that as soon as people switch from in-group to out-group or sympathy fro them diminishes. This is known as limited prosociality (kindness) and affects the way particularly fundamentalists view the world and those around them. For instance, fundamentalist subjects were asked about a woman falling asleep and having her stuff stolen. When asked how sympathetic they were to this woman, subjects reacted sympathetically to the woman, but far less to her if she had been seen to be reading some feminist literature. Yes, all feminists are evil, obviously.

As Blogowska’s paper states:

Two distinct research traditions have established that (a) religiosity implies prosocial tendencies, though limited to proximal targets, and (b) religious fundamentalism (RF) relates to prejudice, often because of underlying right-wing authoritarianism (RWA). Through two studies, we investigated the idea that RF, due to underlying religiosity, also predicts prosociality that is limited to proximal rather than distal targets. Specifically, we found that RF, unlike RWA and because of religiosity, predicted prosociality towards a nonfeminist but not a feminist target in need (Experiment 1) and willingness to help friends but not unknown people in need in the same hypothetical situations (Experiment 2). Moreover, like RWA, RF implied negative attitudes towards the feminist. This limited, not extended, prosociality of people scoring high on RF was in contrast with their self-perceptions of being universally altruistic. Fundamentalism seems to combine religiosity’s qualities (in-group prosociality) with authoritarianism’s defects (out-group derogation).

What is interesting is that religious fundamentalists tend to be more likely to help people they know than to help strangers. These RFs rate themselves higher than the control group as being universally prosocial, but this does not tally with their actual beliefs and actions. In other words, though they see themselves as morally virtuous and altruistic, they are far more likely to only be kind to their in-group – other RFs. Or, Good Samaritan, Schmood Schamaritan. Religion seems to be more likely to delude people in their own understanding of themselves and their interactions with others.

So what can we learn from this? Jesus wasn’t Scottish? Perhaps. More likely that we have learnt that perhaps no one can be a Christian, if Jesus is the only Christian in conception. Or perhaps we have learnt that everyone who claims to be a Christian is a Christian. Because anywhere in between is nothing short of special pleading, no?

 

For more information on these ideas, check out the excellent podcasts from Reasonable Doubts here and here.

Avatar photo

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...