Vjack over at Atheist Revolution wrote a post about a religious canard that I hear in almost every interaction or religious dialog I have with people of almost any belief system, whenever I happen to make a criticism about their religon.
It’s known as the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. Antony Flew famously summarized it thusly:
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.”
In my life, I’ve heard pretty much every permutation of this fallacy from people of all the world’s major religions…
“I know those psychos at the Westboro Baptist Church are terrible, immoral people, but they’re not true Christians. So please don’t lump us real Christians in with them.”
“The terrorists who fly planes into buildings are not really following Islam. True Muslims would never behave that way, and you shouldn’t make a generalization about Islam just because of what some self-proclaimed Muslims say.”
“Real Jews should be fighting to preserve the state of Israel, but peacefully. The ones who think that shooting Palestinians and throwing bombs is justified by Jewish prophecy are not truly following Judaism.”
There’s a big problem with this logic. And the problem is, who controls the definition of a “true believer”? Because religion is based on individual interpretation, there’s no set of universal, objective standards upon which someone can make this distinction.
In science, we do have universal, objective criteria. And that criteria is evidence. The difference between a man who says “Earth is flat,” and another who says “Earth is a sphere,” is that the evidence overwhelmingly supports the latter conclusion. That data is testable, repeatable and verifiable.
This is not true for religion. There is no objective way to determine the difference between two statements like “the Bible says we should own slaves,” and “the Bible says we shouldn’t own slaves.” Or “the Koran says we should destroy non-believers” and “the Koran doesn’t say we should destroy non-believers.” Or “Yahweh thinks homosexuality is wrong,” and “Yahweh thinks homosexuality is okay.”
Which church teaches “true Christianity”? Presbyterian? Baptist? Evangelical? Methodist? Lutheran? Episcopalian? Roman Catholic?
And even if you pick one, like “Methodist,” which one? United Methodist? Wesleyan Methodist? Free Methodist? Methodist Episcopal? Southern Methodist Episcopal? Southern Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal?
Each and every denomination of Christianity would say that they are the “true” Christians. But on what authority do they make this claim? And the same goes for the many factions and schools of Islam. Sunni? Shia? Sufi? And which sect of Judaism teaches real Judaism? Orthodox? Hasidic? Reform? Sephardic? Messianic? Reconstructionist?
The more I hear this “no true whatever” claim, the more it seems like nothing more than a silly way of absolving one’s own beliefs from criticism. If an enthusiastic Christian (as I once was) loses his faith and becomes an atheist, then he wasn’t a “real Christian.” If a self-proclaimed Christian ties a homosexual to the rear bumper of his truck and drags him around, then he wasn’t following “true Christianity.” If you’re a conservative Christian, you can simply claim that liberal Christians aren’t truly following the bible. If you’re a liberal Christian, you can claim the same thing about conservatives.
Vjack puts it curtly and accurately:
Pat Robertson is a real Christian. So is the Pope. The fact that these people have said or done things you might not like does not change the reality of their Christian status. The fact that they might believe in a somewhat different version of Christianity than you do does not change it either. Accept it or recognize that you are turning your backs on reality.
So, Christians, it’s time to retire this silly, stupid tactic and start defending what you do believe, rather than demanding to be treated differently from people who worship the same imaginary friend that you do.
The whole thing kinda reminds me of a famous joke by Emo Philips.
Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”
Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.
Here’s the video version, chaps. Enjoy.