How not to make a right haggis of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy

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Every society, collectivity or group of people will count some excellent individuals, many nice ones, a few not-so-nice ones, and a handful of bad ones. This applies across the board, and theists are no exception. Most, whether theists or atheists, will agree that it would not be reasonable or fair to judge a people on the strength of their corrupt individuals.

However, when the bad apples associated in one way or another with a group of believers in God behave in condemnable ways, anti-theists are quick to blame the religion they claim to adhere to for their shameful behaviour.

The believers – let’s say they are Christian – will usually respond with something like : “True Christians would never do what those individuals did!”…only to have the anti-theists scream: “Aha! The No True Scotsman fallacy!” At this point, it appears the discussion has entered a deadlock.

So what is the No True Scotsman fallacy? The phrase was introduced by Antony Flew, who gave the following example:

A Scotsman sees a newspaper article on a series of crimes having taken place in Brighton; in response, his comment is:”No Scotsman would do such a thing!” upon which he is confronted with evidence of another Scotsman committing even worse crimes. His response is:”No true Scotsman would do such a thing!” Thus, the criminal is denied membership in the Scottish people, his crime cited as evidence of his not being a Scotsman.

This, of course, is a fallacy, as there is no premise in the definition of “Scotsman” which makes such crimes impossible or even improbable. In fact, to be a Scotsman, you have to be a male native or inhabitant of Scotland, or a man of Scottish descent, and that is all. You don’t even need to know how to play the bagpipes, wear a kilt, or make haggis.

But when it comes to religion and the No True Scotsman fallacy, anti-theists make a right haggis of it all.

This is because, although the NTS fallacy is true as it stands, it is widely used in the wrong context. The basic premise of the fallacy is overlooked: the fact that the notion of what makes a Scotsman is entirely arbitrary, and not something defined by universally accepted written rules or law. Let’s examine it again, using a different example:

Person A: “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.” (Says who? Where has it been written that Scotsmen are not supposed to do this?)

Person B: “But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge.”

Person A: “Ah yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”

It can be observed that both the first and third statements are entirely arbitrary, and have no written rules or laws as points of reference.

When the No True Scotsman reasoning is introduced into areas where rules are defined by written law, it will no longer apply. In this case “true” in the third statement will refer to a person following written law.

Example:

Person A: “No Muslim worships anything apart from Allah.”

Person B: “But I saw three Muslims worshipping at a dead saint’s grave last week.”

Person A: “Ah yes, but no true Muslim worships anything apart from Allah.” (as it is defined in Islamic scripture; Qur’an, 17:23 : “Your Lord has decreed: Do not worship any but Him; and be good to your parents; and should both or any one of them attain old age with you, do not say to them even “fie” neither chide them, but speak to them with respect.“*)

Anyone whose actions are not based on this teaching cannot be a true Muslim. (Qur’an, 5:44 “Those who do not judge by what Allah has revealed are indeed unbelievers.“**)

Thus, the No True Scotsman fallacy can only apply where definitions or rules are made up arbitrarily by individuals, and not in situations where they are specified in written law.

 

 


 

*Will appear as 17:24 in translations counting the Basmalah “In the Name of God, Most Gracious, Ever-Merciful” as verse 1.
**Or 5:45; see above.