Saut oan ma parritch

(Previously published in the McTavish Opera blog 10 December 2013)
Or why a Scot rejects the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.

In discussions between atheists and theists, the accusation of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy often comes up. This usually occurs when an atheist mentions some atrocity committed by a theist, usually but not always a Christian, and a Christian replies “A true Christian would not do that.” The Christian then is committing the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.

The fallacy can be summed up thus:

“No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
“I am Scottish, and put sugar on my porridge.”
“Then you are not a true Scotsman.”

Whilst there may be a modicum of use to the No True Scotsman fallacy, I intensely dislike it, and always have done. It is all very well for theists to claim that anyone who identifies with any particular faith must come under the blanket term of that faith, yet the reality of that is often very different. To use a popular Christian analogy, entering a church no more makes you a Christian than entering a garage makes you a car. There are plenty who will happily hide behind the badge of religion to justify their own prejudices and actions, yet that does not make them a true follower of that faith.

I have often made this point with regard to Islam. The terrible events carried out by radicalised Islamists, before and after 9/11, shocked the world. Yet I have continually made the point that I refuse to believe that the guy I buy my spices from, the kind woman who shared recipes with me, or those Muslims who help organise my home town’s annual Mela – a festival of peace, goodwill and friendship – are intent on killing either myself or other non-Muslims. I have said it once and I will say it again, the moment that we start hating Muslims, the terrorists have won; you are giving them precisely what they want. Those who would use the blanket term of Muslim for both Al Queda and the bloke down the corner shop who is just trying to earn a living not only are incorrect, in their stereotyping, they only succeed in spreading Islamaphobic bigotry. Best leave that crap to the red top gutter press – they are so much efficient than you are.

So the same applies to Christianity (or any faith). Even as an atheist, I find it offensive to my many kind and tolerant Christian friends bracketed along with the intolerant and those who claim to be Christians, yet carry out terrible acts. Consider that odious organisations such as the Westboro Baptist Church, the Ku Klux Klan and the Church of the Aryan Nations all claim to be Christian. On closer examination of these groups however, nobody with even the slightest modicum of Biblical theology could ever describe them as Christian, and one tends to find that the vast majority of Christians openly oppose them and their ideologies. Members of clergy and other theists who abuse little children are not following the doctrines of Christianity, and nor are those who hide behind Christianity to justify their own homophobia, or any other bigotry for that matter. The New Testament is very clear that Jesus accepted all and turned away none. Therefore, anyone who rejects that notion cannot truly be said to be a Christian. Are those burning crosses on the lawns of African Americans really the same as those churches organising food banks for the poor? I think not.

This is the problem with the No True Scotsman fallacy; it is based entirely upon a generalisation. Those who would put bombers, paedophiles, hatemongers, and bigots of all kind alongside kind and tolerant theists is effectively saying “They are all the same.” That in itself is actually a bigoted statement, for the person using it does not know all theists, and therefore by stereotyping all they judge the good along with the bad. That is not only unfair, it is unjust and, most of all, it is untrue.

It seems to me that the atheist claiming the No True Scotsman fallacy also makes a rod for their own back. When theists point to atrocities or intolerance carried out by non-believers in an attempt to stereotype all, many atheists quite rightfully cry foul and make the point that one cannot generalise all atheists by the actions of a few. This is true. And if it is true for atheists, then it logically follows that the same must be true for theists. So if you are illustrating intolerance towards theists, should it be so very surprising if they reply in kind?

Using the No True Scotsman fallacy argument helps no-one and can only serve to entrench division where both theists and atheists need to find respect and tolerance for each other. And yes, you can reject that if you want. But consider then if you really are all that different from the religious fundamentalists who dig their heels in and refuse to listen.

Many also would do well to consider the origins of the No True Scotsman fallacy, which I personally consider to based upon bigotry. My above summary of the theory serves well, however it was originally coined by the philosopher Anthony Flew, who presented it thus;

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”

It seems to me therefore that Flew was suggesting by that argument that Scots are more violent than the English; a tired, untrue and extremely bigoted stereotype.

Finally, it may interest the reader to learn that the author of the Anthony Flew, a strong and prominent atheist most of his life, turned to deism later in life and stated “I’m quite happy to believe in an inoffensive inactive god.”

Still wish to use the No True Scotsman fallacy argument?

Parritch is much nicer wi’ saut oan it onywey.


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