True Scotsmen

There’s a logical fallacy called the No True Scotsman fallacy.  It goes something like this.

Somebody says to you, “No true Scotsman would ever wear anything under his kilt!”  You say, “That’s not true–I know Seamus MacHarper wears boxers.”  To which the somebody replies, “Then Seamus MacHarper is not a true Scotsman!”

Leaving aside the question of exactly how you know what Seamus MacHarper wears under his kilt…  It’s a self-sealing argument.  The speaker starts out by describing the category of “true Scotsman” as though it is static, fixed.  In reality, the speaker is treating that category as fluid, moving the (rather arbitrary) boundary as he sees fit.  When an example of a boxer-wearing Scotsman is found, the speaker moves the boundary of “true Scotsman” to exclude that anomaly which would otherwise invalidate his statement.  So, with a No True Scotsman argument, it is impossible to find an example that would invalidate the speaker’s statement.

“Wearing anything under a kilt” and “Scotsman” can be replaced by whatever action and people-group you like.  “No true Republican would vote for Ron Paul.”  “No true Goth would wear a collared shirt.”  “No true man would ever carry his girlfriend’s purse.”  “No true Latino would eat at Taco Bell.”  All these statements are fallacious because, as in the Scotsman example, their definitions can be arbitrarily shifted to keep from being disproved.

Got the hang of the principle?  Good.  Now let’s try another.

“No true Christian would shoot an abortion doctor.”

You see the problem.  Christians have sought to distance themselves from those self-professing Christians who (they perceive) have engaged in undesirable behavior.  You bring up the massacres of Muslims and Jews during the Crusades?  “Oh, those who fought in the Crusades weren’t really Christians.”  You bring up the Inquisitions?  “No no, anyone who tortured people in the name of God couldn’t really have been a Christian.”  How about the Christian trappings of the Nazi party?  “No true Christian could have been a Nazi.”  And then of course you have the recent shooting of an abortion doctor by a self-professing Christian.

In these statements, has Christianity committed a No True Scotsman fallacy?

(I wonder if it’s true what they don’t wear beneath the kilt.  Ding ding diddly-eye, oh…)

I have my suspicions.  To explain my suspicions, I need you to follow my train of thought, so bear with me for a moment…

In high school I had a friend who decided that she was going vegetarian.  She told us over lunch about the evils of animal-killing, and how she decided to exempt herself from our “culture of death.”  Then, a few days later, I caught her eating a Slim Jim–you know, those processed sticks of Beef Jerky.  I said, “Hey, I thought you were going vegetarian.”  She looked confused, then looked down at the Slim Jim, and said, “What, this?  This doesn’t count.”

Now, I couldn’t say “No true Vegetarian would eat Beef Jerky,” because that would be a No True Scotsman fallacy, right?

Actually, wrong.  Saying “No true Vegetarian would eat Beef Jerky” is exempt from that fallacy?  Why?  Because, in this statement, the given definition of a true Vegetarian isn’t arbitrary, but intrinsic.  If I said something like “No true Vegetarian would watch Desperate Housewives,” that would be a NTS fallacy, because watching a particular TV show has an abitrary connection to being Vegetarian–it has nothing to do with the definition of Vegetarian.  But not-eating-meat is the very thing that defines being a Vegetarian.  The status of “Vegetarian” is defined by specific behaviors, and meat-eaters are not adhering to those behaviors.  So, had I made this statement, I would have been wholly justified.

So.  If someone says, “No True Christian would shoot an abortion doctor,” whether this statement is fallacious or justified depends on the definition of “Christian.”  If “Christian,” like “Vegetarian,” is a status defined by specific behaviors, and if shooting-of-abortion-doctors violates those behaviors, then the statement is not a fallacy.  However, if such a shooting is not intrinsically linked to the definition of Christianity, but rather is only arbitrarily linked, such a statement is not justified.

(“Don’t worry ladies.  There’s plenty of beef and spice to go around…”)

What is a Christian?  How does one define a Christian?

I’ve heard a myriad of definitions.  I’ve had people who don’t believe that there is a God tell me that they are nevertheless Christian.  I’ve had people who believe in many gods–and that there are many ways to heaven, Jesus being only one–tell me that they are nevertheless Christian.  Some people call themselves Christian because their parents were Christians, some because they go to church once a year, some because they believe certain beliefs, some because they perform certain actions.

The dictionary is no help, because it includes all these definitions: everything from “derived from the teachings of Jesus” to “Christlike” to merely “humane.”  For simplicity’s sake we’ll take three of these definitions as possibilities.
–A person who believes in Jesus Christ; adherent of Christianity.  (Professing Christian)
–One who lives according to the teachings of Jesus.  (Active Christian/Liturgical Christian)
–One born in a Christian country or of Christian parents, and who has not definitely becomes an adherent of an opposing system.  (Private Christian/Cultural Christian)

To me, that last definition can sometimes be akin to my jerky-eating friend claiming vegetarianism.  And the first definition is a step in the right direction but not enough.  I’d like to examine what the founder of Christianity said being a Christian was all about.

–It should be noted that the term “Christian” didn’t even get coined until Acts 11:26, years after Jesus’ death.  “…the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.”  –St. Luke.  That statement right there tells us that “Christian” was originally synonymous with “disciple” (mathetes).  (Understand that “disciples” did not always only refer to the Twelve, cf. Luke 16:13.)
–Christians/disciples follow the teachings of Jesus.  ‘To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
–Christians/disciples love each other–and this is supposed to be the hallmark, the key way we identify a Christian.  ‘”A new command I [Jesus] give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”‘
–Christians/disciples “bear fruit.”  ‘”I [Jesus] am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing… This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
–Christians/disciples become more like Jesus.  “The disciple is not above his master: but every one that is perfect shall be as his master.”
–Christians/disciples put Jesus before everything else; there is a cost to being a disciple.  ‘”…any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”‘

With me so far?  (Notice, Christians, I’m not talking about salvation here–Jesus and Paul gave specific criteria for salvation.  They give seperate criteria for “disciple,” and thus by extension “Christian,” and so I will treat them as seperate issues.)

(Sadly, unlike Master Po’s disciples, Jesus’ disciples don’t necessarily learn any Kung Fu…)

So if the original definition of “Christian” was a disciple/follower of Jesus, and if Jesus himself laid down certain criteria that are intrinsic to the definition of “disciple of Jesus,” can we ignore this original definition when determining whether shooting-an-abortion-doctor is antithetical to the definition of “Christian”?

Sure, if you take the cultural definition of “Christian,” that you just have to go to church once in a blue moon or have had Christian parents to be considered a Christian, then yes, it IS a No-True-Scotsman fallacy to say “No true Christian would shoot an abortion doctor.”  Because the fixed definition of “Christian” then has nothing to do with the alleged Christian’s actions, and little to do with his beliefs.

But if you go with the original definition of what constitutes a “Christian,” then it would not be a No-True-Scotsman fallacy to say that, because shooting an abortion doctor specifically violates one of the fixed definition criteria of Christian–that of “A Christian follows the teachings of Jesus.”  (Even further in the recent example: since abortion doctor George Tiller was, at least, a professing Christian, for a Christian to shoot him would be a violation of Jesus’ hallmark disciple-defining statement “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.“)

If following Jesus’ teachings is the defining characteristic of a Christian, and if shooting an abortion doctor (or slaughtering Muslim civilians, or torturing Jews) violates those teachings, it follows–without fallacy–that one who shoots an abortion doctor is not a Christian.  (And it does violate those teachings: how about “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who spitefully use you…”)

Short version, the statement is not a NTS fallacy if:
Original definition of Xtian
     –> Definition of Disciple
          –> Teachings of Jesus  =/= Shooting Abortion Docs

(“Master, Judas is team-killing again.”)

So now you have my thoughts–it depends on which definition of “Christian” you use, but I suspect that saying that the guy who shot George Tiller could not have been a real Christian is not necessarily a No True Scotsman fallacy, because by some fixed definitions of Christian, his action places him outside of that category.

Now we just have to figure out the truth about those Scotsmen.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s