This was also posted on my skeptical blog, Cubik's Rube.


More colourfully named than most, the "No true Scotsman" logical fallacy is attributed to Anthony Flew, and is named for the example he gave of a potentially offensive racial stereotype named Hamish.

It's a way of sticking to your guns beyond what's reasonable, and avoiding having to admit to making a mistake, by changing the meanings of the words you're using, to make it look like you're still right about something. In Hamish's case, he begins by claiming that "No Scotsman" could act in some way incongruous with his ideas of what his countrymen are like (Flew's example is of a sex maniac). However, when he learns that one of his compatriots really has been letting the whole nation down, he redefines his terms, and labels that scoundrel as being "No true Scotsman".

The fallacy is in moving the boundaries of the category in question, so that what you want to say about this category becomes true by definition, and no evidence can ever prove you wrong. All Scotsmen behave impeccably, because nobody who does anything that Hamish sees as distasteful is allowed to count as a Scotsman. This no longer has any meaningful implications about the virtues of people from Scotland, because that's no longer what the term "Scotsman" is being used to mean. After all, what's Hamish actually saying about this one Gaelic ne'er-do-well? Probably not that his birthplace must really have been somewhere other than Glasgow, or that the ethnic backgrounds of his parents must be different than had always been assumed. Hamish is just trying to preserve some unrealistic ideal of what a Scotsman is, which simply doesn't stand up to the facts.

A similar example, claimed by some Christians (including my old boss), is that once you're "saved" and accept Jesus into your life, you'll never again be without his presence in your heart (essentially, once you let him in, you're stuck with him forever). Anyone who ever loses their faith, then, and "stops" being a Christian, was never really a Christian in the first place.

Most people I know simply understand a Christian to be, more or less, someone who believes that Jesus was the son of God, and lived and died for us a couple of millennia ago, all that usual jazz. If you want to redefine the word, then that can be okay, so long as we're all clear on what it means from the outset, and the implications of this are consistent. In this case, one side effect is that you can never really tell who's a Christian and who isn't.

Hamish might be convinced that his old friend Dougal is as true a Scotsman as the next kilt-wearing, bagpipe-playing, haggis-munching highlander. But if he's also certain that no true Scotsman could have been involved in that scandal with the sheep, then Dougal must really have been some kind of soft Southern fairy all along. Anyone is liable to have their Scottishness retroactively revoked at any moment, if they stray outside these new boundaries.

And Christians, if they choose the argument as described above, can be no more certain. A lot of people have made a pretty convincing show of faith for years, or decades, but turned away from it in the end, and showed that they were never actually Christians at all. You can rule out some people after the fact like this, but that's about all you can do. It's becoming a uselessly meaningless concept, significantly redefined for your own convenience, and very little to do with the realities of Christianity, or anybody's idea but your own of what a Christian is.

Of course, there are some facts which can genuinely and universally be asserted about all true Scotsmen. None of them have lived in Australia all their lives and been raised by German parents, for one thing. But there's no fallacy in barring Bruce Schnitzelkopf from our "true Scotsmen" camp; it's perfectly in keeping with the definition we started with of what constitutes a Scotsman. He's not from Scotland. No goalposts have had to be moved, we haven't had to bend the interpretation at all, and we're not trying to wangle our way out of admitting we were wrong. We're just following the use of the terms as we set them down in the first place.

But if you have to change the definition of a Scotsman, and bring in matters entirely unrelated to geography and nationality, then you're assuming a priori the very fact that's being argued: namely, that all Scotsmen are paragons of goodness who would never dream of treating a sheep in so ungentlemanly a fashion. And that spells logical fallacy.

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Tags: christianity, logic, logical fallacies, reason, skepticism

Comment by Misty: Baytheist Living! on May 13, 2009 at 3:22am
Will the 'real Christian' please stand up?
Comment by Nick on May 13, 2009 at 1:19pm
Pretty much everyone claims Ted Haggard is no true Christian. But he seems like a paragon of Christianity to me.

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