The No True Scotsman fallacy is a logical fallacy that attempts to reach a conclusion which is not actually an extension of the premise. This is often done when people claim someone is not a true “A” (like “un-American” or “non-Christian” or “no true Scotsman”) because they do “B”. This becomes fallacious when “B” has no bearing on the truth of “A” and therefore cannot affect the claim to “A”.1
An example of the fallacy might go like this:
Two Scottish men are walking out to their cars and as one arrives at his car which is blue the other looks and claims “No Scotsman drives a blue car!” The man with the blue car replies “I drive a blue car!” The other man then replies “No true Scotsman drives a blue car!”
Of course, the color of the vehicle a person drives has nothing to do with a persons ethnicity or nationality and so the “No True Scotsman” fallacy has been committed. It isn’t uncommon for an accusation of the No True Scotsman fallacy to be lodged at a Christian when in conversation with an atheist, particularly when dealing with a claim such as Hitler was a Christian. The Christian, of course, denies that Hitler was a Christian because no Christian would do the things that Hitler did and so the No True Scotsman fallacy is thrown. But is that a genuine accusation? The answer is, of course, no.
The No True Scotsman fallacy doesn’t apply if the definition of the premise is indeed clear and the conclusion naturally follows. In the case of Christianity, a person is a Christian by subscribing to a set of philosophical beliefs. The Christian can easily demonstrate that Hitler, while claiming Christianity (he claimed a lot of things), clearly outlined his philosophy in word and deed which was contrary to that of the Christian worldview and system of thought.2
I recently read a post by Tony Miano discussing the Clergy Project in which Tony rightly demonstrates the inconsistency of the projects claims with genuine Christianity. In the end, members of the Clergy Project are only fooling themselves and demonstrating they were never truly Christian to begin with. This creates an uproar in the comments section and the atheists time and time again throw the accusation of the no true Scotsman fallacy at Tony (even though they often say Ray Comfort but Tony’s name is on the post. Incidentally, this only illustrates the fact that most people commenting didn’t really read the post.)
So can the Christian say that an atheist who claims to have been a Christian was never truly a Christian to begin with? Is that committing the No True Scotsman fallacy? Yes a Christian can make this claim and no, the Christian is not committing the fallacy. The reason is very simple. Christianity is defined by a set of beliefs which are claimed by Scripture. Scripture must be the ultimate authority in determining what a Christian actually is. This doesn’t mean the Christian must have the Bible memorized in order to be a Christian but it does mean that if the Christian is outside of biblical teaching then the Christian needs to submit to Scripture. In the case of someone leaving Christianity, the Bible states in no uncertain terms, they were never Christian to begin with and since the Bible defines the Christian, and not the other way around, the accusation of the No True Scotsman fallacy fails.
1 John 2:19 states:
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. (ESV)
The atheist then needs to demonstrate that the Christian is interpreting the passage wrong which is a bad position for the atheist to be in. It’s also a bad move for the atheist to throw around accusations of logical fallacies since the atheist worldview cannot account for logic from the start. The very fact that he’s even having the discussion is evidence for the existence of God, but that’s another topic altogether.
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