The No True Scotsman and Christians’ Version of Atheism

The No True Scotsman and Christians’ Version of Atheism June 30, 2018

Last time we met up, we talked about the super-trendy new Christian testimony: a past steeped in atheism that somehow doesn’t look familiar to actual atheists! Today, I’ll show you how those trendy testimonies mesh with one of Christians’ very favorite failures in rationality: The No True Scotsman Fallacy. Indeed, the two are enmeshed tightly together. I’ll show you what this fallacy is, why and how Christians use it, and why we’re in the right to reject both their mislabeling of atheism and their attempted negation of our ex-timonies.

A whole lotta Scotsmen. Probably all true. (Jade Dickinson, CC.)

Everyone, Meet the Scotsman. He’s Very True.

The No True Scotsman is a logical fallacy. Technically, it’s an ad hoc reinterpretation of a situation to prevent contradictions and refutations of one’s position. As that link reveals, it’s also a circular argument.

Christians adore it. Within their own culture, it’s a devastating way to quickly negate a fellow Christian. They also use it to dismiss and invalidate ex-Christians.

The No True Scotsman Fallacy is named after an old story, one which (surprisingly) does not involve kilts.

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”.

In philosophical terms, you can imagine this disqualification happening like this:

Premise 1: All examples of X have quality Y.
Premise 2: Wait, wait, back the truck up a sec. Here’s an X that totally doesn’t have quality Y.
Conclusion: Oh, well, X isn’t a TRUE X, because all TRUE Xs have quality Y. That’s a false X. P1 is safe.

It’s insidious! In Christian terms, we see it in the definition most of them carry in their heads of what being a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ involves (and I’ll show you that definition in a minute). The definition alters with the situation and person being judged, so it’s always very easy to negate and invalidate whatever they wish.

Ultimately, they love the fallacy because it makes their various positions impossible to falsify.

oops, new style

The Usage.

Usually I qualify here that I’m talking more about this or that type of Christian than the entire tribe. But to differing extents, almost all of them use this fallacy. Your likelihood of encountering it rises dramatically with the toxicity level of the Christian involved.

Christians use the No True Scotsman in a few key ways. I present them in no particular order:

First, they use it to distance themselves from embarrassing tribemates. The moment news breaks about a Christian committing a ghastly crime, or doing something that’s mortifying to the individual Christian judging the situation, you can count on them to whip out the No True Scotsman. Oh, well, that person’s not a TRUE CHRISTIAN™, sniffs Judgey Christian McJudgeypants.

Once this judgment is cast, the Christians using the Scotsman no longer trouble themselves. Whatever the problem might be, whatever led to the embarrassing incident, they can assure us that it had nothing to do with Christianity itself.

Second, they use it to disqualify ex-Christians and other dissenters. If an ex-Christian is saying something the Christian judge doesn’t like, they weren’t really Christians at all. They thought they were, but they weren’t.

Third, they use it to rank people in the tribe. This usage is probably the most common. It might seem bizarre to outsiders to see how gleefully Christians attack the task of deciding who is–and more importantly is not–allowed to use the term “Christian.” But these games have a very important social function for judgmental Christians.

The Fallout.

Once the Christian has cast their judgment, they can pursue any combination of these three options.

They can simply dismiss and ignore the person they just judged. This is the most common fallout of using the Scotsman. This person is now in the “not allowed to claim membership in the tribe” box, and can’t leave it without significant groveling and humbling of themselves. (That’s Christianese; it means to say sorry, but to do it in a really undignified way.) You’ll see this happen most often when toxic Christians encounter ex-Christians.

(Christians do this same thing to each other all the time. If a respected Christian leader develops an unauthorized opinion, often the rest of the tribe throws away all his or her books and ostracizes that unlucky person.)

They can seek to sell their version of the religion to the speaker. If they can convince us that we didn’t really understand Christianity, then maybe we’ll fall for their favored version of it! As an added bonus for them, when (not if) we fail to find their flavor of the religion compelling or even markedly different from the rest, then they get to accuse us of being closed-minded.

They can actively seek to dissuade others from listening to the speaker. Instead of simply ignoring and dismissing us, as with the first option, they go on the offensive. You’ll see this happen when they write what they imagine are withering takedowns of ex-Christians’ objections to their religion. We saw that tactic on display in the post I linked last time from that “Not Ashamed of the Gospel” wingnut.

Using the Same Definition.

It’s not only annoying to see a Christian trying to tell us stuff about ourselves that we know isn’t true. It’s also offensive. Many of us ex-Christians see it as an attempted invalidation of ourselves, and we’re right to see the matter that way.

But they fling Scotsmen at us in error. They’re trying to tell us that we simply weren’t Christians, when we know that we were.

The Christianity we’re talking about is the same Christianity that most Christians believe. We use the same definition for ourselves that they use for themselves. Our definition didn’t change with deconversion–only whether or not we fit that definition anymore. We grew out of the definition, while the definition stayed where it was. After deconversion, we didn’t suddenly start defining Christianity differently–usually.

When we ask Christians what goes into making someone a Christian, and they’re not deliberately seeking to disqualify us from the label, their definition will run along the same lines that ours do.

To most people–be they Christian or not–a Christian:

  • Believes that Jesus Christ is a divine person at least to some extent.
  • Officially tries to follow Jesus’ teachings and to avoid doing stuff Jesus wouldn’t like.
  • Believes in various supernatural teachings including but not limited to: an afterlife, souls, demons and angels, miracles, etc.
  • Performs ritualistic observances of various kinds: Bible reading/study, recitation of various creeds, prayer, church attendance, and tithing.
  • Seeks to recruit new people to the religion when appropriate.
  • Uses the label of “Christian” to describe their religious opinion.

Though no platform of Christianity can be considered universal, not even that first one, this covers the vast majority of them.

which one is a true scotsman though
More True Scotsmen (and women, and girls, and babies). (Mobilus In Mobili, CC-SA.)

Tightening the Definition.

When Christians want to disqualify someone from the label, suddenly their definition tightens considerably.

Now, suddenly, a TRUE CHRISTIAN™:

  • Believes the same things the judge believes, and does most of the same things they do.
  • Hasn’t gotten caught doing anything the judge believes is totally unforgivable.
  • Hasn’t deconverted yet.

It’s an entirely self-serving redefinition. Christians use it solely to disqualify specific people from using the label in ways that make the religion look bad or that could contradict their indoctrination.

But this isn’t the definition they use most of the time–like when they try to crow about conversions in Asia or Africa. The kind of Christianity those folks are converting to doesn’t often look much at all like their preferred flavor, but inflating the definition to include more people helps them feel better about their declines in North America and Europe.

When it makes them look better as a tribe to loosen the definition, then suddenly that’s what happens.

NOT Using the Same Definition.

Now we come to how Christians use the label of atheist in their oh-so-trendy testimonies.

The atheism featured in these oh-so-breathtakingly-earnest sales pitches doesn’t resemble the kind of atheism that actual atheists talk about. Instead, these portrayals perfectly reflect what toxic Christians imagine atheism is like.

To a Christian seeking to gain adoration for a trendy testimony, an atheist:

oops, 1980s style

This definition of atheism is completely alien to the lived experiences of the vast majority of atheists. But it perfectly confirms and reconfirms Christian talking points about atheism. It flatters Christians, makes them feel intellectually and morally superior to their hated enemies, and gives them hope about reconverting these “lost sheep.”

An Ex-Timony We’d Reject.

If ex-Christians’ ex-timonies looked like Christians’ views of atheists, I’ve no doubt ex-Christians themselves would push back against them.

Let’s say Susie Cru, who was a TRUE CHRISTIAN™, deconverts.

Like a lot of ex-Christians do, she wants to tell us about her past as a Christian. Here’s how she describes it:

“I believed in the Martian Overlord Gargak’Mek, who died for us in 545 CE in what would eventually become Baltimore, Maryland. His brave self-sacrifice protected us from the Eternally-Damp, Disturbingly-Musty-Smelling Mattress of the Afterlife. Oh, I went to all the weekly Holy Dough Bakes, where we wrapped ourselves in rye dough and laid next to a holy fire till it became bread! But I realized that he couldn’t possibly exist, so I deconverted from Christianity. –Who, Jesus Christ? Who’s that?”

We’d probably just stare at her in response. As cool as this ex-timony might sound, that’s not even close to what Christianity typically involves.

Not even close!

On Safe Ground.

There might be 40,000 denominations (and more erupting every day), plus who even knows how many quirky little homebrew interpretations held by individual Christians. And all these belief systems might be wildly disparate and contradictory.

But Susie Cru can’t classify herself as a Christian with that ex-timony. She had no central belief in Jesus Christ, not even on a metaphorical level. She has no idea of the mythology believed by the majority of Christians. Her ritualistic observances don’t sound remotely like the ones most Christians practice. We are fully justified in saying that whatever she was, she’s not using the label Christian in a way we recognize.

Similarly, in the movie The Forty-Year-Old Virgin, the titular virgin character talks about women’s breasts in such a way as to suggest that he hasn’t got the faintest idea what actual breasts feel like. As varied as women’s bodies can be, “bags of sand,” as a descriptive phrase, likely doesn’t fit very many of them. (I’d usually embed the scene, but it’s not totally SFW so I’ll just link.)

We’re on the same safe ground in pushing back against Christians’ misuse of the concept of atheism. That is the level of disconnect we’re talking about in how Christians conceptualize the idea. They’re using the label atheism, but it doesn’t even sound remotely like actual atheism. It’s dramatically different from the definition most atheists use, to the point of unrecognizability.

And Yet It Moves.

Through all of Christians’ concerted attempts to negate us, however, we need to keep one thing firmly at the forefront of our minds.

Even Susie Cru, who believed in the Martian Overlord Gargak’Mek and deconverted from this belief, can still have opinions about Christianity that are correct. The path she followed to get out of whatever she got out of can still be completely valid for anybody escaping any religion.

Even if all ex-Christians were never true Christians, the reasoning that we offer for rejecting Christianity–any version of it–is still going to hold true.

Christians rush to negate us in various ways because that’s all they’ve got. They can’t respond to our actual objections, so they try to silence us instead. They’d love it if people let them set the tone for who is–and is not–allowed to use the label of Christian. And they’d love it even more if ex-Christians felt so reticent about criticism and negation that we stopped saying we were very fervent Christians.

But we don’t. We keep using the terms Christians want to forbid to us, because we know that they are the correct terms. We don’t let them get away with saying that embarrassing tribemates aren’t Christian at all. Nor do we allow them to self-servingly tighten the definition of “Christian” to exclude specific people. At the same time, we mock them for misusing big words like atheist that they patently don’t understand.

Christians are no longer the gatekeepers of words. To me, it’s another sign of evangelical churn, the slow erosion of Christian power and dominance.

now where did THAT come from, expert improv comedian edition

Another Perma-Blinking Turn Signal.

Once you know what you’re looking at, you’ll spot these attempts at negation from miles away. See and know them for what they are: desperate attempts to nullify something that deeply disturbs that Christian’s sensibilities.

If Christians can be very fervent and yet do deeply-disturbing things, like murder people and commit other acts of gross immorality, that sure doesn’t speak very highly of Christianity as an ideology.

If Christians can be very fervent and yet leave the religion, then we represent a direct contradiction to various Christian indoctrination points.

And if these same Christians actually understood why people reject their religion and what atheism truly is, chances are good that a door would open in their minds that wouldn’t ever close again.

The Christians dancing with the True Scotsman are trying to protect themselves. A lot is at stake here, in their minds. To protect themselves, they will do anything, even totally mischaracterize and dehumanize groups their leaders have set up as tribal enemies for TRUE CHRISTIANS™ like themselves.

So to me, their use of this fallacy is another big red mark against them and their religion. It isn’t loving to do this to people; it’s sure not compassionate. So I’ve got no use for it.

NEXT UP: We’re going to revisit the Unequally Yoked Club next week, after our usual Lord Snow Presides (LSP)! What’s changed, and what hasn’t? We’ll find out. Then we’re looking at a new book that’s come out about female atheists that looks good, and I’ve got some vague plans around fisking a Christian’s very earnest “soulwinning” post. At some point we’re visiting some of the worst-of-the-worst bad Christian marriage advice, and looking at three different ways that Christians engage with non-Christians.

Of course, when the SBC’s 2018 annual report comes out, that’ll up-end any plans I’ve got otherwise. I’m just lettin’ y’all know that it’s gonna be another busy week around here — we’ll see you soon! <3 <3 <3


Endnotes.

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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.
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