Explaining The No True Scotsman Fallacy

Perhaps one of the most misused logical fallacies in religious debate is the No True Scotsman fallacy. How do we know when someone has committed the fallacy?

The No True Scotsman fallacy is but one logical fallacy that tends to be thrown around without justification. It’s often used, by the atheist, as a defensive tactic to Christians who defend the faith in the face of hypocrites. However, those who call out the fallacy often do so without justification. When it comes to calling out a logical fallacy there’s a rule I always live by: if I call it out I must be able to justify it and state my reasons for doing so. If I cannot do that I am merely throwing out a meaningless phrase.

What is the No True Scotsman fallacy? The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it as such,

“This error is a kind of Ad Hoc Rescue of one’s generalization in which the reasoner re-characterizes the situation solely in order to escape refutation of the generalization.”

This is but one way of “moving the goalposts,” stating one thing but then immediately moving the qualifier as soon as it’s met with criticism. Let’s use an example similar to the one the Encyclopedia uses.

Scott: “All Scottish people can play the bagpipes!”

Me: “But Ted cannot play the bagpipes.”

Scott: “Well then he mustn’t be a true Scotsman!”

In this example, Scott is waving away my argument by moving the qualifier. He might claim to be a Scotsman but if he cannot play the bagpipes then he cannot legitimately be called a Scotsman. This is a logical fallacy because Scott is denying Ted’s Scottish heritage on purely arbitrary grounds that are irrelevant to what it means to be a Scotsman. Let’s use another example.

Scott: “All Scottish people are born in Scottland.”

Me: “But I’m wearing a kilt, speak in a Scottish accent, and play the bagpipes!”

Scott: “You are not a true Scotsman because you were born and raised in Australia.”

In this example, Scott is not committing the logical fallacy because the qualifier is not arbitrary. I do not have a Scottish heritage, I’m Australian. I’m merely pretending to be Scottish, so Scott is not wrong for denying it. He has not moved the goalposts in any way.

The same applies to debates on religion. It is meaningless to use the argument that Hitler, for example, claimed to be a Christian to undermine Christianity or reveal its true intention. One must justify their claim by showing that Hiter’s words and actions align with core beliefs and instructions of Christian doctrine. If I were to say that I believed in God but denied Jesus’ Resurrection, equating Him to a mere good teacher who had remained dead in the tomb, then I cannot be called a true Christian. Likewise, if someone who claims to be a humanist kills a large group of people (kinda like Thanos in the Avengers) then you are not committing the fallacy by stating that he is not a true humanist. He is most likely using the name for other, purely selfish reasons, or has a perverse idea of what it means to be a humanist. Why can’t the same logic be applied to someone like Hitler?

Ye shall know them by their fruits….. (Matthew 7:16-20)