No True Scotsman

This post is the third in a series about faith and identity.  The first two parts can be found here (Part 1, Part 2).

Today’s post is also written by Rachael.


In my previous post in this series, I talked about outgrowing old labels. In this post, I’ll make a case for why find another label at all. But let’s examine some of the ways labeling can be socially complicated, and even violent.

An old joke goes that a Scotsman was offered sugar for his porridge by a waiter, “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge,” he says, turning it down. The waiter replies, “My cousin Angus is a Scotsman, and he eats sugar on his porridge.” To which the customer angrily replies, “Yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on this porridge!”

The No True Scotsman logical fallacy takes this same name. It commonly turns up in many fundamentalist circles, and not just religious ones (for example, you sometimes run across it in fandom when two fans draw up arbitrary lines to determine who really loves Star Wars; the Fake Geek Girl is one version).

This interests me, because growing up as a conservative evangelical, I didn’t often think of myself as a conservative evangelical. I didn’t realize that many of my beliefs were variants in the wider context of the Christian faith. Instead, we were quite proud of our non-denominational status. We were just Christian-Christians, followers of the Bible. I thought of myself as Original Coke, and the Catholics and Methodists and Baptists and Lutherans and so forth as either variants with additives–Diet Cherry Coke–or knockoffs altogether, something only masquerading as the real deal–Pepsi.

No True Scotsman.

Interestingly, this sort of thinking did me a huge disservice, because it didn’t allow me to appreciate that none of us were really Original Coke, especially not myself.

To illustrate this, let’s do a thought experiment. Consider this statement:

“The Bible is universally central to the faith of all Christians.”

Would you agree that statement is generally accurate?

Think about it. The books of the New Testament were written after the death of Christ, and weren’t codified into a canon until centuries afterward. If the above statement is true, then the Apostle Paul and all the members of the early Christian church shouldn’t be called Christians. It would be anachronistic to suggest that believing in the Protestant Bible as used in Western churches today is a prerequisite of Christian faith, because the book is younger than the faith itself.

Both in fandom and religion, the No True Scotsman fallacy is sometimes used as a form of social violence. Labeling is violent when it is done to another person in an attempt to punish, hurt, demean, or diminish another person’s worth or value. It’s where we get racial, gendered, and homophobic slurs: derogatory terms given to one group by another with the intention of demeaning or reducing them.

In the same way, No True Scotsman can be used to police the boundaries of ideological purity and evict anyone who puts the metaphorical sugar on their porridge. If your religious community only allows you to associate with members in good standing, then the threat of No True Scotsman can be an effective and nasty way to keep anyone from rocking the boat, because the price is losing your whole community in one swoop. Conservative evangelical pastor Mark Driscoll has been widely criticised for using such shunning techniques at his church, for example.

Of course, it’s not as simple as “all exclusion is bad”. Sometimes we draw up lines to ensure personal safety in a community. Other times, we guard against cultural appropriation. While it’s a fallacy to exclude people from a complex label for not belonging to a narrow interpretation of that label, it’s also unhelpful to use no labels at all. Especially since labeling can sometimes be a positive thing.

I think self-labeling in particular can be a strongly positive exercise. For myself, I’m curious how other Christians practice their faith outside the evangelical bubble. What other forms do their beliefs take? What other assumptions am I carrying around unawares? What are people of different races, nationalities, and sexual orientations doing in the greater world of the Christian faith?

I also value community. My departure from conservative evangelicalism isn’t unique; where are others like me gathering? Communities are often better at accomplishing their goals than anyone in isolation. Finding community means better opportunities to volunteer for the causes I believe in and support local charity efforts.

Finally, I think self-labeling might be a good chance for me to practice my own faith, by giving up my own power, my own defaults, and disarming myself from using that weapon against others. Self-labeling can be a way to practice humility, to avoid centering the world around my own experiences. Giving yourself a label serves as a reminder of the lens you’ve chosen to use.

Therefore, throughout this series, Jason and I will take a look at how other people are labeling themselves religiously, and examining what those labels mean to them. In the next post, Jason will lay out our goals in a little more detail, and invite you to suggest where we should begin.


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