Today, I would like to have a little more fun with words.
One of the comments to a recent post came from Frank Walton.
Walton was responding to a comment I made on my other blog, Atheist Ethicist Journal on the idea that there is no discrimination against atheists. Some have made the claim that atheists suffer from a public relations problem, with certain people giving the public a poor image of atheists, which then somehow justifies the harsh attitude that society takes towards us.
I countered this, in part, by pointing out that we can see this discrimination at work in the fact that the writings of Dawkins, Harris, and Hutchens create an “image problem” for atheists. Yet, Christians who blow up abortion clinics and Muslim suicide bombers are met with cries that we must take care not to judge all members of one of these groups by the actions of a few. That is, of course, if one can even make sense of the claim that Dawkins, Harris, and Hutchens have done something morally objectionable. Any wrongs they may have committed are not nearly as objectionable as the actions of certain Christians and Muslims (among others).
In response to this, Walton wrote:
If you are blowing up abortion clinics, or killing doctors you are clearly not a Christian. I don't know what's so hard for people to understand. I hear "Hitler was a theist" all the time well, he obviously wasn't a Christian or he wouldn't have killed 60 million Jews. No "real" Christians in all of history have ever advocated or used violence. Except during war that's different. You sound like an intellectual idiot. I'm even going to go as far as tell you you suck.
Now, anybody who has been introduced to even a little logic will recognize this as what is called the ‘no true Scotsman fallacy’.
The “No True Scotsman” fallacy is a piece of political sophistry that is often used specifically to try to shield a group from condemnation for wrongdoing. Some Republicans are trying to disassociate themselves and the party from the evils of the Bush Administration by denying that these are Republicans. “No true Republican” would commit the acts that Bush committed; therefore, the Republican Party is not responsible for the decisions and policies of this Administration.
A Christian is, quite simply, anybody who believes that Jesus had divine powers and that his words and deeds had divine significance. Different groups ‘cherry pick’ different passages depending on their personal likes and dislikes, so the term ‘Christians’ actually identifies a group of individuals with widely diverging views. It is quite difficult to say that ‘all Christians believe X’ or ‘all true Christians believe Y’.
One way that we can illustrate the problem with Walton’s remarks is simply to ask what gives Frank Henry the authority to define what a ‘true Christian’ is – given that so many people disagree with them, and all of them claim to be able to find support for their views in the same scripture.
In the spirit of adding to, subtracting from, or remodeling language that I spoke about yesterday, we could describe Walton’s effort here as an effort to add a new, narrower definition of Christianity. We have several terms in our language that have multiple meanings – in some cases, a broad meaning and a narrow meaning. For example, the term ‘cat’ is used to refer to any feline including lions, tigers, panthers, and lynxes. At the same time, the term also has a narrow definition, where it refers only to domestic cats.
We can view Walton’s objection here in terms of an attempt to introduce a narrow definition of the term ‘Christian’. We have the broad definition (anybody who claims to follow the teachings of Jesus), and the narrow definition (anybody who claims to follow the teachings of Jesus and who agrees with Frank Walton over exactly what those teachings are).
One of the things that the term ‘Christian’ (broadly defined) has in common with ‘atheist’ is that both terms refer to people who hold a wide variety of different views. There are atheist communists, atheist libertarians, atheist desire utilitarians, atheist moral subjectivists, atheist moral non-cognitivists, and many more. There are Christians (broadly defined) who think it is permissible (or even obligatory) to blow up abortion clinics or kill all who do not follow Jesus and Christians who believe that their religion commands them to feed the poor, and cure the sick, Catholics, Evangelicals, Baptists, Adventists, Mormons, and others.
It is certainly true that a Christian (broadly defined) is not necessarily a Christian (narrowly defined). However, this will turn out to make no difference.
The accusation, from which the conclusion that there is bigotry against atheists is proved, is the fact that people like Dawkins and Harris are said to be given all of atheists a bad name, in spite of the fact that ‘atheist’ refers to a large group of people with a wide variety of beliefs. We scarcely hear anybody say that, in virtue of the fact that there is such a wide variety of different types of atheists, it would be wrong to take the actions of one group and apply them to all others – that this would be unjust. Yet, this is one of the first things one hears whenever a Muslim (broadly defined) or a Christian (broadly defined) commits a crime allegedly in the name of God.
The fact that no Christian (as defined by Frank Walton) would do such a thing is completely beside the point. Some ‘Christians’ (broadly defined) do perform these types of acts, and the term ‘Christian’ (broadly defined) is sufficient for this demonstration of bigotry.
The fact that Walton’s argument does not work, and his argument clearly doesn’t work, leads to another issue.
Yesterday, I wrote about the difference between a simple mistake and a morally culpable error. Sinbad complained about how some atheists brand some theists either mentally or morally incompetent based on the claims that the theist makes.
I would argue that any use of the No True Scotsman fallacy in an argument attacking atheists demonstrates either that the agent lacks the capacity to understand this simple logical fallacy, or can understand it but, due to a lack of moral integrity, decides that he wants to use it anyway. In other words, here is an example where it is legitimate to charge a theist with either being an stupid or evil.
A morally responsible writer is always asking himself, “Are my claims true? Are there any reasons to reject them?” The greater the possibility that one is putting others in harms way or making accusations against them, the greater the obligation to determine that the harm is truly necessary or that the accusations are truthfully made. An intellectually responsible person, once he encounters the charge of using a logical fallacy, immediately worries, “Have I made a mistake?”
Walton, in his remarks, indicates that he is either unaware of the No True Scotsman fallacy, or is aware of it but is too intellectually reckless (to unconcerned about truth or about the harms that false beliefs will inflict on others) to concern himself with something as inconvenient as truth.
There is a slight chance that Walton never heard of the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy before, in which case he can be somewhat forgiven for failure to answer a challenge from this direction. However, when Walton decided to write on this subject, he took upon himself a moral obligation not to harm people by leading them astray. This means doing his best to discover and avoid logical fallacies.
It may be that Walton has never heard of the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy, and that it is an honest mistake. Still, we can tell if a person is truly morally responsible when, even when they make an honest mistake, they acknowledge that they have made a mistake, they apologize for it, and we see in their actions a genuine concern to make sure that they do not repeat that mistake. This is how a morally responsible person behaves. Failure to do this earns one the label of being morally irresponsible.
Bump into somebody in a hallway, even accidentally, one the correct response is to say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t see you.” This tells the world (or those within earshot) that you recognize and acknowledge that this is a type of situation that one ought to take pains to avoid, even if (quite by accident) it was not avoided in this instance. Similarly, the use of logical fallacies is a situation to be avoided, even though all of us make mistakes from time to time.
In the absence of such a response, we have reason to infer that the agent is negligent, reckless, or simply indifferent towards the wrongs that he does and for which others may be made to suffer. Or, at best, that one may need to claim in his defense that he simply lacks the mental capacity to act in a morally responsible manner.