No True Scotsman – I Mean, Christian, Muslim, or Feminist

Okay, so I’ve been brewing over a really frustrating sentence on my mind for the past week – and even more frustrating, I’ve realized that nowadays… it’s everywhere. I read it in feminist spaces in exasperated tones. I see it headlining Facebook posts about Muslims denouncing the actions of ISIL. And I hear it like clockwork from well-meaning Christians anguished over their homophobic brethren:

“Christians who hate people just for who they are aren’t real Christians.”

On the surface, that statement looks harmless – and so do its equivalents, whether we’re talking Islam, feminism, or pretty much any other “morally good” group. I’m guilty of slinging it about dozens of times. And… it seems to make sense.

But as it turns out, when you say “homophobic Christians are not of God”; when you say “misogynistic Muslims aren’t true Muslims”; when you say “non-intersectional feminism isn’t real feminism”; you’re not just saying that the philosophy you hold dear should be peaceful and constructive. You’re also saying a caboodle of other things that can, honestly speaking, be silencing and frustrating as hell to people who’ve been hurt by those ideologies. Here’s what they are – and how we can change that.

1. “Those guys aren’t with us.”

Hopefully, it’s obvious from the title of this article that the “No True Scotsman” logical fallacy is at play here. If you’re not familiar, this should catch you right up. “No True Scotsman” is, at heart, a line of reasoning people use to distance themselves from the more…  unsavory members of their group.

Problem is, what’s savory or 100% no way not savory to people depends entirely on them. When Christians claim that homophobes, sexists, or racists aren’t really Christians, trumpeting God is love as proof, they’re not only ignoring multiple Bible passages where God talks about stuff he detests” – they’re taking the best of a group and making them the only valid members of it.

I’ve seen fundie Christians do the same thing (and I did it too.) We said things like, Christians who don’t go to church on Sunday aren’t Christian. We see a similar line of thought in ISIL terrorists who insist that Islam calls for violence. It’s easy to make your interpretation the definition of the group… but it also gets really, really dicey.

Muslim, religious scholar, and author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth Reza Aslan explains it best of all in his brilliant piece here:

“It says in the Qu’ran that if you kill a single individual, it’s as if you have killed all of humanity. It also says to slay the idolater wherever you may find him. The Torah says do unto others, but it also instructs Jews to slaughter every man, woman, and child in the holy land who doesn’t follow the God of Israel. The same Jesus who says turn the other cheek also says he who does not have a sword should sell his cloak and buy one.”

2. “Since our texts can only be interpreted our way, all the shitty ways aren’t our problem to recognize, change, or take ownership of.”

No matter the qualification, the result of No-True-Blank-ing is Othering. It’s saying, Oh, look at how crappy those guys are. It’s saying, thank God we’re not as bad as them. It sets up group members to feel better about themselves, enclosed from an outside evil or inferiority. It’s Timmy and Maya in the principal’s office saying I know Alex was bullying kids who aren’t in our club, but it’s not our fault! Alex wasn’t a true member. Kids in our club don’t bully people.

But No True X doesn’t just set the speaker apart from unsavory people like them. No, it sets them apart from any unsavory things they might perpetrate: for example, from unsavory Christian things. From Josh Duggar and how Christianity can be used to shut up victims and force forgiveness of sexual abusers. From Leelah Alcorn’s parents and the torture of conversion therapy. From past Popes and the horrific damage the Church inflicted on queer people.

It absolves them of the work of starting potentially jarring conversations with other idea-holders; it denies that even an ideology supposedly meant for good can be corrupted, which would fly right smack in the face of religions like Christianity. It’s easy. It’s simple. And it’s annoying as shit because it so often leads to this:

3. “Stop going around saying it was [group members] who hurt you. They weren’t really [group members], so quit being bitter and give us another try.”

YIKES. I can’t count how many times Christians have used faulty reasoning (always founded in Scripture, of course) to invalidate what I’ve been through, silence me, or paint me as a bitter person and Bad Survivor. Samantha Field does a hell of a job calling out 15 common shitty responses to an ex-fundie here, if you’re interested. At the heart of the matter, “that wasn’t really Christian” is almost always on the other end of the hook.

The reasoning is simple. Christianity is the only true and good spiritual path in the world. Therefore, anyone who abuses, commits a crime against, or otherwise hurts another person in the name of the religion isn’t actually a Christian. To admit that is to admit that Christianity can be twisted… and fallible. Shocking to the core, I know. I’ve heard similar arguments for Islam from ex-Muslim friends – the universal bane of spiritual abuse/trauma survivors through space and time.

Granted, when I hear this message relayed to those who have been “hurt” by feminism, the “victims” are often men crying tsunami over a drizzle – think not all men and you’ll get the picture. That said, there are surely people out there who have followed a brand of feminism that hurt others; more on that to come…

Now, where does all this leave us?

Let me temper the conversation: I don’t think Christians wanting to distance themselves from acts of abuse, hate, violence, or oppression is inherently bad. I think it comes from a genuine desire for Christianity to be a religion of love and diversity and that is awesome. 

What I do have an issue with – the reason why this article exists – is that No True Christian silences survivors in the same turn. It tells us that since we weren’t hurt by real Christians, we shouldn’t be speaking badly of the religion. That that’s not what faith is about, so no wonder we left – why don’t we give it another go the right way this time?

I also think that while “true feminists are intersectional and for gender equality” (so, they include race, class, etc. when calling out gender discrimination) speaks to a desire to detach feminism from the androcidal, white-only brand that the word evokes in many people’s minds… we can grow so much more when we let ourselves acknowledge that that’s the past, it was silly and exclusive, and we accomplish so much more by being intersectional now.

Not a non-Christian… just a bad one

I see – and have complied with – the urge to self-distance and self-acquit. But by changing our wording, maybe we can create a less silencing, more realistic and pluralistic view of our world. Instead of calling sexist Muslims not true Muslims, we can go with Muslims who hurt people or hell, just sexist Muslims. Instead of branding non-intersectional feminists as fake feminists, we can opt for uninclusive feminists. I think there’s something to be learned from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity preface and Lana Hobbs’ article on the word Christian:”When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian.”

Maybe part of being a constructive group member is accepting that the group isn’t perfect. Maybe it’s having the guts, compassion, and integrity to acknowledge where things went wrong and people got hurt. Maybe it’s putting in the work to make sure it doesn’t happen again, at least not without a fight. It’s realistic. It’s survivor-affirming. And, in my humble opinion, it’s the right thing to do.

[[[Disclaimer: I also don’t think Muslims wanting to distance themselves from acts of terrorism is bad… or illogical. Othering terrorists encourages people not to wrongfully blame and persecute all Muslims for atrocities they had no part in. As a defense against Islamophobia, it’s clear why someone would condemn ISIL as un-Islamic, and one could argue that as long as masses of people are still oppressing all Muslims for the actions of terrorists, No True Muslim is preferable.

However. There are ex-Muslims I know who hate how the phrase invalidates them. I included NTM in this article because it’s such an accepted, repeated statement nowadays, and it’s a tricky subject to tackle as a non-Muslim, but I can’t not try knowing that it silences other ex-fundies. If you think I approached something in the wrong way, let me know! One last thing: this topic would be lacking without this take on condemning ISIL.]]]

(Photo credit: Stan Obert)


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