As a rule, I refuse to debate over who is a “true” adherent of any religion. In my experience, everybody has a different opinion over who is or isn’t a “true” believer. Different people within the same religion say conflicting things about who is doing it “right”. Different sects and denominations say opposing things about which sects and denominations actually belong to their religion. There isn’t any sort of consensus that I have seen, and, as an outsider, I feel like I have even less to say about who is a “true” follower of a religion than those who are actually part of the religion. And since everyone disagrees with each other, I can’t just take anybody’s word for it that this person or that person isn’t a “true” adherent (unless that person themself says “no, actually I was just faking it”).
Besides, I don’t really see how it’s relevant to me who is or isn’t a “true” adherent. Why should I care any more about who is a “true” Christian, than a Christian would care about who is a “true” Muslim, or who is doing Scientology “right”, or whether someone is a “real” Satanist? Does “true adherent” have any real meaning at all to someone who thinks all the followers of that religion are mistaken?
Sometimes, people will say a particular group isn’t really part of their religion because of theological differences. For example, some Christians say that Mormons aren’t really Christians, explicitly citing a number of theological disagreements. Not being a Christian of any type, who am I to say that one group has the theology right and the other has it wrong? All of the different takes on Christianity look wrong to me. The only information I see here that is relevant to me is that Mormons identify as Christians, and some Christians don’t think Mormons are Christians. These can be useful bits of knowledge, if I want to avoid accidental rudeness. I’ll know better than to tell a Mormon they aren’t a Christian, and I’ll know better than to talk about Mormonism when explaining why I think Christianity is mistaken when talking to other Christians.
The term was coined by Antony Flew, who gave an example of a Scotsman who sees a newspaper article about a series of sex crimes taking place in Brighton, and responds that “no Scotsman would do such a thing.”
When later confronted with evidence of another Scotsman doing even worse acts, his response is that “no true Scotsman would do such a thing,” thus disavowing membership in the group “Scotsman” to the criminal on the basis that the commission of the crime is evidence for not being a Scotsman.
However, this reasoning is fallacious, as there exists no premise in the definition of “Scotsman” which makes such acts impossible (or even unlikely, in the case of Scots). The term “No True Scotsman” has since expanded to refer to anyone who attempts to disown or distance themselves from wayward members of a group by excluding them from it.
This happens frequently with violent or extremist individuals or groups. For example, many Muslims say that Boko Haram and ISIS are not Islamic. Many Christians say that the Colorado Planned Parenthood shooter and the Westboro Baptist Church are not Christian. While I applaud those who condemn the actions of these people and think they are quite right to want to distance themselves from these people, saying that no one who is part of your religion could commit such acts is fallacious. They may have a very different take on the religion than you, they may not follow the religious tenets you think are most important, they may, in fact, be flaming hypocrites and/or reprehensible scum, but what gives you the authority to tell them they aren’t “real” believers? If your god exists, shouldn’t he be the one to say who is his true follower, and who is not?
There are also many less extreme uses of the No True Scotsman fallacy within religion. For example, I was recently told that I was never a “true” Christian, because if I were, then I wouldn’t have become an atheist. Apparently denying my experiences (and those of many, many others) was necessary for this person to hold onto their belief that once you become a Christian, you stay a Christian. I suppose there is no evidence I could possibly present to this person to show them that this belief is mistaken, since any example I provide will be immediately dismissed as “not a ‘true’ Christian”.
Outside of fallacious reasoning, I often find arguments over who is a “true” adherent of a religion to be simply absurd. There are people who say that no one who supports gay rights is a “true” Christian, and there are those who say that no one who does not support gay rights is a “true” Christian. Some people say Catholics aren’t “real” Christians, while others say that only Catholics are “true” Christians. There are any number of sects and denominations that claim they are the only ones who are doing Christianity “right”.
But I’ve never seen anything more absurd than people arguing over who is a “real” Satanist. Before the 1900’s, Satanism didn’t even exist as a religion. Satanism was an accusation for Christians to throw at people along with accusations of witchcraft. Devil worshipping was something for Christians to accuse pagans of doing, because, apparently, anyone worshipping any gods other than the Christian one must be worshipping Satan. Hell, I got a pamphlet just a few years ago that told me that, since I am not a Christian, I am apparently a Satanist. I never knew I had billions of fellow Satanists!
So, yeah. Satanism doesn’t have one central (un)holy book that all Satanists follow. It has no universal creed, no universal tenets. For centuries, Satanism wasn’t even an actual religion. It never originated as one single religion that branched off into different denominations. It has always been different groups or individuals with different beliefs, values, and philosophies adopting the name of “Satanist”. No one of these different religions or sects has any more (or less) claim to the name of “Satanism” than any other. Virtually the only thing that all Satanists have in common is that they self-identify as Satanists.
And yet we have Magus Peter Gilmore, High Priest of the Church of Satan (an atheistic Satanic religion), claiming that other Satanic groups are merely trying to “ride upon the coattails of the Church of Satan”. He acts as if the Church of Satan has some special claim to the word “Satanism”, just because they were the first well known Satanic religion. Whereas some theistic Satanists scoff at the idea of atheists calling themselves Satanists. In particular, Temples of Satan leaders say that the Satanic Temple (of which I am a member) isn’t a real Satanic group because of their “liberal and atheist views”.
All of this infighting within religions about who is or isn’t a “real” religionist is frankly ridiculous. It is, at times, petty, fallacious, absurd, disingenuous, utterly confusing, hypocritical, contradictory, or incredibly arrogant. Yes, there are real and important disagreements about theology within religions. No, not all (or even most) members of a religion are comparable to that religion’s extremists. But it is the height of arrogance to say that your group is the only one doing your religion “right”. It is fallacious to disown people from your religion just because they did something that you don’t like and don’t want to be associated with (but it is totally sensible to condemn their acts).
And I’m not going to take part in discussions about who is a “true” believer. I see it as irrelevant and a waste of time. I don’t see any use in it, and there’s almost never any consensus, anyway. If you want to say that some other Christian isn’t a “real” Christian because they’re doing Christianity differently than you… then okay. I’ll keep in mind that you don’t share their views. I am, in fact, aware that those who call themselves Christians espouse a wide variety of different views, beliefs, and positions. But I’m not going to agree with you that they aren’t really a Christian, any more than I would agree with some other Christian that you aren’t a “true” Christian.