The classic example of this is the No True Scotsman Fallacy. The story goes that one entire group of Scottish men can be discounted entirely, because no TRUE Scotsman would wear underwear under his kilt. When discussing religion, it’s often used to shift goal post. If I were to bring up the example of Ted Haggard spending years with a gay prostitute while publicly preaching against homosexuality, a Christian can discount him by saying “He’s not a REAL Christian, because no real Christian would cheat on his wife / perform homosexual acts.” So in one fell swoop we discount the thousands of hours the man spent in the pulpit and leading the largest Evangelical association in the country, all because the guy boffed another guy.
Now, I personally take the US census approach to labels. If they call themselves Christian, I take them at their word. If they call themselves Democrat, I take them at their word. In fact, unless you’re claiming to be an amphibian or something, I’m going to take what you say at face value unless there is dramatic evidence to the contrary. I’ll question your claim to being a Christian when I find out you don’t believe Jesus ever existed, and you’re probably not a Democrat if you’ve run under the Republican ticket.
I would attempt to be more discriminating in my classification, but I don’t know how to do it. Just looking at the “Christians” I come in contact with discussing this kind of thing online, and I’m 100% positive I could get at least half a dozen definitions of what makes somebody a real Christian. And as an outsider, I don’t much know or care which one is right (since I obviously think they’re all wrong).
I know Christians who think that Protestants don’t count, or Catholics don’t count. Being a Christian means the Old Testament no longer applies. Actually, a true Christian would know we still have to follow the laws of the Old Testament. Only liberals. No, only conservatives! You can’t be a Christian if you’re pro-choice. No, you can’t be a Christian if you’re for the death penalty! To avoid all this drama, I define Christian as someone who claims to be Christian and believes in the divinity of Jesus.
My dictionary also has something pretty anti-Semitic in the definition, but to be fair it was printed in the 1920s.
Now, to all you Christians out there with your fingers poised over their keyboard, ready to strike me a death blow with a few choice keystrokes, gimme a sec. I get it. I know if I were a Christian, there are a lot of people I would not want to be lumped in with. Hell, as an atheist there are certain people I don’t want to be lumped in with. But just because I can’t stand Obnoxious Atheist X does not mean that she is no longer an atheist. I can’t create a gap between us after the fact. All I can say is that X does not speak for me, and is not representative of the atheist population. There are millions upon millions of Muslims who don’t want to be associated with Bin Laden, millions of atheists who don’t want to be associated with Stalin, and millions of Christians who don’t want to be associated with Fred Phelps.
So yeah, I get it. I wouldn’t want to be associated with him, either. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t devoted to his faith as he sees it. And despite how awful he is, he is still a Christian. He is defending his interpretation of the Bible, no matter how right or wrong it may be. And guess what? He probably thinks you aren’t a real Christian. But you’d kick my heathen ass if I went with his definition.
Just because a certain Christian makes you uncomfortable about the association doesn’t mean you can disown him/her. There are Christians that do awful things, there are Christians that do great things… guess what, for the most part, they’re all still Christians. And, on a personal note, I’m sick of being told that since I stopped believing then I was never a Christian in the first place. I was an avid defender of the Bible, I prayed on a regular basis, I had complete and total faith… by any relevant measure, I was a devout Christian. Once again, just because you aren’t happy with the fact that an ardent defender of the faith left the flock doesn’t mean you get to tell me what I did or didn’t truly believe.
So, how do YOU define Christianity?
More importantly, how should I?