The Hebrew word shibboleth literally means “torrent of water” or “ear of corn.” But its use in English comes from a clever wartime trick from the Bible.
Chapter 12 of the book of Judges records intertribal warfare between the tribe of Ephraim (on the west of the Jordan River) and the territory of Gilead (on the east side). At the end of the battle, the Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan. To identify the Ephraimites, they demanded that everyone wanting to cross into Ephraim say the word, “shibboleth.” The Ephraimite dialect of Hebrew had no “sh” sound, and for them it came out as “sibboleth.” The Gileadites identified and killed 42,000 Ephraimites with this trick.
The word shibboleth can mean a truism or widely held belief, but the more interesting definition is an identity test or litmus test or test of belonging.
For example, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Circumcision becomes a shibboleth.
Tattoos might be a shibboleth for a motorcycle gang, and a style of clothing or makeup might be a shibboleth for a high school clique.
The atheist community has shibboleths as well. Like any such test, they can be too quickly used to dismiss potential members. For example, the typical American atheist is in favor of same-sex marriage, is pro-choice, is liberal, and is a Democrat. But I know atheists who don’t fit each of these labels, and I’d hate to see them shunned or have their (different) voices and ideas shut down.
Consider the case of Bill Maher, the writer of the documentary Religulous (2008). He was the winner of the Atheist Alliance International’s 2009 Richard Dawkins award. This caused a stir within the atheist community because, while his popular film was a powerful credential, Maher has rejected vaccinations in some circumstances. His atheist credentials were in doubt because he had fallen victim to some of the biases that atheists dislike in those who accept superstitions or religion.
Shibboleths have their place, but make sure they don’t replace a thoughtful and reasoned analysis with a knee-jerk response.
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- See all the definitions in the Galileo Unchained Glossary.