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.
The Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a public promise to never raise taxes, has become a shibboleth for Republican politicians.
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.
Photo credit: Wikimedia
- See all the definitions in the Galileo Unchained Glossary.
- “Shibboleth,” Wikipedia.
- “Shibboleth,” Oxford English Dictionary.
As I have observed countless times in various atheist fora, the only thing we can guarantee that all atheists have in common is the condition embodied in the definition of “atheism”: absence of belief in any gods. How atheists get to that point is all over the map. The majority of the world’s atheists, about a billion Chinese, start out (like all of us) without any beliefs in gods and are never presented with any reason to adopt such beliefs. So they are what we might call “naive atheists” or “primitive atheists” if it weren’t for the somewhat belittling connotations of those adjectives. I prefer to think of them as “original atheists”; that is, they still have the atheism they were originally born with, not having gone thru a conversion and a deconversion process in between birth and now.
But are these billion Chinese dedicated rationalists, firmly in the camp of scientific skepticism? Gracious, no! They believe in all sorts of tomfoolery, like feng shui, ancestor veneration, traditional Chinese medicine, numerology, and a host of other superstitions and pseudosciences. But, absent a belief in any gods, they’re still atheists, and we should be glad to claim them among our own.
Same deal with people who came to their atheism because they had a bad experience in church (like a series of “private counseling sessions” with a priest), or because they fell in love with an atheist, or because they believe they’re the reincarnation of Cleopatra and don’t want to alienate her gods, or because that’s what all the cool kids are doing these days, or any of a flock of other completely irrational reasons. However they got here, they’re still atheists.
Atheism, not being a belief but rather the absence of one, has no consequences that could possibly flow from a belief. It has no doctrines, dogma, creeds, tenets, maxims, holy books, oaths, or ideologies. It also comes blessedly unencumbered with saviors, prophets, saints, popes, godmen, shamans, priests, imams, rabbis, ministers, gurus, or other authority figures who presume to tell you how the gods want you to live your life.
Given all these degrees of freedom, what could possibly be the attraction of orthodoxies and shibboleths?
BTW, proper pronunciation of Llangollen and Scheveningen will get you past the Welsh and Dutch lines as well as shibboleth worked with the Gileadites.
For Danish, rødkål (red cabbage) is a good one. I pronounce it “roll kole,” but that’s how you fail this shibboleth.
Yeah, I can see how this would go with me:
“[In Danish] Halt! Who goes there, friend or foe?”
“Oh, ja? Pronounce rødkål for me.”
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