Words are funny things. They have meanings and sometimes the same word or word sound means different things.

One of my favorite is Shibboleth because it’s a word the describes in- and out-groups.

According to Wkikpedia,

A shibboleth is a word, sound, or custom that a person unfamiliar with its significance may not pronounce or perform correctly relative to those who are familiar with it. It is used to identify foreigners or those who do not belong to a particular class or group of people.

Xianity, and fundamentalist Xianity especially, is filled with shibboleths. Far-right politicians smile and wink and say the right words at identify themselves as True XiansTM. Pastors pass on sage advice using these words. Even lay folk use these words in public and private speech.

The funny thing is that these words aren’t secret or even difficult to pronounce. And most atheists recognize these secret words and phrases and can probably mimic them back, sometimes even better than a member of the in-group.

Do Xians honestly think that they’re part of a secret club or is it that they don’t recognize that there are other, out-group, people around them? Perhaps it’s a combination of both.

Perhaps, like most people, we assume that everyone around us is the same as us. I, by default, think everyone between the ages of 25 and 50 is the same age as me. I just don’t think about it, such that I’ve been surprised at times to find a new acquaintance is much younger than me.

The illusion that you are surrounded by people just like you is very strong, so the out-group is perceived as far away and of lesser power.

In the case of Jessica Ahlquist and the Cranston High School West religious prayer banner, the school and community saw nothing wrong with the violation of the U.S. Constitution in their midst. They didn’t even think about it. Everyone around them said the right words and were in the same club. We’re all the same and who even thinks about freedom from religion?

Then along came Jessica and exposed that assumption. Used words that were not shibboleth. And we know the response: insults like “evil little thing” and death threats.

Shibboleth as comfort became shibboleth as division, as righteousness, as defending our way of life against those atheists who want to take our religion away from us.

Shibboleth is a great words because it is all about in- and out-groups. And by thinking about words like this, I become more aware of my in-group assumptions.