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Religion and Open Source

© January 2006 Anthony Lawrence

I'm not a fan of religion, but I would like to think that its positive effects at least cancel out the negative and damaging aspects. While fundamentalist religious teaching is, I believe, dangerous and detrimental to society, the loftier and less dogmatic beliefs can be force for desirable social change. I was therefore very interested in Free Software's surprising sympathy with Catholic doctrine (link dead, sorry) .

There's probably not a lot of common ground between me and most Catholic doctrine, and I do think this article visibly strains to make its point, but it is encouraging because the power of religion is impressive. Government and corporate greed is difficult to combat; a religous viewpoint that encourages Open Source isn't going to change that, but it might be at least helpful.

At The Penguin Driven Church Office, Don Parris says:

Freedom was another factor in our decision. None of us are programmers,
but we know that free software can be redistributed in order to
help others. Richard Stallman, the founder of the GNU project, may
be an atheist, but his view of software has close theological
parallels to Christian theology. Proprietary software limits my
ability to help my neighbor, one of the cornerstone of the Christian

I think I detect a little non-believer prejudice there. Religious believers sometimes think they have a lock on morality and social justice; that without religious belief these ideas can't prosper. That's simply not true: there are intellectual justifications that have nothing to do with religious belief. The same article suggests that some churches may be employing some situational morality here:

An encounter I had with a pastor and one of his deacons left me
with the distinct impression, although I did not know for sure,
that they might be using proprietary software without the proper
licenses. The deacon stated that he had a copy of the software he
could bring in for me. It could have been a perfectly legitimate
copy, or it could have been a personal copy that he would be giving
to the church in violation of those famous End User License
Agreements. This possibility raised a few questions: Are churches
and other religious groups using proprietary software without the
proper licenses? Is this being done with or without the knowledge
and consent of the leadership? I'm a preacher, not an attorney.
This issue raises a moral question that churches need to consider.
Church leaders would consider a person who walks out of a bookstore
with a book they haven't paid for to be a thief. Using proprietary
software without a license is the same thing--stealing.

But let's not squabble. If a church thinks open source merits the approval of their creator god, I'm all for it.

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Tue Jan 10 13:46:14 2006: 1494   drag

It's a very interesting topic. But a touchy one.

I am a fairly religious person, at least when it comes to christianity stuff. I am not a big fan of what many people who call themselves 'christians' do. Churches and religious folk in general can be very hypocritical and it's actually quite depressing. Especially when morons get TV time and say some very stupid things.

Computers and especially the internet is a big windfall for christianity. The ability to spread the bible and transmit lectures across the the world on a shoestring budget is great. Repressive governments across the world may do a good job restricting what people can and can't do in public. Many places it's quite illegal to be a christian. And even if it's not distributing bibles and such is a criminal offense with stiff penalties in other countries.

For example Saudi Arabia..

But if they want to reap the techinical and business benifits of the internet it's very difficult to filter out all content that they don't approve of.

As far as software piracy goes.. even if it's for the "good lord's work" is something that should be very discouraged. The bible states pretty much that a person is very obligated to follow the governmental law unless it conflicts with the laws of god. (for example if a law says that you have to worship a false idol you can disobey with no sin)

I can't think of any instance in any modern western country were this is a problem.

In other words breaking the law just because your lazy or too cheap to follow it is definately not going to win you any points with God. In fact it's just the exact opposite; it's probably a good way to piss him off.

As far as open source goes.. I don't think it's any more holy then closed source software. I definately don't think that gpl is closer to god or any such nonsense. So don't get me wrong.

Freedom itself is a good thing. I beleive that we were made with the intention to be free.. free to choose whatever or not. We have free will and all that. I like how Free software is for freedom. It's one of the principal reasons I use it. It just matches my personal philosophy closely.

There are a few open source projects that are specificly designed to benifit christians. So if churches and such want to take a look at Linux they don't have to be left out in the cold when it comes to software. Mostly it manifests itself in bible study tools.

For example there is 'bible' which is a command line tool used to display passages from the bible. There are perl scripts and irc bots and such for that sort of thing also.

The big thing I am aware of is the SWORD project...
This provides libraries and modules for creating bible study tools and such. It gathers various bibles, commentaries, dictionaries, and such to aid in bible study. All legal, mostly from items in the public domain.

Two examples of applications built from this are:
For the gnome desktop, obviously.

And bibletime, for the KDE desktop:

Of course thats not the only things made for stuff like this.. but this is what I know for Linux, (which is what I use at home). There is a E-sword (closed source) application that does pretty much the same thing for Windows, I beleive, but I never looked at it. And some other stuff on that sword project page. From what I can tell all of it is of very high quality.

Tue Jan 10 14:17:00 2006: 1495   TonyLawrence

It's touchy, all right. Extreme religious belief is dangerous, insane and is something we could really do without, but drawing the line is impossible, so even those of us with no beliefs hesitate to say anything. We don't want to "offend", so we ignore just about anything.

And religious people do the same, of course. You and I may privately think that Pat Robertson is obviously insane and probably should be in a mental hospital, but we aren't going to say so out loud, and even if we did, the idea of locking someone up for religious beliefs is so reprehensible that we just can't stomach it. Better to let him keep ranting than start down that slippery slope.

Tue Jan 10 15:29:25 2006: 1496   Michael

I'm not in the least convinced.

I'm certainly not antagonistic to Christianity. Heck, it lies at the root of Western culture - it would be like cursing one's own granny. Anyway, aren't even those of us who've ceased to believe glad to have, for example, Chartres cathedral and the music of Bach?

But I see no particular congruence. What I think is that people always "see" resemblances between different phenomena that they like - that doesn't mean that there are any resemblances there in any meaningful sense. It's a pattern one comes across time and again.

Frankly, "... we know that free software can be redistributed in order to help others" is no basis for a logical connection as opposed to a vague and unimportant similarity. And Stallman if anything overdoes the "ethical" significance of open source software.

At the root of open source software is (pace Stallman) no "ethical" stand but the simple wish of programmers to see the code, so that it can be reviewed before compiling and adapted if necessary. (And it's worth mentioning that's of very great importance to programmers but of little interest to others - who couldn't read the code and probably don't know how to compile from source either.)

One also has to question whether the "theologians" have grasped the meaning of the word "free" in this context. Open source software can be charged for (I believe the original Free BSD licenses were actually very expensive). And closed source software can be completely free of charge - for example, Pegasus Mail. The latter is an interesting case inasmuch as the developer has been bothered by open source zealots as he describes here:


Who is anyone else to complain if a developer chooses not to publish his source code?

And if the argument is not about open vs. closed source but whether software is charged for or not who are we, again, to tell a developer what to do? I'm always grateful for freeware, but I also know that programmers have to earn money to live the same as anyone else (unless perhaps, like Mr Stallman, they have a tenured position at a university) and I so never begrudge paying.

I think there is room for many different models of software development.

Tue Jan 10 23:08:44 2006: 1497   drag

Well as far as religious zealotry goes there is a very definate line that needs to be drawn. Now exactly were that line is, I am not absolutely sure of.

Of course people are perfectly allowed to make themselves look like idiots or whatnot. It maybe irritating or offensive.. but after all we all are adults, right? We should be able to handle things like that, no problem. This tolerance is part of what makes a free country free.

Now when it comes to advocating violence against another person or group of persons... that's a different matter entirely. That's kinda were we should draw the line, I figure.

Wed Jan 11 09:10:58 2006: 1498   TonyLawrence

I'd rather draw it a little earlier.

When people make personal decisions based on their religious beliefs, that's fine. But when you bring your religious views to politics and affect the lives of other people, that's too much.

It's the religious underpinning that makes it maddening. I'm willing to listen to any argument on morals, and I might even agree, but when your rationale is based upon some idea that a "god" wants us to behave this way, I just get rabid. It's infuriating. It's beyond infuriating.

Unfortunately, the great majority of people seem to have no problem bringing such beliefs into their politics, and even insist that it's fine for them to do so. Do they not understand what "belief" means? It's something you *think* is true, not something there is proof for. Why should the rest of us be expected to live our lives constrained by things you "believe"?

I realize that many people have trouble separating beliefs from their politics, and I fully understand that it isn't easy. Strongly held beliefs will color your politics and will affect your reasoning on any subject. I'll accept that if you at least recognize that your beliefs shouldn't have dominion over others and at least try to look at ideas rationally. At least *try* to remove the fantasy aspect when acting upon things that affect other people.

But too many people don't. I can forgive the ones that are too dumb to even realize what they are doing, but I have nothing but contempt for those who stand up and insist that their religious beliefs should be the basis for law without any other justification.

Wed Jan 11 10:44:05 2006: 1499   anonymous

I agree with you very much in this respect.

Your never going to seperate what you beleive from what you are. It's just not going to happen. Human biases are not only never going go away they are also simply very nessicary. On the other hand it's very much possible to temper your impulses with logic and question yourself and your judgement on a fairly regular basis.

It's kinda how you can seperate the nuts cases from reasonable people.

If you realy beleive in God and such and that he created the world and has a active role in people's lives and has goals and such for the human race there are some things that would make sense to a reasonable person..

For instance if God created the universe wouldn't science be the most wonderfull thing in the world? Gaining a deeper understanding of human history, biological history, geology and physics etc. etc. is going to give you a deeper understanding of God's methodology for creating, er... creation. This should be a _good_ thing. If you beleive in God then all science ultimately can do is prove that he had a hand in everything.

There are very "high up" people that certainly beleive this is the correct way to look at things. (link)

I tend to agree.

Anyways, so if God created the world, he set the gears in motion for the world. In a political argument, even when your a deeply religious person, you should be able to come up with VERY good reasons why or why not this or that should be done. He is the mechanic, so all you have to do is find the logical reasons behind his rules to support your position in a way that should make all the sense in the world to someone who doesn't beleive in god in the least.

For example: 'Thou shall not steal'. It doesn't have much a athiest can disagree with, does it?

In a similar fasion you don't have to resort to 'Because Ford Corporation said so' when your trying to convince a person that a car needs oil to operate properly. You only have to point out the mechanics of the device and how it will overheat and lockup without proper lubrication.

In fact having people throw around the 'god card' to justify actions or positions are very good indicators that they are probably wrong and have no logic behind their actions and probably are full of crap anyways.

Mon Feb 26 01:00:29 2007: 2878   Fred

I too believe that for the rabid open-source zealots to condemn those who don't agree with them is totally uncalled-for. In fact, I strongly believe that that could very well be a factor in why open-source hasn't really taken off on the desktop -- and IMHO, the more rabid open-source zealots have only themselves to blame for it. They've got to learn that they're never gonna get anywhere with that attitude, never mind the fact that open-source is indeed a superior technology. But they've got to knock it off or else risk alienating those that might have otherwise agreed to at least try Linux or whatever. And I for one don't want people to think about such people with immature attitudes whenever they think of open-source. I for one wanna see 'em try Linux or whatever and think "wow, this program/OS/whatever really ROCKS, and it's FREE to boot!" I can guarantee that such rave reviews will never happen as long as such dogmatic attitudes exist in the open-source movement.

Sat Oct 10 12:58:02 2009: 7171   TonyLawrence

Interesting comments about Stallman at (link)

He may be a nutter (only a tad more than I am, though), but he's dead right about lying down with Microsoft. That's idiotic.


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