Open Source is the Solution to Proprietary (and Harmful) Religion

I’m a computer nerd. I spend way too much time building and configuring computers. Hollywood stereotypes might tell us that men want to hide in the garage building a hot-rod, but I’m different. Instead, I set up an opnSense router out of an old PC because I don’t like the one that my internet provider supplies me with. I would assume that most people would question the necessity of replacing an ISP provided router but for me there is more at play: openness, freedom, and individual autonomy. By utilizing open source software I can better control my hardware, software and personal data.

What is Open Source?

opnSense works for me largely because it is free, open source, and incredibly powerful enterprise software. Open source software (OSS) is a radical movement within software development that advances the paradigms of intellectual co-operation, resource sharing and transparency. Beyond it’s usefulness in the software world, it has become clear to me that open source philosophies can benefit our spiritualities, religions and worldviews.

You see, there are two fundamentally different ideologies when it comes to computer software: proprietary and open source.

The Apples and Microsofts of the world are mostly proprietary. These companies are designed to make money through hidden code; the source of their programs is written by approved individuals and protected by non-disclosure agreements and copyrights. The code is not openly available to a larger audience of developers. They gain their competitive advantage by being secretive. Nothing is necessarily wrong with these companies or business models but their worth is found in control. They control the operating system—and sometimes even more—in an effort to maximize earnings for shareholders. Proprietary businesses have pioneered incredible things in the computer world and beyond so there is still room for their contributions. For better or worse, they are the pinnacle of capitalism.

On the other side is open source software. OSS is an umbrella term for many different licenses and philosophies. It is software that has the code available, to some degree, for use, inspection, contribution and alteration. OSS is free, often monetarily but always–to varying degrees–ideologically.

That’s not to say that money can’t be made through OSS, because it can. Often it is “pay what your want” or donation style funding strategies. Sometimes money can be made from associated services. For example: uses software called Ghost for a content management system. Ghost is open source and free. It can be downloaded and self-hosted for free but the people behind it also offer an easy to setup and professionally managed hosting solution that they charge for.

Beyond the financial aspect, OSS is often developed because developers recognize a need and have a desire to create something to satisfy it. It’s about teamwork, openness, passion, skill and creativity.

That underlying motivation is the difference between OSS and proprietary software. OSS tends to be community oriented and benefits from the work of many talented individuals. In this way future work can be improved and adapted from previous work. Proprietary software often only provides value as a means to a financial end. Both ultimately benefit the consumer but are born from two opposing ideologies.

The Problem with Apple®

Years ago there was UNIX, a computer operating system which was itself derived from software created by AT&T. The University of California Berkeley used UNIX to develop an operating system called BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution) with a very liberal license. Because the license was permissive, Steve Jobs would later use BSD to develop macOS. BSD’s license didn’t have any provisions preventing it so Apple closed its fork of the source code and turned it into proprietary software (Apple does still develop an open source core operating system called “Darwin” but closed the source behind much of the macOS features).

Remember opnSense, the open source router software I mentioned earlier? It was forked from pfSense which is also based on BSD. My internet router and many other disparate computer systems share common ancenstry with macOS due to open source philosophy. Who knows what intrepid future developers could have created from MacOS had the source code been available?

I find the similarities between computer software and religion striking. Jobs’ treatment of BSD is similar to the way that religious movements have treated those that came before. Religion has a storied history of “forking” and closing the source of something that could be free and open. Closed religions create exclusion and tribalism instead of the improvement and adaptation that we could see if religion used an open source model.

In the same way that closed-source religion can create beautiful liturgies, Apple creates beautiful products. An iPhone is a well made machine but by design it restricts you to it’s proprietary ecosystem. You must do things the way Apple wants you to (no file explorer, being pressured into first-party apps, inability to develop certain third-party apps, etc). If it was economically viable then Apple would be even more restrictive. In fact, Steve Jobs initially didn’t want an App Store but embracing third party developers turned out to be one of the key factors in the iPhone’s success. Proprietary software, like religion, only gives you the minimum amount of control of your own products (or faith).

In closed-source religion the “authorities” became the ultimate arbiters of truth similar to how “authorities” at Microsoft determine what code gets published. Religious authorities used their truth to further the gulf between them and the others that believe differently. Like copyright wars in the tech industry, religions claim exclusive intellectual property rights on The Almighty. This brand of exclusivist religion has fuelled the flames of tribalism and we have all suffered the consequences. We could have been enjoying the benefits of pluralistic societies where people can maintain their branch of religion while learning and appreciating other branches. Instead we have been using our proprietary religion to divide humanity in unhelpful ways.

Religion has become a tightly manicured collection of self-serving propaganda. With the help of proprietary principles, tech companies and religions have both created their fair share of unquestioning zealots with an undying love for their chosen god. There is a better way.

A Better Way

We live in a time when information is the most available it has ever been. We exist in a global perspective. No longer can we insulate ourselves from other groups and we cannot pretend that the others are backward savages in need of a salvation that we are chosen to administer.

It is time to open the source of religion. We need to be able to read the code to see what it means and how it functions. We should be able to improve and adapt. We must allow inter-faith collaboration because bugs need to be squashed. We need to liberate the dogma of exclusivist religion because our particular religious solution will never have all the answers and may actually create more confusion than it solves. In many ways we are acting as stewards of an ultimate truth that we are wholly unqualified for.

We can create beautiful religion by taking an open approach to orthodoxy and orthopraxy by engaging in conversation and collaboration. We should be able to maintain our own open source beliefs while learning from and adapting while allowing others to maintain their own open religious forks.