stallmanism and religion
warning: read this only if you are really bored!!! i have no idea why i am posting this. maybe i just feel the need to publish my work to the world (and by world i mean the five people that occasionaly read my blog).
Stallmanism and Religion
“Free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer.”
The above statement comes from “The Free Software Definition” on the GNU Project’s webpage. Richard M. Stallman began this project in 1984 with the goal of creating a completely “free” operating system. With the GNU Project as its genesis, an entire movement has begun to create this “free” software. While there are differing motivations behind this movement, ideology, as can be seen from the quote above, plays an integral role. Many varying factions exist within the movement, yet one of the main ideologies is that held by Stallman and the GNU Project. As this ideology has its beginnings with Stallman’s work, I will use the term “Stallmanism” when referring to it. In this paper, I will discuss similarities between some characteristics of Stallmanism and those of some major religions. While the analogy obviously doesn’t hold perfectly, my purpose in doing this is to show that a connection between the world of computer science and religion can be made, that Stallmanism should be recognized as a distinct ideology, and that this is an interesting topic which deserves continued research and study. After establishing the originality of my argument, I will discuss in particular the existence of the Golden Rule in Stallmanism and religion, similar characteristics of leaders and followers in Stallmanism and religion, similarities between the basic texts of religions and Stallmanism, and the existence of the concept of “Good vs. Evil” in both.
I have previously studied the scholarly work that hasbeen done concerning motivations within the open source/free software movement. Various surveys have been conducted to discover why programmers participate in the movement. The motivations found could be broken into the categories of personal, social, ideological, and economic. I found a number of articles discussing the personal, social, and economic motivations, yet very few were dedicated to the ideological motivations within the movement. Much has been written concerning these ideologies, yet this has been done mostly on an informal level outside the realm of peer-reviewed scholarly work. Therefore, there is a gap within the academic works concerning the topic of the open source/free software movement’s ideology, and one of my aims in writing this paper is to show how interesting and deserving of further research this topic is.
Though my argument that non-religious ideologies have similarities to religion is not original, as, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “ideologies, such as Soviet Marxism, Maoism, and Fascism, may have analogies to religion” (“religion, study of”), I am the first to make such a comparison with Stallmanism.
Stallmanism is similar to other great religions in that the “Golden Rule” is one of its basic tenets. According to H.T.D. Rost, “Golden Rule statements are found in virtually every major world religion today” (Rost, 8). The Golden Rule, in a general sense, is the moral that one should always treat one’s peers equal or better than oneself. In Christianity, it is “Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself” (Palmer et. al. 245). In Confucianism, it is “Do not unto others what you would not they should do unto you” (Palmer et. al. 245). In Hinduism, “Do not to others what ye do not wish Done to yourself; and wish for others too What ye desire and long for, for yourself” (Palmer et. al. 245). In Islam, “None of you believe until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself” (Palmer et. al. 245). And in Judaism, the Rabbi Hillel is claimed to have said “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof,” (Palmer et. al. 245). The Golden Rule can be found within Stallmanism. One of the four basic freedoms listed in the GNU Project’s definition of free software is: “The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor” (GNU Project “Definition”). The idea of using the tools available to help a neighbor is quite similar to the many statements from religions above.
Often while speaking on the beginnings of the GNU Project, Stallman relates an anecdote of his first experience with another programmer not helping a neighbor. The story goes that the MIT AI Lab received a laser printer from Xerox as a gift. While this printer was much more technically advanced than their previous printer, it often became jammed. So, the programmers at the Lab decided to modify the printer’s software to alleviate the problem, but Xerox refused to give them the source code. Stallman heard that a programmer at Carnegie Mellon University had received the source code, so he asked for a copy so the MIT programmers could modify it. The man at Carnegie Mellon refused because he had signed an agreement to not distribute the code. Stallman says that this experience taught him the wrongs of not helping one’s neighbors (GNU Project “Cooperation”). In lamenting the world of proprietary software that he feels is against the Golden Rule by making sharing a crime, he says, “I am working to build a system where people are free to decide their own actions; in particular, free to help their neighbors,” (Stallman, “Why Free”). Thus, Stallmanism shares with other major religions the basic moral tenet known as the Golden Rule.
In a study of many of the world religions, one sees that many began through the leadership of one head figure. Christianity had Jesus Christ, Islam had Mohammed, Judaism had Moses, and Buddhism had Siddhartha Gautama. Similarly, Stallmanism began with one man: Richard M. Stallman. There are a number of similarities between these religious leaders and Stallman.
Intelligence is a common characteristic among the religious leaders. For example, while little is known about Christ’s younger life, one story preserved in the Bible is of Jesus sitting in the temple as a child speaking with the scholars. According to the story, “all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers,” (Holy Bible, Luke 2:46-47) showing he was a person of great intelligence. Stallman also displayed many characteristics of a child prodigy. Sam Williams, Stallman’s biographer, speaks of him reading calculus textbooks at age 7, confusing adults with his overly complicated language, and seeming “scary” to his peers. One person who knew Stallman as a young man is quoted as saying, “I’ve known a lot of smart people, but I think he was the smartest person I’ve ever known” (Williams 3) Stallman studied at Harvard and MIT (Williams 6), and was also awarded the MacArthur Fellowship in 1990 (Williams 2), which is popularly called the “genius award.”
A number of religious leaders experienced some sort of trial or hardship at some point in their lives. For example, Confucius, from age 3, lived a life of poverty after his father passed away (Palmer et. al. 100). Mohammed as a child was orphaned and lived in poverty into his adulthood (Palmer et. al. 214). Stallman experienced similar trials in the divorce of his parents, and then in the death of his grandparents (Williams 3). As in the religious leaders' lives, these events triggered the beginning of his separation from the world around him and his beginning to question what he saw in society.
Almost all religious leaders began their search for truth because of dissatisfaction with the society and world they lived in. Particularly famous is the story of Siddhartha Gautama seeing an old man, a sick man, and a dead body, and then going on a spiritual journey to discover the reasons for the suffering he saw (Palmer et. al. 50). Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism, became disenchanted with the government aristocratic life of China, and left to discover a new life (Palmer et. al. 89). Zarathustra, founder of Zoroastrianism, lived as a priest, but felt that the religion of his culture failed to answer the problems he saw in life, so he left on a journey to find truth (Palmer et. al. 149). Stallman’s story is surprisingly similar. He worked as a programmer at the MIT AI Lab for a number of years and watched as the community of sharing that had developed broke down due to the growth in proprietary software. As stated before, he felt that not sharing code was against the Golden Rule, so he decided to break away from the developing world of proprietary software to begin his own movement in response (GNU Project, “Cooperation”).
Richard M. Stallman, as the founder of the free software movement, displays many characteristics similar to the founders and leaders of the major world religions.
There are some interesting similarities between the followers of Stallmanism and the followers of the various religions. One aspect of many Western religions along with Buddhism, etc, is the belief in self-denial. Followers of these religions practice this system of self-denial in order to gain the promised rewards. Stallmanism also has a sense of self-denial in it. In his essay entitled “The Free Software Community After 20 Years: With great but incomplete success, what now?” Stallman talks about why free software should be used over proprietary software, even when the proprietary software is more usable and advanced. He claims that using the proprietary software is supporting the system that destroys freedom. According to him, though it may be a sacrifice, using free software is the only way to promote freedom. So followers of this movement believe that by denying themselves the luxuries sometimes related to proprietary software, they are furthering the cause of freedom, including their own.
Many religions have a method of proselytizing to spread the system and increase its popularity. Many times, followers of a particular system take it upon themselves to teach others of and proclaim the goodness of their beliefs. Similarly, those followers of Stallmanism display similar tendencies to spread their system to others. If one goes to a popular, “geek” website such as Slashdot.org and reads any news story concerning free/proprietary software along with the reader comments, this is readily visible. Readers vehemently debate the viability of free software, the need for individual freedom, and the evils of proprietary software. Obviously, not all of the readers agree with Stallamanist ideology, so those that are followers are continually proclaiming the benefits of free software such as better security, the ability to modify, and most fundamentally, freedom.
Most of the world religions have texts concerning their various belief systems. Within Christianity, there is the Bible, within Islam the Koran, and within Buddhism, there is the Tripitaka. The texts contain such various things as stories about significant figures within the religion, doctrinal essays, and administrative instructions. In this way, the teachings of the particular religion are preserved, spread, and learned. Similarly, Stallmanism has various basic texts concerning the movement. Though these texts are not in any way considered sacred, they are considered authoritative. Probably most basic of these texts is “The Free Software Definition.” This text contains the GNU Project’s and Stallmanism’s beliefs of what freedoms are required to make a piece of software “free.” In a sense, it is a basic declaration on the doctrines of the movement. This can be compared to the creeds of early Christianity such as the Nicene Creed. These were declarations of basic doctrines used to avoid confusion and misunderstanding.
Beyond the basic declarations, documented on the GNU Project’s website are a number of histories of the project and the movement. Most of these have been written by Stallman himself, but resemble the historical aspects of the four Gospels found in the Bible. The histories tell the tale of the humble beginnings of the project as Stallman declared his purposes and began looking for supporters. Slowly, the movement began to gain followers and popularity. Eventually, “persecution” from various places such as propriety software companies and disagreements within the movement began. All of this follows closely the story of Christ beginning his movement 2000 years ago in Palestine.
Also, there is a large collection of Stallman’s and others involved in the movement’s writings concerning philosophy and other related topics such as intellectual property and freedom of speech. All of these bear similarity to the latter half of the New Testament’s letters written by the leaders of the early Christian church. These letters were used to clarify and deepen the doctrines of the religion, much in the same way that these texts do with the Stallmanism movement.
Additionally, listed on the GNU Project’s website are a large number of speeches and interviews given by Stallman. Because he plays a leadership role in the movement, these transcripts too are considered almost canonically as declarations of the movement’s philosophy. Whenever Stallman makes a statement on a particular topic, a headline is posted on popular, “geek” news websites such as Slashdot.org and Newsforge.org with a link to the text. These stories also tend to draw hundreds of comments from readers, some agreeing and some critical. Similarly, when major religious leaders such as the Pope make statements, it makes headlines on major news sources, and also draws in commentary both positive and negative.
As can be seen, both Stallmanism and religion share a similar characteristic of having basic texts outlining the tenets of belief and treat their leader’s statements as authoritative.
Good vs. Evil:
One basic theme throughout religion is that of good vs. evil. “Evil” is found in various forms whether it is a being such as Satan in Christianity, or something more intangible such as human nature in Buddhism. This idea of good vs. evil is also basic to Stallmanism. According to Stallman, proprietary software is the basic evil of the software world. In his essay entitled “The GNU Project,” he says:
The idea that the proprietary-software social system, the system that says you are not allowed to share or change software, is antisocial, that it is unethical, that it is simply wrong, may come as a surprise to some readers. But what else could we say about a system based on dividing the public and keeping users helpless?
Words such as “antisocial,” “unethical,” and “wrong” all demonstrate this belief. Many times, the Microsoft Corporation is used as a symbol for this evil. Throughout Stallman’s essays and speeches, small jabs at Microsoft and Bill Gates can be found. There is even an essay on the GNU website entitled “Is Microsoft the Great Satan?” While it says Microsoft is not the one and only corporation working against Stallmanism, it does state that there is a high amount of antagonism towards the company, especially “since Microsoft expressed active hostility towards free software” (GNU Project, “Microsoft”)
Stallmanism is one of the ideologies that have grown up surrounding the free software movement begun by Richard M. Stallman in the early 80s. This ideology has many similarities between major religious movements around the world. While a wide variety of topics could be discussed, I have focused on four in particular. First, in both most major religious movements and Stallmanism, there is a variation of the Golden Rule, where helping others is considered a basic tenet of belief. Second, many founders of religious movements and Stallman have similar characteristics such as intelligence, childhood trials, and dissatisfaction with society. Third, the followers of religions and Stallmanism are similar in many aspects such as the practice of self-denial and proselytizing. Fourth, there exist texts outlining basic beliefs, doctrines, and history in both religion and Stallmanism. Finally, the concept of “Good vs. Evil”, with the practice of giving “evil” some form exists in religion and Stallmanism. These similarities show that comparisons can be drawn between the world of computers and religion, that Stallmanism has many interesting characteristics making it deserving of being recognized as its own ideological movement, and the need for further research and study into this topic.
The GNU Project. “The Free Software Definition.” 03/21/2005. 04/19/2005. http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html
The GNU Project. “Free Software: Freedom and Cooperation.” 05/29/2001. 04/19/2005 http://www.gnu.org/events/rms-nyu-2001-transcript.html.
The GNU Project. “Is Microsoft the Great Satan?” 2001. 4/19/2005. http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/microsoft.html
The Holy Bible, King James Version. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. 1979.
Palmer, Spencer J., Keller, Roger R., Choi, Dong Sull, and Toronto, James A. Religions of the World: A Latter-Day Saint View. Provo UT: Brigham Young University, 1997. “religion, study of.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2005.
Encyclopedia Britannica Online?19 Apr. 2005 http://search.eb.com/eb/article?tocId=38039
Stallman, Richard M. “Why Software Should Be Free.” The GNU Project. 04/24/1992. 04/19/2005. http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/shouldbefree.html
Stallman, Richard M. “The Free Software Community After 20 Years: With great but incomplete success, what now?” The GNU Project. 05/21/2004. 04/19/2005. http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/use-free-software.html
Stallman, Richard M. “The GNU Project.” 2001. 4/19/2005. http://www.gnu.org/gnu/thegnuproject.html
Williams, Sam. Free as in Freedom. O’Reilly & Associates, March 2002. 04/19/2005. http://www.oreilly.com/openbook/freedom/index.html