April 16, 2006

Christian endorsement of Free Software increases

Author: Marco Fioretti

Last November I described the Free Software's Surprising Affinity with Catholic Doctrine. Since then, several important things happened, from feedback by Stallman and other Free SW users to the birth, or acceleration, of some projects specifically based on the concept that Christians have even more reasons than others to adopt Free Software.What did the Internet say?

The first reaction to “Surprising Affinity” was a robust amount of flames in the related NewsForge forum, something which prompted this interesting question on Christdot: “Seems like if you mention religion on a technology site, you'd better dodge the ensuing flames. I'm not exactly sure why this is. I know it's geeky to not have a social life. But is it geeky to be skeptical? Are the reasons similar?”. More on this later.

The article itself was announced by Mirror of Justice as “an application of Catholic legal theory that had never occurred to them”. David Opderbeck wrote that “Surprising Affinity” approaches a Christian theory of intellectual property and that he intended to do “some serious scholarly work on this in the near future." A.P. Lawrence noted that 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. Another reader mentioned the piece as something that “would make his mom proud of my affiliation with Free Software!”. Right after publishing my article, I also discovered another one which compares some religious (Christian-specific) concepts to aspects of the Free Software community.

What does Stallman think?

Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, is an atheist. We privately discussed possible affinities with Christian philosophy while preparing my interview on Scouting and Free Software. Back then, Stallman wrote to me that “indeed, it seems to me that a sincere Christian must condemn non-free software as satanic in spirit. If you were Satan, and you wanted to corrode the bonds of society, what could be more effective than offering individuals something attractive, profitable or fun, on condition that they refuse to share it with anyone else?" For the same reasons, he added, "Christians should reject proprietary software because it forbids people to express love for their neighbors."

After “Surprising Affinity” was published, I contacted Stallman again to ask permission to include those quotes in this follow-up and to ask what he thinks of my theses. This is his answer to my comment that some Vatican documents sounded like they had been written by him: “People who don't really know my views might think so. Since values such as access, equality, and more equitable distribution of wealth are widely understood, while few understand the concept that freedom to redistribute and change software, people often mistakenly suppose that the Free Software movement is about the former three rather than the last. And they often tell others this. The misinformation has spread widely, but it remains erroneous. I am in favor of extending access to the Internet to everyone, provided that this is done in a way that respects their freedom (i.e., with Free Software). I am in favor of equal rights, and in distributing wealth more equitably. But the primary goal of the Free Software movement is something different and more focused: freedom in using your computer, and freedom to cooperate in a community when doing so."

I had also written that the right to freely choose which programs to use for computer-based communication is the same expressed in Stallman's essay on Treacherous Computing. His reply on this is that “it's a misunderstanding to say that my article is arguing for users ability to 'choose which programs to use.' In fact, those words misrepresent my views entirely. The issue here is whether the user community can develop its own programs to access their data. The aim of Treacherous Computing is to make that impossible." Stallman is obviously right as far as his article goes: my mistake was to not make clear that I was specifically thinking about people who can use Free Software, but would never be able to code or contribute to it in any other way.

What's going on in the USA

Rev. Parris, who I already mentioned in my other article, is the author of "IT as Ministry" and “Penguin in the Pew 2.0” (also available in print), a book which helps Christian ministries discover the advantages of Free Software.

Predictably, whenever he explains this subject, the biggest obstacles Parris faces aren't technical. Just like anybody else, he says, most Christians are “somewhat stagnant." They do not understand or care enough about technology to grasp the nature of the discussion. Resistance to change is quite strong, even among many pastors. He normally counters it by pointing out that change is possible, at any age, and that this is the just message of the Gospel - that anyone can be changed: “whether it's relationships or technology, we are not statues, immobile and unchangeable. We are human. We can learn new things."

To make things even more interesting, Parris adds with a smile, “often Christians think I am trying to conform Scripture to technology, while the non-Christians feel I should leave religion out of the discussion altogether. I get "burned at the stake" on a regular basis by both sides.

None of these obstacles, however, are stopping him and quite a few others. A few weeks after publication of “Surprising Affinity” Parris reported on a third-party project aiming to “web empower 10,000 churches by 2010. Besides his own community, Parris is also active in the US branch of the non-denominational Freely Project, which even encourages non-Christians to participate. Freely and several other groups are also creating a Libre Software Solution Stack for Christian Churches. Eventually, this should become a one-stop meta-repository of software for tasks like Lyrics projection, Bible study or Church management. All these applications already exist. Most of them are already included in, or at least packaged for, all major Gnu/Linux distributions, included the Freely Project default, Ubuntu. Other ongoing activities include writing documentation for the same systems and the creation of templates of all kinds, from OpenDocument letters to LDAP configuration files customized for Church usage. The Freely Project also provides online technical support to ministries, or helps Churches to find local assistance.

A Catholic approach to Information Technology

Here in Italy, following the publication of “Surprising Affinity," Other Catholics and I started to discuss how to build a project with a somewhat more focused scope. This project is now defined, reachable online, and open to new members. Its name is Eleutheros: a Catholic Approach to Information Technology.

Eleutheros (ancient Greek for “Free as in freedom”) starts just where “Surprising Affinity” stopped. The Eleutheros Manifesto begins with the acknowledgment that, unless proper care is taken to choose truly open digital technologies, the universal and perpetual access to the message of the Catholic Church, or to any other kind of information, may be severely limited.

On another level, the Manifesto also points out that even many Catholics use proprietary software illegally, simply for lack of enough information, and that other kinds of software appear much more in line with Catholic doctrine.

The Eleutheros mission is therefore to help all the Catholic Church, from the Vatican to every Parish, Catholic school or single faithful worldwide, to put in practice Her own teachings in the choice and usage of Information Technology. For this reason, one activity of Eleutheros will be the study of the Scriptures, and all official Catholic documents, to highlight all guidelines which may already point towards the adoption of non-proprietary file formats and software.

Other, more operative objectives declared in the Manifesto include working inside the Catholic Church in order to:

  • Increase the awareness of the ethical reasons to prefer Free Software and non proprietary formats
  • Request the official adoption, without exceptions, of non proprietary formats and protocols, by all Catholic organizations
  • Promote migration to Free Software whenever possible
  • Request that IT teaching in Catholic Schools of every kind is based on Free Software

Unlike many of the other projects previously mentioned, Eleutheros is denominational, meaning that it is a Catholic project specifically targeting the Catholic Church. This doesn't mean that it is a closed group without any interest in the rest of the world. As explicitly stated, both in the Manifesto and the Eleutheros FAQ, cooperation with other religion-oriented Free Software groups is certainly possible, if not requested. Useful partnerships, for example, may be established to package, localize and document any kind of Church-related Free Software, but certainly this is not the only possibility. Suggestions are welcome!

Right now, Eleutheros only counts Italian members, but the project is obviously open to Catholics worldwide. To contact the Eleutheros community, be it to join or simply to know more about the project or exchange information, just send an email to info@eleutheros.it.

Two final questions

  • Is it geeky to be skeptical?
  • Should (any) religion be ignored when evaluating Free (or any other) software?

I will let Newsforge readers answer the first question. As far as the second one is concerned, I will answer it myself -- with another question: If the Free in Free Software is about Freedom, not price, why should it be a surprise if one's ethical beliefs, whatever they are, are taken into account when making a software choice?


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