Christianity and Free Software

For several years I’ve been meaning to write on the relationship between Christianity and the moral principles of the Free Software Movement (which holds that having free software is a moral good). I’ve finally had a chance to do just that. The essay is about 2,500 words, so should take 10-15 minutes to read. It’s available as HTML, PDF and ODT. Feedback welcomed.

26 thoughts on “Christianity and Free Software

  1. An interesting read, and interesting application of Vanhoozer’s approach.

    One small thought — the second paragraph (on the OSI) was for me a bit of a red herring. You state your objective clearly enough in terms of the FSF at the end of the previous paragraph, but that second paragraph aroused an expectation that you would be returning to this distinction at some point later in the essay. Maybe better the whole paragraph deserves relegaton to a footnote?

    Or perhaps, in an expanded edition :), you could satisfy the readerly expectations aroused by giving the OSI further thought later in the essay. I couldn’t help but make an intuitive connection between your brief account of the OSI and “idolatry” as it appears in the middle of the “In The Light Of The Gospel” section (“a humanistic idea of shared social progress as an ultimate goal”). Perhaps a false connection, but what would deeper analysis reveal?

    At any rate, thanks for this stimulating essay!

  2. Very interesting. However, the aspects you attribute to Christianity can also apply to many other religions and cultures.

    I think in that sense open source ideas fit in very nicely with many cultures that place value in sharing, cooperating, etc.

    I find many people think open source is like communism, but I think it is more like what capitalism should really be — being able to make decisions based on as full a set of information as you can have. You can’t really get more info than open source in IT now, can you!

  3. The first major argument is the increased ability to help your neighbour, as discussed above. Using free software puts you in a better position to do this. One aspect of loving your neighbour is meeting his needs. If you own a copy of BibleWorks (which is proprietary software) and another Christian who would benefit from it asks you for a copy, you are in a moral dilemma. You are physically able to help them, but the agreement you signed with the authors prevents you.

    Isn’t this where the one who is asked would either (a) relinquish the software to the one who asks, or (b) purchase another copy of the software? The software doesn’t have to be free for one person to help another. In fact, there is some Scriptural basis for the idea that the true spirit of giving involves a cost — giving “that which costs me nothing” does not show as much of a spirit of love as giving something that requires sacrifice.

  4. I’m a student at Dallas Theological Seminary, and I also work as their director of web development. I’m taking a class in Theology and Society in which we’re using Vanhoozer as a textbook, so I really appreciate your thoughtful merging theology and technology.

    Your research and reflections are very well done. My only comment is that those not already familiar with the free software movement might not know how you’re still about to make a living and feed the kids if all you do is produce free software. It might be helpful to mention creative money making practices like Mozilla Foundation receiving money from Google for being the default search provider. (in a sense, this addresses Thomas’ comment about cost)

    Also, there is an interesting combination of free software and free text in the NET Bible translation (incidentally, the translators are mostly DTS profs). The creators wanted to make a translation available on the internet for free with a “release early and often” mindset as they revise and update it. It is also heavily “commented.” It is not completely free like software in that it cannot be freely modified, but it can be freely used electronically and even printed for use in contexts where people can’t afford a bible.

  5. It rambles a bit, like you were never really certain what it was you wanted to write about. Are you trying to compare free software with Christianity, or are you trying to explain what you think Christianity says about free software? Doing both in the same essay is confusing. You should split it into two if you want to do both.

    If this was only meant to be read by Christians, you really need to specify your target audience. It’s rude to waste people’s time having them read something, only for them to realize after several minutes that you had no intention of them getting anything out of it. If you wanted it to be accessible to non-Christians, you should know that it’s not.

    You need to state at the beginning that you are writing from the perspective of a Christian. You seem to think theology means Christianity, but you shouldn’t expect your readers to feel the same way.

    You took no effort to clarify religious terms. You often refer to “the gospel”, but the definitions I looked at restrict this term to four books of the Christian bible covering Jesus, while you seem to be using it in a more general sense. Also, what is “the true Creation and Fall” or “the Enlightenment”? It’s ridiculous to start throwing these terms around without giving any clue at all as to what they might mean.

    Time after time you assume the reader has a strong Christian background, without ever telling the reader that they’ll be wasting their time if they’re not a Christian. If you only intended for this essay to be read by Christians, you need to state this at the beginning.

  6. David Reimer: I guess the original idea was to determine whether Christians should be in the Free Software or the Open Source camp – and the conclusion is that it’s somewhere in between. Perhaps that didn’t come across well.

    Thomas: Buying another copy is an idea, but it doesn’t scale well :-) I agree giving in Scripture normally involves a cost; but Scripture doesn’t really address the giving of things which have no cost. Which is why extrapolating into that realm requires care.

    I don’t think making something have a cost just so you can give it more sacrificially would fit the Biblical idea of good stewardship.

    John Dyer: I’ve seen the NET Bible. I think it’s a great idea, although I would much prefer it if it were truly Free. It seems to me that we shouldn’t fear others taking it and doing bad things with it; God will safeguard his Word, just as he has for the last two thousand years.

    James Justin Harrell said: If this was only meant to be read by Christians, you really need to specify your target audience. It’s rude to waste people’s time having them read something, only for them to realize after several minutes that you had no intention of them getting anything out of it. If you wanted it to be accessible to non-Christians, you should know that it’s not.

    Thanks for your comments. The index page does try and warn that I use some technical theological terms; perhaps I should beef up the warning a bit. I’m sorry if you felt misled. I don’t intend this essay just to be read by Christians, although I guess it’s fair to say that they are the target audience.

    You took no effort to clarify religious terms. You often refer to “the gospel”, but the definitions I looked at restrict this term to four books of the Christian bible covering Jesus, while you seem to be using it in a more general sense. Also, what is “the true Creation and Fall” or “the Enlightenment”?

    I was using “gospel” in senses 1 and 6 from the definition at dictionary.com. The “true Creation and Fall” are the ones recorded in Genesis. “The Enlightenment” is not a religious term – in fact, quite the reverse. It’s a secular philosophical movement.

    Nick: Thanks, fixed.

  7. Free software is good for everyone, regardless of religion.
    Yet most of free software users I know are atheists (me too).
    Maybe the importance of liberty is the thing that connects it. (meaning also liberty from people who are telling you what you should do – free software users do what they want with their software, atheists do what they want in life)

  8. this propaganda advert for your own lifestyle misses some obvious points.

    * why should a competent professional programmer seek to reduce the market value of his livelihood by giving software away? how do you square this with him then being unable to support his family, etc. what about e.g. india which is now starting to boom thanks to the software industry. you don’t address the key supply side arguments which really define the free software movement at the moment (at least as far as the people who take part)

    * Christianity is singled out here but the points you make would all apply to any other religion, communism, or free-love-hippy-ism.

    * why should software be freely copyable but not, say, the output of a novelist, artist, musician, architect, scientist, etc.

    * why should consumers of this care about the technical distinction between open source and free software?

  9. Ed: I wouldn’t call it a “propaganda advert”. It’s written from a Christian point of view, certainly. How else would you expect me to write?

    * The essay doesn’t seek to address this question. But there are standard replies to it within the free software community, which have been developed without a specifically Christian analysis.

    * I don’t agree. I think that Communism, for example, would come to a very different conclusion about the moralities of free and closed source software.

    * See my first answer.

    * Because it’s not a technical distinction, but a social and moral one. As you may have noticed, almost all free software is open source software, and vice versa. What’s the difference? Free software advocates see software freedom as a moral good. So the distinction is important.

  10. i’m not saying i would expect any different from you. however, your article seeks to establish a connection between your particular brand of Christianity and your particular brand of free software where none exists.

    fact: proprietary software is completely compatible with Christianity, in the same way that [pretty much] any other professional occupation is

    fact: atheism is completely compatible with free software, as are all religious belief systems i can think of. many free software zealots do in fact hold strong opinions against Christianity

    so from that you could argue that there is more or less no correlation between religious belief and choice of software license, despite your efforts to imply one.

    free software people often come across as overly “pious” (in a non-religious sense) about their motivations for doing stuff, and trying to bring Jesus into it is an extension of that i suppose.

  11. fact: proprietary software is completely compatible with Christianity, in the same way that [pretty much] any other professional occupation is

    It would help if you actually read the essay and considered its arguments before commenting. I agree that proprietary software is not a sin, and say so in the last few paragraphs. However, I think that free software has numerous social benefits that proprietary software doesn’t, and so a Christian should prefer free software. How about interacting with the argument I do make rather than one that I don’t?

    fact: atheism is completely compatible with free software, as are all religious belief systems i can think of. many free software zealots do in fact hold strong opinions against Christianity

    Your second sentence is true, although it does not by itself imply your first sentence, as people can (and regularly do) hold inconsistent beliefs. Regardless, my essay did not attempt to address this question, so there’s not much point in you trying to argue with a point I didn’t make.

    so from that you could argue that there is more or less no correlation between religious belief and choice of software license, despite your efforts to imply one.

    (Again, this is not a question the essay sought to address.) You are probably right that, as a matter of observation, currently there is no or little correlation. However, “is” does not imply “ought”. Just because there is little correlation does not mean there ought to be little correlation. I think that I can make a Biblical case that Christians should prefer free software (although it’s not a moral issue). Hence my essay.

  12. Thanks to Gervase for this essay. As another example (specifically targeting Catholics, but the approach is valid in general) that Catholics, or all religious people, have even more reasons than others to adopt Free standards and software, and for some practical proposals on how to do it, you may want to have a look at the Eleutheros Project (http://www.eleutheros.it/ ) especially the Manifesto and the two pieces of mine in the articles section which started the project.

    Feedback, even via direct email, is always welcome.

    Marco Fioretti

  13. I think that proprietary software has numerous social benefits that free software doesn’t, to name just a few examples

    * those with skills make money out of it to provide for their families

    * the resulting competitive edge increases quality for everyone (pro vs. amateur) and fosters innovation

    * no writers of proprietary software that I know of openly advocate piracy

    However, I don’t think that being a Christian has any bearing on preferring one over the other. I find the suggestion that it does just a little bit demeaning to Christianity.

  14. Ed:

    • There are many people providing for their families while working on free software, because there are plenty of ways to make money from free software.
    • Free software is not “amateur”. Firefox has the largest proprietary software company in the world scrambling to keep up, and has won boatloads of awards. What’s amateurish about that?
    • You can have competition and innovation without proprietary software. See GNOME vs. KDE, Linux vs BSD, Firefox vs. Konqueror and so on. Innovation in the free software space is driven by user need, not by the need to sell upgrades to your latest version. No free software sits stagnant if its users want it to do more.
    • I know of one writer of proprietary software who advocates making illegal copies of it, and that’s RMS – but only if you have a copy and a friend asks you for it. And he goes on to say it’s much better not to be in that situation in the first place. While I disagree, that’s hardly the same as setting up a CD pressing plant making copies of Microsoft Office 2007.
    • On the other hand, call a few of the writers of proprietary software that you know and ask them if they’ve ever downloaded music illegally from the Internet. Then get off your high horse. There are lawbreakers in both camps. I haven’t tried to tar all proprietary software makers with the same brush based on the views of some; and I don’t think it’s reasonable to do that for authors of free software either.

    (By the way, you could send me your email address and this conversation could happen a lot faster. Your choice, of course.)

  15. this is so weak.

    the number of people making money from free software must be miniscule. the income streams you are identifying are a drop in the ocean.

    being driven by user need is pretty useless if the user isn’t paying the bill. that doesn’t mean to say it sits stagnant – but the test of time has been pretty harsh so far on these systems. the real driver for software is business, and business doesn’t spend its time hacking someone else’s weekend project to make it work for them.

    i find the whole piracy situation pretty unacceptable, not least because it kills off any real quality – who is going to work making good quality records when they don’t get paid for doing so?… back to my first point…

  16. good answer – if i were you i would steer clear of point-by-point as well. you don’t exactly have much of a case.

    if you really think that free software makes money, this underlines my original point – the whole “essay” was an attempt to justify your own lifestyle. as a general argument it falls down badly. and that’s before you bring in the spurious link to Christianity.

    if everyone dropped out of writing commercial software to live off the free software movement there wouldn’t be much pie to share round.

  17. Well, I can’t follow the logic of your third paragraph, which rather precludes a response. Your first paragraph is a bald assertion. I can respond to your second paragraph.

    90% of all code written is written in-house for companies and never sees the light of day. The programmer community is not going to starve if open source becomes dominant. However, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that you are correct. If all software were free, fewer people would make money from it.

    It is also true that fewer people are making money in the farming industry than used to be the case, say 100 years ago. Is this a bad thing? No; we have fewer farmers but they are more efficient, and we all still get fed. What happened to the rest? They retired, or went to do something else.

    Having fewer people doing a job is not a bad thing; the question is whether the job gets done. If there are people willing to pay to have software changed, there’ll be programmers available to change it. That’s how the market works. If open source and code reuse means that there are fewer programmers because less work is done twice, is that bad? No, for the same reason as having fewer farmers is not bad.

    Your “software piracy is the same thing as record piracy” thing is a troll, as is your equivocation on the meaning of “amateur” (between the two meanings of “not done by people who are paid” and “not of as high quality as work done by people who are paid”) is also trolling.

  18. * the farming industry has been declining in the western world for a long time, partly due to increases in efficiency as you say (i’m not sure how analogous that is to the software industry??) and partly because most of it is now done in population-explosion countries in the third world (which makes me wonder whether the number of people doing it really is declining?).

    either way the view that we want the software industry to go the same way is pretty unconventional to say the least (even if it were possible to extract the same sort of efficiency gains from some as-yet-unknown invention as genetic engineering and mechanisation did for farms). farming is about producing food to feed everyone, software is not really about satisfying a need in the same way and demand is elastic. this is because most software products are luxury items in some sense.

    in other words, i think the comparison, although brave, is more unhelpful than helpful to us.

    and having fewer people in the software industry would be a terrible thing at this stage in its development as a young and dynamic industry.

    * looking back through these comments, it was you Gerv, that answered a question about software piracy by bringing in the subject of record piracy. for the record i think there are some parallels, particularly in the areas you address in your essay (zero-cost copyability) but also some important differences.

    * on definitions of the word amateur, i was not deliberately confusing the meanings (if you got that impression, then i should have been clearer), however, there IS a weak connection between the two meanings, and you are seeking to deny one.

    amateur output can be excellent, and professionals can be bad at what they do, but the reason that ‘amateurish’ means ‘not as good’ is to do with the best quality control there is – supply and demand. i can’t think of a single field of human endeavour where amateurs have matched pros consistently in competitive performance, and i include free software in that.

    note that i say ‘consistently’, there are some great success stories such as firefox and to some extent linux. even those have yet to prove themselves on the greatest test – time.

  19. Ed: You seem to have missed my point. The efficiency gains I am pointing to would not come from some as-yet-unknown invention, but from not re-inventing the wheel so often. The more software is free software, the more people can build what they need from existing pieces. Are you really against the idea of avoiding duplication of work?

    Surely the measurement of a healthy software industry is how many people get the software they need, that is most appropriate for them. You seem to want to measure its health either by the number of people it employs, or by the amount of money each of those people is able to make. I suggest that both metrics are bogus.

    If the software industry produced more appropriate and better software for everyone, while employing fewer people and those people made less money, why would that be bad for the world? Clearly the free market should define their pay, which is entirely appropriate. When I say ‘made less money’, what I really mean is ‘are unable to continue to extort money from their customers using proprietary software/file formats and lockin’. In an open source world, no-one could make $37 billion from software. And I think that’s a good thing.

    You say that Firefox and Linux have not yet stood the test of time. Both are consistently kicking ass and taking names in their respective fields, and there are no signs of that reversing. After how long would you consider them to have stood that test? You can’t wave away evidence contrary to your hypothesis so easily.

    (Again, this would be a lot easier via email IMO. But if you are happy to keep coming back and checking this web page, that’s up to you :-)