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Religiosity and Free Software

This is a post which for many might sound inflammatory. I wish to warn anybody interested in commenting on this post that I’ll be deleting comments if they show you only read two paragraphs out of it and ignored the whole rest of it, I’ll also be deleting comments of people who just take on judging my qualities on the pure fact that I’m atheist. This is both to preserve my health and to avoid making the commenters look like idiots.

I am an atheist. I’m proud of it. I am lucky to be one. Most people aren’t as lucky as me, to be able to both accept that our life on earth is not part of a plan of an higher-level being, and at the same time not look for comfort in religious organisations and similar institutions.

I’m not the kind of atheist who can’t accept people have different views of the world; I’m neither going to judge the capacity and skills of other people based on their religious beliefs; I am, though, the kind of atheist that preaches for atheism. I don’t intend to force anybody to be an atheist, but I find it important to show why we should be atheists.

Religion (at least in its most common form) is a threat to the development of society: “it’s because God does it” or “that’s the will of God” used to block advances in many science, and some people still try to do so. It’s not a simple matter of researching fields with the use of experiments that might be “controversial”; abuses on animals and humans alike are matters of importance for ethics, even when religion is not in the mix. What I find obnoxious is how still people believe that science shouldn’t go to investigate on some matters simply because some book (if it’s a book at all) stated “This is the only truth”.

On this matter, a couple of years ago I became interesting on a book, The Universe in a Single Atom written by the current Dalai Lama, that seek to go into the matter of giving up on religious dogmas when they are proven false by science. Unfortunately the Italian translation left lots to desire: the translator is a philosopher, which is good in the sense that he knows how to translate the religious and philosophic thoughts in the book, but it’s a book that speaks of science as well, and getting the terms wrong there dilutes the meaningfulness of the book. I was really appalled when they actually provided the wrong meaning to the fMRI term. I could understand those mistake though, what I couldn’t understand is the translator adding notes regarding common American culture knowledge, such as a note on the Larry King show, or the political landscape of USA in the first half of the 20th century.

Anyway back on track on Free Software; ethics, to an extent, applies to software development as well. Having draconian terms in licenses, or DRM in content, can be accepted as bad things from both the users and developers of Free Software and those of Proprietary Software. Of course the Free software people will find them even more draconian by the fact they are usually kept out of the loop even if they were to accept them (Adobe, where the heck is Digital Editions for Linux, for instance?).

So for sure the Free Software movement is based on ethics: software should be free, there should be no DRM, and people deserves the Freedom 0: “The freedom to run the program, for any purpose”. It would be all fine, if it wasn’t that the FSF (with Stallman first) decided to cross the dividing line between ethics and religion by mandating and blaming.

I think most of the problem is already well covered by Jürgen’s blog on the matter, that he posted yesterday, after I wrote mine, but before I could actually post it. Also, as Matija pointed out in the comments, while the original FSF has this obsession with blaming, with “purity” and “evilness”, FSFe is generally better and tries to approach the problem from the positive point of view: Our software is better.

I’m still not sure what the problem is with FSF and those (rare, hopefully) blind supporters who can go as far as attacking a Free Software developer for expressing his technical opinion on the quality of a language – and not even of any particular software implementation, mind you – just because the original idea came from an “evil source”. I guess a lot of the problem has to do with a cultural difference between USA and Europe, but I’m not the kind of sociologist who can understand why that is the case. The same kind of negative approach seem to transpire in electoral campaigns, and other events in the social life of the American people, so maybe it’s not something we can blame them for.

Now, it is true that other groups of “supporters” seem to have religious nature, such as many “Apple fanboys”, and this actually seems to aggravate the problem further: it rationalise the lumping together in that category of anybody who gives a positive technical opinion about Apple’s software, hardware or strategies. The same goes for Microsoft.

What are the religious aspects that hinder Free Software development? There are a number of taboos, some of which have reasons to exist, most that seem to be just there to nip in the bud the “chance of rebellion”. In this optics, you can compare Eric S. Raymond with Martin Luther (the 16th century rebel, mind you), the fact that he’s a religious figure as well is no coincidence.

Some of the taboos in this are:

  • you’re frown upon if you even use proprietary software for day to day activities, and even worse for actual development; operating systems, editors, compilers… of course it doesn’t take into considerations that at some point you have to use something proprietary before you can replace it, nor the fact that you have to learn what the other proprietary (and free as well) software is doing to find out what you can do better, and what you already do best;
  • you’re shunned if you praise the technical qualities of non-free software: it might be a feature that is implemented better in a proprietary software, it might be a better result achieved by a language whose only implementation is proprietary, or whatever else; the bigots will look bad at you if you even admit that Free Software might not be perfect;
  • you’re outright attacked if you concede that the best tool for a job is proprietary, at any given point; it might be software or format, but even here, you cannot concede the point unless you want to irate the zealots; you’re also eyed badly if you work on software that has to deal with these formats, especially if they are covered by patents; while the patent issue is very real, and very bad, if you don’t concede to their existence as they are now, you’re basically screwed;
  • you’re straight out accused of heresy if you work even partly on proprietary software, or if you develop Free Software with technologies that are frown upon. This is mostly what Miguel is attacked for, and what I also get flak about from time to time.

Now instead, my view is that you have to drop the religious taboos, and pay attention to the ethics instead:

  • Prefer free tools even though they are not perfect, but admit if that’s the case! I’m fine with using F-Spot, but if I were to say iPhoto wasn’t better I would be deluding myself.
  • Use the right format for the job, if it has to be shared with others, make sure you use the best format. It doesn’t matter if the format is not entirely free, but you’ll just be laughed at, and won’t make any good to Free Software, if you stubbornly insist that the free format is “better because it’s free”. For audio, Vorbis is acceptable, but Ogg is a PITA; for video, Theora is no competition to H.264 (VP8, to some extent, is), for documents, don’t pretend ODT solves all problems, use PDF instead.
  • Let people live their life with the tools they want, even when they are proprietary, but keep them on their toes! If your friends start asking for cracks and hacks to be able to use illicit copies of software refuse to help them, instead point them out to (acceptable) Free alternatives. I’ll keep repeating it but the Free PDF Readers site from FSFe is one of the best action I ever seen for what concerns Free Software!
  • Finally, do your best to create new, better Free Software to cover what is not covered yet. This is the most important one. Just talking about how you’re holier than others because you use only Free Software does not make you better, at all. Do your best to improve Free Software, for its users and, if that’s what gets you going, for “saving humanity”.
Comments 5
  1. Hmmm… I’m not sure PDF is patent free, but it’s a normalised standard (PDF-X3 ~= Acrobat 5 PDF, PDF-A3 and maybe others), just like ODF is, and PDF and ODF have different goals, so comparing them is not totally fair.Except that and a few things (I cannot even dream of being as active as you are in the FLOSS movement and have no opinion about multimedia formats, which I have no clue about), I could have written just about the same words.In fact you are more than just an atheist, you are a real rationalist (which implies atheist, right ?). Too bad, I’m quite sure that many readers will not even understand the relation between stallmanianism and a religion. Intelligence is like a body, it has many different muscles, roughly separated in groups, and each group may be trained individually… except that body building is ugly and useless, of course 😉 Critical sense is not having the same opinion as a renowned critical person.Seeing that a FLOSS developer can think the way you think is… refreshing. Thank you for having a brain…

  2. Here in North America, it seems that the only method used to convince people is fear:…If you use Skype, the world will end.It’s probably also the reason why nobody cares about global warming. “If we don’t do something about it, the world will end in hundreds of thousands of years instead of millions of years”.Also, Microsoft would get into a lot of trouble if they sue the competition over C#. They need Mono, just like they needed to keep Apple alive in 1997.BTW, probably many (most?) free software people are atheists.

  3. While I would agree with most of the post, I would just point out that the argument of “we should be atheists because most religions are a threat”.It’s the same as with FLOSS – as some zealot advocates make free software look bad, many religions make the faith in god look bad, and that’s probably the cause of your argument. But, just believing in god certainly isn’t in itself bad! It’s perfectly possible to believe in god without the dogmas of religions. I’m sure even many scientists believe in god and it’s not a problem for their research. (As for me, I’d say I’m agnostic rather than atheist.)

  4. @Caster: a belief is only as bad as the decisions you make based on it. The danger is when people let their preacher think for them, and are cowed by social pressure into accepting whatever they’re told, e.g. that Armageddon will surely follow fornication or the use skype.C# is a patent trap, and if Miguel de Icaza honestly believes otherwise he is delusional. Providing the Redmond based company protection from being sued based anti-monopoly law is also distasteful to me. But not admitting that C# is a superior programming language for application developers is silly.The use of Adobe Flash and Reader are dangerous for your computer’s health. Flash is required to experience the web fully (a flash blocker is also required). Where is the free alternative that works?Thank you Diego for rationalism.

  5. Well I’m railing against Icaza from time to time pretty much because I don’t like C# as a matter of taste AND I’m afraid a bit about the trap side. So if somebody do like the C#/Java style I point them to VALA since for me looks more interesting and has less duplications than Java and C# but still is a matter of tastes. Religions are tools to make people stop being rational, sadly tastes aren’t that rational as well.

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