An Inquiry into Open Source Religion

I was thinking about some things I had written on the subject of religion, and about other things I might write. I realized, of course, that much of what I would write had probably already been said by someone somewhere. As always, however, there was the problem of finding that material and, perhaps, of recognizing it when I did find it — because people sometimes conceptualize and express ideas in terms that other people find odd, until they come to understand the writer’s starting point.

Somewhere in this reverie, I thought of the phrase “open-source religion.” I wasn’t sure exactly what that would be about, or even if anyone had used the term. I think my general idea was that there might be something like a wiki, somewhere, where people would pitch in and contribute bits of information to build up a sort of religion-by-consensus. That seemed to be how open-source work had progressed in other areas, notably the development of software.

Some Open-Source Religion Websites

A search led to an impression that, in fact, people had divergent ideas of what open-source religion might be. First, a brief Wikipedia article seemed to indicate that there had been open-source efforts within specific religious traditions (e.g., Judaism, Wicca). Even within those relatively narrow boundaries, there appeared to be some divergence. For example, within the Jewish religion, the Open Siddur Project seemed to be oriented toward building a database of Jewish religious materials, while the Open Source Judaism initiative seemed to emphasize an open-ended approach to the questions of what Judaism was and what people might want to do with it, or how they might develop it.

Judging from that Wikipedia article, other open-source religious efforts were not necessarily based upon any pre-existing tradition, but sought instead to develop religious materials and views through group participation and consensus. One such effort, calling itself Yoism, welcomed me to “the way of yo.” The name seemed like a bit of a joke — which, as I thought about it, would not necessarily be bad, except if it turned off people who wanted or needed something with some weight to it. The Yo webpages had an annoying habit of loading audio files that I didn’t want to hear, as I clicked around on my way to Yo’s “ten sacred principles” and “7 main beliefs” and “5 pillars.” What I saw, in these travels, was not an obviously open-source, wiki-style project: I just saw someone’s recitation of their ideas, with space to add comments but, on most pages, few comments actually added.

The other main open-source project identified in that Wikipedia article was OpenSourceReligion.net. The Community page within OpenSourceReligion’s website boasted over 1,200 members. The Forums page identified over 1,300 discussions, but these appeared to be aging with very little traffic.

There was another initiative on the well-known Wikia website called YouReligionWiki, stating that its contents included “476 articles about religions formed by our contributors.” In their Religions page, it appeared that some had posted materials on existing religions (e.g., Hinduism) while others had invented new religions. As an example of the latter, The Cult of the Mighty R! (selected more or less at random) was described as being focused on “the basic ideas of rebellion and revolution.” It seemed to be a somewhat frivolous enterprise; one of its “basic rules to live by” was “Thou shalt not judgeth another, unlesseth thy wisheth to be bitch-slappethed.” The prevailing concept of “open-source” applied in this website seemed to be, not that people were working together to develop religious beliefs or principles, but just that a workspace was being provided within which people could post whatever they liked and call it a religion.

Another effort, using another well-known website (in this case, Wikibooks), offered a start on an Open Religion book. It appeared to be the work of just one person, offering a skeletal introduction. It appeared to me, at this point, that a wikibook might be the sort of thing I was looking for. On closer examination, however, I had second thoughts. At the very early stages, with as few as one contributor, a wikibook would not enjoy the structured protections available in, for example, a Wikipedia article. There could be vandalism; there could be shoddy work; there could be arguments that the absence of a user base would leave unresolved. It tentatively seemed that a better approach would be to work up at least a skeleton text in a more controlled environment, and move it to a wikibook if a user base did form.

Hinduism and Open-Source Religion

I had noticed a blog post titled “Hinduism: An Open Source Religion.” That was an interesting concept. As I read the writer’s explanation, I wondered whether his/her interpretation of Hinduism conformed with established understandings. Wikipedia quoted the Supreme Court of India:

Unlike other religions in the World, the Hindu religion does not claim any one Prophet, it does not worship any one God, it does not believe in any one philosophic concept, it does not follow any one act of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not satisfy the traditional features of a religion or creed. It is a way of life and nothing more.

Elaborating somewhat on this, an About.com article said,

There is no “one Hinduism”, and so it lacks any unified system of beliefs and ideas. Hinduism is a conglomerate of diverse beliefs and traditions, in which the prominent themes include:

  • Dharma (ethics and duties)
  • Samsara (rebirth)
  • Karma (right action)
  • Moksha (liberation from the cycle of Samsara)

It also believes in truth, honesty, non-violence, celibacy, cleanliness, contentment, prayers, austerity, perseverance, penance, and pious company.

Now, as a reader of the daily news, I was of the opinion that India, and many of its Hindus, were not in fact very good at nonviolence and such. I appreciated that Hinduism might have potential as an illustration of how an open-source religion could develop over time, and I suspected that a Hindu upbringing could facilitate flexibility toward diverse religious beliefs. But I also felt that nobody is holy — that everybody, whatever their background, would be capable of bringing some benefits and also some detriments to the development of an open-source religion.

Moreover, as an American ex-Protestant trained in law and somewhat exposed to Jewish culture, I was inclined to think that an attempt at open-source religion would want to remain open to discussion, debate, and refinement of one’s positions in light of new ideas. In this sense, I thought, the “open” within “open-source” could have a double meaning. Not only would one’s source code be open to inspection and revision, but also one would want to practice an attitude of openness.

In that spirit, I appreciated that Hinduism could indeed be viewed as in some ways an open-source sort of religion. It occurred to me in passing that Christianity could too, if one took account of the great variety of beliefs expressed by Christians of various conservative and liberal persuasions. Possibly spreading and internally inconsistent claims would be a tendency within any sufficiently large and old religion.

Structuring an Open-Source Religion

I recalled, from my childhood, that religions might condense their core beliefs into a catechism, defined as a book presenting a summary of a religion’s fundamental principles or beliefs, often in question-and-answer form. A bit of searching led, quickly enough, to catechisms of various religions, including Luther’s Small Catechism, versions (1 and 2, possibly identical in content) of the Catholic catechism, versions (1 and 2) for Hinduism, and versions (1 and 2) for Islam. These examples would barely scratch the surface of the world’s assortment of catechisms, but they seemed adequate for starting purposes.

Needless to say, such catechisms would differ radically on various points. But I suspected they, or other comparably brief summaries of various religions, would also agree on numerous points. For example, one Hindu catechism defined sin as “any action which intentionally causes suffering and pain to another being directly or indirectly,” and the Lutheran catechism indicated that sin included violation of the Ten Commandments, which could have the same effect.

It appeared that a catechism of an open-source religion (OSR) could present a primary or consensus view on a particular issue, and could offer supplementary elaborations to capture nuances of interest to various subgroups of followers. In the case of sin, for example, one might begin with references to harmful actions, offer a few examples, and then leave it to various people to add footnotes as they saw fit.

A search, and further browsing, led to many sources claiming to identify the key elements of a religion. It seemed that these authorities would not overrule Hinduism, for example: it would continue to be a religion even if its catechism lacked something that some expert considered essential. But it did seem reasonable to consult experts on what a religion should include. For present purposes, I decided to draw upon the descriptions of religion offered by Wikipedia, the Free Dictionary, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, an apparently influential law review article on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which promised freedom of “religion”) by Choper (1982), and the practical current interpretation of First Amendment law offered by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in Internal Revenue Manual 4.76.6 & 7.25.3 and IRS Publication 557. (No doubt there would be many other documents to consider for purposes of actually creating a religious organization.)

Beginning at perhaps the most abstract level, the Stanford encyclopedia identified a number of topics in the philosophy of religion, involving especially the existence and nature of God but also including Hick’s effort to synthesize religions. Unfortunately, I did not find this material particularly useful for present purposes. The Free Dictionary was closer to the mark, in a bare-bones way, with its indications that religion was variously defined as including belief in, reverence for, worship of, and/or obedience to a supernatural power or powers, or involving the cause, nature, or purpose of the universe; a way of life (in e.g., a religious order); observation of sacred rites and ceremonies; a set of beliefs based on the teachings of a spiritual leader; a moral code; and/or a formal or institutionalized expression of, or the set of people involved in, such beliefs or behaviors.

The Wikipedia article noted that religion had many definitions. It offered Buddhism as an example that might illustrate the reference, in the previous paragraph, to the nature of the universe, without requiring any deity; it added the topic of life after death; it mentioned the role of religion as a pervasive shaper of societies, and offered a further definition of religion as the full cultural reality emerging from behaviors mentioned above; it cited William James for a more individual and psychological concept of religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men” in relation to their concept of the divine. Wikipedia suggested that, perhaps because of religion’s role as a sphere of so-called intensive valuing or ultimate concern within the life of the believer, its adherents were typically not very swayed by scientific and philosophical arguments.

Choper’s law review article attempted, not to define religion per se, but only to try to account for the approaches that American courts have taken, or might take, toward the interpretation of laws that could affect freedom of religion. Choper said that, with relatively few exceptions (primarily for compelling public interests), the Amendment prohibited governmental impositions on or discrimination in favor of or against religious belief, conduct, or speech, including the nonverbal symbolic speech of religious ritual. Choper offered the example of a case protecting a worker from losing state unemployment compensation benefits after being fired for disobeying an employer’s order to work on the worker’s sabbath. For religions not postulating anything like the Christian God, Choper cited Supreme Court language focusing on “whether a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God.” Choper argued, however, that the foregoing idea of issues of “ultimate concern” was too broad to support constitutional protection — that people consider all sorts of patently nonreligious matters to be issues of ultimate personal concern — and thus a better measure would have to do with whether the government is trying to impose upon religious behavior in ways that are believed to have “extratemporal” (i.e., post-death, e.g., eternal) consequences.

Finally, I came to the concepts of religion indulged by the IRS. The IRS cared about religion because of the tax-exempt status accorded to religious organizations. Publication 557 (2013, p. 29) stated that the IRS used two guidelines to determine whether an organization was religious. First, its religious beliefs had to be “truly and sincerely held.” Second, its religious practices and rituals could not be illegal or contrary to public policy. Without researching the question in detail, I guessed that a religious organization indulging homicidal doctrines would fail the “public policy” test. Internal Revenue Manual 4.76.6 indicated that the organization would have to be organized and operated exclusively for religious purposes. These would apparently exclude commercial or business purposes and political activities. (See also IRS Publication 1828. For religious (e.g., monastic) orders, see Revenue Procedure 91-20.) Consistent with Choper’s remarks (above), Internal Revenue Manual 7.25.3 adopted this definition of religion: “A sincere and meaningful belief which occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by the God of those admittedly qualifying for the [tax] exemption.” The document further noted that a belief in a supreme being was not necessary for this purpose. In a somewhat unclear reference to a Supreme Court decision involving a conscientious objector to military service, the Manual said that religious beliefs could be found “If an individual deeply and sincerely holds beliefs that are purely ethical or moral in source and content but that nevertheless impose upon him a duty of conscience to refrain from participating in any war at any time.”

Conclusion

This post briefly explores the concept of open-source religion, as it appears in various websites. The post observes that Hinduism has been described as, or analogized to, open-source religion, insofar as Hinduism apparently incorporates a rangy and potentially incompatible panoply of materials and beliefs.

It did not appear that general-purpose attempts to form open-source religions had achieved critical mass. I wondered what sorts of principles an open-source religion (indeed, any religion) might have to develop, in order to gain general acceptability as a religion. It seemed that catechisms from various faiths, supplemented by other ideas of what constitutes a religion, might help to answer that question. A brief look into various materials produced a collection of topics that one might take into account, for purposes of formulating the outline of a religion.

Armed with those materials, I decided to develop such an outline. The result will appear in a separate post.

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