Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sam Kean - Open to Revisions

Sam Kean is an editor and contributor to Search Magazine, which looks at science, religion, and culture. In this article he looks at an open source version of religion - an interesting idea. Hat tip to the P2P Foundation blog for mentioning the article.

Some religious entrepreneurs have adopted an “open source” model, where rituals and doctrines can be rewritten as easily as computer code.

beetleSam Webster has serious tech credentials. He has lived for decades in the San Francisco Bay area, a techie Mecca. Back in the early 1990s, before most people had even heard of the Internet, he was writing code for some of the early sites on the World Wide Web. He’s now a systems analyst, or, as he says, “I’m a geek for a living.”

What Webster never envisioned himself as was a prophet. He’d been involved in a pagan group called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (left) since the early 1980s, and in February 2001, he decided to hold a workshop on his religion in the Bay area. “I never thought it would catch on,” he admits, but people took a shine to the order. They decided to establish a permanent chapter in northern California.

At the same time, Webster and his fellows were itching to remake themselves. The Hermetic Order grew out of Free Masonry and Kabbalah, a school of Jewish mysticism. “But we didn’t want to do the traditional things like adhere to secrecy,” Webster says. The group also wanted to incorporate practices from other mainstream faiths, include women in their mix, and, perhaps most important, put a mechanism in place to make room for good ideas in the future. So the group self-consciously decided to involve its members by encouraging them to tinker with the order’s structure and practices. And that’s the moment when Webster realized his dual role as geek and prophet.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute, there’s a name for this’,” Webster remembers. “Open source.”

Open-source religion is an amalgamation of two ways of thinking about the world. The first is religion, a common set of practices, rituals, and beliefs. It’s as old as the hills, one of the most enduring traits of humankind. The “open source” component is new, an unforeseen consequence of the Internet revolution of the 1990s. It’s a reference to open-source computer code, code that anyone is allowed to rewrite, add to, or delete. Most websites or blogs are not open source, because even when the pages change frequently, a handful of people at most make all the changes. Wikipedia is open source because many people collaborate to produce one common text.

The best-known example of open-source software is Linux, an operating system released in 1991 by a Finn name Linus Torvalds. Unlike Microsoft XP or the Macintosh OS, Linux is free. The latest versions of it represent the fruit of millions of man-hours of labor—people poring over arcane code to improve Linux’s security, compatibility, aesthetics, speed, etc., without any hope of compensation or gain. And by many measures Linux performs better than its for-profit competitors: So many eyes have gone over the code, it’s unlikely anything has been overlooked. Linux also draws on more people for ideas, and it’s easier to incorporate good ideas into Linux because users don’t have to wait for a corporation to roll out a new product. They can download a patch from the Internet in minutes.

So why doesn’t everyone use Linux? Perhaps because it’s unfamiliar, even scary, and for things they’re unfamiliar with, people prefer to trust experts and professionals. They often mistrust the idea of mass participation. The same holds true for religion. In dealing with supernatural or spiritual phenomena, rabbis and priests and medicine men who can draw on pre-existing faith traditions can provide comfort that newer, changeable religions cannot. (If nothing else, how often do people convince themselves of something by saying, “It’s ancient wisdom. The so-and-so peoples have been doing this for thousands of years?”)

But adherents of open-source religion note that tradition can calcify into dogma, and if there’s one common trait to people who practice open-source religion, it’s distaste for dogma. Some open-source believers want to found entirely new religions, and some merely want to reinvigorate a mainstream faith. All want to change people’s perceptions of religion from something that’s handed down to them, something they receive, and make religion something people do. All religions evolve, of course, but the tinkering inherent to open-source religions can benefit founders and followers alike, Webster says. “When you share what you learn, you learn better,” he notes, “and the content evolves that much more efficiently.”

beetleFor an example of how open-source religions work in practice, Douglas Rushkoff, founder of the Open Source Judaism movement, cited a project he started around the Haggadah, the Jewish text that lays out the practices of the Passover Seder meal and all the associated prayers and family rituals.

Rushkoff first approached open-source Judaism more from the techie side than the religious side. He was both inspired by the possibilities of widespread, democratic, participatory media like the Internet, but also fearful that the Internet could be used to manipulate people or invade their privacy on an unprecedented scale.

So, he says, he looked for “historical examples of how people had dealt with media before, ethical templates,” and he found some examples in his own religion. He was most excited about flexible templates that people could alter as they needed, and this led directly to open-source Haggadah. Rushkoff set up a website for Jews to upload pictures, prayers, and descriptions of their Seder meals, encouraging people to adapt the practices however they wanted.

It’s a modest example, but it’s actually a good test of the viability of open-source practices in religions. Among the areas of Judaism appropriate for open-source revisions, Rushkoff cited Torah commentary as the most obvious example. (He also cited interfaith studies, including the study of how Judaism originated in relation to other religions.) One area of Judaism not amenable to open-source change, he discovered, was ritual practices. This surprised Rushkoff, since he supposed that actions were less intrinsically part of a person’s religion than beliefs, but he says, “people really depend on it for some reason. People are much less likely to engage in ritual in a do-it-yourself fashion.”

This observation seems borne out on the Open Source Haggadah website. It’s impossible to say how many people downloaded texts and adapted them privately, and the site’s webmaster notes that financial and technical limitations have curbed the site’s impact, but beyond the basic, traditional Haggadah, few people bothered posting additional ideas or commentary. These days, much of the site’s activity has migrated to projects run by affiliated groups such as Matzat and Jew-It-Yourself.

Webster agreed that in his Golden Dawn Order, rituals often don’t change much once they get set, remaining rather conservative. “We have some rituals that are pretty honed,” he says. He gave the example of the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, an invocation that links the four cardinal directions and the archangels Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, and Uriel, and which has existed for centuries. But honed doesn’t mean inflexible, Webster adds. “We approach it like it’s a really good recipe, but you might add a little bit of cinnamon or cheese.” In the Pentagram ritual, the “cinnamon or cheese” substitutions might mean invoking a different set of sacred figures than the archangels, for instance.

Limitations aside, followers say that Judaism and paganism are among the religions most amenable to open-source practices.
Read the whole article.

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