Graphic image of ''Open to Revisions,'' by Sam Kean as it originally appeared in ''Search, the Magazine of Science + Religion + Culture,'' May/June 2009



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Search Magazine
May/June 2009

Open to Revisions

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

Sam 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.”

For 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. In Judaism, that springs from both the participatory nature of Talmud commentary and the early history of the religion, says Rushkoff. “The more I looked at Judaism, it was largely the result of the invention of text, a religion based on the contract-covenant, writing your own laws instead of living according to preexisting laws.” He sees no reason why Jews today cannot continue to write their own laws. In fact, he feels that “institutional Judaism” often betrays that original ideal.

As for paganism (or “neopaganism,” as the modern practice is called; symbols of modern pagans are shown to the left) some scholars also see an open-source ethos built directly into its foundation. In an essay titled “Learning about Paganism,” scholar Helen Berger traces the constant revision of neopaganism to its not being “a religion of ‘The Book,’ but of [many] books,” from which people could select what suited them. She added that “most American neopagans are solitary practitioners” who can adopt new practices more readily than larger groups can.

Douglas Cowen, in his book Cyberhenge, goes even further, making an explicit analogy to computer coding: “Pagans are ‘hacking’ their own religious traditions out of the ‘source codes’ provided by pantheons, faith practices, liturgies, rituals, and divinatory practices drawn from a variety of cultures worldwide.” Given all that “hacking,” it’s no wonder that, as Webster says, “There are a huge number of pagan people in the high-tech space.”

Rushkoff and especially Webster talk about transforming their religious inheritance by updating it with new knowledge and ideas. Other people who practice open-source religion have much different intentions—some aim to found entirely new religions, others simply to tweak a mainstream religion and make it more relevant for the modern world.

Andrew Perriman falls into the latter set, having, as he says “come out of a fairly normal evangelical background” in Great Britain. “‘Open source’ in this instance is really only a metaphor for a much more transparent and collaborative approach to doing theology within what is to my mind still a mainstream Christian tradition.”

Perriman started a website called OpenSourceTheology.net after noticing that the modern evangelical movement was rebelling against “pre-packaged” theology in much the same way that Linux users rebelled against pre-written software from Microsoft. “People feel they’ve been told how to think, and feel they don’t have much scope to think for themselves,” he says. That view of theology as closed off is particularly true in Europe, he adds, “where people regard Christianity as a historical disaster. If [Christianity] has a future at all it will require quite a radical rethinking of what this faith narrative means, going to back to the biblical story and asking how we can re-appropriate it.”

Perriman’s approach to open-source religion, then, might be best described as legalistic. In the modern jurisprudence system, process is everything: Even when we “know” somebody is guilty or innocent, he still has to stand trial, and trials are judged as fair if the correct procedure is followed throughout. In other words, the process gets privilege over the end result and verdict of the trial.

Perriman, who has a Ph.D. in theology and works as an independent writer and theologian, thinks theology should work the same way. Unlike what most people believe, “Theology is not a set of beliefs, it’s a shared mindset,” he argues. And revising theology through open-source means is “more an issue of methodology than [of challenging] a particular point of content.”

As a result, Perriman cannot yet point to any doctrinal changes that open-source Christianity has brought about. At the same time, he said, especially compared with the authoritarian traditions of evangelical Christianity, “It’s significant that people feel they can explore [changes] without transgressing in some horrible way that will get them thrown out of the church.”

Perriman’s is one view of what open-source religion can do: Get people involved, even if not much changes about their faith in the end. Those interested in founding new religions, which lack a coherent, pre-established body of beliefs and practices, take a different view. Daniel Kriegman, founder of a new religion called Yoism, stresses that content and process have to work together in a fledgling movement because many things will likely change at the beginning. “It’s extremely important what you end up with, since it has to comport to everyone’s experience. Content has to be something we convincingly believe.”

Kriegman works as a psychologist and has long studied the interplay of psychology, evolutionary biology, and religion. And after years of inquiry, he has some rather strong views about the dangers of traditional religions. “Human history is the history of mass murders,” he said, “and it all seems to be organized about these crazy belief systems.” When he really gets going on the topic, Kriegman likes to make gorilla noises for emphasis, which to him are the onomatopoeic embodiment of dangerous groupthink. About old-time religion, he says, “This way of knitting together a group into an ideological system and going ‘oo-oo-oo-oo!’ has ancient roots.”

After growing more and more distressed about the dangers of religion, Kriegman finally had an epiphany: “What if someone developed a religion that made sense, and that people could test and see for themselves?” He started calling his idea an open-source religion after his son, an early adopter of Linux, described the parallels to Kriegman. (Kriegman claims he was the first person to found an open-source religion.)

Though jazzed about the prospects of founding a new religion to combat old religions, Kriegman hesitated: “I was embarrassed. I’m going to start a new religion? Every once in a while a psychologist goes off the deep end, and I was afraid my colleagues might think that was me.” But he soon founded a church called “Ozacua,” a portmanteau made up of the names of his three sons. It was also a character (a giant) in a bedtime fairy tale he used to tell them. Its moral was “United we stand, divided we fall.” He based the Ozacua religion on a cocktail of rational inquiry, empiricism, and science. His group eschews talk of visions, for instance, since however real the vision may be to the visionary, no one else in the group can experience it. To this rationalism—and here’s the religious angle—Kriegman mixed in a healthy dram of the pantheistic god of Spinzoa (above) and Einstein, a sort of life force that permeates the universe. It’s science that respects mystery and preserves awe.

Things were going well for Kriegman’s religion early on, until he almost ran aground on an uncomfortable disagreement: People liked the religion but hated the name. A lot. For an open-source religion, this was a sure test of its viability. In a religion more imbued with priestly authority, the flock can be overruled if the high priest dislikes the change. Kriegman wasn’t a priest in his religion, but he had a natural leadership role as its founder—not to mention a personal attachment to the name—and the soft, focus-group-like rebellion of his adherents concerned him. “I was not upset about losing the name,” he says, as much as “upset that people assumed [the religion] would become too associated with me, that it was a sort of cult underneath.”

In the end, a few dozen fellow believers had long debates about the name before they finally settled on Yoism, which is derived from Yo, the name they gave the vague spirit-force that permeates their universe. At first “yo” was a meaningless syllable, but group members have since come across many pleasing associations: “yo” means “I” in Spanish and “friend” in Chinese (hence Yo-Yo Ma), and is reminiscent of “you” in English. A few African cultures use the word in their creation myths as well, Kriegman says. In fact the name grew to have so many associations that Kriegman joked that perhaps god wanted it that way: “It’s like a miracle!”

He also adds, more seriously, “The mind finds lots of coincidences and puts them together, but [the name] does come to mean lots of things.” And those layers of meaning are something the few thousand followers of Yoism worldwide can share.

The question about the future of open-source religion is the same question that haunts any new religious movement—will it last? Most new religions don’t, and many versions of open-source religion are working at a disadvantage. For all the prosaic reasons people follow one faith or another—it’s what they grew up with, it’s socially advantageous, etc.—many people stick with a faith because they believe in its principles and doctrines.

But the aversion of open-source religions to doctrine and dogmas makes it seems likely they will have trouble attracting followers who need that core, that bedrock. For if every idea is at least open to revision, even if it doesn’t change in practice, religion can lose its authority, and doubts can creep in. Would Christianity really be Christianity if people could vote that Christ was not divine? Would Hinduism remain Hinduism if people could throw out reincarnation? (Even in the radically democratic world of open-source computing, Linux founder Torvalds and a few trusted advisors retain exclusive control over the Linux “kernel,” its most important underlying code.) If the beliefs are so arbitrary that majority votes can change them, why believe at all?

Indeed, there’s a certain lackadaisicalness about some open-source religions. Kriegman has been meaning to develop an initiation rite for Yoism for years but hasn’t quite gotten around to it, and he admits that other projects have fallen by the wayside. This includes his sometime battle to restore the Wikipedia page about his group, a page someone deleted as too marginal a topic. Wikipedia is an important tool for a religion founded on the principles of the free and open Internet, and Kriegman fought the deletion with Wikipedia administrators. But after losing his appeal, he hasn’t done much lately. He seems to lack the fanaticism that, for better or worse, does mark successful new religions. It’s hard to imagine John Calvin or Mohammed not fighting back.

With open-source Judaism, its founder, Rushkoff has more or less dropped out of the movement, though he still believes in it and promotes it when he can. As to the reason, he said, “No one really wanted to fund it, and at least at the time, most Jews weren’t really interested.” Even more importantly, “I wasn’t really committed to it to the point where I would contend with all the crap that comes with pushing an idea before its time.”

However much they adhere to the ideal of open source, most open-source religions do in practice maintain at least a few core and inviolable beliefs. If nothing else, their commitment to openness and the possibility of constant revision is itself a dogma. What’s more, there are other reasons people stick with a religion beyond fanatic commitment to it. Those reasons include community ties and a stable tradition, and here at least there’s evidence that open-source religions might have an advantage over traditional religions.

Rushkoff explains that religions with priests and elite castes are often committed to maintaining a status quo. But on the other hand, if change is necessary, the small number of people in charge make it easier to change the religion all at once, via fiat. “But I think in open-source, change is actually slower and more steady,” he says.

Plus, he adds, even if open-source religions weaken ties with the past by changing rituals or reinterpreting texts, open-source work can also help each generation of believers cohere among themselves

“It’s every generation’s obligation to reinterpret and reboot the religion,” Rushkoff says. “It’s much harder to accept and understand, but it’s actually a form of continuity, too.”

Sam Kean is associate editor of Search.