Varieties of Open Source 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.

Excerpted from an interesting article in Search Magazine by Sam Kean:

Three of the examples mentioned:

1. From (Neo)Paganism: Sam Webster’s Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Bay Area

“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.

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.

As for paganism (or “neopaganism,” as the modern practice is called) 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.””

2. From Judaism: Douglas Rushkoff’s Open Source Haggadah experience

“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.”

3. From Christianity: Andrew Perriman’s Open Source Theology

““‘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 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.”

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