Antireligious Prejudice in The Free Software Movement

Recently I had the experience of encountering antireligious bigotry by a free software advocate. I will not mention the person by name, but I will describe their attitudes and the effects, and by the way of elaboration on why all forms of prejudiced discrimination is not just morally wrong, but damaging to free software as a movement. The experience occurred just prior to Software Freedom Day among the organising committee. As with around a dozen previous similar events (other SFDs, install-fests, Linux Users of Victoria Beginners Workshops) the initial selection was to be held at the Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial Church. The site was central, being a short walk from the CBD and between several tram, train, and bus routes. It had a large hall, projector facilities, a good sized kitchen, outdoor seating, and a conference room. Plus, it was quite inexpensive.

Initially the critic raised concerns about the venue based on what can be accurately described as secular reasons. For example, it has very poor Internet access (indeed, this year, none at all). They felt that the main hall was cold (heaters are installed), the available parking was insufficient (room for a dozen, parking lot next door), and the ten minute walk from a local train station (or four minutes from bus and tram stops) was too far. But the real reason, as it became clear, is that they objected to it being held in a church because "Religions start wars, do self-harm and other wiered [sic] things. I do not support religion in any shape or form, directly or indirectly, which includes running a Linux/FOSS event in a religious location."

Nevertheless, in the interest in keeping the organising committee together, the suggestion was made that if an alternative location could be found with similar facilities it would be adopted. Like with nearly all volunteer proposals, the person who makes the suggestion should be the one who drives it, but in this case the critic argued that they were insufficiently knowledgeable about alternative locations to contribute to this. An attempt was made for another, university-based site, but to no avail. The critic responded: "Should this location go ahead, I resign from the org team and will neither attend SFD2013", although they would later express displeasure at being dropped from the email cc's as a result.

What is wrong with this attitude? Surely the person has the right to their opinion? Well, of course they do. If they don't want to attend a SFD because it's in a church, that's fine. If a Catholic doesn't want to attend a Free Software gathering because it's in a a Protestant church that's their problem. Maybe someone from any of the Abrahamic religions would have concerns of meeting at the local Church of Satan. Or an atheist refusing to attend an event because it's held in a any sort religious building whatsoever. Sure, these are crazy attitudes from some perspectives, but people are allowed to have crazy ideas, and indeed their right to have such opinions and to carry out said actions is earnestly defended.

It is certainly wrong however for any such person suggest to an organisation that the event not be held in such a location because of those reasons. Why is that? Because it is a confusion that mixes individual and personal tastes with the pragmatic and agnostic requirements of the organisation. As Linus Torvalds, (an ardent rationalist, atheist, secularist, and certainly ready to mock or express horror (as appropriate) at superstitious attitudes), points out, Religion is a personal matter, but does not matter for anything else. That's how I think it should be done.. In other words in this context, it is important for a person when acting for a free software organisation that they put aside their own metaphysical assumptions and loyalties, be entirely agnostic and make decisions on a secular basis alone (e.g., primarily on the criteria of price, location, and facilities). There certainly should be no discriminatory input based on prejudiced bigotry.

Strong words? In this case unfortunately the were accurate. Because it is not just sufficient that an agnostic perspective be assumed (i.e., the attitude that one does not and cannot know about metaphysical claims), but also a position that judges each organisation on their actual behaviour, rather than on ill-founded stereotypes and assumptions of what they might represent. One may refer to Rev. Martin Luther King Jnr's famous lines "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

Well, the same applies to organisations. Judge them by the content of their character. It is certainly understandable, for example, that an organisation which has a non-discriminatory policy (hopefully Free Software bodies) would not make a booking at the Westboro Baptist Church because of the hateful attitude that they have towards others. In contrast the Melbourne Unitarian church is sufficiently theologically non-dogmatic in its association with others that the Melbourne Atheist Society meets there - I have it on good authority that atheists actually make up the majority of the committee on this creedless church that has been without a reverend for some forty years.

The point is, it's patently ridiculous to make a blanket assertion of the character of all religions and churches. It is hard enough to define them, let alone starting to ascribe values to them. Is belief in God requisite to be religious? No, it most certainly isn't. Buddhism, one of the largest world religions, has no creator diety, although there is veneration of their historic religious leaders. It does not even require a belief in the supernatural interventions in this world, as many practically-minded deists argued. A definition of religion certainly does suggest reverence, and that can be dangerous and exclusionary; the Groupe Islamique Armé is an interesting example. In the great documentary The Power of Nightmares illustrates a group so extreme that members were killed off for not being conforming to their perfect idea of practise:

The main Islamist group in Algeria, the GIA, ended up being led by a Mr. Zouabri, a chicken farmer, who killed everyone who disagreed with him. He issued a final communique, declaring that the whole of Algerian society should be killed, with the exception of his tiny remaining band of Islamists. They were the only ones who understood the truth.

Obviously not all religions or religious people are like this - and nor is it a requisite component or even tendency in religion which is just as prone to increasing inclusiveness as well as exclusion. Nor is carrying out specific rituals, membership of an institutional body. Religion, as a whole, certainly isn't responsible for wars (consider the many religious pacifist groups and the Hindu concept of "ahimsa"). Like any other worldview community, they are capable of much good - and much wickedness. As a result of this diversity, evaluation should be carried out on specific and particular examples, rather than general and universal claims.

As it was, the Melbourne Software Freedom Day 2013 was held successfully, again, at the Melbourne Unitarian Church and maybe it will again in the future. It's also noted that the Fredericksburg SFD was held at their local church as well, as was the Hereford SFD. Such events join with previous SFD's held in Launceston, and meetings of Linux groups such as the
Jackson and Madison County LUG and the North Texas Linux Group. Hopefully, the meetings of such groups as as inclusive and non-discriminatory as the Melbourne SFD tries to be.