Five Protestant Solas and the Hacker Ethic

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Excerpted from a 2007, BA Sociology dissertation on Free Software, by Toni Prug:

"The basic theological points of the Reformation are called the Five Solas. The first one, Solus Christus (Christ alone) refuses Pope and church as Christ’s representatives and preaches that Christ, and no one else, mediates between God and man. The second one, Sola scriptura, refuses the need for a Church to interpret the Scripture and the Church’s monopoly on such interpretation. Protestants believe that people should read the Scripture on their own and make up their own minds about it, without external interpretation. The third one, Sola fide, asserts that it is on the basis of faith alone that believers are forgiven. The fourth one, Sola gratia, claims that believers are accepted without any regard for the merit of their work; God decides on his own. The fifth and last one, Soli Deo gloria, preaches glory to God alone, and denies that saints of the Roman Catholic Church, including popes, are worthy of the glory assigned to them.

Not all of this maps to hackers and Free Software. Yet, if we are to speak in terms of spirit like Weber did, in terms of the general mood of the Five Solas, there are striking similarities. Throughout, like hackers and Free Software, the spirit of Protestantism is in favour of direct engagement of individuals, and the proliferation of interpretations and organizations to support these if needed. It arose against the centralization of the Roman Catholic Church, privilege in interpretation of people chosen by the Church, and against the Church’s extraction of wealth from its believers. At that time, those were anti-institutional, anti-hierarchical and anti-bureaucratic principles. Although the high number of branches of Protestantism was criticized by Calvin, principle was withheld in practice. This resembles the hacker’s principle of forking a project: if you don’t like what is someone else doing with some project, you take a copy of the source code15 and start work on it in the direction you wish. The principle of scripture alone is similar to the hacker’s dedication to the code, the text that makes all software what it is. All doubts about interpretations can be resolved by looking at the source. For all hackers, to dive straight to the source code is not the last resort, but rather the first course of action. Interpretation is personal, direct and engagement with no proxy is in most cases the only right option. Trust in people’s ability to dive straight to the code, to make up their own mind by reading it, to make a critical evaluation, to decide for themselves, are key for hackers. This unmediated contact with the scripture and trust in people is embodied in the Free Software principle of “freedom to study how software works and adapt it to your needs, access to the source code is precondition for this” Stallman (2002).

Aiding capitalism, allowing economic emancipation of individuals was for Weber a side effect of Reformation, not its intended purpose, regardless of its insistence on individual material gains, and its dislike of capitalism, demonstrated by Luther, for example. This paradox is best seen in the quote of John Wesley where it is clear how well Wesley is aware of the paradox (Weber, 1965: 175). Capitalism didn’t follow main principles of Protestantism, it followed some of them, those that suited it. If it had followed Protestantism to a large extent, it wouldn’t be so difficult to fit hackers and Free Software into capitalism. The dark mood in which Weber concludes his book, the last few pages that are misused as a label so often, state the problem more precisely: “Puritans wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so”(p.181). Puritans, not all Protestants.

If there is one important part of the hacker ethics that might go against the Protestantism, it could be its insistence on doing the work as enjoyment and improving the technology so that it can serve humanity and so that humans can be lazy. Two hackers of the highest standing, Larry Wall (inventor of programming language Perl) and Yukihiro Matsumoto Matz (inventor of influential programming language Ruby), both stated it on many occasions: for a true hacker, laziness is a virtue, and computers are there to serve humans. Both of them are very religious, and Matz even served as a missionary for his church. Linus Torvalds, one of the most important hackers today, is known for statements that can be seen as fundamentalist.

Consider this from the Linux coding style guide: “Heretic people all over the world have claimed that this inconsistency is … well .. inconsistent, but all right-thinking people know that a) K&R are _right_ and (b) K&R are right”16 (K&R are Kernighan and Ritchie, inventors of programming language C). Or, this from one of his interviews: “Which mindset is right? Mine, of course. People who disagree with me are by definition crazy (Until I change my mind, when they can suddenly become upstanding citizens)” (Barr, 2005). Richard Stallman, because of what some considered inflexibility when discussing core premises of Free Software, was seen as a fundamentalist. Debates about preferences to which software, or which programming tool, to use are frequently referred to as religious wars17.

All of this is left mostly untouched under the framing of business friendly Open Source. This is not a coincidence. Anything that gets included into capitalist economy has to be stripped of any previous attributes and represented as a mere commodity (Zizek, 2006), an entity to be produced, sold and utilized. There are two sets of complexities that are erased in a single move of becoming open source: that of Free Software prior to its inclusion into the capitalist economy, and that of the commodity form itself – base entity of the capitalist economy." (