Quick Note: Open Source vs Closed Source Faiths

Quick Note: Open Source vs Closed Source Faiths January 27, 2012

In a recent editorial for the Huffington Post Josh Schrei argues that the real difference between Hinduism and other world religions is that Hinduism is an “open source” faith, and that most of the others are “closed source” in their orientation.

The logo of the Open Source Initiative.

“However, the key point of differentiation between Hinduism and these other faiths is not polytheism vs. monotheism. The key differentiation is that “Hinduism” is Open Source and most other faiths are Closed Source. “Open source is an approach to the design, development, and distribution of software, offering practical accessibility to a software’s source code.” If we consider god, the concept of god, the practices that lead one to god, and the ideas, thoughts and philosophies around the nature of the human mind the source code, then India has been the place where the doors have been thrown wide open and the coders have been given free reign to craft, invent, reinvent, refine, imagine, and re-imagine to the point that literally every variety of the spiritual and cognitive experience has been explored, celebrated, and documented. Atheists and goddess worshipers, heretics who’ve sought god through booze, sex, and meat, ash covered hermits, dualists and non-dualists, nihilists and hedonists, poets and singers, students and saints, children and outcasts … all have contributed their lines of code to the Hindu string.

It’s an concept that could just as easily be applied to modern Pagan religions. Like Hinduism, Paganism is simply an umbrella term for a large number of individual faiths, traditions, and practices that happen to share a some commonalities that bind them together. Though I think Schrei might be overstating things when he initially claims that the differentiation isn’t about “polytheism vs. monotheism.” Isn’t it the theological openness of polytheism that allows both “atheists and goddess worshipers” to coexist and contribute to a religious culture? This point is all but conceded by Schrei later on in his piece.

“Western and Middle Eastern monotheistic faiths have simply not allowed such liberal interpretation of their God. They continue to exist as closed source systems.”

The similarities and shared outlooks of the Pagan and Hindu communities will be explored at the upcoming PantheaCon 2012 in San Jose, California, where members of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) will participate in a panel discussion entitled Hindus and Pagans: One Billion Strong. Perhaps the open/closed religion model idea will be discussed along with other topics.

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  • Now you’re speaking my language … 🙂

  • This has been my concept of Wicca since I began. It is created by us for us, with the Gods and Goddesses representing themselves in a variety of ways. I have always believed that we are highly syncretic. Even as this is coming out, I have begun a the process of the CNT into a transmedia tradition, becoming far more meta in it’s outlook.

  • Alex Pendragon

    I don’t understand this habit of using the terms “atheist” and “Goddess worshippers” in the same breath as though there are no real differences between the two mindsets. The only difference is gender, it seems, as though straying from the patriarchal mindset is somehow straying from some truth….which in MY mind is actually the reverse.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Jason, it is possible to imagine a polytheism that is closed-source. Imagine if the personality types that inhabit the Christian Right had a different, polytheistic theology.

    On the other hand, Catholicism makes an attempt to be open-source. They incorporate others’ gods and goddesses as saints, but remain monotheistic. (BTW absorbing deities of the conquered is not a Catholic invention, by a thousand years.)

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I didn’t get that from this juxtaposition. It looks to me like an attempt to contrast, not conflate.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Come to think of it, aren’t the Mormons technically polytheistic but closed-source?

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    This is where the short comment to Alex belonged. Sorry.

  • Baruch, as you were positing, “it is possible to imagine a polytheism that is closed-source,” I was thinking of attempts to control the “Hindutva” of India by political groups like the BJP and others. So going along with your thinking, I sometimes feel that the religion or religious tradition itself may or may not be open sourced as much as individuals who exercise their ability to write code.

  • Guest

    I would encourage anybody interested in learning more about Hinduism to attend a Hindu Temple or go to something from a teacher of Hinduism and a book by a Hindu. I would encourage anyone who wants to learn about Buddhism to learn similarly from teachers, writers, temples that are Buddhist. That is how to learn stuff.

    I’d cringe if I ever heard something like “I can’t wait to get to Pantheacon to hear about the commonalities of Hinduism and Paganism” rather than the reaction “I’m looking forward to Pantheacon, how nice”

  • kenneth

    Catholicism takes great pains to deny any open-source character it may have. They seek to minimize, in any way possible, contributions from prior cultures or religions. If they admit the connection at all, they do so only to the extent that they can write off such sources as crude precursors to their own inerrant and un-perfectable faith.

  • Hindutva, Schmindutva. No one can produce a single statement from any “Hindutva” leader, writer, etc, who has ever claimed that Hinduism has an exclusive claim to truth.

    Exclusive truth claims are intrinsic to monotheism, and completely foreign to all forms of polytheism.

  • Awesome way of addressing the concepts. I have always felt that the true mystic, regardless of tradition, must accept wherever their experiences take them. Noticeably, the Christians, especially western Christians (you don’t get this as much in Eastern Orthodoxy) always seem to freak out about individual mystics. They get canonized long after their deaths, but during life they are often accused of all sorts of heresy.

  • I’m an atheistic pagan. I believe that nature exists, and that various entities exist within it, but I don’t believe that any of them are deities in the sense of creating reality, governing reality, meting out justice, etc. There is plenty of so-called “supernatural” stuff going on, but no one is in charge, per se, or at least I see no reasons to believe someone is, and lots of reasons to believe otherwise. When I interact in ritual with gods and goddesses, I understand them to be a sort of synthetic entity created by the interaction between my psyche and some abstract or concrete particular in the world. I would also argue that many, many mystical experiences had by all traditions have implied as much. How many of you have been told, point-blank, by some entity that “This is not really what I am, but it’s a form that will help you interact with me” (paraphrased, of course).

    Many polytheisms don’t include the notion of omni-max deities, though, and I have no problem with that notion…simply very powerful beings, sure. But just because something is very powerful doesn’t imply the need for worship to me, plus I could never understand why they would want worship (unless they were narcissists, and who wants to worship a narcissist?)

    It’s part of the reason I have never believed in karma or the Threefold Law concepts…it just sounds like the “Just World Fallacy”, and in order for them to make sense there must be some enforcing and judging force, using some specific code of ethics, and those are all human concerns that it is clear nature cares nothing about.

    Some people try to save karma by appealing to it like physics…equal and opposite reactions. But such a force would be easily observable in nature, and it isn’t. Plagues don’t go after “bad” people, cancer doesn’t discriminate, and good things do, in fact, happen to bad people, too. You can also try to save it with an appeal to reincarnation, but while some reincarnation research has been pretty suggestive, I am not yet convinced, and even if it is true, if the reincarnated person has no or little memory of her past life, in what sense can we say that bad things happening to her are justice for their actions in a past life? What about non-retributive justice and concern for the victims?

    Oh, and straying away from the patriarchal mindset is is a movement TOWARDS truth, in my opinion. Of course, I would also say the same about the anthropocentric mindset. 😉

  • I suspect the closed source aspect of a religion arises mostly from either political power suppressing alternatives or isolation, and in either event at the level of individual practitioners the variety of belief would appall those within a more monolithic hierarchy. Once religious liberty was guaranteed Christianity began to fragment, and once people became aware of alternative religious traditions that fragmentation seems to have increased considerably.

    I had a lot of fun writing a piece called “The Myth of Monotheism” that appeared on Witch Vox minus the notes ’cause I screwed up getting them in. http://www.witchvox.com/va/dt_va.html?a=usca&c=words&id=13897 Essentially I argued that Christians believed in so many contradictory form of monotheism that they in practiced worshipped different deities, each arguing theirs was the only one. Those who switched from one denomination to another practiced “serial monotheism” in a way Newt Gingrich could appreciate.

  • Anonymous

    After reading about how Mediterranean polytheistic religions like those in ancient Greece and Rome dealt with the “impiety” of folks as varied as Socrates, Christians, Jews and the non-sanctioned “mystery religions” of antiquity, I wouldn’t necessarily look at their interreligious dialogue as the most optimal.

    Impiety was the charge of not performing or participating in the public state-endorsed rites, and was seen as a flagrant disregard for local custom that could cause the state to be “dealt with” by the protector gods of the city-state. As a result, impiety was considered a civic, rather than religious, offense (i.e., “sin” was a foreign concept to the European Mediterranean at the time).

    This law against impiety was used by the Roman government to prosecute the aforementioned, especially in the days of Emperor-worship.

    So in response to whether it is possible that a closed-source polytheism could exist, it probably came the closest to such in those places in Mediterranean antiquity where impiety to the state gods was considered a capital crime against the state, no matter the personal beliefs espoused.

    It would help to at least see if such was the case in India before the arrival of Islam and Christianity. AFAIK, Jewish residents who migrated across West Asia to Cochin were not treated by the Hindu rulers in Kerala in the earlier 2nd millennium like Jews were treated in ancient Rome or Athens, so that has given me pause to think.

  • Boris

    Modern Christians (and Pagans) tend to misrepresent the execution of Socrates. An Athenian equivalent of the Tea Party had just come into power. One of the leaders of the previous government (Alcibiades) had been a pupil of Socrates’. A process for “impiety” was just an excuse to show that “modern” ideas would not be tolerated any more.

  • what about us pantheists? im neither a monotheist nor a polytheist.

  • Ancient Pagan societies (such as those of Greece and Rome) were far from perfect, but when it comes to freedom of religion there is no room for doubt that polytheism afforded far greater diversity than what the Christians and Muslims allowed once they came to power.

    In the ancient Pagan societies of the Greco-Roman world the number of different religions numbered in the hundreds. The vast majority of these religious traditions never experienced any form of persecution whatsoever. In fact, most of them enjoyed the active support of the population and the state itself. Incidents of persecution were rare and when they did occur they were localized and temporary. When the Christians (and later the Muslims) came to power the situation changed completely: a state of permanent persecution of ALL religions other than the one officially approved religion became the norm for century after century after century. This is something that world had simply not seen before, and that the world has never seen outside of those place unfortunate enough to come under the spiritual jackboot of monotheism.

  • And almost as soon as Socrates was dead, the political situation in Athens changed again. According to the most detailed account we have from antiquity, the Athenians erected a statue to Socrates and sent those who had accused him into exile, except for Meletus, who was himself put to death (a harsh but appropriate punishment for someone who falsely accuses a fellow citizen of a capital crime). At least one other Greek city (can’t remember the name right now) also banished the accusers of Socrates.

    It also needs to be emphasized that there was no generalized “witch-hunt” against Socrates’s students at any time, and that Athens went on to become a great center of learning with multiple “schools” all openly and proudly carrying on the tradition of Socratic philosophy.

  • The guy doesn’t seem to understand the Hindu religions very well if thats the case. They are notoriously “closed source”. Nor are they accurately described as one faith.

  • Kilmrnock

    i have to agree w/ jason one this one , paganism as a whole is open soursed. Using programming terminology is a novel way to describe faith and beliefs , but by the authors definition we are open soursed . Annie , unless i deeply misunderstand patheonism , we are polytheistic by definition . Most if not all pantheons envolve a family of gods such as the Greek or Celtic pantheons , more than one , usualy many related gods , hence polytheistic . i personaly follow the Celtic pantheon ,Tuath De Dannon, i am both a pantheonist and polytheistic. But getting back to the origonal point ,b/c pagans as a whole have no dogma or holy book and is a extremly personal faith , open to personal interpritation we fall under his definition of open soursed no matter how odd that sounds. Kilm

  • It appears that the main divide between Paganism and Hinduism is regional. That is that the geography and resulting climate is what affected many of the differences. Otherwise there is indeed a great overlap in approach and perspective. Would there then be a new term for this or just another group absorbed into the term Pagan? Is Pagan an appropriate term for this or would a new term be more effective and understandable?

  • Kilmrnock

    Annie , i must opoligise , you are correct …………i just checked , i misunderstood due the closness in spelling to panthoenism , pantheism is entirely different and true is neither polytheist or monotheistic . yet i would consider it open sourced by definition .sorry for my confusion Kilm

  • Zebrinelady

    There’s an excellent book by a non-Pagan called “CyberHenge” that makes this exact point – the open source rather than closed. When I was working on my dissertation, I found it to be a very healthy discussion of the Pagan movement:


  • Yes, I very much agree with your statements. The term ‘supernatural’ appears to be applied to anything that has yet to be explained by scientific measures, and seems to be something that is either not considered important for scientific study or is beginning to be studied. Like the effects of meditation now showing how the mind can effect your physical state, like pain relief, among other things. I feel that because of want of explanations for the unexplained (‘supernatural’ events) superstition arises to try to fill that gap instead of having a scientific approach. Which is unfortunate in my mind as I feel there is much to be gained if we do approach the unexplained in a scientific manner, as meditation has shown. Not only does it fully explain things, but can bring support to your practices, like yoga today.

    I understand them to be a sort of synthetic entity created by the interaction between my psyche and some abstract or concrete particular in the world.

    You may like Humanistic Paganism then, it sounds like its right up your alley. I feel much the same. Humans like to organize the world around them, and do that through thought. So abstract thinking is used to put things in a way that can be understood better. I personally feel that most everything that is attributed to spirituality or as mystical can be explained through psyche, and as it is one of the big frontiers of science, I look forward to seeing what comes up and if that is the case.

    just because something is very powerful doesn’t imply the need for worship to me, plus I could never understand why they would want worship (unless they were narcissists, and who wants to worship a narcissist?)

    Lol, I’ve often wondered at the need for worship myself and your narcissist assessment makes a lot of sense. 🙂

    It’s part of the reason I have never believed in karma or the Threefold Law concepts…it just sounds like the “Just World Fallacy”, and in order for them to make sense there must be some enforcing and judging force, using some specific code of ethics, and those are all human concerns that it is clear nature cares nothing about.

    “Just World Fallacy” sounds right. I don’t mind the construction of a code of ethics outside the legal system we already have. Our legal system is what takes care of enforcing and judging and see no requirement for any other enforcing and judging source. Especially since I don’t see evidence of any other source outside ourselves. I like your point on Nature not caring about human concerns. I feel that this fact is often missed as most have an anthropocentric view of the world.

    I concur with the direct comparisons of karma and good/bad things occurring to good/bad people. There isn’t any evidence and isn’t in proportion. This is why you get pointing and justifying harm that has come to people, i.e. Haiti earthquake or Fukushima.

    In terms of reincarnation, it is very anthropocentric as the ‘good’ creatures to reincarnate in are only good from the perspective of people and vice versa. Nature doesn’t perceive any creatures as either. They are all part of the whole and contribute to the balance of an ecosystem. I don’t see any evidence of reincarnation so I don’t but any stock in it. Especially as I prefer to value the one and only guaranteed life I have now.

  • Dreaming Mountain

    “…it is possible to imagine a polytheism that is closed-source. Imagine if the personality types that inhabit the Christian Right had a different, polytheistic theology.”

    Not hard to imagine at all. It’s called Asatru.

  • Nicole Youngman

    A great way of thinking about it, but there are a couple of difficulties here I think: first, Hinduism is both polytheistic and monotheistic; all the deities are avatars of the One (Brahman). Secondly, I think it would be more accurate to say that Hinduism (and Paganism) are overtly or purposefully open-sourced–they often*welcome* change, new interpretations and ideas, etc., and and acceptance of differences among personal paths and beliefs within the general framework is built into the system. The monotheisms change over time and across cultures too, but with much more *resistance* (fundamentalists might say they’re regularly “hacked,” perhaps).

  • Anonymous

    And indeed, “Hindutva” groups view Buddhists, Jains, etc. as all being “Hindus,” which also makes the analogy suspect.

    Furthermore, Hindutva leaders (as I’m sure Apuleius is familiar) have spoken out often about various “Pagan” religions, and are generally the most “Pro-Pagan” Hindus out there. Of course, I’m not really surprised that most Westerners aren’t very knowledgeable about these things, or much else to do with India, really…

    EXHIBIT A (Not for Apuleius, but for everyone else):

    “There was a time when the old Pagan Gods were pretty fulfilling and they inspired the best of men and women to acts of greatness, love, nobility, sacrifice and heroism. It is, therefore, a good thing to turn to them in thought and pay them our homage. We know pilgrimage, as ordinarily understood, as wayfaring to visit a shrine or a holy place. But there can also be a pilgrimage in time and we can journey back and make our offerings of the heart to those Names and Forms and Forces which once incarnated and expressed man’s higher life. (…) The peoples of Egypt, Persia, Greece, Germany and the Scandinavian countries are no less ancient than the peoples of India; but they lost their Gods, and therefore they lost their sense of historical continuity and identity. (…) What is true of Europe is also true of Africa and South America. The countries of these continents have recently gained political freedom of a sort, but (…) if they wish to rise in a deeper sense, they must recover their soul, their Gods (…) If they do enough self-churning, then their own Gods will put forth new meanings in response to their new needs. (…) If there is sufficient aspiration, invoking and soliciting, there is no doubt that even Gods apparently lost could come back again. They are there all the time.” — Ram Swarup

  • AnonGuest

    Neopaganism mislabels karma as divine moral judgement while omitting the label to which god is planning said punishment or being able to say they’ll get someone without acknowledging to the public they’re responsible for laying a curse.
    That’s not the actual definition of karma, which is acknowledgement of cause and effect.
    Some causes are global and some are self-caused. But I’ve never seen the point of trying to either change people’s minds about reincarnation for or against. Particularly since perhaps this is some folk’s first span, the only one they’ve had, and the only they’d remember, and that will end when this does, so why should they try convincing themselves otherwise anyway? Same as trying to convince someone who sees differently that this is all they’ve had or ever will. People have different gut opinions on said subject, perhaps all have the right gut opinion about their own life.

  • Pantheism and polytheism are perfectly compatible. In fact, if one is a pantheist then one does believe in a deity: the living divine universe. But to deny that other deities also exist is to turn “the living divine universe” into “the one and only God”, which seems a monstrous perversion, to me, anyway. Just because the entire universe as a whole is a single, living, divine being, in no way prevents there being other deities.

  • Daniel SnowKestral

    I may me misinterpreting and, hence, misapplying the “closed source” and “open source” terms, but I thought I would post my thought regarding the discussion to clear up any of my own possible deficiencies about understanding them. Here I go:

    I remember having quite a few conversations about British Traditional Wicca (online and in person) being a Mystery Tradition. That is, no one could really be a part of a coven or become a true Wica until they had gone through the rites of initiation. And, indeed, back in the 40’s-60’s, one could not claim being a Wica/Witch if they could not prove their lineage to a specific coven, which was led by reputable High Priestesses and/or High Priests.

    If I am understanding the Closed/Open Source dichotomies regarding the example above–would it be fair to say, then, that British Traditional Wica/Gardnerian Wicca was, in the truest sense of its early history, a Closed Source Path? And now, with the advent of Neo-Wicca and Solitary Wicca, this means that Wicca is an Open Source spirituality?

  • Nick Ritter

    More people should read Ram Swarup. He was brilliant.

  • Bookhousegal

    I’d be cautious about saying saying ‘what Neopaganism mislabels karma as’ as if there was either an official label/dogma or people don’t actually have more-sophisticated ideas than *that.* (You seem to be talking more about some new-agey pop-culture ideas of what ‘karma’ is, than a Pagan one. It’s not uncommon for newbies, certainly, to tend to want to make it about ‘divine judgment,’ but the point most certainly is not to ‘lay curses without responsibility.’ )

    (Some people think the Threefold Return bit is meant to describe some moralistic punishment, but that’s also not the point: actually, it’s about how we can observe how intentions and the effects of actions tend to *snowball,* for good or ill or indifferent: one might say it affects you, the other, and the world, etc. Of course it’s a very strong reason to *work* for good and not throw a lot of heat around, not to mention perhaps ask the Gods to help direct that, but it’s not about how you say that.

    As reincarnation goes, I think a lot of Pagans are cautious about anything that may seem too pie-in-the-sky or dogmatic about that sort of thing: (Or smacks too much of that past-life-regression fad of some time ago, which seemed to result in a lot of people claiming to be reincarnated *important* people. 🙂 ) …. it’s a common enough belief, at least as a way of relating to the world: It’s not the kind of thing, perhaps, you could ask people to ‘believe in’ as a fact unless perhaps you’ve had very vivid experiences of it, or trust or happen to be shown by someone who has. Actually, part of what made modern Pagan religion ‘home’ to me was that for once, the old memories I’d been living with all my life *fit.* There’s common-enough stories about how one normally *forgets,* of course, unless perhaps there’s some need to remember. And I don’t think we’re overburdened by any sense there has to be one way for everyone to exist. I think the important thing, really, is how we can deal with *our kids* who have memories or such.

    In a lot of ways, the results aren’t *that* different from the dharmic paths’ version, though there’s little sense of reincarnation being a ‘trap’ or something to escape as soon as possible: Pagans see it as another form of regenerating life and to the purpose of *learning and experiencing* as a positive thing, perhaps before going on to be something else later. It’s something that I think little newspaper blurbs and the like, particularly when the interviewer isn’t familiar with the concepts or see it through a monotheistic lens. I think it’d be a really interesting topic for some interfaith discussion, between dharmics and Pagans directly.

  • Kilmrnock

    Sin is pretty much foreign to all religions except middle eastern monothieism , tis a Jewish, Christian , Muslim concept . As far as i know , most religions have a concept of right and wrong or code of ethics/behavior . But sin/origonal sin belongs to them . Dear gods what a hellish concept , that one is born a sinner / carries that burden from birth . that one always bothered me , that why i’m pagan , besides a few other reasons . Kilm

  • Anonymous

    Actually, most religions have a concept of a sin, it is merely that the Abrahamic traditions were the first to assume that everyone started out broken, as opposed to it being what someone did later on (i.e. harming someone else, blaspheming against the gods, etc). Look at any Greek tragedy, for instance – the use of hubris as someone’s downfall is well documented outside the Abrahamic faiths.

  • Malaz

    Hindus,Buddhists,Pagans,Shinto…etc…etc…3.5 billion strong.

    Yes, Virginia…it is about polytheism…


  • Anna Korn

    This is an extremely stupid concept– an attempt to apply computerization to theology. Besides, Hinduism is NOT opensource– you must be initiated if you were not born into it.