Interpreting the Free Software Movement as Religion

by  Tim Henderson

A person should aspire to live an upright life openly with pride, and this means saying “No” to proprietary software.



The Free Software movement which began in earnest twenty-five years ago has become one of the most quietly influential movements of the Internet age. Today, many social phenomenas occurring in our networked world, such as Wikileaks, can be understood more completely by understanding the Free Software movement. The Free Software movement can be usefully analyzed from many perspectives however, this paper will use the lens of religion. Specifically, the movement will be analyzed from the context of selected writing from its founder, Richard M. Stallman, using the categories defined by Mircea Eliade. Through the use of Eliade's categories one understands Stallman to be demarcating the sacred from the profane in an attempt to return to an archaic past.

Eliade's Terms and Categories

In his 1957 treatise, The Sacred and the Profane , Mircea Eliade creates categories, such as sacred vs profane, and attempts to fit many different religious traditions into the categories. Methodologically this approach has a serious shortcoming, the supporting traditions do not always fit well into the chosen categories. However, since Eliade has defined broadly useful, even if not universally applicable, categories for interpreting religious traditions. The utilization of these categories highlights the religious nature of the Free Software.

Eliade's primary purpose in his treatise is to discuss the experiential demarcation between the sacred and the profane. Eliade defines the sacred in two senses. The first is recursive: the sacred is the opposite of the profane.1 In this sense one can place objects into two categories, sacred and profane, as long as they don't overlap. Eliade clarifies this slightly through use of Rudolf Otto's term, the wholly other,2 indicating the sacred manifests itself as wholly different than the profane. By using Otto's language, Eliade indicates the sacred has an element to the divine.

For the purposes of this paper we will stipulatively take the divine to mean: that which seems to the individual to have a numinous quality. An object which has a numinous quality is one which seems irreducible and the individual thus feels a creature dependence towards.3 Thus, the sacred is the manifestation of the numinous into the corporeal. The profane, on the other hand, is the common, that which seems to be understandable. These stipulative definitions conform to Eliade's requirements: the sacred is opposite of the profane, and the sacred is wholly different than the profane.

In addition to his categories, sacred and profane, Eliade defines two related categories: archaic society and modern society. The man who lives in archaic society, homo religiosus, seeks to exist as much as possible in or around the sacred.4 In contrast the man of modern societies, modern man, exists in a desacralized environment.5 The modern man depending on his temperament may look back to the religious man either romantically or derisively. Thus, modern and archaic do not indicate, as they traditionally do, an essential ordering or time line. It may be that archaic and modern coexist with each look back to the other as a mythical past while eagerly looking forward to a time when man is more or less religious.

The Free Software Movement

What is the Free Software movement? How can it be understood as religious, using the terms and categories defined by Eliade? The Free Software movement was started in 1984 with the publication of the GNU Manifesto by Richard M. Stallman. Stallman had become disgusted with the unethical nature of software and computer usage and sought a return to an earlier time where users freely shared and modified programs. To enable this return, he set about to create an ecosystem of software which was protected from being made proprietary. In many ways Stallman succeeded: today there is large amount of Free Software available. Every computer user unwittingly uses such software on a daily basis, and companies such as Google and Facebook could not exist without Free Software.

What unethical nature was Stallman disgusted with? The answer lies in the GNU Manifesto where Stallman states, I consider that the golden rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it. Software sellers want to divide the users and conquer them, making each user agree not to share with others. I refuse to break solidarity with other users in this way.6 It seems to Stallman he should obey the golden rule. One may guess from the text Stallman would define the golden rule as a principle of reciprocity. Thus, if an individual likes a program and would want another to share it with him he is ethically required to share the program with another as well. Furthermore, an individual must not restrict those he shares software with from further sharing the software, or from modifying the software to suit their needs better. To prevent such sharing and modification would violate his golden rule.7

It is important to note Stallman does not believe that all things should be shared alike. He only considers such freedom ethical where there is no harm done to the person who shares by sharing. Stallman states: "Owners say that they suffer harm or economic loss when users copy programs themselves. But the copying has no direct effect on the owner, and it harms no one.8 Thus, Stallman believes that copying a program does not harm the original owner, because the owner does not loose the use of the program because a copy is made. Such copies can be made indefinitely. In the same way Stallman defends the right to modify software: whether you run or change a program I wrote affects you directly and me only indirectly. Whether you give a copy to your friend affects you and your friend much more than it affects me. I shouldnt have the power to tell you not to do these things. No one should.9 Thus, Stallman has constructed his own ethical system based on how the golden rule seemed to him.

To explain and understand his movement, Stallman constructed a founding narrative. The narrative begins in ancient times when copyright as a concept did not exist. Stallman explains that in those times the roles of authors, copiers, scribes, and commentators were muddled. Everyone who participated in written culture freely copied, improved, and commented on previous works.10 Stallman holds this copyright-free society up as the exemplar from our historical past for how one should relate to written work.

Stallman continues his narrative by connecting the experiences of early computer programmers (his in particular) to the copyright-free society detailed above. While copyright existed when computing culture began in the 40's and 50's it was not yet universally applied to computer source code. Stallman participated in this society when he joined the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1971: When I started working at the MIT Articial Intelligence Lab in 1971, I became part of a software-sharing community that had existed for many years. Sharing of software was not limited to our particular community; it is as old as computers, just as sharing of recipes is as old as cooking. But we did it more than most.11 Stallman holds his early experiences in the AI Lab as a second exemplar for the proper orders of society, where software is freely shared, edited, commented, and ported.

However, Stallman's perfect society eventually fell into disrepair. Programmers were asked to sign software licenses and non disclosure agreements when the university purchased new equipment and software. To Stallman these events had a chaogonic12 quality: This meant that the first step in using a computer was to promise not to help your neighbor. A cooperating community was forbidden. The rule made by the owners of proprietary software was, 'If you share with your neighbor, you are a pirate. If you want any changes, beg us to make them.'13 Thus, the ideal of community which had obeyed the golden rule began to unravel. No longer could a programmer freely help his neighbor, no longer could a programmer freely fix bugs, no longer could a programmer port software to new platforms. The programmers were now at the mercy of contracts and legal agreements.

In the depths of this disarray, Stallman experienced a heirophany, Eliade's term for the sacred manifesting itself. It began with the AI Lab being gifted a printer from Xerox. However, despite giving them the printer, Xerox refused to share the code for the driver.14 Unfortunately, the driver had bugs in it. When Stallman offered to fix the bugs if they gave him their code, they refused. The experience was transformative. Stallman could no longer accept the status quo of license and non-disclosure agreements. He set out to change the world, so he could return to an ideal society where programmers helped their neighbors.15

Thus, according to Stallman's narrative detailed above, Stallman set out to purge his life of the corrupting influence of proprietary software. Unfortunately, to rid himself of proprietary software he needed to create a new ecosystem of Free Software. So he quit his job at MIT and began working on several Free Software programs. Stallman states: I realized that I was elected to do the job.16 Thus, he began the GNU project to create a Free operating system and ecosystem of software. Without, such an ecosystem Stallman feels one cannot live an upright life as a programmer.17

Therefore, the Free Software movement seeks to establish an alternative reality where all software written is Free. Users are free to modify and redistribute software. No one is free to limit another's use of software. This movement can be understood using Eliade's categories of sacred vs profane, and archaic society vs modern society.


The copyright free societies Stallman references in his narrative parallel the Eliadian concept of the archaic society. In both cases these societies are held up as exemplars of what it means to be truly religious, to be a homo religiosus. In Stallman's pre-copyright society, programmers shared with each other freely, they modified programs without hesitation; unwittingly they obeyed his golden rule and helped their neighbors. In modern society programmers no longer share code and modify programs. They are prevented from doing so. Thus, they no longer obey the golden rule. By not obeying the golden rule they have become corrupt.18

Stallman's narrative fits into Eliade's categories of the modern society vs. the archaic society. Stallman represents himself as a truly religious person living in the modern society seeking to return to the archaic society. His method for returning to the archaic society is to resacralize the world.

To sacralize, one must have a concept of something that is sacred vs. something that is profane. For to sacralize one make the the profane sacred. For Stallman, Free Sofware itself is sacred. Free Software is opposite the profane proprietary software. Proprietary software cannot be shared and it cannot be modified. Free Software can be explicitly shared and modified. Free Software also manifests a numinous quality. Specifically, Free Software is the revelation of the ideal divine society today. In the ideal society all software is Free Software. To have Free Software in present society is to experience the revelation of the ideal. Thus, Free Software is not just sharable and modifiable it also sacred. Free Software is Sacred Software.

Stallman desires to return to his ideal archaic society where programmers were more religious and users could share and modify programs at will. To bring about the return of the archaic society he must resacralize the present profane society. To do so he created the GNU Project to manifest Sacred Software into the present profane space. Thus, Stallman marks off the sacred, Free Software, from the profane, proprietary software, in an attempt to return humanity to the ideal society.


The Free Software movement can be understood as a religious movement using Eliade's terms and categories. Stallman basis his movement on his understanding of the golden rule. He uses his understanding of the rule to construct an ethical system for the production and use of software. Stallman then constructs a narrative to explain how society has moved from a religious ethical past to a profane present. To return society to the ideal past, Stallman attempts resacralize the present society by creating Free Software. Free Software is sacred. By introducing Free Software into present society, society becomes more sacred. The utilization of Eliade's categories clarified the religious aspects of the Free Software movement.

  1. Eliade, M. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion trans. Trask, W. Harcourt Inc. New York. 1957. pg 10. Hearafter: Sacred and Profane

  2. Ibib. pg 2. and Otto, R. The Idea of the Holy trans. Harvey, J. Oxford University Press, New York. 1958. pg 25. Hereafter: The Holy 

  3. The Holy pg. 6-7 

  4. Sacred and Profane pg. 12, 15 

  5. Sacred and Profane pg. 17 

  6. Stallman, R. M. Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman. GNU Press, Boston, 2002. pg. 34. Hereafter: Free Software

  7. See Free Software pg. 43 for a discussion of the precise meaning of Free Software. 

  8. Free Software pg. 48 

  9. Free Software pg. 49 

  10. Free Software pg. 39 

  11. Free Software pg. 17 

  12. Chaos creating, antonym of Cosmogonic. See Beal, T. K. Religion and its Monsters. Routledge, New York, 2002. 

  13. Free Software pg. 18 

  14. A driver is a piece of software which allow the computer to communicate with a piece of hardware. Every piece of hardware has a unique communication protocol, necessitating many different drivers. 

  15. Free Software pg. 19 

  16. Free Software pg. 19,20 

  17. Free Software pg. 57 

  18. For an example of Stallman using such language see for instance Free Software pg. 130