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Linux and Mormonism

April 29, 2010

A while back, and somewhat more recently, the FAIR (that is, a major apologetics group for Mormonism) wrote a couple of articles analogizing the free and open source software (FOSS) movement’s struggles against fear, uncertainty, and doubtmongering from closed source supporters (such as Microsoft) to…the struggle of the LDS church against similar FUD from anti-Mormon groups. You can read the first one here and the followup here.

I thought the comparisons were interesting. Steven took the time primarily to address the utter untruths that can be found in the tactical playbooks of both closed source software advocates and anti-Mormons, but interestingly, he also noted that the FOSS supporters (and, in continuation of the analogy, LDS members) aren’t guiltless either.

I tried playing around with the comparison.

One of the biggest things I note about linux is how…fragmented…it is. (At least, this is the buzz word used to “denounce” new linux-based OSes like Android in the smartphone race. Android, which is one coherent “distribution,” you could say, has so many different versions per different phones.)

Linux MintArch LinuxSee, at the core, linux is…just a core. A kernel. Different developers take that core and add other packages as they see fit (and as fit their personal philosophy). So, at the one hand, one can have a distribution that’s as streamlined and simple to use as Linux Mint, but on the other hand, others can find a distribution that may be less “user-friendly” so-to-speak, but may offer more customization potential to the savvy tinkerer…like, say, Arch Linux.

I think the diversity of distributions is refreshing. I think it offers well-desired choice, not confusing fragmentation. But I guess everyone’s mileage may vary.

Problem?

I don’t readily see how this compares to the LDS church.

In the past, I have more readily compared Mormonism (or at least, the main branch, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) to Apple. With Apple, there is one way. There is one aesthetic. Things are correlated. Things are polished. If you don’t fit in with the Apple Way, sorry. Deal with it.

There are of course flaws with this kind of analogy…but seriously…an analogy between Mormonism and open source seems stranger still.

Yet…if I were to look informally, then I could perhaps see the comparison. While on the surface it looks like the church is very well correlated and there is only One Way To Think, actually, there is a lot that is left up to the membership. After all, there is that saying…identifying Mormon doctrine is like pinning jello to a wall.

Apart from a few standard beliefs (what these are…who knows?), there is an informal diversity of beliefs. (And even among some of the “standard” beliefs, there are still Mormons who would profess to believe differently on these issues.)

…Getting back to linux, though…one of the big conflicts in design philosophy that I’ve noticed is: for whom should linux be designed?

On one corner of the ring are those who believe that linux should be designed for the tinkerers. Those who are willing and able to dig through and use a terminal if need be. In this philosophy, it is not crucial to have ornate graphical interfaces for every function. Rather, simplicity in programming can afford trimming down nonessentials like graphical frontends.

task manager

Steve Jobs cries.

But at the other corner are those who want linux to thrive among the laymen. And, as a result, believe that linux must become more user-friendly to those who don’t even want to see a terminal. (And some comments from Steve Jobs come to mind…although this isn’t directly what is being said in the linux arena. “If you see a task manager, someone has failed.”

I can actually see this struggle within Mormonism. The ideological battle goes something like this, however.

At one corner are those who insist that Mormonism has starkly different ideas that must be preserved and celebrated, even if this drives a wedge between the greater society (or even the non-LDS Christian community).

And of course, the other side wants reconciliation, even if it means toning down or shuffling away unique Mormon beliefs or practices.

So, I dunno. I guess I could see some comparison between linux and Mormonism after all…

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13 Comments
  1. FAIR is making kind of a weird analogy. I think this just shows how talented apologists are at massaging ideas/analogies to support their viewpoint.

    I agree with you that the LDS church is more like Apple. Apple has a cult-like following (almost religious in nature). It’s leader is seen as a visionary (prophet). Apple is very authoritative – OS X can only legally be used on Apple’s hardware (commandments). Apple has a strong stance against porn (law of chastity). Many mac users remember their first mac (baptism). Many mac users are apologists, defending Macs and how they really aren’t more expensive (FAIR, FARMS). Apple’s Macworld events are highly anticipated by most mac users (general conference). Mac users evangelize by placing apple stickers on their cars (missionaries).

    Linux and open-source encourages free thinking and accepts user contributions. The LDS church doesn’t even come close to this. If you speak out against what the Church teaches, you’re exed.

  2. Hi!

    I’m the guy who wrote the original blog entries comparing the struggle between FOSS and Microsoft withthat of Mormonism and its critics. It is true that, in several places, the comparison breaks down; I noted that in the second entry. Indeed, I pointed out that the LDS Church is more like MS in that it was more-or-less monolithic, while our critics are fragmented into hundreds of groups, as Linux is.

    However, an analogy of Mormonism’s struggle against its critics with Apple vs. Microsoft also fails–Apple began selling computers with its GUI (the “Lisa”) in 1983 while Microsoft Windows started twenty-five years ago.

    Mormonism, by the way, doesn’t close off “user contributions.” For example, Lorenzo Snow’s famous couplet became enmeshed in LDS tradition years before he became a General Authority. As with Mormonism, Linux’ best contributors become movement leaders. 😉

    My aim was to compare the struggle itself between an established group and a relatively new upstart, and not necessarily tying the participants of each conflict in a hard-and-fast way.

  3. Chris, thanks for commenting!

    I actually have to agree with Steven here that while many comparisons can be made, the idea that the church will ex anyone for free thinking and user contributions (so to speak) is often overblown. Now, there is a line between having different beliefs — even different beliefs on core issues — and speaking (and acting) out against the church, and I think that where membership and privileges start to get into jeopardy are more on the action side. (Not to say I believe that the church necessarily *encourages* this super open and free environment either…but I think it’s a more nuanced issue.)

    Hey Steven, thanks for commenting too!

    I guess…I should maybe play around with an idea. Apple may have started earlier…but it kinda lost its way after a time and had to be “restored” (via getting Jobs *back* on board). The restoration has been massively successful in many areas (e.g., Apple’s domination with iPods and iPhones), but in other areas (the desktop arena), the competition is firmly entrenched.

    Couldn’t this relate to the church as well. At first, their was an original church, and then an “apostasy”. The church had to be restored, and while the restoration is making leaps and bounds in many issues, the competition is firmly entrenched.

    That’s probably a stretch too…haha. Ah, such is the case with comparisons and analogies.

    I guess your point with user contributions also raises an interesting “dark side.” Some people would say that there is a cliqueishness within the linux developer groups (especially as it relates to the kernel.) Some people just have to get out after some point (con kolivas) because their ideas are also slighted, misunderstood, etc. (as cK writes, he was trying to help the average desktop user, and at some point, some of the other kernel contributors would write off his suggestions because they couldn’t replicate his performance criticisms with their high-powered, multi-processor [back when multiple processors wasn’t the norm at all] machines. In other words, there was a disconnect between what the “clique” saw as “best contributions” and what people outside the clique saw.)

    In the same way, can’t we see the same in the church? You have to play well to the current paradigms to move up. I guess the same kinda plays out in all organizations though…

  4. Chris permalink

    I suppose my comment about the Church exing anyone for “user contributions” is not quite true. However, LDS doctrine isn’t formed using a bottom-up approach. In fact, the idea that Mormon doctrine is based on divine authority and not personal interpretations is at the heart of Mormonism. If anything, reformation churches are more like Linux because they questioned the authority (Catholic church) and crafted their own churches based on user contributions/interpretation. Mormons are proud of the fact that they don’t rely on subjective interpretations but that the LDS doctrine is based on an authority of prophets who speak directly with a god.

    I’m not sure if Lorenzo’s couplet is a good example because the idea that men can become gods didn’t originate with Lorenzo Snow.

  5. I could definitely buy that one more. Especially given the numerous protestant/reformation churches (which relates quite well to the numerous distros)

  6. Hi Chris!

    You make some good points, and I’d like to address each in turn:

    I suppose my comment about the Church exing anyone for “user contributions” is not quite true. However, LDS doctrine isn’t formed using a bottom-up approach. In fact, the idea that Mormon doctrine is based on divine authority and not personal interpretations is at the heart of Mormonism.

    This is mostly true, but it is no less true with Linux. Just as official LDS doctrine is measured according to the Church’s “Standard Works” and other official statements by its Prophets (Said Joseph Smith, “A Prophet is a Prophet only when acting as such.”), all changes to the Linux kernel must be filtered through one or more of Linus Torvalds’ (like Alan Cox)–or Linus Torvalds himself.

    If anything, reformation churches are more like Linux because they questioned the authority (Catholic church) and crafted their own churches based on user contributions/interpretation.

    I’m not arguing that. In fact, I mentioned something similar in my second blog entry. 😉

    However, I’d like to qualify your statement just a bit. Protestant Churches are more akin to the various BSDs (Berkley Software Distributions) than to Linux. Each of the BSDs are completely independent of any other group–just as Protestants completely broke connexion with the Catholics, whereas there is no official “fork” of Linux.

    Mormons are proud of the fact that they don’t rely on subjective interpretations but that the LDS doctrine is based on an authority of prophets who speak directly with a god.

    And every Linux distribution is proud of the fact that it is fully Linux, and don’t use their own version of the kernel.

    Moreover, just as each distribution is Linux if it uses Torvalds’ kernel, the Church enforces uniformity of doctrine on only a narrow range of subjects. Other than God lives, Jesus died and rose again to save us from our sins, Joseph Smith is God’s Prophet, and the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price are God’s Scriptures, there is often a whole range of opinion on various subjects. For example, some people accept the theory of evolution in toto, others entirely reject it, and still others (including me) have problems with parts of the theory, but accept the concept in principle.

    I’m not sure if Lorenzo’s couplet is a good example because the idea that men can become gods didn’t originate with Lorenzo Snow.

    you’re right; Lorenzo Snow DIDN’T originate the concept. He said that he heard something similar expressed by Joseph Smith, Sr., in a blessing he gave.

    The concept didn’t originate with Joseph Smith, Sr., either. It is discernible in I John 3:1-3 and 4:17 as well. And Jesus expressed the concept [John 10:34-36] when He quoted from Psalm 82:6.

    Still, it was Snow’s couplet that gave body to the doctrine.

    Do I make sense?

  7. I guess I’m not Chris, but I found two parts interesting:

    First:

    Protestant Churches are more akin to the various BSDs (Berkley Software Distributions) than to Linux. Each of the BSDs are completely independent of any other group–just as Protestants completely broke connexion with the Catholics, whereas there is no official “fork” of Linux.

    But then

    And every Linux distribution is proud of the fact that it is fully Linux, and don’t use their own version of the kernel.

    Moreover, just as each distribution is Linux if it uses Torvalds’ kernel, the Church enforces uniformity of doctrine on only a narrow range of subjects. Other than God lives, Jesus died and rose again to save us from our sins, Joseph Smith is God’s Prophet, and the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price are God’s Scriptures, there is often a whole range of opinion on various subjects. For example, some people accept the theory of evolution in toto, others entirely reject it, and still others (including me) have problems with parts of the theory, but accept the concept in principle.

    But then, couldn’t the creeds that all protestant churches accept (and use as a measuring stick *against* the LDS church?) represent the “kernel”?

  8. Andrew asks:

    But then, couldn’t the creeds that all protestant churches accept (and use as a measuring stick *against* the LDS church?) represent the “kernel”?

    Great question! And it’s probably true–in practice. However, it is antithetical to what they aver: that the measuring rod is the Bible.

    My wife noted that about the time she joined the Church. The very doctrines that cause Evangelical anti-Mormons to call us “unbiblical” have considerable biblical support. The example she cited was our practise of baptism for the dead.

    Of course, this is one reason for FAIR’s existence! 😉

  9. And I suppose that the uncertainty of what is biblical or extra-biblical is reason for other groups’ existences as well. Seems everyone can read the same texts and get different conclusions.

  10. Andrew:

    Information is expensive–in money and other resources, like time–and often is beyond our constraints. When we look at the same thing, each of us has access to data that others cannot have–which colours our conclusions. Thus, we’re all missing something.

    Am I making sense?

  11. I believe so, but I would take that further.

    Just as every photograph has one element that must exist but which people rarely consider — the lens — that determines and defines what the photo will ultimately look like, every individual comes with a lens that also colors a conclusion. So, even if the cold, hard data were all available to the same extent to each party, there could still be different conclusions because the data must be processed by the lens.

    • You’re right Andrew!

      There is a reason for that: Information carries a positive cost, and some of it is beyond people’s constraints.

      Moreover, specific information may be beyond one person’s constraints, but not another’s. For example, the principles of brain surgery completely escapes me, while a brain surgeon might find my field (economics) utterly beyond her.

      Hence, we all must take steps to reduce the costs of knowledge. For most of us most of the time, it means that we trust the word of others. Unfortunately, it also means that we must choose either to incur costs of “authenticating” this second-hand knowledge, or to run the risk of the data being wrong.

      This is the rationale behind the LDS pattern, describe in James 1:5-6, Moroni 10:3-5, and John 16:13. I plan to blog–and write–about this later.

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