Nadia Eghbal

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Public faith

My friend Henry Zhu and I are excited to share a project we’ve been working on: a series of ten podcast episodes where we discuss the parallels between faith and open source.

It started with an observation that faith seemed to be prevalant among a lot of open source developers. I was surprised how often I encountered Christianity in particular, a comment I first expressed, cautiously, to Kent Dodds on his road trip conference call. By contrast, here in San Francisco, I’d come to think of tech as an innately secular practice. People here who work in tech are fiercely optimistic, and maybe even dogmatic about it, but religion is conspicuously absent from our day-to-day.

Why is faith so much more visible in open source, then? My theory: faith and open source both place high value on community and a sense of public service. Organized religion is the original distributed community, and it’s lasted thousands of years.

I don’t remember the first time Henry and I talked about religion, but as we got to know each other better, we found ourselves discussing it more regularly. Henry is active with his church, and we’d share articles, books, and general musings on topics like tithing, evangelism, and rituals, noting how consistently similar some these were to open source. For example: how do churches finance their activities? How are symbols and stories passed down to newcomers? And how do you build a congregation that lasts?

Neither of us felt we had a place to talk about faith in the context of tech. I don’t consider myself to be actively religious, but religion was part of my cultural upbringing, as well as a personal interest. I spent time around Quakerism, Catholicism, Buddhism, and Islam, read religious texts and participated on forums, studied Hebrew so I could read Torah, and even tried (several times…) to create my own religion.

I’m curious about religion for many of the same reasons I’m curious about open source. They’re organizational systems that bind people tightly together, and whose norms, fascinatingly, didn’t derive from any one place, but rather from a shared consensus iterated upon by each passing generation.

Henry and I were already talking about it, so we decided: why not record our conversations? Podcasts are like blog posts, just with another person who can help you uncover insights you wouldn’t have worked out on your own. For us, it wasn’t about getting tons of listeners or promoting ourselves, but creating an artifact that we can share with others. We wanted to challenge the idea that podcasts have to be a “forever” thing. Because our primary goal was to learn together, we decided to just record episodes until we felt done, then release them all together.

We both feel vulnerable about this project: I because I’m not even religious, Henry because he is, and both of us because we acknowledge there’s a reason why people don’t talk about religion in the open. Discussing religion can feel like appending a label to your identity, one that will make people see you in an irrevocably different way. Our original idea was to invite open source developers we knew personally to talk about their faith, but we discovered it wasn’t easy to make this ask, because people worry - rightly so - that openly discussing faith could send the wrong message or invite unwanted attention.

What did we learn from the experience? I learned that I’m not really quite as “non-religious” as I’d thought. When we started out, I figured we’d balance each other out: Henry would be the voice of faith, and I’d be the secular one, but the more we talked through these topics, the more I realized I was artificially limiting myself. I have my own version of spiritual practice; I’m just not used to acknowledging it to others. But I think it gets expressed through the “why” of the work I do every day, where I’m moved to amplify creative potential in the world, and where I’m in awe of all the strange, ineffable qualities that make us human.

We recorded ten episodes. Each one is ~30-40 minutes. If you’d like to give them a listen, check out our website, or grab them off of iTunes, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Finally, we’d love to continue the conversation. On Twitter, we’re at @nayafia (Nadia) and @left_pad (Henry), or you can email us privately at nadia.eghbal@gmail.com and hi@henryzoo.com.

Thanks to Jessica Han for the logo design and Ken Wheeler for the outro music. (Also, Henry is way too modest about the work he put into this podcast! He did the branding, learned how to edit podcasts on the fly, and figured out all the publishing behind the scenes.)

Read Henry’s take on the podcast here, as well as our production process.