Read enough about bitcoin, and you will inevitably come across people who refer to cryptocurrency as a religion.
Bloomberg’s Lorcan Roche Kelly called Bitcoin “the first true religion of the 21st century.” Bitcoin proponent Hass McCook called himself “The Friar” and wrote a series of Medium articles comparing Bitcoin to a religion. There is a Church of Bitcoin, founded in 2017, that explicitly calls legendary Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto its “prophet.”
In Austin, Texas, there are billboards with slogans like “Crypto Is Real” that eerily mirror the ubiquitous Jesus billboards found on Texas highways. Like many religions, Bitcoin even has dietary restrictions associated with it.
The dirty secret of religion
Does the fact that Bitcoin has prophets, evangelists and dietary laws make it a religion or not?
As a specialist in religion, I think this is the wrong question to ask.
The dirty secret of religious studies is that there is no universal definition of what religion is. Traditions such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism certainly exist and have similarities, but the idea that these are all examples of religion is relatively new.
The word “religion” as it is used today – a loose category that includes certain cultural ideas and practices related to God, the afterlife, or morality – first appeared in Europe around the 16th century. Before that, many Europeans understood that there were only three types of people in the world: Christians, Jews and Gentiles.
This pattern changed after the Protestant Reformation when a long series of wars broke out between Catholics and Protestants. These became known as the “religious wars”, and religion became a way of talking about the differences between Christians. At the same time, Europeans encountered other cultures through exploration and colonialism. Some of the traditions they encountered shared some similarities with Christianity and were also considered religions.
Non-European languages have historically had no direct equivalent to the word “religion”. What counted as religion has changed over the centuries, and there are always political interests at play in determining whether or not something is a religion.
As scholar of religion Russell McCutcheon argues, “So the interesting thing to study is not what religion is or is not, but the process of ‘making’ itself – that this activity of fabrication takes place in a courtroom or whether it is a claim made by a group about their own behaviors and institutions.
Critics point to irrationality
With that in mind, why would anyone claim that Bitcoin is a religion?
Some commentators seem to be making this claim to steer investors away from Bitcoin. Emerging markets fund manager Mark Mobius, in an attempt to dampen cryptocurrency enthusiasm, said “crypto is a religion, not an investment.”
His statement, however, is an example of the fallacy of false dichotomy, or the assumption that if something is one thing, it cannot be another. There’s no reason why religion shouldn’t also be an investment, a political system or just about anything else.
Mobius’ point, however, is that “religion”, like cryptocurrency, is irrational. This criticism of religion has existed since the Enlightenment, when Voltaire wrote: “Nothing can be more contrary to religion and to the clergy than reason and common sense”.
In this case, calling Bitcoin a “religion” suggests that bitcoin investors are bigots and don’t make rational choices.
Bitcoin as good and healthy
On the other hand, some Bitcoin proponents have leaned into the religion label. McCook’s articles use the language of religion to highlight certain aspects of Bitcoin culture and normalize them.
For example, “stacking sats” — the practice of regularly buying small fractions of bitcoins — sounds weird. But McCook calls this practice a religious ritual, and more specifically, “tithing.” Many churches practice tithing, in which members make regular donations to support their church. So this comparison makes seated stacking more familiar.
While for some people religion may be associated with the irrational, it is also associated with what religious scholar Doug Cowan calls “good, moral, decent error.” In other words, some people often assume that if something is really a religion, it must represent something good. People who “stack the sats” can seem weird. But people who “tithe” can seem wholesome and principled.
Using religion as a framework
For scholars of religion, categorizing something as a religion can open up new insights.
As a scholar of religion, JZ Smith writes: “’Religion’ is not an indigenous term; it is created by scholars for intellectual purposes and therefore it is up to them to define it. For Smith, categorizing certain cultural traditions or institutions as religions creates a comparative framework that will hopefully lead to new understanding.
With that in mind, comparing Bitcoin to a tradition like Christianity can make people notice things they haven’t noticed before.
For example, many religions were founded by charismatic leaders. Charismatic authority does not come from government office or tradition, but only from the relationship between a leader and his followers.
Charismatic leaders are considered by their followers to be superhuman or at least extraordinary. Because this relationship is precarious, leaders often remain distant to prevent their followers from viewing them as ordinary human beings.
Several commentators have noted that the inventor of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto, looks like something of a prophet. Nakamoto’s true identity – or if Nakamoto is actually a team of people – remains a mystery. But the intrigue around this character is a source of charisma with consequences on the economic value of bitcoin. Many of those who invest in bitcoin do so in part because they consider Nakamoto to be a genius and an economic rebel. In Budapest, artists have even erected a bronze statue in homage to Nakamoto.
There is also a connection between Bitcoin and millenarianism, or the belief in an upcoming collective salvation for a select group of people.
In Christianity, millennial expectations involve the return of Jesus and the final judgment of the living and the dead. Some Bitcoiners believe in an inevitable coming “hyperbitcoinization” in which bitcoin will be the only valid currency. When that happens, the “Bitcoin believers” who have invested will be vindicated, while the “non-moneymakers” who have shunned cryptocurrency will lose everything.
A path to salvation
Finally, some Bitcoiners view Bitcoin not just as a way to make money, but as the answer to all of humanity’s problems.
“Because the root cause of all our problems is basically money printing and the resulting misallocation of capital,” McCook asserts, “the only way to save the whales, or the trees are going to be saved, or the the children are going to be saved is if we just stop the degeneration.
This attitude may be the most significant point of comparison with religious traditions. In his book “God Is Not One,” religion professor Stephen Prothero highlights the distinctiveness of the world’s religions using a four-point model, in which each tradition identifies a unique problem with the human condition, proposes a solution, offers specific practices to reach the solution, and highlights examples to model this path.
This model can be applied to Bitcoin: the problem is fiat currency, the solution is Bitcoin, and the practices consist of encouraging others to invest, “piling sats” and “hodling” – refusing to sell bitcoins to maintain his value. Examples include Satoshi and other figures involved in the creation of blockchain technology.
So does this comparison prove that Bitcoin is a religion?
Not necessarily, because theologians, sociologists, and legal theorists have many different definitions of religion, all of which are more or less useful depending on how the definition is used.
However, this comparison can help people understand why Bitcoin has become so attractive to so many people, in a way that would not be possible if Bitcoin were approached as a purely economic phenomenon.
This article was originally published on The conversation by Joseph P. Laycock at Texas State University. Read the original article here.