Why do people call Bitcoin a religion?

Read enough about Bitcoin and you’ll 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 promoter Hass McCook began calling himself “The Hermit” and wrote a series of Mediums comparing Bitcoin to a religion. There is a Bitcoin church founded in 2017 that openly calls the legendary Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto its “prophet”.

Austin, Texas has billboards with slogans like “Crypto is real” that oddly mirror the ubiquitous Jesus billboards found on Texas highways. Like many religions, Bitcoin has dietary restrictions associated with it.

Religion’s dirty secret

So does the fact that Bitcoin has prophets, evangelists and dietary laws make it a religion or not?

As a scholar of religion, I think this is the wrong question.

The dirty secret of religious studies is that there is no universal definition of religion. Traditions such as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism certainly exist and have similarities, but the idea that they are all examples of religion is relatively new.

The word “religion” as used today—a vague category that includes certain cultural ideas and practices about God, the afterlife, or morality—originated in Europe around the 16th century. Before that, many Europeans understood that there were only three kinds of people in the world: Christians, Jews, and pagans.

This pattern changed after the Protestant Reformation when a long series of wars broke out between Catholics and Protestants. These became known as the “wars of religion” and religion became a way for Christians to discuss their differences. At the same time, Europeans were also encountering other cultures through exploration and colonization. Some of the customs they encountered shared similarities with Christianity and were considered a religion at the same time.

Non-European languages ​​have historically not had a direct equivalent for the word “religion”. What counts as religion has changed over the centuries, and there are always political interests in determining whether something is religion or not.

As the scholar of religion Russell McCutcheon has argued, “Then what is interesting to study is not what religion is or is not, but the process of ‘creating it’—whether this productive activity takes place in the courtroom or is claimed by it.” a group about their behavior and institutions.

Critics emphasize irrationality

With that in mind, why would anyone claim that Bitcoin is a religion?

Some commentators have made this claim to drive investors away from Bitcoin. “Crypto is a religion, not an investment,” said emerging market fund manager Mark Mobius, trying to play down crypto enthusiasm.

However, his statement is an example of the fallacy of false dichotomy, or the assumption that if something is one thing, it cannot be something else. There is no reason why a religion cannot be an investment, a political system or anything else.

Mobius’ point is that ‘religion’, like cryptocurrency, is irrational. This criticism of religion has been around since the Enlightenment, when Voltaire wrote, “Nothing can be more contrary to religion and clergy than reason and common sense.”

In this case, labeling Bitcoin as a “religion” suggests that bitcoin investors are fanatical and not making rational choices.

As good and useful as Bitcoin

On the other hand, some Bitcoin proponents have gravitated towards the religion label. McCook’s articles use the language of religion to highlight and normalize certain aspects of Bitcoin culture.

For example, “stacking sales”—the practice of regularly buying small fractions of bitcoins—sounds strange. But McCook calls this practice a religious ritual, or more specifically, a “tithe.” Many churches practice tithing, where members donate regularly to support their church. Thus, this comparison makes the assembly of the seats more familiar.

While religion may be associated with irrationality for some people, it is also associated with what religious scholar Doug Cowan calls “good, moral, and decent wrongness.” Some people often assume that if something is truly a religion, it must represent something good. People doing “stacked seats” may sound strange. But the “tenth” people could sound principled and healthy.

Associating Bitcoin with religion can add a moral gloss. Takoyaki Tech/Getty Images

Using religion as a framework

For scholars of religion, classifying something as a religion can open up new insights.

As religious scholar JZ Smith writes, “’Religion’ is not a local term; it was created by scientists for their intellectual purposes and is therefore theirs to define”. According to Smith, classifying certain traditions or cultural institutions as religions creates a comparative framework that will result in some new insights. With that in mind, comparing Bitcoin to a tradition like Christianity may cause people to notice things they didn’t before.

For example, many religions were founded by charismatic leaders. Charismatic authority does not derive from any government authority or tradition, but only from the relationship between the leader and their followers. Charismatic leaders are seen by their followers as superhuman or at least extraordinary. Because this relationship is ambiguous, leaders often stay out of the loop so that their followers don’t see them as ordinary people.

Several commentators have pointed out that Bitcoin inventor Satoshi Nakamoto looks like some kind of prophet. Nakamoto’s true identity – or whether Nakamoto is actually a team of people – remains a mystery. But the intrigue surrounding this number is a source of charisma that affects bitcoin’s economic value. Many who have invested in Bitcoin do so in part because they consider Nakamoto a genius and an economic rebel. In Budapest, artists even erected a bronze statue of Nakamoto as a sign of respect.

Gold-faced bust wearing hooded sweatshirt.
Bust of Satoshi Nakamoto in Budapest, Hungary. Fekist/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

There is also a connection between Bitcoin and the belief in future collective salvation for a millennial or a select group of people.

Millennial expectations in Christianity include the return of Jesus and the final judgment of the living and the dead. Some bitcoiners believe in an imminent “hyperbitcoinization” where bitcoin will become the only valid currency. When this happens, the “Bitcoin believers” who invested will be vindicated, while the “no coiner” who shunned the cryptocurrency will lose everything.

The way to salvation

Finally, some bitcoiners see bitcoin as the answer to all of humanity’s problems, rather than just a way to make money.

“Because the root cause of all our problems is basically money printing and the resulting misallocation of capital,” McCook argues, “that’s the only way to save the whales or save the trees or if we stop the degeneration, the children will be saved.”

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This relationship can be the most important point of comparison with religious traditions. In his book God Is Not Alone, religion professor Stephen Prothero highlights the distinctive features of the world’s religions using a four-point model in which each tradition identifies a unique problem with the human condition, offers a solution, and offers specific practices to achieve that goal. solves and sets examples to model this way.

This model can be applied to Bitcoin: The problem is fiat currency, the solution is Bitcoin, and practices include encouraging others to invest, “stacking sales” and “holling” – refusing to sell bitcoin to maintain its 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 what the definition is used for.

However, this comparison can help people understand why Bitcoin is so attractive to so many people that would not be possible if Bitcoin were treated as a purely economic phenomenon.

Joseph P. Laycock, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Texas State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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