Believing in something is human nature. But in the modern, multifaceted and information-saturated world we sometimes choose very odd objects of worship. So it should probably come as no surprise that for a growing number of people such an object is… Bitcoin. Let’s take a closer look at this phenomenon.
Have you ever watched a gang of young starry-eyed “crypto bros”? (Well, perhaps more middle-aged than young, but open to all the potential and possibilities of blockchain technology.) Then you may have noticed a subtle difference between those guys and everybody else. You could have even felt something change inside yourself when you suddenly understood the workings of the blockchain and DAOs or the fundamental difference between cryptocurrencies and fiat money. That instance, you see the outlines of an entirely new world, an experience that can truly change you as a person.
So, it’s probably unsurprising that some Bitcoin devotees are increasingly developing an almost religious attitude towards the first cryptocurrency since the language of religion can already describe many aspects of the cryptocurrency culture, as well as the life of the crypto community.
If you happen to know any crypto holders, some of them have probably engaged in “stacking Sats” – a common practice of regularly buying small fractions of BTC, “Satoshi”. It has a lot in common with the religious ritual, the “tithe”, where parishioners make regular donations to support the church. Of course, the “stacking Sats” could be explained away as investment behavior – but only if it doesn’t develop the features of a ritual, which are inherently religious.
For most people, religion is something illogical, whereas Bitcoin is quite rational. But there is really no contradiction here. Religion has to do with what religious studies scholar Doug Cowan calls “a good, moral and dignified decision”.
Many people view BTC as more than just a way to make money, rather as the answer to all humanity’s ills. The logical chain here goes something like this: “The root cause of all our problems is printing money and the resulting misallocation of capital. Therefore, the only way to stop global warming, save the whales, or save the trees, or our children, is simply to stop the degeneration. And it requires changing the entire system of relations between people and capital, which can be done using cryptocurrencies.”
Such attitude might be the most essential point of comparison with religious traditions. In his book God Is Not One, professor of theology Stephen Prothero highlights the distinctive features of the world’s religions using a four-point model. Within it, each tradition defines a unique problem of human existence and suggests a solution with specific practices to achieve the goal and ways to model this path. As you can see, this model can easily be applied to Bitcoin. In its case, the problem is fiat money, the solution is Bitcoin (in a broad sense, as the stand-in for all cryptocurrencies), and the practices include encouraging others to invest, “stacking Sats” and “hodling” – refusing to sell BTC in order to maintain its value. The “patron saints” are then Satoshi Nakamoto (the chief prophet) and other creators of blockchain technology.
Delve deep enough into the crypto world, and you will inevitably encounter people who treat cryptocurrency as a belief system. Having gone down this path himself, Bloomberg columnist Lorcan Roche Kelly actually called Bitcoin “the first true religion of the 21st century”. There is even a “Church Of Bitcoin”, founded in 2017, which literally named the legendary Satoshi Nakamoto its prophet. And in the state of Texas, you can often see billboards with slogans like “Cryptocurrency Is Real” that strangely mirror the ubiquitous Jesus signs found along the state roads.
However, there is still no universal definition of what religion is. Traditions such as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism certainly exist and have similarities. But the word “religion” as it is used today is pretty vague. It includes specific ideas and practices related to God, the afterlife, or morality. In this regard, cryptocurrencies can be viewed as a cultural (at the onset – subcultural) phenomenon or practice, which has certain similarities with the conventional conception of religion.
For their part, critics of cryptocurrencies point out the irrationality of such an attitude, sometimes as a way to repel investors. For example, in trying to quell the crypto enthusiasm, emerging markets fund manager Mark Mobius said that “cryptocurrency is a religion, not an investment opportunity”.
His statement, however, presents the false dichotomy fallacy, or the assumption that if something is one thing, it cannot be the other. There is no reason why religion can’t also be an investment, a political system, or anything else.
Still, Mobius makes a point that cryptocurrency, like religion, is irrational. His calling BTC a religion thus suggests that Bitcoin investors are fanatics and unreasonable in their choices.
Comparing Bitcoin to a tradition like Christianity or Buddhism sometimes leads to some rather surprising discoveries and observations. For example, many religions are known to have been founded by charismatic leaders.
Charisma gives a power separate from any state institution or tradition but solely from the relationship between the leader and his followers. Those disciples view charismatic figures as superhuman, or at least extraordinary. Since these relationships are unreliable, leaders often keep their distance, so followers do not suddenly see them as ordinary people.
In this regard, the creator of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto, really does look like a kind of prophet figure. Nakamoto’s true identity – or whether Nakamoto is actually a team of people – remains a mystery. But the intrigue surrounding him helps the price of BTC. Many of those who invest in Bitcoin do so in part because they see Nakamoto as a genius and economic rebel. In Budapest, there is even a bronze statue erected in his honor.
Ultimately, the appeal of Bitcoin is impossible to explain by viewing it as a purely economic phenomenon. One may perceive the attitude to BTC as worshipping the “golden calf” or some other heresy. However, looking at it from a philosophical perspective, such devotion is rather a product of the human need for progress and change. When progress comes, people praise it, and Bitcoin’s role is to embody change.