“Bitcoin is a religion”: this is a statement you hear from both Bitcoin supporters and detractors. But is this really the case? In this article, we will try to clarify the issue and see how Bitcoin does have a religious aspect.
Is Bitcoin a religion?
At first glance, it may seem a bit strange to talk about Bitcoin as a religion. Bitcoin is a digital currency system and as such is something eminently materialist and scientific. It is based on technology developed in the 20th century such as the personal computer, the internet and modern cryptography, all of which are the result of the most advanced rationalism. So Bitcoin has the appearance of a purely material system that would provide a specific service like PayPal or BitTorrent, without relying on mystical mechanisms.
But Bitcoin is much more than that. The word Bitcoin refers to many aspects of the cryptocurrency: the concept defined in the white paper, the main protocol implementation of this concept, its software (now called Bitcoin Core), its chain, its digital unit, its network and finally its community. This community must necessarily federate around something: indeed, there must be a bitcoin that is common to all members of this group.
Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, bitcoin is a fiat currency, whose value is based on trust(fiducia) rather than on intrinsic properties. As such, it relies on the act of faith of its users who bring utility to it in commerce.
It is not a matter of trust in a third party, as is the case with state currencies such as the euro or the dollar, but a faith in the proper functioning of the system, both technically and economically. Thus, Bitcoin users have faith not only in the mathematical elements that support it (signature algorithm, hash functions), but more importantly in the economic incentives that sustain it and ensure that there will continue to be honest miners to mine the transactions and honest merchants to accept them.
This need to have faith in the system questions the religious aspect of Bitcoin, which many claim is real. But before we can say anything about this, we need to ask ourselves what precisely a religion is.
What is a religion?
The word “religion” comes from the Latin religio, a term whose etymology is disputed, but which could derive from religo, religere meaning “to read, to bind”, or from relego, relegere meaning “to gather again, to collect again, to go through again, to read again”. The term was first defined by Cicero in 53 A.D. as ” attending to and worshipping a higher nature which is called divine “. Nevertheless, this definition is not satisfactory to cover what people call religions, as it would include concepts such as spirituality, philosophy or magic, and would exclude godless religions such as Buddhism.
A much more relevant definition was thus proposed in 1912 by the sociologist Émile Durkheim in his Basic forms of religious life :
“A religion is an interdependent system of beliefs and practices relating to sacred things, that is to say, separate, forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite in a single moral community, called the Church, all those who adhere to it. “
Émile Durkheim, 1912
In this definition we find the constitutive elements of our monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), but also of the pagan and animistic cults that are lost in the mists of time. Three consequences emerge from this:
- First, the religious is by essence collective: as the etymology of the term suggests, it is what binds people together.
- Secondly, it does not necessarily consist in the veneration of a “supernatural” being or a god; it only implies a division between the sacred and the profane.
- Finally, it must be made up of beliefs and practices that feed each other: without belief, practices lose their meaning and without practice, beliefs weaken.
In this respect, many things that not everyone considers religious must be considered as such. This is the case, for example, with the political ideologies that marked the 20th century, such as Russian Marxism-Leninism or German National Socialism. And it is also the case of what we could call today the cult of Bitcoin, or “bitcoinism”.
Bitcoin is indeed the object of a cult, or proto-religion, within a community. This “church” (from the ancient Greek ekklêsía, “assembly”) is composed of users who receive and send transactions on the network. Its members are called Bitcoiners, and they maintain, as in any religion, their own beliefs and practices.
The Bitcoin Creed
Let’s start by looking at the beliefs that are present within the community. Bitcoin is a movement and as such presupposes a view of reality. It therefore has values, that is, presupposed moral rules that discern good from bad.
The central value of Bitcoin is in essence freedom. This value is embodied in Bitcoin itself: it is a free currency which does not depend on a central authority to operate. That’s why its most zealous proponents support, in line with what Bitcoin is, complete monetary freedom: the freedom to transfer value to whomever one wishes, wherever that person may be, and the freedom to choose the currency they use, and thus be able to avoid being subject to the ” inflationary tax.” In this way, Bitcoin opposes the traditional monetary system where payments are increasingly controlled by regulated banks and issuance is entirely subject to the discretion of a central bank.
Bitcoin is at the crossroads of various political ideologies such as liberalism and anarchism, which have in common that they defend individual freedom. In particular, it is much loved by supporters of the Austrian school of economics and American libertarians, who were the first to defend it.
Bitcoin is also a focus on practice: rather than simply explaining why the world should be a certain way, bitcoiners are convinced that they must do something to change the world on their own scale. As a result, they fall in line withagorism (which promotes the practice of counter-economics) and crypto-anarchism (” cypherpunks write code»). Bitcoiners are also committed to the values of the computing community, such as open source software and responsible disclosure, which support the serene continuation of Bitcoin.
These beliefs are expressed through methods found in religion, and a whole symbolism embodying these values has developed around Bitcoin. The images used are mostly from Western culture and therefore from Christianity, and Protestantism in particular.
There is a sacred text, the White Book, a concise document that explains precisely what Bitcoin is. This sacred text was published on October 31, 2008 (at the height of the global financial crisis) by an enigmatic character calling himself Satoshi Nakamoto, whose real identity is still unknown today. He could be considered a prophet, due to the fulfillment of his predictions and the seemingly revelatory nature of the white paper (which never fully explains the scope and resilience of the invention). Satoshi could also be seen as a messiah, closing down decades of digital currency research and discouragement and rekindling the hope of freedom lovers. It is why Satoshi Nakamoto’s writings published between 2008 and 2011 (emails, forum posts, computer code) have a sacred value in the eyes of the community, as do the posts of other precursors like Hal Finney.
In addition to the mysterious figure of Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin benefits from a founding myth: the “immaculate conception” that surrounded its creation and early development. Indeed, Bitcoin grew organically: it was open to all from the start, slowly attracted the most interested and then developed gradually, without haste. It was not premined, ICO’d, or raised only by accredited investors; anyone could mine, buy, or sell it. Bitcoin didn’t even have a price during its first few months of existence, as the priming of its value was an uncertain process.
The good word was then spread around the world by evangelists like Roger Ver (” Bitcoin Jesus “) and Andreas Antonopoulos, who experienced their discovery of Bitcoin as an epiphany, as did many other Bitcoiners. And so a community of like-minded people developed and faith in this curious digital instrument blossomed.
Finally, like any religion, the Bitcoin cult has evolved over time. But what’s unique about it is that some of the changes it may have undergone may have been written into the protocol itself through changes to the consensus rules or forks. These changes have often been made consensually, constituting reforms, as was the case with P2SH, SegWit or soon Taproot.
But there have also been schisms that have created two distinct chains and split the community in two, with these schisms ending deep internal struggles between different visions of Bitcoin. The two main such splits were the August 1, 2017 separation between Bitcoin-BTC and Bitcoin Cash (BCH) that concluded the scalability debate, and the hard fork between Bitcoin Cash and Bitcoin SV (BSV) that took place on November 15, 2018. Thus, contrary to the assumed uniqueness, it is more relevant to talk about “Bitcoin cults” in the plural, as there are at least three different visions of it, and probably many more.
The practices of bitcoiners
However, like As we saw in the definition, it is not enough for members of a group to have the same beliefs for it to be a religion: there must also be practices within that community.
The sacred thing in this proto-religion is Bitcoin itself, which is a guiding principle. This worship of Bitcoin often translates into its personalization and praise of its influence on oneself and the world. Do we not hear that Bitcoin fixes things, that ” Bitcoin fixes this “? Don’t we read testimonials from people saying that Bitcoin has changed their lives, even saved their lives? So Bitcoin is the object of worship: tribute is paid to it.
The community also has its initiation ritual, which consists of a member setting up a wallet for a newcomer (or ” pre-coiner “) and sending him or her bitcoin to show them how the system works. This “baptism” has the effect of bringing the user into the community in an esoteric way and ensuring that they understand the difference with the “sin currency” that is fiat currency. A variation of this initiation is to accompany a person in his purchase of bitcoin on an exchange platform and its withdrawal to a personal wallet.
In addition to this “baptism”, there are other rituals that relate to the user’s communion with Bitcoin. The first such practice is the spending of Bitcoins to buy a good or service from another Bitcoin user. This practice was pioneered by Laszlo Hanyecz on May 22, 2010, when Jeremy Sturdivant had him deliver 2 pizzas in exchange for 10,000 bitcoins. This helped develop the commercial adoption of Bitcoin necessary for it to function properly. This ritual is still present in the Bitcoin-BTC community, although it is not emphasized as much as it once was. It is, however, very much alive in the Bitcoin Cash community.
The opposite practice, bitcoin hoarding, is much more prevalent in the Bitcoin-BTC community, and involves hoarding bitcoin and not selling it. This concept was developed in 2013 by Nakamoto Institute founders Pierre Rochard, Michael Goldstein and Daniel Krawisz. But it came to fruition with the meme “HODL,” a spelling distortion of the word hold committed by a tipsy user on Bitcointalk on December 18, 2013, who refused to sell his bitcoins despite the skyrocketing price. The idea is that by doing so, you don’t exacerbate the price drop and you help keep the price at an acceptable level. This idea of hoarding bitcoin can be found in other mantras such as “buy the dip” and accumulating satoshis (” stack sats»).
A third, less common practice is that of writing arbitrary data onto the blockchain. This practice is technically the oldest, since it was first carried out by Satoshi Nakamoto on 3 January 2009 when he wrote the front page of the Times on that day in the first block: The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks. This tradition of marking, theoretically forever, important messages, such as the announcement of a wedding, has continued in all versions of Bitcoins, but has really been democratized (to excess) on the Bitcoin SV chain.
A more elaborate rite is the management of a complete node. This one stems from the use of Bitcoin in the early years, where the only software present was the full node implementation. This practice, now very present in the Bitcoin-BTC community, is sometimes accompanied by the mantra ” not your node, not your rules ” and directly intervenes in the defense of the decentralization of the system.
Then, we can’t help but notice that practices, mantras and memes around the price take an important place, especially when it comes to Bitcoin-BTC. The promise of a better future (at least financially) is thus illustrated by the expression ” to the moon ” and by the meme of citadels, those fortresses in which bitcoiners will take refuge when they become immensely rich. There are also recognition marks developing along these lines, such as the recent practice of adding laser eyes to one’s profile picture on Twitter until the price reaches $100,000(#LaserRayUntil100K).
There is thus a subordinate cult that rather than glorifying Bitcoin as a concept, idolizes the price of its unit of account. This focus on price has beneficial effects: it increases the security of the network against double-dealing, increases the visibility of Bitcoin in the mainstream media, and makes Bitcoiners richer. On the other hand, it also has detrimental effects by distracting bitcoiners from the main issues and corrupting them.
Then, to get back to what unites the community, there are regular mass-like gatherings, from small group meetings (” meet-ups “) in bitcoin-friendly bars and restaurants, to large-scale conferences. The first occurrences of these gatherings helped build the community as we know it today.
In the same vein, we obviously have what amounts to commemorations or parties. Thus:
- October 31 is celebratedre the anniversary of the white paper published on the same date in 2008;
- January 3 marks the anniversary of the genesis block, during which some users urge others to remove their bitcoins from the exchange platforms (“proof of keys”).
- On May 22, bitcoiners celebrate Bitcoin Pizza DayMay 22, where they commemorate the first purchase of a physical good in bitcoin by getting together to share a pizza, hopefully purchased in bitcoin.
- Every four years (210,000 blocks in local time) is the halving of bitcoin’s money creation, which is an opportunity to highlight the protocol’s disinflationary behavior.
- August 1 marks the celebration of independence on the Bitcoin-BTC and Bitcoin Cash sides, commemorating the events of 2017: on the BTC side, we remember the UASF that indirectly led to the activation of SegWit; on the BCH side, the UAHF that caused the separation from BTC (block 478,559 is sometimes referred to as the “exodus block”).
Alongside all this, there are a whole host of other practices. There are mantras for insiders like ” don’t trust, verify,” ” not your keys, not your bitcoins,” or even ” vires in numeris». There is also a sort of hygienic ban on avoiding ” shitcoins ” and investing in dubious projects, which is taken to the extreme by maximalists for whom any protocol other than the one they defend is “a scam”.
Finally, there are (unfortunately) scapegoats, which have the effect of uniting members of the community by focusing their resentment on these individuals and, in so doing, alleviating any disagreements that may be festering. Not only is the contempt directed at no-coiners like Peter Schiff (sometimes with tasteless phrases like ” have fun staying poor “), but more importantly within the cryptocurrency ecosystem itself. Thus, the three main versions of Bitcoin each have their scapegoat that the other two hate: BTC and BCH communities (and almost the entire ecosystem) gang up on Craig Wright, the main representative of BSV; similarly, many members of the BTC and BSV communities curse Roger Ver, renamed ” Bitcoin Judas ” for the occasion; and the BCH and BSV communities tend to hate developer Gregory Maxwell as well as members of Bitcoin Core and Blockstream, or Michael Saylor.
While entirely natural for a fledgling cult, this sacrificial tendency is not universally shared within the various communities.
Bitcoin has the makings of a religion, despite its nascent status: it brings together a community of people called Bitcoiners, who share a set of beliefs, and who carry out rituals and rituals in the name of a religion.atics to embody these beliefs in the real world. This religious aspect is therefore fundamental to the proper development of Bitcoin and cannot be anecdotal, especially in the context of the next world.
To go further:
- Jacques Favier’s intervention in the Let’s Talk Bitcoin podcast: “Bitcoin, the religion of the 21st century born of mathematics and the Internet?”(part 1 and part 2).
- Many episodes of the podcast Did You Know Crypto hosted by Dustin Dreifuerst, where this is the main theme. In particular, the episode ” The Bitcoin Religion ” recaps things well.
- This Twitter feed by Gigi, as well as her articles (dated by block height!)
- Citadel 21 magazine which focuses on the cultural aspect of Bitcoin.