Cover image by Ian by Design. Stained glass texture by jojo-ojoj.
Welcome! This is our first Folklore community contribution, written by Finn Lobsien. Funds from the NFT will be split between Finn and the Folklore treasury.
Carved into marble by the city’s best sculptors, sacred relics once adorned the temple of Athena. Once, they supported Athenian worship of the goddess of battle. Today, the marble figures can testify to Roman marauding, Ottoman conquering and British tourism.
The Parthenon marbles’ involuntary journey from Athens’ Acropolis to the British Museum exemplifies our treatment of ancient religions: Once sacred objects, they now wow history buffs and bore their tired spouses.
The British acquisition of the Parthenon’s marbles is controversial. But Greece doesn’t want them back for the few thousand people who believe in Ancient Greek gods, but to preserve their cultural heritage. History had revealed Ancient Greek gods as weak: When the Turks desecrated the Acropolis by storing ammunition there, not one soldier was reported as being struck by lightning.
As empires collapse, religions decay and deteriorate into mere mythology. People once died, killed and conquered for belief systems now demoted to niche interests for a Sunday afternoon documentary binge. The same way modern European cities sandwich gothic churches between minimalist office towers, ancient religion reverberates in contemporary culture, even if we don’t sacrifice goats to Zeus anymore.
I believe religions exist in one of 3 categories: First is your conviction: the truth everyone should embrace to make the world a better place. Another is what others subscribe to: We might consider those religions—they’re of consequence in the world, but not our personal preference. And then there’s mythology: Belief systems practically no one subscribes to anymore.
This is not a hierarchy. All modes of thinking are useful. Mythology might never inspire the enthusiasm conviction does, but conviction doesn’t benefit from sober analysis like mythology:
From a distance of 2000+ years, we can view ancient religious rituals as useful (communal dancing and singing) or harmful (human sacrifices). From there, we can proliferate the useful and discard the harmful.
We rarely extend sober analysis to our convictions. The crypto/web3 industry gets both extolled (wagmi) and ridiculed (crypto bro) for its fervor. That’s because crypto is far more than blockchains, ZK-rollups and other technology: Crypto is a faith.
This essay reveals and examines the different elements that make crypto a religion. If you’re in web3, you might ‘react by defining your religion by telling me it’s not merely a faith. Or you might learn how to help shape a healthy culture that strengthens community. That’s the believer’s reaction to their convictions being revealed as other people’s mythology.
“Any belief you took in package (ex. Democrat, catholic, American) is suspect and should be re-evaluated from base principles.”
This essay aims to elucidate the beliefs, practices and values our industry operates under that make crypto a religion (your religion?). From the viewpoint of mythology, we can discover what we should keep and what’s harming this space.
You might use this knowledge to improve your marketing messages, evolve your own beliefs or simply augment your viewpoint.
During the NFT mania, people loved to hate NFTs (and anything blockchain) because of high energy consumption. Whenever I mentioned I work with NFTs, some people looked at me like I chop down the rainforest in my leisure time.
I doubt DALL-E 2 is powered by Sam Altman sweating in OpenAI’s basement on a bicycle generator. And yet, AI’s gorging of compute power seems to get far less criticism. Sure, AI has its haters. But they mostly hate the prospect of unemployment, ChatGPT’s middle manager palaver and societal risks. Crypto’s haters don’t seem to hate its consequences, but crypto itself. That’s because crypto is a belief system some in society believe in, while others don’t—which always leads to conflict.
Crypto is mimetically different from other tech frontiers like AI, robotics or biotech.
There’s a “Crypto Guy” subspecies of the „Tech Guy”. Black hoodies, beards and unnecessary math references abound in both, but Crypto Guy has claimed his own mimetic turf. „Crypto bro” is part of popular discourse and you can imagine things he might say.
This has two components:
Crypto comes from an ideological lineage. Its inventors cared about encryption, decentralization and privacy—which themselves require caring about the power of individuals to determine their own fate.
Crypto only works in multiplayer mode. On a deserted island with nothing but a computer, DALL-E 2 would provide entertainment. A blockchain without other wallets and smart contracts to interact with would be useless.
That second point matters: Crypto is a faith-based technology. Because it only works when others also use it, its usage requires not only technological, but also social construction: For crypto to be successful, we need a narrative that requires its success. The more people buy into the narrative, the more successful crypto will be.
The necessity of narrative is true for all multiplayer technologies and cultural innovations. It’s true for Instagram, which would die tomorrow if we all stopped using it. It’s true for trade unions, which would be pointless with only one member.
Unless there’s a strong narrative, the effort fails. And narrative innovations always stir the pot. The more a budding narrative differs from a mainstream one, the more intense the reaction.
I believe the strongest form of narrative is religion: A religion is a complex web of morals, stories, practices and much more (as we’ll see).
Compare religion to a highly effective story: When we saw the turtle with the straw in its nose, it horrified us—and contributed to many countries switching to (usually disintegrating and wood pulp-flavored) paper straws.
But it doesn’t penetrate into the spiritual or metaphysical and is thus not religious. A religion combines those (and more elements) to supercharge their influence and create a self-perpetuating movement.
As we’ll see, crypto is something like a religion. Now that we’ve established that crypto requires a narrative, let’s deconstruct crypto’s religion and see the components that make its believers so fervent.
Few technologies have built-in ethics, notions of what’s right and wrong. Crypto bubbled up from an underground mailing list of privacy enthusiasts. To crypto fans, there are right and wrong uses of blockchains.
Compare that to AI: People debate AI ethics, but there’s no overarching morality beyond a vague „let’s hope this doesn’t ruin civilization“.
While it lacks a moral framework as concrete as the Ten Commandments, crypto emerged with a moral framework:
Decentralization is good, banks are bad.
Individual power is good, government power is bad.
Controlling your privacy is good, wholesale data collection is bad.
Morality is fundamental to religious belief. With morality defined, other components blossom: You can define your ideal world and use that vision to inspire believers.
Many Christians believe they must build the kingdom of God—a world where He reigns supreme and humans live according to the Bible.
Once you have morality, you can derive what the world should be like. This is persuasive because it outlines the future believers are striving for. It’s also more concrete and visual than an abstract set of ethics.
The vision of an ideal world exists outside of religions, too. Think of Basecamp’s „It doesn’t have to be crazy at work“, which outlines how work could be more peaceful. Or think about communism’s vision of the workers paradise, free of capitalist tyrants.
Crypto has its own scripture about what the world ought to be like: Balaji Srinivasan’s The Network State describes digital-native countries that manifest the freedom to live how you want, a lack of unwanted authorities and ideological alignment (basically the promise of every utopian world vision ever).
The Network State envisions the world crypto aims to bring about. This vision helps people rally behind something and creates a goal for believers to strive for.
Compare that to AI—there are many ways AI might change the world. But the AI community isn’t united in one ideal scenario it aims to bring about.
But the idea of an ideal world brought about by crypto requires something else:
Most religions feature prophecies, often delivered by oracles. These are predictions within the context of the religion. It’s curious that crypto folks use exactly those two words to describe things they’re building.
Crypto is rife with predictions—both from priests like Michael Saylor stating “They will get the knowledge and you will get the money” and from ordinary folks making price predictions.
Predictions serve as a confirmation of the validity of the belief system and the oracle itself. If an oracle is correct, we believe it more and thus trust the belief system it operates in more. This is why prophecies are often vague: To increase the likelihood of them being correct.
Perhaps the promise of “decentralization” itself is a sort of prophecy—a vague notion that things will be better, but without falsifiable predictions when or how it’ll happen.
One of the best tests for the strength of a brand is how well it translates to other industries.
To take an example from Seth Godin: It’s easy to imagine the kind of hotel Nike would open, but hard to imagine the kind of shoe Hilton would produce.
There’s an analog for technologies: You can take almost every industry and imagine how it might change with ubiquitous crypto. That’s not true for other technologies—how would banking change with ubiquitous biotech?
Perhaps it’s this versatility combined with the promise of interoperability that gives crypto the hunger to usurp ever more areas of commerce, culture and work. Whether it’s this reason or simply faith, crypto seems to be a belief system capable of permeating every area of the economy.
That’s a stark contrast to hobbies known for proselytizing, like CrossFit. CrossFitters are fervent, but they’re not trying to take over adjacent activities. There’s no CrossFit way to meditate, cycle or practice yoga.
That being said, crypto’s religious facets go beyond the metaphysical:
Belief systems usually have some type of initiation. These rituals are often deliberately pointless, expensive or weird.
An example is head shaving, which some cults apply to new initiates. These rituals usually build a stronger commitment to the belief system.
Current members must know you’re joining the community because of true conviction. What better way to invent something so utterly pointless that there could be no other reason to do it than to show your devotion?
If you take a militant atheist stance, you might explain this game-theoretically as costly signaling (which I wrote about here). And costly signaling has a corollary: the sunk-cost fallacy. The more money, time or emotions you’ve already committed, the less likely you are to abandon it.
Initiation rituals act like a ratchet and make it way less likely that someone leaves.
Crypto, too, has weird rituals:
Seed phrases: Keeping 12 random words secure is a weird activity—one that might trigger your brain to believe more.
Buying your first Bitcoin makes you a member of a community that can use alternative payment rails and be independent of institutions (theoretically)
Even getting rugged (buying into a project that subsequently gets abandoned) is seen as a rite of passage.
Any subculture builds its own specialized language. This isn’t specific to religions, but is always a part of them. Wagmi, gm and fren are signals to show you belong to the community and create coherency.
All major religions have (or used to have) a tradition for name change upon entering. Popes and monks often change their names as a result of being „reborn“.
A new identity is persuasive: You can get rid of your past, the belief system promises, and reinvent yourself. Crypto also gives people new identities with its otherwise odd insistence on pseudonymity and anonymity. ENS names and profile pictures are some of the best-selling NFT categories. They’re also the core ingredients to an identity: A name and an appearance.
Whether this is good or bad, it contributes to making crypto more religious.
It’s hard to worship abstract ideals. Humans need things they can see and interact with. That’s why every religion creates saints.
Crypto also seems to worship saints: Satoshi Nakamoto (whose second coming some seem to be waiting for) and Vitalik Buterin seem to embody the principles of crypto for many.
The vanishing of Satoshi Nakamoto and the untouched $18 billion fortune make many speculate about his (their?) identity and gives it a mysterious aura.
All religions need an origin story. The virgin birth of Christ and his eventual crucifixion is Christianity’s. Buddhism has the Buddha finding enlightenment under a tree.
The Satoshi story matters because it somehow shows crypto as „pure“. The fact that Satoshi keeps holding somehow proves to believers that it’s about more than speculation.
What would happen if all of those coins were dumped into a Coinbase account tomorrow? Besides the market pressure decreasing the price, I also suspect many would stop believing in crypto’s ideals.
Subcultures, movements and religions rarely remain united. Things as essential as political parties and as benign as musical genres splinter when one part of the group is dissatisfied.
Shiite and Sunni muslims are an example of an eternal rivalry, but there are less bloody examples. Music scenes often have a straight-edge subgroup rebelling against rampant drug use. Hustlegrind self-help saw the uprising of the self-care-yoga rebels. And bitcoin saw Ethereum.
In every social group, the dynamic is the same, with a subgroup declaring:
„We’re the real (group members) because (group) was always about (principle) and (object of discussion) never mattered that much.“
The clash can produce anything from peaceful separation to heated arguments and even armed conflicts.
While this splintering is normal, it shows something important: People don’t leave because of their dissatisfaction. No, they care enough about one aspect of the subculture to improve it.
The fact that crypto is constantly splintering further shows us that there is some persistent belief—some ideal people see in it that they believe they can pursue better.
Christianity had a famous rift between protestants and catholics. Today, we have presbyterians, lutherans, evangelics, Roman Catholics, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and many more.
Whenever enough people care about a belief system, someone will care too much. Religious fanatics sound delusional to outsiders, but energize their followers and spread fringe beliefs.
The most prominent crypto extremist group are bitcoin maximalists. The best example of a crypto extremist is Michael Saylor. He conjures up far-reaching theories on livestreams and tweets with takes as mystical as:
„#Bitcoin is a swarm of cyber hornets serving the goddess of wisdom, feeding on the fire of truth, exponentially growing ever smarter, faster, and stronger behind a wall of encrypted energy.“
Or as dogmatic as:
„#Bitcoin is hope“
(I unfortunately cannot present further evidence as I find his rants hard to tolerate)
On one podcast I listened to, Saylor spoke about building a wristwatch that earned the holder $100k per year. Whether you believe his sermons or shake your head at them, he takes an extreme position.
Extremism isn’t exclusive to religions. But whenever something can produce extremism, it signals that it’s about more than the technology itself.
Yearly reminders of (sub)cultural events are common artifacts of religions. In the West, Christianity’s holidays are so deeply embedded in culture that they’re state-mandated.
Crypto, too, is starting to produce holidays. Perhaps the most pertinent is bitcoin pizza day, when an early bitcoin believer bought a pizza for 8000 BTC.
This is no national holiday, but it’s an indicator that a culture is forming around crypto which believers consider worth passing down to future generations.
Most religions, professions and subcultures have a canon of essential stories. These range from scripture to folklore and from books to aphorisms.
In a way, this is quality assurance. It guarantees a base layer of knowledge all members have. This strengthens coherency and simplifies collaboration.
Religious texts like the Bible are the obvious example, but there are more. Entrepreneurship has Good to Great, copywriting The Boron Letters. If you’re a manager, you’ve read The Goal while Zig Ziglar rings a bell for many salespeople.
Crypto, too, has texts of which most believers have read at least a few:
The fable of the dragon tyrant
The Byzantine generals problem
The Sovereign Individual
The Network State
A16z has even compiled a list called Crypto Canon. The word canon has religious origins: In the 15th century, it was defined as „The Scriptures, the books of the Bible accepted by the Christian church,“
The fact that crypto has a canon is evidence that crypto is a belief system. If it was just a technology, we wouldn’t need a philosophical base layer. After all, there’s no required reading for most pieces of machinery or infrastructure.
Most religions feature a scale of devoutness—stratification based on how well you follow the belief system’s tenets. The Christian who doesn’t have sex before marriage, never curses and volunteers feel more Christian than those who go to church once a week to meet their friends.
Crypto also features a scale of belief based on following rules that involve ever more inconvenience.
Buying and holding your crypto on an exchange like Coinbase or Binance is seen as naive and risky—like you’re breaking an important rule.
Holding your crypto in a non-custodial wallet like MetaMask is „more crypto“, but comes with challenges. Managing your seed phrase and managing every transaction is riskier and harder.
A hardware wallet exemplifies „being crypto“. It’s what people always think they should do. But it also adds complexity—in addition to your seed phrase, you now have to safeguard a physical object and approve each transaction with it.
You could also create a hierarchy vector based on privacy that extends from public KYC exchanges to non-KYC exchanges to crypto mixers and eventually reaches running your own node.
Those are a few components that make crypto more a religion than a technology. But these properties aren’t unique to crypto. We mentioned CrossFit before, and there are many other hobbies and industries that have at least a few of these attributes.
There’s no mathematical equation to determine whether something is a religion, a hobby, a philosophy or an industry. Sociological concepts like these elude clear boundaries, especially for an amateur like me.
But I think there’s something like a sliding scale from the purely utilitarian (turning screws at a factory to receive a paycheck) to the purely faith-based (eschewing worldly belongings and pleasures to move to a monastery).
I’d argue that cult-ey hobbies (CrossFit, Dungeons and Dragons, Beliebers, Potterheads, etc.) don’t quite qualify. Potterheads have scripture while CrossFit has practices and Beliebers worship saints—but there’s something missing.
At least as a dilettante in religious research, I feel all of these lack the sweeping vision of crypto that places it closer to a religion. You can imagine what a crypto-powered central bank, a music industry or trade union looks like. Not so for music fans.
In his landmark essay Life After Lifestyle, Toby Shorin describes how lifestyle brands seem to be concluding their lifecycle and projects a new frontier in commerce: Faith.
So to me, the problem is not with the buying, nor even with the culture-grifting of brands, but with some kind of insufficiency on the part of the companies themselves. If the meanings they have on offer are starved versions of cultural membership, then perhaps, I started to feel, the brands aren’t going far enough.
This rings true. We all witnessed the mobile revolution and the social media revolution. We voted with our dollars, eyeballs and mental health to make them happen. But nobody feels like they’re part of something (let alone something good) with those?
Perhaps crypto is the first thing on a new commercial frontier, a shapeless amalgam. It’s more than a technology, but less than a cult. It’s more than a collective, but less than a corporation.
When this shapeless entity takes form, it will manifest in thoughts and actions in the real world. This might be a wonderful boon or a catastrophe, but it will most likely be both. We’d be well-advised to listen to Shorin:
The realization that producing culture is about producing types of personhood is the central issue of this new cultural economy. Systems of belief are sticky, compelling. Culture can be generational. This is both the opportunity and the risk.
In the most cynical version of this new world, culture designers are inculcating types of guy who are profitable. The customer lifetime value of a believer is potentially far greater than a user. Founders could easily design a culture with bells and whistles, upsell opportunities, and a permanent model of extraction. (…)
In the best version of this world, culture designers are inculcating people who are caring, giving, and selfless, or who take action to improve the world and the lives of those around them in some ways. Encouraging practices that are lifegiving and loving and meaningful on their own merit.
By now, I hope I’ve convinced you that crypto is a faith. Neither you nor I will change that. But we can influence whether it’s an extractive faith that wreaks havoc—or a nourishing contribution to culture.
Conspicuously absent from our treatment of religion here has been God. Belief in deities is perhaps the most obvious qualifier for religions. Crypto, of course, doesn’t believe in a „man in the sky“—and neither do other subcultures closer to religion on our continuum.
Crypto doesn’t have a „man in the sky“. Proclamations of imminent, omnipresent and omnipotent AI are tech’s idea of God—one entity that rules and explains everything.
But those aren’t prevalent in crypto. Perhaps the blockchain itself is a God ersatz—the entity all of crypto serves, the single source of truth that stores all information worth storing and has all the answers. And, as in Christianity’s kingdom of God—the blockchain rules with more power than any individual developer.
As I write that point, I don’t quite believe it. It seems too far-fetched, too outlandish, too… weird? But maybe I’m just not a true believer.
Thanks to Rafa, Lia Godoy, Livster, buz and Kelly Kim for feedback and editing and to Ian By Design for contributing artwork.
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