Can the technology behind Bitcoin be used to build a belief system?
In the late 1940s, when he was a struggling writer of pulp fiction, L. Ron Hubbard is rumored to have said, “Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.”
And so he did, one that came to be the billion-dollar international powerhouse known as Scientology. Indeed, it is not just Scientology that is rich. Religious entities generally are flush with cash in the United States. In 2017, religious organizations and causes received an estimated $127.37 billion out of the record $410 billion that Americans gave to charity.
The confluence of significant material resources with belief in a transcendent reality has often led to novel syntheses of spirituality and technology. Sometimes those are fanciful, perhaps utopian, plans for entirely new belief systems. At other times, believers repurpose new technology to sustain traditional religion into a new era, and even to fight social injustices such as human trafficking. There are recent examples of both approaches involving blockchain technology.
Believing in the Blockchain
In May 2018, cryptocurrency entrepreneur Matt Liston and artist Avery Singer launched a new religion at the New Museum in New York City—and tried to leverage a technology usually associated with finance for more spiritual purposes. They proclaimed that they had created the religion 0xOmega not to make money for themselves, but to use the power of the blockchain to make religion democratic and to allow followers to redistribute its wealth.
“In looking at religion through this technical lens,” Mr. Liston said at the launch, “I discovered...religions are essentially coordination tools. They allow humans, as a society, to coordinate toward a common utility. Cryptocurrencies are mechanisms to coordinate society without a central trust authority.” In other words, religion without a leader on the model of currency without a central bank.
After all, what cryptocurrencies already have in common with faith is that they depend on trust in something that cannot be seen.
Money, as we know it, gets its value from our belief that its denomination will be accepted as valuable when we use it to buy or sell other goods. (Once upon a time this value was backed by gold, but it is now secured by our trust in the issuing government.) But cryptocurrency has neither intrinsic value—it cannot be redeemed for gold, for example—nor any physical form, printed or otherwise. It exists only as data in the ethereal network where it is offered, and no central bank or governmental authority controls its supply or guarantees its value.
“The impetus for this religion was looking at blockchain tokens and systems and particularly Bitcoin and saying, wait a sec, this is a religious belief system,” Mr. Liston said. “Bitcoin has value because people believe in it and evangelize it, and the more that value increases, the more incentive there is to evangelize it.”
0xOmega’s plan is that believers will contribute to this new religion with either traditional cash or cryptocurrency, which will then be converted to cyber tokens, thus becoming currency whose value exists within the religion. Currently, this plan is only on the drawing board; 0xOmega has registered a domain name, but its website is not yet up and running. Once it is, members will be able to decide by the consensus of the blockchain what the religion means and does. In the meantime, its founder has some more thinking to do.
In looking at religion through this technical lens, I discovered...religions are essentially coordination tools.
“I’m interested in engaging with the religious community,” Mr. Liston said, but after the launch he was inundated with attention from the business and tech world, which he thought missed the point. “I really took some time to get away from all the attention. Being called a ‘prophet’ all the time was not flattering, but anxiety-causing. I wanted to think about this in a broader context, through the millennial situation about being divorced from both reality and belief systems, and so thinking about it in terms of general culture.”
Mr. Liston, who is 26, is part of that millennial spiritual drift, despite the fact he was raised in a religious household. “I grew up in a Conservative Jewish household. I grew up kosher, I can read Torah, but I don’t think I got the God gene,” he says. Even so, launching a new religion has brought him closer to his own. “In taking a step back from the theology angle of it and looking at religion as a coordination technology, I explained it in a way that made sense to me and all of a sudden became more interested in my own Judaism.”
He stresses that his goal is not so much to convert people to a new religion as to find more creative uses for blockchain technology. “I’m going to be collaborating with some writers to write speculative fiction about it—stuff that’s in between philosophy and science fiction—that’s scripture for [0xOmega] and I want to paint a picture of how people could be thinking about this in several decades’ time. It’s an experiment in taking a fiction and using accelerated hype cycles to make the fiction more real over time,” he said, which would happen by embedding it in the consciousness of the followers of 0xOmega over the next century.
A “hype cycle” uses a graph system to represent the evolution of specific technologies—from birth to social adoption to decay—and in that cycle the blockchain is still in its infancy, with Bitcoin making its debut in 2009. Getting a handle on the blockchain can seem as challenging as explaining the doctrine of the Trinity, but the idea behind the pseudonymous and still unmasked Satoshi Nakamoto’s invention is a little like Google Docs. When you share a Google Doc, as many people as you have shared it with can make changes to the document, which updates in real time. There is no middleman stopping you, as there is when you hand in a document to an editor or a teacher to review. For Bitcoin, the “doc” is the global transaction ledger, and allowing anyone to update it eliminates the need for a middleman, like a bank, when sending and receiving money. It also eliminates the fee the bank takes for acting as an intermediary.
Bitcoin has value because people believe in it and evangelize it, and the more that value increases, the more incentive there is to evangelize it.
However, unlike Google Docs, which allows other users with access to the link to change and even delete your work, the blockchain allows only new entries and protects against the revision or deletion of existing data. It can be thought of as a digital spreadsheet that can exist on an infinite number of computers with no central authority running the shop, but in which rows can only be added to the bottom. When you request a transaction—for example, to buy cryptocurrency or, in 0xOmega’s vision, to create a sacred text—that request goes out to a network of computers. Those computers use an algorithm to verify the transaction. Once verified, that transaction is added to other transactions to create a cryptographically signed “block” that is then added to the digital ledger known as the blockchain. The blockchain becomes a permanent record, which cannot be undone. Because the cryptographic signature of each new block depends on the signatures of the blocks preceding it, the blockchain can only be added to; its past, the record that must be trusted for a currency to work, cannot be changed.
It is this feature of the blockchain—its ability to guarantee a record without a central authority—that 0xOmega wants to leverage. The world’s religions are governed by sacred texts and traditions, with central arbiters who mediate between heaven and earth. The pope, the Dalai Lama, the chief rabbis and Islamic scholars all remain the ultimate earthly authorities for their faiths, while the faithful have little direct influence on their religion’s core beliefs except to choose to believe or not.
The “omega” in Mr. Liston’s creation comes from the concept of the Omega Point, developed by the 20th-century Jesuit priest and philosopher-paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., who theorized that the universe is converging toward an endpoint at which all things living will reach union with God. This is an idea that has caught the attention of artists as diverse as Salvador Dalí, Don DeLillo and Flannery O’Connor.
For Mr. Liston, the challenge was to create a way for believers to push toward this cosmic endpoint more consciously. “I thought it would be interesting to see if you take existing religions, with religious scholars putting everything in a format that can be digitized—something like, say, Conservative Judaism—and it can be engaged with in this way and updated. We’re in a time where everything is accelerating very quickly, and religion can evolve and adapt by using a system like this.”
The whole project, despite seeming very alien to religious beliefs, brought me closer to religion.
Participants in 0xOmega might decide they want to amend parts of the blockchain religion’s texts, starting with the “flame paper” that Mr. Liston and Ms. Singer released at the launch. The “flame paper” is a play on the usual crypto start-up’s “white paper.” They released only 40 hard copies of it at the New Museum and have asked that people not upload the “flame paper” publicly until the religion is active online. (So far, no one has.)
Mr. Liston also hopes that 0xOmega could “do good in the world,” beyond offering a mechanism to specify its own beliefs, by allowing followers to express their faith through donating to charitable causes, or, as the Roman Catholic Church has done for centuries, patronizing the arts.
At the launch, the artist Singer presented one of 0xOmega’s potential sacred objects. Currently in use as 0xOmega’s Twitter avatar, the Dogewhal is a narwhal with an infinity-symbol tail and a Doge head (based on a picture of a dog widely shared as an internet meme) wearing a beret. The Dogewhal also has tattoos which include the Ethereum logo, that being the cryptocurrency platform from which 0xOmega will launch. It will not be Ethereum’s first religious-themed use; the “Jesus Coin” now has nearly 18 billion crypto coins in circulation, in spite of what started as a satiric mission to “decentralize Jesus.” A company called Lotos is working on an Ethereum token aligned with Buddhism, and BitCoen began as Kosher but has expanded to include the world. Blossom Financial’s Smart Sukuk offers Halal cryptocurrency options to Muslims.
The Dogewhal is 0xOmega’s first potential sacred object, and through it, Mr. Liston explains how the decentralized religion will allow its followers to create the faith. Once the object is accepted as sacred by online consensus, a Dogewhal token will be auctioned. “The proceeds of this auction go to a DAO, which is unique to this token, and the proceeds of the DAO are used to create the sacred object,” Liston explained at the launch, which means the artist who made the Dogewhal would get paid. “And now you have a token that exists on the blockchain, which we’re calling ‘prayer’.”
0xOmega also incorporates the concept of pilgrimage.
“DAO” is a deliberate double entendre, referencing both the “way” or path from ancient Chinese philosophy and serving as an acronym for “distributed autonomous organization,” which is what 0xOmega aims to achieve with blockchain technology. Every transaction on 0xOmega will be taxed—a few cents shaved off—with the proceeds going back into the DAO, which then feeds the engine to develop this or more sacred objects.
0xOmega also incorporates the concept of pilgrimage, where processes such as “the weather plus a random number determine a holy site,” Mr. Liston explained, “and if you prove that you travel from one location to the holy site you have completed spiritual work and you earn tokens.”
There is also an analogue of the afterlife for 0xOmega. Immortality on 0xOmega is planned through downloading a user’s Facebook or Google data. Tokens would be earned by contributing this data, which would then theoretically allow 0xOmega to build a model of how you think (assuming your data is true). When you die, these personality-data tokens on the blockchain would be placed in an “afterlife DAO,” directed by that same model. The living, Mr. Liston suggests, could go on interacting with this model, which would continue to use your 0xOmega wealth long after you are dead.
The Catholic Blockchain
Douglas Cowan, a professor of religious studies at the University of Waterloo in Canada and a scholar of new religions, sees 0xOmega as fitting into a longer human quest to connect to the divine. “The Holy Grail in the internet era is a search for a religion that exists only and entirely online,” Mr. Cowan said. “Short of having sort of transhumanist uploading, I think it’s a bit of a fool’s errand to go looking for it because we don’t live our lives online. We live our lives in the real world, and the kind of things the blockchain is doing is technologically facilitating a process that has been going on offline for thousands of years.”
Mr. Cowan does see, however, a way to use the blockchain to make religion—or at least its administration—more efficient. “I can imagine St. Swithin’s on the Green parish is not doing so well. And they say, ‘So maybe we should rent out the hall. Where is the deed? Bob had the deed. Bob died years ago….’ We’re talking about applying the latest tools in terms of computing to the organization of religious life.”
We’re talking about applying the latest tools in terms of computing to the organization of religious life.
This is precisely what the the founders of the Catholic Blockchain envision. They are a group of Catholics devoted to using the power of the blockchain to better serve the global Catholic community. Devin Rose, a software engineer in Austin, Tex., who co-founded the Catholic Blockchain, sees using this powerful new technology not to create a new religion, but to help a long-established one function better. “We can’t change religion because it comes from God and God is immutable,” Mr. Rose said. “But we can change how Catholics interact with their church through the blockchain.”
A link between blockchain—often associated with anonymous, untraceable transactions—and Catholicism seems odd on first glance, and Mr. Rose is quick to acknowledge that “Blockchain and cryptocurrency and all that goes with them often gets associated with criminals trying to hide their activities.” To be sure, the world of cryptocurrency, with 2,202 currencies listed as active on CoinMarketCap (as of May 23, 2019), has its share of gangsters and pranksters. Then again, Dogecoin, which started as a joke based on the same meme of the Japanese shiba inu dog that helped inspire the Dogewhal, today has a total value of $251 million and has already sponsored Nasdaq race cars and water wells in Africa, as well as helping to send the Jamaican bobsled team to the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Mr. Rose and his Catholic Blockchain innovators, however, are not interested in creating a new currency, but rather in developing a better way for the Catholic Church to manage everything from sacramental records—baptism, marriage, holy orders—to allowing investment in church property in a way that could be used to generate income for both the church and investors, Catholic or not.
“For example, say you had a Catholic school that wasn’t being used as a school anymore but is being rented out,” Mr. Rose explains. “You could invest in that process, and get tokens, which would be valued on the success of the property rental, and the money you paid would be used either to help with upkeep or for other purposes in the diocese. You could even buy chunks of church property that weren’t being used, and make a return the same way, so that it’s good for both parties.”
Mr. Rose, like many other engineers working in blockchain, sees its advantages not only for record storage and revenue through “smart contracts,” but also for financial transparency. “One of the problems the church has encountered is people not being able to see where their donations go. On the blockchain it would be very clear where church money is being invested.”
One of the problems the church has encountered is people not being able to see where their donations go.
The Vatican has made a commitment to “enhancing financial transparency,” according to René Bruelhart, who heads its anti-money-laundering agency. Last year the Vatican joined the European Union payments system as part of that commitment. While the Vatican has not taken up blockchain technology for financial transparency yet, it has considered it in other contexts. During a Vatican meeting in November 2017 to address global slavery, one address explored the ways cryptocurrency is used by slave traders, and how the blockchain could be used to detect human trafficking and possibly even to help vulnerable people maintain their own identity records and call for help.
“Cryptocurrencies allow fast transmission of money from one person to another, no matter how far apart geographically those persons are, and with some cryptocurrencies such transmissions can be done privately and anonymously, making them attractive to money launderers and human traffickers,” Mr. Rose explains. “But at the same time, because blockchains are immutable records, people in danger can insert messages into transactions on the blockchain, an S.O.S. in an electronic bottle, and others monitoring that blockchain could discover the message and find a way to help rescue the person.”
Despite concern about cryptocurrency’s long-term stability due to Bitcoin’s stunning recent volatility, institutional investors are climbing on board, merchants are accepting cryptocurrency, and the blockchain technology upon which it all rests is continuing to demonstrate its power to change the world. As for Matt Liston, the whole process of creating a blockchain religion and preparing for its launch online has changed his view on religion itself. Because of his technological journey, Mr. Liston is discovering anew something humans have connected with for millennia. “This has made me more respectful and serious about other people’s religions,” he says. “And a lot of my generation are really divorced from religious beliefs, and it left a void in how society operates, and it left people searching for meaning. The whole project, despite seeming very alien to religious beliefs, brought me closer to religion.”
Correction, June 18: In an earlier version of this story, L. Ron Hubbard was quoted as saying, “Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.” While many of his contemporaries have stated that he made comments to this effect, there is no proof of this exact quote.