12 April 2019

Religion on the blockchain11 min read

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For more than 2,000 years, believers around the world have been celebrating Easter, the Feast of the Resurrection, as a holiday in accordance with different traditions. The messages and processes have remained almost identical, although the Church endeavours to keep up with the times, even if in small steps. Its audience is largely ahead of the church. It is time for it to catch up with a thought experiment.

A foundation from nothing

The electronic currency Bitcoin appeared in 2008 out of nothing, in a way not unlike the Christian story of the creation of the world and mankind ex nihilo. The cryptocurrency’s underlying blockchain technology is a decentralised register of all transactions, which is also known as a distributed ledger. This decentralised register, which is distributed among many people, is said to be particularly forgery-proof. In addition, no central supervisory authority is required for the currency, which is why Bitcoin is also understood as an answer and alternative to central bank-based fiat currency systems. The ominous founder of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto, in fact created his invention in 2008 expressly for this purpose.

As time has passed and Bitcoin has become more successful, the currency’s underlying blockchain became more and more interesting. Many copycats not only invented new cryptocurrencies, but increasingly the blockchain technology was also applied to other applications, and it is now understood as the driver of a profound technological change. Land registry entries for real estate, supply chains, recruiting processes or the identification of luxury products are just a few of the numerous applications that the blockchain has brought unprecedented transparency and documentation opportunities to, especially in connection with the Internet of Things. At the same time, cryptocurrencies are known and infamous for being used as the transaction currency for numerous illegal activities.

Regulation and new applications

Because of the great innovative capacity of the blockchain together with the constant controversy surrounding it, the subject of regulation is currently high on the agendas of many countries. Malta, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, which has just initiated a Law on Transaction Systems Based on Trustworthy Technologies (Blockchain Act; Gesetz über auf vertrauenswürdigen Technologien beruhende Transaktionssysteme – VTG), in particular see great potential in the new technology. They are seeking to establish regulatory clarity in order to attract blockchain companies and to create a reputation for themselves as clusters for the technology. The establishment of secure legal conditions and the resulting professionalization will in turn create new business models, applications and service providers.

Beyond the realm of financial applications, however, the technology has revealed completely new ways of practising religion and spirituality. These applications are not as product-specific, but they are suitable as thought experiments in applying the decentralising properties of the technology to religion. This process inspires reflection on people and this very particular but ultimately silly notion of religiosity and its functionality.

New expectations for salvation

As quickly as Bitcoin came out of nowhere and myths started forming about who or what could be behind the technology and the pseudonym Nakamoto, as quickly did people form supernatural expectations of the new technology. People were seeking an ideological response to the loss of confidence in the financial system, and so they even projected considerable expectations of salvation onto the blockchain. You no longer need to place your confidence in central banks and currency issuers when the process can be organised through the solving of math puzzles and the recording of transactions in a decentralised register. Smart contracts, along with the Internet of Things, would enable a new social order that could be administered by an almost divine level of omniscience. And that’s not all that they would do.

So it is time to stretch the possibilities of the blockchain a bit and consider how it could form the basis of religious worship. It opens up completely new possibilities.

Peter’s little token-based book and the confession chain

When you take smart contracts and the transaction transparency of the blockchain and add to this a register of actions with a singular blockchain identity for each individual, you get roughly all of the information attributed to Peter in popular belief as the gatekeeper to heaven who decides who is allowed in and who is not.

This role of Peter, which has its origins in an error of interpretation that became popular in the Middle Ages, but which has persisted as a fairly powerful story to this day, can now actually become a reality thanks to blockchain technology. The story of Peter plays on the minds of people facing the impending Last Judgement. In this respect, this blockchain panopticon that records every behaviour would be driven by this very impulse to self-control one’s moral behaviour. And though one still has to believe in religion and life after death to appear before Peter, the blockchain-based behavioural ledger would be a functioning decentralised database.

Even the offences would (at least in the Catholic version) be saved in the blockchain-based book of life for all time. Catholics would thus receive the option of a bookable confession chain, in which the absolution could also be recorded. Since in this system the actions of both parties to a sin would be recorded, this could divert the perspective away from a focus on the “poor sinners” to those who were injured, admittedly with the involvement of the clergy themselves.

Distributed blockchain karma

The connection between “doing” and “enduring” that is familiar from the theology of the Old Testament is also found in other religions, where it is given an even more central position than in Christianity. Thus, the karma doctrine of Hinduism places the connection between action and effect at the centre of the religion. On the one hand, karma has an impact on the reincarnation cycle and the acceptance of suffering, since a bad life is viewed as resulting from misdeeds that were committed during the previous incarnation. However, there is also instant karma, which has an effect on the current life that one is leading.

The mechanism is therefore based on a register of acts that achieves a result through the karma’s sanctioning mechanism – and here again there is an opportunity where the blockchain could come into play. And although the blockchain cannot map transmigration of the soul or reincarnation, it can at least record the karma in the here and now through a smart contract. A ledger of sins, regular religious service attendance and offerings to the temple could be recorded very accurately and in a decentralised manner. This would be useful for migrant workers who could use this technology to stay in contact with their local temple communities. If the blockchain were issued by a religious authority, it would form part of the spiritual cosmos and could lead to a total karmic improvement. Perhaps the karma blockchain could provide more redemption from the reincarnation cycle in the long-term, since the behavioural “channelling” would thus be more visible to the believers concerned.

The social credit score revisited

The blockchain is useful for playing these mental games, since both popular Catholicism and Hinduism build on a strongly channelling effect of sanctioning their followers to practice normative behaviours. The idea of a secure existence after the earthly life is a strong incentive for all believers, and it serves as a leverage or sanctioning mechanism for purposes of exerting normative control.

The situation looks a bit different with Protestantism, which has to make do without confession. Practitioners of this faith must practice behavioural channelling by the ex-ante prevention of undesirable actions. The fact that work thus becomes religious observance – and the spirit of capitalism invoked by Max Weber favours this Protestant work ethic – is an essential trait of Protestantism. Spiritual elements however play almost no role. Anyone visiting the churches of Basel, Zurich or the north-western parts of the Netherlands and Germany knows this sober pragmatism, which goes hand in hand with the extravagant emphasis on and exaggeration of work ethic. Economic success is thus worth aspiring to achieving and compatible with religious requirements.

This makes measuring and recording actions on a blockchain much easier, since quantifying sins or spiritual merit presents a challenge. Working hours, productivity and profitability, on the other hand, are quantified metrics that can be statistically correlated to produce a score. It is a thoroughly Protestant approach. Blockchain-based Protestantism would thus come astonishingly close to the Chinese Social Credit System, which in addition to legal and material indicators also elevates normative values, such as regular communication with relatives or politically opportune comments posted on social media. Max Weber’s thesis about capitalism would have caught on under the umbrella of Protestantism in a new era of transparency and measurability. But do we then still need the religious superstructure?

Capitalism as a religion

Walter Benjamin, who built on Weber’s thesis about the spirit of capitalism and the Protestant work ethic, took the next conceptual step and argued that capitalism is a religion in and of itself. The cult of the golden calf and Mammon has been known for centuries, but proclaiming capitalism itself as a religion that was derived from industrialization was a new contribution – not least because existing religions were no longer required as such as a result of secularization. The economization of all spheres of life further paved the way for the spread of the capitalist religion.

With digitalisation – and in particular the Internet of Things (IoT), in which everything is finally able to communicate with everything else, performativity as measured in terms of money could be fantastically increased in a capitalist-based belief system. In this system, data depth and penetration would venture into a new dimension, in which the full optimization and sanctioning of the individual would be possible. The believer in the capitalist religion would thus always be reduced to his net worth and be trapped in a completely secular religion of power. The normative character of Protestant ethics would then no longer be necessary, since on the blockchain all disciples would be merged within a collectively monitorable and controllable system.

A blockchain-based religion without a religious superstructure

Taken one radical step further, the blockchain could also be understood as both the bearer and object of religion. When we think back to the founding myth of the blockchain technology and Nakamoto’s white paper from 2008, this idea is not so far-fetched. Together with the promise of salvation to be brought by digitalisation, which not only the libertarian thought leaders of Silicon Valley have described as bringing forth a new and better world, we also have the vision of a secular, digitally created world and ideology.

The blockchain plays a crucial role in this, as US investor Peter Thiel recognised in his remarkable statement: “Crypto is libertarian, AI is a communist.” The basic idea of a libertarian, decentralised, open as well as anti-government and anti-authoritarian society is also the type of overstatement that thinkers like Dirk Helbing have in mind when they speak of Google as God. The alternative outlined here, which lacks an ideological-religious superstructure, thus leads to structures that are similar to those of institutionalised religions, except that they do without the metaphysical in order to attain omniscience and omnipotence. Technically speaking (and also in a literal sense), the effects of religious behavioural control make religion possible. However, this goes hand in hand with the loss of privacy due to permanent data production as well as the fact that a function that was formerly assumed by religion can now be taken over by technology. On the other hand, it is doubtful that coping with contingency through the religious narrative without a religious superstructure functions as a “product” for most people.

What we can expect from techno-utopias

The thought experiments concerning blockchain-based religion show that the decentralised technology can supplement or replace many of the faith-based and trust-based features of existing religions.

The techno-utopia of new technologies such as the blockchain, artificial intelligence or the Internet of Things is often regarded as the projection screen for new social concepts. Although a technical solution may seem to be more reliable and promising than a communication-based solution, techno-utopias remain just as vulnerable to failure as society itself. The author E. M. Forster demonstrated this in literary terms decades before the Internet in his short story “The Machine Stops”, in which people rely on a machine to meet their needs. In it, he anticipates both the Internet and the social media and describes their collapse: in the end, people are responsible for their lives and ensuring that they are meaningful. Forster’s short story thus rebukes exuberant technical euphoria, and it is this scepticism that is more relevant today than ever.

Peter Seele writes alone in his role as a scientist; there are no conflicts of interest with the persons mentioned in the article (legal and natural).


Peter Seele

Peter Seele has been Professor of Business Ethics at the USI Lugano since 2011. He holds a PhD in economics from the university of Witten/Herdecke and a PhD in philosophy from the university of Düsseldorf. Before working at USI he was Assistant Professor at the university of Basel and prior to that post-doc at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (KWI) in Essen. He has studied at the university of Oldenburg and at Delhi School of Economics and worked for two years as business consultant in Frankfurt/M.


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