A pile of shiny gold coins with the letter "B" prominent on their face

The Passion of Bitcoin Jesus

In the rush to declare cryptocurrency a new religion, we risk overlooking these stories about how “old” religions are making sense of crypto.

By William Schultz|May 15, 2024

Bitcoin Jesus had it all. Wealth. Fame. The nickname "Bitcoin Jesus." Then came the indictment. On April 29, 2024, the United States charged Roger Keith Ver with mail fraud, tax evasion, and filing false tax returns. The indictment accused Ver of pursuing various illegal strategies to conceal the extent of his wealth from the Internal Revenue Service. Bitcoin Jesus had failed to render unto Caesar the things that were Caesar’s. 

Ver got his nickname because he frequently and fervently evangelized for bitcoin, the first and most famous cryptocurrency. He never turned water into wine, but he did achieve a miracle that probably counts for more nowadays: he turned a huge amount of money into an obscene amount of money. Ver made his first million selling computer parts online and had the right combination of insight and luck to invest that money in bitcoin when it was valued around $1 per coin. For reference, a single bitcoin is now worth a little over $62,000.

As the name “Bitcoin Jesus” suggests, when people talk about cryptocurrency, they almost inevitably compare some aspect of it to religion. These comparisons are rarely meant as a compliment. The Financial Times, for instance, ran a lengthy article warning about the “cult of crypto.” According to the FT, crypto displayed the “classic hallmarks of culthood—apocalypticism, the promise of utopia for worthy believers, shunning of external critics and vitriolic denouncement of heretical insiders.” But sometimes crypto’s champions will indulge in religion-talk of their own. Crypto entrepreneur Matt Liston and artist Avery Singer made news in 2019 when they launched “OxOmega,” a new religious movement that sought to leverage the power of the blockchain—the secure, decentralized ledger which makes bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies possible. According to Liston: “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.” OxOmega didn’t catch on, but it’s probably not going to be the last attempt to build a church of crypto.

What’s a scholar of religion to make of this? It’s tempting to go along with the pundits and declare that, yes, cryptocurrency is a religion, and Bitcoin Jesus is its prophet. And it’s certainly easy to pick an aspect of crypto and find similarities to one or more religious traditions. Take the case of Satoshi Nakamoto, the person—or people—who developed the Bitcoin system. When Nakamoto unexpectedly vanished in 2011, it set off wild speculation (still ongoing) about where “he” had gone and when, if ever, “he” might return. You don’t need a degree in religion to make the comparison to the second coming of Jesus Christ or to the Hidden Imam.

But good scholarship demands a healthy skepticism towards hype. “Crypto is a religion” is a claim that needs to be proved rather than asserted, and so far, there’s been much more assertion than proof. Some aspects of crypto resemble some aspects of some religions; that’s less eye-catching than “crypto is a religion,” but it’s also more honest. 

This is not to say crypto is a dead end for scholars of religion. If we look past the overblown language of Bitcoin Jesus, OxOmega, and the “cult of crypto,” we find far more compelling stories about how religious institutions are grappling with this brave new world of bitcoins and blockchains. We find stories of fraudsters using cryptocurrency to swindle millions from churches in Samoa and New Zealand. We find pastors claiming that the Lord told them to go into cryptocurrency. We find “Bitcoin Rabbis” offering advice on how cryptocurrency comports with halacha. In the rush to declare cryptocurrency a new religion, we risk overlooking these stories about how “old” religions are making sense of crypto.

For any scholar of religion who wants to understand this story, I recommend Zeke Faux’s superb Number Go Up: Inside Crypto's Wild Rise and Staggering Fall. Not because it says anything about religion (it doesn’t) but because Faux isn’t fooled by hyperbole. He’s not content to take the high lords of crypto at their word. Instead of tailing this-or-that billionaire and dutifully reporting their every word, he tries to figure out how ordinary people use this new creation. Answering that question takes him from the sun-drenched Bahamas to a prison-like hotel in Cambodia where spammers spend all day, every day, trying to convince the lonely and the gullible to convert their life savings to bitcoin, the better to swindle it from them.

Anyone curious about the topic of “religion and crypto” needs to show the same level of curiosity and courage. It’s easy to play word games, matching up this crypto buzzword to that term from religious studies. But generations of scholars have taught us that religion is more than words: it is practices, ideologies, feelings, habits, institutions, relations, communities. We can’t let the glamor of false messiahs blind us to the ordinary people whose hopes, fears, and dreams are inscribed in the blockchain.

Featured image by Kanchanara/Unsplash

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William Schultz

William Schultz is an Assistant Professor of American Religions at the Divinity School. His research focuses on the intersection of religion, politics, and capitalism in the modern United States. His book, Evangelical Capital: The Spiritual Economy of Colorado Springs, is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press.