Overview:

If bitcoins could talk, they'd say cryptocurrency works perfectly, no matter what you've heard. Christians say the same thing about faith.

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RIP my inbox, I know. But hear me out.

I can imagine a world in which cryptocurrencies are safe, secure, and more readily accessible to a broader range of people. Perhaps that day will come, but we are nowhere near there yet.

Today, cryptocurrencies are still plagued by a host of limitations that make it unstable, largely unusable, and inaccessible to those without the requisite skills and knowledge to acquire and manage them. They also demand astronomical amounts of electricity for server space, generating waste and adding to an already skyrocketing problem for our ecosystem.

The black market loves it, though. Cryptocurrency is inherently friendly to the dark web, optimized as it is for anonymous transfers of funds. Researchers at Oxford University estimated that up to half of Bitcoin transactions over the course of a year involved criminal activities like drug sales, money laundering, underage porn, and sex trafficking.

Maybe these vulnerabilities are endemic to the concept of cryptocurrency itself. I don’t know. It’s also possible that over time things will improve. At this point, Bitcoin seems to me more like an MLM for techy young males than anything else.

But all of this is beside the point I want to make.

Every one of these flaws originates from the outside; they result from human error rather than from an inconsistency inherent in the system itself. The system itself works.

At this point, Bitcoin seems to me more like an MLM for techy young males than anything else.

It also makes sense. All commerce depends on a shared agreement about what is valuable. Money itself is worth no more or less than what we say it’s worth. So the concept is solid, even if it turns out to be untenable because humans are involved, who are still in their adolescent phase as a species.

It works for the bitcoins, though

To put it another way, imagine if you yourself were one of the bitcoins. Would you think the system doesn’t work? I would argue it works just fine for you. None of the problems I mentioned above would matter to you at all.

Compared to older kinds of currency, crypto is better organized in order of magnitude, and more internally consistent. Life for a bitcoin is quite charmed, I would think, no matter what the consequences over in the human universe next door.

What are religions if not an early form of cryptocurrency? It doesn’t matter if what they signify is real—if they work, they survive. They don’t have to be rooted in reality in order to dominate our lives.

They mean something and they work because enough of us have agreed to assign value to their core ideas, and those ideas turned out to be adaptable and scalable enough to sustain enduring communities. No longer constrained by geography, they now circle the globe at the speed of light, thanks to human ingenuity.

Religions continue to survive because they are useful. Entire nations have realigned over disagreements about this particular kind of currency. Even as you read this, geopolitical fortunes are shifting in part because of faith’s fluidity, especially among evangelical and charismatic Christians, who will believe just about anything they hear if it’s said in their language.

It’s as valuable as gold to them but still as malleable as any other kind of fiat-based currency. Just watch how fast a shared religious belief can develop and then mobilize throngs of humans. Believe it or not, to some it’s even more precious than gold.

Governments understand this implicitly. That’s why church and state keep winding up in bed together. They can’t quit each other. They are natural bedfellows, no matter what Thomas Jefferson or the earliest Baptists wanted for America. Today, the Baptists seem to think they should be running the whole world.

Religions come intact with supportive communities and built-in reward systems–hierarchies of value that translate into measurable prosperity in accordance with how heavily invested in them you are. For those whose faith organizes everything about their lives, the system definitely works.

Why arguments don’t work

This is why I don’t get along with those who grow belligerent about the irrationality of faith. It upsets me sometimes, too. It once ordered my life so completely that I found myself a stranger in it the moment I began to honestly answer my own recurring questions. As I discuss in this podcast episode, leaving our faith was a traumatizing ordeal for people like me.

So I understand why people stay in it. I sympathize with those who keep stuffing down their most gut-wrenching concerns about their faith because too much of their life depends on it all being true. Much like the global banking system, they see their faith as “too big to fail.”

They suppress the knowledge of whatever undermines their faith because they’re terrified of what it would mean if no one is really in charge around here.

I sympathize with those who keep stuffing down their most gut-wrenching concerns about their faith because too much of their life depends on it all being true.

I spend a lot of time critiquing my former faith because leaving it was such a big deal for me. It took so much out of me—and away from me—that I’ll likely be unpacking the process for many more years to come. For me, it’s become a hobby.

But I don’t get upset when I see how resistant to reason people can be. When you impugn the validity of a currency that orders entire communities, it doesn’t matter how tactful or logical you are. You’re undermining the system, and human beings don’t respond well to such things.

Their gatekeepers can also be vicious. Why else would a religion of love still cling to a belief in hell? I still hear from friends who quit believing in God years ago but who still wake up with night sweats over the idea of being tortured perpetually just because they believed the wrong things. Fear and guilt are effective tools for keeping people in line, and beliefs that tap into those die hard.

If you think you can change people’s minds about their core beliefs through argumentation alone, you’re gonna have a bad time. That’s because faiths aren’t created in a vacuum—they are birthed and preserved by communities who develop entire cultures around them. They derive real-life benefits from these beliefs whether or not they are rooted in reality.

That won’t stop me from calling it like I see it, at least not anymore. But I cannot get angry at those whose lives depend on this currency. For them, it obviously still works.

Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...