In a famous discourse, a Commencement Address at Caltech in 1974, Richard Feynman mentioned a phenomenon known as “cargo cults”. During WW2, a few small island populations in the Southern Pacific witnessed an unusual situation: airplanes landed from the sky, bringing with them food, strange, magical tech and precious stuff. The cultural gap was big enough so the populations didn’t quite grasp how this happened, but the memory of the event was strongly imprinted in their history. So strongly, that they wanted to repeat it.
Longing for the “salvation that came from the sky”, they started to “summon” the airplanes, mimicking all the actions they saw being performed during WW2. They lighted fires along an improvised runway, erected a hut at the end of that runway and placed in it a man with two wooden pieces covering his ears, and another big stick coming from behind. That man was the “traffic controller”, the wooden pieces were the headphones and the stick was the antenna. Of course, no plane ever landed because of that. But this didn’t stop those people to believe that this thing will happen, someday, because they were doing everything “as they should”. The ritual was performed correctly. An empty form, of course, but they didn’t know that.
I started with this short story just to show you how easy it is to create a religion. In this case, the religion was an unintended consequence of a larger process, and nobody really benefited from it.
But once you know how to reproduce the process, you get to a point where you can actually turn your newly formed religion into something profitable.
In good ol’ software building tradition, let’s start with the tutorials. Here are the steps you need to perform, strictly in this order, to launch a religion. We will add later on a couple of real-life examples, namely Covid-19 and Bitcoin.
- Step 1: get people attention
- Step 2: scare them
- Step 3: promise you’ll save them
- Step 4: save a few
- Step 5: claim you can save whoever follows you, based on the ones you already saved
- Step 6 (optional): rinse and repeat
Let’s take them one at a time.
1. Get People Attention
We live in times where attention is commoditized. It’s becoming very easy (and cheap) to get people attention. Back in the day, you would have to be pro-active for this. I think it was called “preaching”. You needed charisma, public speaking skills and a few magical tricks up your sleeve, to perform some miracles, in order for people to listen to you. Which is the most difficult step.
Today we have not only commoditized attention, but we have even algorithmic emotions. It’s trivial to create viral posts in your loyal community, if you have one, and it’s doable to even influence entire countries, by tilting elections results (like Cambridge Anaytica showed us).
This ability to understand people’s behavior based on what they share publicly peaked last year, when we saw the rise of one of the most recent religions: Covid-19.
2. Scare Them
Which brings us nicely to the second step of our tutorial: scare the people once you got their attention. We all know how the Covid-19 fear wave disrupted the world, with a very simple message: you are going to die. Details were abundant: you are going to die suffocated, or, if you survive, you will be so impaired you will barely live.
Fear is a natural response. Without fear we won’t be able to survive, literally. We won’t be able to make the difference between a dangerous situation and a benign one. So, in an by itself, fear is an useful survival tool. But it is so easy to hijack fear, specifically because it is decoupled from reason. Once triggered, it has to play out, you don’t have time to reason anymore. And it’s like that by design, that’s how fear has to function: if you’re in a proximity of a hungry tiger, you don’t have time to rationalize on things like tiger’s preferences, his ability to understand articulate language or engage in useful conversations, no, you have to run for your life.
In order to function, a religion must bypass reason and elicit a fearful, irrational response. Whether or not the underlying event is real, that’s a different thing. As long as it’s perceived as real, it will elicit fear.
3. Promise You’ll Save Them
Now that they are scared, promise you’re going to save them. You have the perfect setup to initiate the actual movement, to swing the people in the direction you want. Until now, you were only talking (in step one) or just witnessing your audience “fight or flight” response (step two). But now you can start nudging your soon to be believers. And you do that by promising you have a solution to their problem. You will save them.
Talking Covid-19 again, we’re talking about governments, fast-food science and vaccines. Governments jumped the opportunity instantly and piggy backed on the wave of fear, playing the role of the savior: we know exactly what you’re going through and we’re going to save you. Stay home, wear a mask, test often and wait for us to provide a cure.
4. Save A Few
Once they start to believe your salvation promises, take your chances and save a few. If you want your religion to endure, you have to deliver. Many ephemeral movements are based on pure deception, snake oil and staged miracles. The religion which are more enduring actually save some of their people, offering at least some relief from the initial perceived danger, if not full salvation (which is hard to prove, anyway).
5. Claim You Can Save Whoever Follows You, Based On The Ones You Already Saved
This is where you get traction, where you build followers, where you start propagating your success stories. That’s why it’s important to go through step 4 above, otherwise your propaganda will be thin, very few people will actually believe and your turnover will be small. This is also the part where you start having apostles, most likely from the ones you saved at point 4, again. They will act like your most powerful and credible messengers.
These apostles will be ready to take in a lot of criticism and pressure, they might even “sacrifice” themselves, to prove the main theme of the religion. They will also create a lot of friction in this process, picking up fights with anyone who doesn’t believe them, and, more often than not, imposing their newly acquired salvation protocol by force.
6. Optional: Rinse And Repeat
Once you control all the steps, you may want to recycle the process and implement another (similar, or not) religion.
Covid-19 Apostles Versus Bitcoin Maximalists
Since I mentioned in the title two modern religions, and I only spoke about one so far, it’s time to bring them both together. What follows is a small comparison.
The fear instilled by Covid-19 was the fear of death, while the fear instilled by Bitcoin Maximalists was the fear of poverty (which, eventually, leads to death too). Both religions used the internet to get people’s attention and they both focused on very specific situations: first on the presence of a new version of an existing virus, the second on the limits of the current financial system.
Both religions promised they can save whoever follows them. Covid-19 by lockdowns, extreme social distancing and paleative treatment concealed as a “cure for the pandemic”. Bitcoin by offering a stronger, more effective alternative to money, one that can be verified by anybody and more difficult to tamper with.
Both religions saved some of their followers. It’s unarguably true that some of the medical breakthroughs prevented some more difficult situations in the case of Covid-19, and it’s equally true that some of the early adopters in Bitcoin are now billionaires.
Both religions are claiming they can save anyone who follows their rules. Covid-19 imposes their paliative treatment in the form of repeatable shots, and Bitcoin urges believers to “hodl”, or “acquire and never sell”. Both movements are creating a lot of friction, in different ways, though. The Covid-19 pressure is top to bottom, aiming at increasing control in the population (because it comes from top structures, governments and corporations). Bitcoin’s pressure is bottom to top, aiming at disrupting current political and economical structures (because it comes from individuals, punks, misfits, etc).
Both religions are having spin-offs. Covid-19 is replaying the same steps for every mutation of the virus, and I expect its apostles to introduce a new medical threat once this one is tolerated reasonably well (herd immunity). It might be another virus, or other related fear, like the environment that is killing us because we’re mistreating it. Bitcoin also created literally thousands of micro-religions, in the form of different crypto-currencies, each with its own governance rules.
To Become A Believer? Or Not?
First of all, every religion is, ultimately, agnostic. It’s based purely on the believer’s choice to follow it, when facing fear. Because you can’t argue with fear. Not your fear, not your neighbor’s fear. You’re both human and fear, like I said, it’s a survival tool. You can’t say your fear is more real than the other person’s. They’re both irrational and they’re supposed to be like that, because the response to fear needs to be fast. Obviously, your choices in front of fear are, most of the time, irrational too.
As long as your individual choice doesn’t mess with my individual choice, we should be ok. We should be able to mitigate any potential conflicts, if we can respect each other’s choice. In practice, there are many friction surfaces, and only tolerance and compassion will make the world advance. Once we accept that anyone is fighting their own fears, we may start working together to solve those fears.
Which leads me to the final thoughts of this article. How would you become an adept of a religion? How do you become a believer?
In theory, becoming adept of a religion should be based only on two assumptions. First: is the fear real? Second: can it be solved in other ways?
If the fear is not real, then the entire religion can be discarded. If it can be solved in other ways, you should choose based on your own analysis, and ethical ruleset.
For instance, I believe Covid-19 can be solved in other ways, by boosting your immune system and not necessarily giving in to rushed, incomplete treatments concealed as vaccines. But I also understand that other people may think differently. I choose not to preach my own choice (this thing doesn’t count as preaching, I’m just giving an example, btw), while letting those who believe differently to continue believing so. All this as long as, like I said, they don’t mess with my choice. It’s a religion, it started in fear, so it’s difficult to come to common ground.
As for Bitcoin, I also believe the economical chaos can be solved in other ways too, not only with Bitcoin. So I’m not a Bitcoin Maximalist, rather a Crypto Maximalist, believing that other technologies and projects, maybe including Bitcoin, maybe not, will prove to be a better choice of tokenized trust.
At the end of the day, no matter if they’re part of the Covid-19 Apostles, or Bitcoin Maximalists, or [insert your modern religion of choice here], all people want the same thing: to be happy. I recognize this in all of them, and I try to respect it, as long as they respect it in me too.