Bitcoin, Jediism, and yoga – religions of the 21st century?
Can religions still be created? Are there new movements in the 21st century?
Faith in several traditional religions, particularly amongst younger generations, is declining across Europe.  Yet, this decline does not necessarily translate to the disappearance of religion. Instead, we ought to ask: is religious faith truly gone, or just evolving into something new? The answer, though hard to perfectly pinpoint, is probably both. Religion, as it evolves, can be found in some areas we may never think to look.
For example, a recent article by American scholar Joseph Laycock explores whether the cryptocurrency bitcoin should be considered a religion. Perhaps surprisingly, there is a wealth of material, discussed below, that could bolster such a claim. If bitcoin can be a religion, then, what else could qualify in our rapidly evolving, technologically advanced world?
On bitcoin as a religion
Laycock, though providing some of the most thorough analysis of the question, is far from the first to refer to bitcoin as a religion. Interestingly, parallels between the two abound – some mere word choice, others more fundamental. For starters, the first block on the bitcoin chain is known as the ‘genesis block’. Beyond this, Bitcoin promoter Hass McCook, who publishes on Medium, refers to himself as a ‘bitcoin Evangelist’. And, most strikingly, some bitcoin enthusiasts formed a ‘Church of Bitcoin’ in 2017.
With blog posts addressing the New York Department of Financial Services’ proposals regarding cryptocurrency, the Church addresses the economic and policy ramifications of cryptocurrency. Yet with others like “channeling energy through time and space,” the Church offers contemplative, more ethereal ideas. Furthermore, the Church founders have delineated a set of five beliefs that members must hold:
- “They believe that any two consenting parties should be able to freely exchange or trade without any governing body or third party interfering with their transaction
- They believe that bitcoin will enable us to achieve that reality
- They distribute our scripture, the whitepaper written by prophet Satoshi Nakamoto
- They declare “In cryptography we trust” as a slogan/mantra
- They embrace open-source philosophy and freedom of information”
While many may not formally ascribe to the Church, these beliefs do undermine some of the fundamentals of bitcoin users – a belief in the currency, an admiration (by some) for the mysterious founder (Nakamoto), and the presence of a textual foundation in the bitcoin whitepaper.
What makes something a religion?
Yet do these similarities automatically make something a religion? As Laycock notes, it depends largely on how we define religion. Coming up with such a definition, however, divides scholars to this day, especially as faith and religion can be so individualised.
The French sociologist Émile Durkheim famously defined religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden–beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a Church.” Others conceive of religion in terms of a shared set of factors (as discussed in another EARS article on Brexit as a religion). These factors can include (1) having a body of beliefs and (2) shared practices that (3) invoke sacredness and (4) often have moral underpinnings. 
To some, therefore, bitcoin followers clearly possess components that make them a religion. Ultimately, however, the fairest answer may be that it all depends on the mindset of the individuals involved. For some, bitcoin may be a religion – for others, a simple hobby or even a job. With this in mind, let us briefly look at three other modern movements potentially deserving the label ‘religion’.
1) The rise of ‘spirituality’
The number of meditation apps seems to grow daily. A not infrequent question amongst younger generations is: what is your Zodiac sign? Firms and universities increasingly add meditation rooms to their buildings. Yoga, which arguably deserves exploration as being a religion in its own right, is flourishing. And, importantly, though most Europeans no longer believe in a God as described in the Bible, the majority of Europeans do believe in a higher power.
What does this all mean? Well, some could argue that each of these phenomena represents a modern expression of religious faith. The contemplation and socialisation that may once have taken place in Church now occur in a yoga class. The teachings of priests are being replaced by the writings of horoscopes and self-help books.
2) On political movements
As yoga and meditation offer a path for contemplation and spirituality, the rise of modern political movements shares significant similarities with traditional religious beliefs. Politics, in many ways, appears to be tied more often with morality. One is ‘good’ for being of a similar political view, or ‘bad’ if on the opposite end. The shared community once generated by churches can now be seen in political movements, as individuals use them to find their ‘spiritual homes’.
While this phenomenon can be observed readily in the United States, European political movements present examples, too – one of the most polarising in recent memory being the Brexit movement. In a series of articles, EARS analyst Frazer MacDiarmid explores the phenomena, ideology, morality, and sacred components of the Brexit movement.
Of similar note could be the predominantly Catholic gilets jaunes, who protested economic inequalities in France, particularly revolving around fuel prices. Though largely Catholic, the movement could be seen as a modern, political expression of religion.
3) Fringe movements
Finally, there are communities that, sharing many of the above religious factors, formally consider themselves – and even legally request to be – religions.
In recent years in the United Kingdom, the Temple of the Jedi Order, inspired by the Star Wars series, has attempted to gain official acknowledgement as a religion. The movement suffered a blow in 2016, when the Charity Commission said that Jedi was not a religion. The Commission declared that the movement did not “promote moral or ethical improvement.” Nonetheless, over 177,000 people listed Jedi as their religion in the 2011 census, making it the 7th most popular religion. 
A new development, or an age-old phenomenon?
At the end of the day, should these all be considered religions? Who is to say what is and what is not a religion? For legal purposes, it certainly helps to have a definition, so as to protect certain rights. Beyond that, maybe these are all religions in their own rights. Of note, however, is that though these movements themselves may be new – the fact that people express their religiosity outside of traditional pathways certainly is not a new phenomenon. As long as there have been traditions, collective stories, and political movements, there have arguably been new religions.
 Ronald L. Johnstone, Religion in Society: A Sociology of Religion (Routledge, 2015), pp. 8-14