The Universal Prayer: How Money Became the World's First Shared Religion
Money is a term difficult to define. It is a concept subject to deep individual interpretation. For some, money means power, to others, a way of living; some say it begets stability, and there are those who believe it is at the center of everything. In fact, I am one of those last people.
From my perspective, I see money as something than can become anything due to its existence as a medium of exchange. It is something universal, in the sense that the entire world accepts its existence and value, and it represents a common want, and to a degree, a common need among all people. This universal importance makes it in some ways similar to religion.
Related to this theme, Aristotle had a particular way of explaining how the world works that divided society into good and bad citizens, based on whether they pursued what satisfied men’s limited needs—the natural goods—or if they were in search of the unnatural, which he regarded as all that served to fulfill their unlimited wants.
For Aristotle, the unlimited wants of humans represented a problem in the world. Money as an end represented something unnatural, so he suggested it only was to be used as a means to an end. However, we now live in different times, and if Aristotle were alive today, he would likely have had a completely different set of beliefs. The world has evolved into a place where people are driven to consume and spend, and money has become as natural to all of us as it possibly could.
As something so natural to us, money is part of our lives from the moment we are born. Our interpretation of it continues to evolve until the day we die. In our childhoods, we encounter our first economic decisions, like what to spend our allowances on. We also start to understand that things have certain value, and since we do not have the means to attain them, we behave properly in order to be rewarded by our parents with what we want. Then, when we grow a little more, we may get a job and start becoming more independent, even though our parents are still accountable for us. The more independent we become, the more we discover the value of money. Once we become completely autonomous, we work harder to get the highest income possible because that is what we are supposed to do. Finally, we then have the responsibility to provide for our kids, and so it is not only our life that is affected by how much money we have, but also someone else’s. Even though this is not the case for everybody, it is an example of how the concept of money has not only changed through history, but it also changes in our own minds.
Along the same lines, money can also have many different interpretations depending on different factors that define people. For example, the level of wealth is something that can affect how someone would perceive certain amount of money. A hundred dollar bill can have a completely different meaning for a rich middle-age man living in Beverly Hills than for a poor kid living in Somalia. If money is scarce in our lives, we then tend to value certain amount of it more than someone who has plenty, and therefore behave differently towards it. Also, its origin can affect our behavior. For instance, if someone won the lottery, that person would probably spend it on things he would not otherwise have. Therefore, the way we value money is also affected by how much we have worked to attain it.
There are people who see money as an absolute priority in their lives, and there are examples everywhere that can prove that. In the movie “Wall Street”, a man goes against his values in order to get ahead in his career in the financial world, with the risk of ruining everything in his life. Similarly, in the TV show “How I Met Your Mother”, one of the characters chooses not to pursue his dream job, and instead he settles for one he does not like but gives him a higher income. We see everyday people like these two men who are willing to give up important things in their life for money. The striking part is not the fact that they do it, but that the rest of the world sees it as something normal.
I could refer to thousands of examples without ever stopping, but that is not the idea. All these different interpretations and ways in which people value money all have something in common: it is something inherent in all our lives. This is very similar to the way Medieval Europe saw Catholicism.
During the Middle Ages, religion was very predominant in the way the Catholic Church controlled almost every part of society: the economy, politics, and so forth. In Western Europe, Catholicism was something everyone took for granted because that is what people were taught since the beginning of their lives. Money plays a similar role in today’s society. Like medieval Catholicism, the value of money is something no one questions, and everyone believes in it, or is forced to believe, we can say.
Our actual economic system is similar to the medieval religious system in many ways. First, it had a hierarchy headed by the Pope, the highest power, who supervises the different churches headed by their priests and archbishops, and they in turn are higher ranked than regular people since they are the messengers between them and God. On the other hand, our economic structure today in the United States consists of the Federal Reserve as a regulator or a “Holy See” of the financial sector, with Ben Bernanke as our own economic “Pope.” Then, we have banks, which play the same role as churches in terms of money. There are many rituals in both cases. We go there and make deposits, the same way people in the Middle Ages went to Church to make their confessions in order to prove their devotion or faith, which was valued in a similar way to how we value our money. Also, when we open a bank account it is like a baptism in economics, or maybe a first communion. Furthermore, if we see capitalism as the most important determinant of our economy, we could see Adam Smith as our economic Jesus Christ.
If we look at religions in general, our belief in money is very similar. In a religion, its followers share a belief that no one is supposed to question. We all believe in money as a medium of exchange. Therefore, it has similar purposes as religion: uniting people towards having faith in something. This, in turn, provides stability. Money was created to give value to things and define them in those terms. Religion defines the world in a broader manner, but still manages to create an order by giving people the answers to how the world works and what are the set of norms that will define our standing in it, the same way our wealth can determine our social standing. The validity of both is only determined by our set of beliefs, and our cultural environment is what defines them.
A lot of different religions exist today and have existed throughout history. Since the beginning of civilizations, people have had the need to explain the meaning of their existence, and thus they have developed different kinds of religious beliefs. Along the same lines, people have had the need to create a system that allows them not to explain their existence but simply to exist as a society. In other words, a scheme that allows us to exchange goods and resources for us to survive in a world filled with scarcity. Both systems have had the common purpose of stabilizing people’s lives, and they have always been successful at that, even if these have evolved and new ones have developed.
“Religion” is a very broad term. There is Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Shinto, and many others. Depending on the religion people believe in, they will have different rituals, as well as different beliefs. These all look at the world in different ways and define the way people live, and their moral values. On the other hand, there are many different currencies in the world. There is the Dollar, the Yen, and the Euro, among others. There are numerous factors that make them different such as price level, the economy’s GDP, and so forth. However, these technical aspects are not the only ones to determine the meaning of these currencies. They also tend to be influenced by the culture of the place where these are used. There are many different behaviors people have towards money, and, in my opinion, this is similar to the range of religions that exist in the world. There are different spending behaviors people tend to have in different countries. For example, here in the United States, Americans have the tendency to spend more than they have through credits and loans. In contrast, saving rates in some countries in Europe are almost the double as the United States’, which means that Europeans are more careful in that they have a lower marginal propensity to spend their incomes.
Similarly, another thing value of money and religious faith have in common is that they are both intangible and subjective. However, there is a difference: the first is qualitative while the second is quantitative. It is not possible to determine “how much” faith someone has, while we can look at a person’s bank account to see the amount of money in his or her possession. Furthermore, if a person claims to be religious, we cannot determine either the validity of those claims because he or she can be lying about it. Conversely, the amount of money someone has is a hard number, and no one can say it is not valid or real. But what happens when it had been attained through robbery? A thief is no different than the person who claimed to be religious but really was not. Therefore, even though the quantitative property of money sets it apart from faith, for me they are still very similar. Even if the case of the thief seems more serious, and law even can penalize it, I see this very alike to how pagans were punished in the past for betraying their religion.
The set of norms present in both the cases of money and religion are about guaranteeing a good life, even if one is for the present and the other one is for the life after this one. Having faith and behaving the appropriate way today will show us the way to heaven, or maybe enlightenment, depending on what the religion one believes in considers the desirable future. Money, on the other hand, sets the conditions for our present life, the one on Earth. Working hard and receiving an income gives the possibilities to attain the goods needed or wanted to survive or have good living standards. In a way, bankruptcy is our earthly hell, and in our capitalist society it is the worst outcome we can attain. The same way a catholic person, for example, makes a sin, we can make bad business decisions that will make us lose our money, or even be reckless and gamble our way to poverty. Therefore, both in religion and in economics there is a code of conduct that will determine our living, in this life or the next one.
Money not only determines the way we live our personal lives, but this pattern can also be seen in a macro level. For example, this becomes obvious when we look at two different major events in world history: the Crusades and the Cold War. The Crusades were justified by religious claims, but they also translated in the capture of more land, and therefore more power. The Cold War, on the other hand, consisted on the United States and the USSR aiming at spreading political values, democracy and communism respectively. However, this was obviously also a fight for power and dominance over the countries where their “proxy” wars took place. Looking at these conflicts more deeply, they both represent a search for economic power. In the first case, it was through land, and the second through the resources available in these territories, which were both a search for what was more valuable at the time in terms of economic gains. Governments look for wealth, which in turn gives them power. Therefore, money does not only play a central role in our personal lives, but also represents something crucial in higher levels, which brings it even closer to the definition of religion. It has the potential to determine our life, our behavior, what we do, and how we do it.
If the value of money were taken away from our world, we would end up in entire chaos. As mentioned earlier, it has become something so natural and central in our lives, that we cannot imagine ourselves without it. Society has evolved in a way that money gives us order, stability, and security, among other things, and eliminating it would be like taking a huge step backwards in history.
It is up to each person to define money the way he or she wants, and needs. Its definition can and does change throughout our lives, and throughout history as a whole. However, the fact that it has become something so important to us makes it our real religion—the one we all believe in, and the one that really shapes our lives.