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.Continued on Next Page »