Taylor: The world’s greatest religion

…religions…refer to belief in some kind of controlling power…author Harari describes [one belief as]…“the greatest conqueror in history.”

The world’s dominant religion is not belief in Jesus, with some 2.3 billion adherents. Nor is it belief in Mohammed, with about 1.5 billion. It is belief in money—and it counts 7.3 billion people as its disciples.

Wait a minute, you’re saying, money isn’t a religion.

Look up definitions of religion. They will all refer to belief in some kind of controlling power and to a set of commonly agreed upon convictions which affect the worshippers’ conduct and behaviour.

Fits money, doesn’t it?

In his massive overview of human existence, Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari describes money as “the greatest conqueror in history.”

“Money,” Harari goes on, “is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation.”

We don’t know who first introduced money as a vehicle for exchanging goods and services. We do know that there is no nation on Earth today that doesn’t use money. Even those that despise free-market economics happily use capitalist currency.

Yet money doesn’t actually exist. “Money is not coins and banknotes,” says Harari. “Cowry shells and dollars have value only in our common imagination. Their worth is not inherent in the chemical structure of the shells and paper, or their colour, or their shape. In other words, money isn’t a material reality—it is a psychological construct.”

He’s right. I rarely pay cash anymore. For anything. Most often, I use a little plastic card. I pay bills from my computer. I transfer money by e-mail. Even a cheque is not money; it’s merely an assurance that someone’s account has enough imaginary money in it to cover its face value.

You don’t even need real cheques now. You can deposit digital photos of cheques.

Money works only because we agree to treat it as if it were real.

Harari calls money a system of trust. I think the whole system is based on faith.

Some people disdain religion because it deals with convictions that cannot be empirically rested and verified. Exactly the same can be said of money.

Nations worship their Gross Domestic Product, the calculated total value of their goods, services and assets. When the GDP rises, we sing hallelujahs; when it declines, we panic about recession.

Only tiny Bhutan, sealed among the peaks of the Himalayas, with a population roughly matching Winnipeg’s, rejects the GDP. In 1972, it declared its own Gross National Happiness Index. Which is mostly subjective.

We don’t really know how to measure value—except through money.

How do you measure the value of clean water? The euphoria of falling in love? The exhilaration of sliding down a mountain on skis? The satisfaction of a stimulating conversation?

Oh, sure, we know how to measure the negative side. The cost of falling out of love, of going through a bitter divorce. The price of purifying water, of cleaning up toxic spills. The cost of lift tickets, or of teachers’ salaries.

But we have no objective way of assigning a value to the cleanness of a lake or river. To a goodnight kiss. To an unexpected insight. To a moment of sheer delight.

As the ads say, such things are priceless.