The application of NFTs to the religious sphere questions the limits of this phenomenon, which is known to be mainly used by art lovers and speculators.
The religious sphere is generally known for its critical view of technology. However, in the wake of the pandemic, many religions have had to take to the internet to maintain a link with their followers. Some religious organizations have even been tempted by the metaverse.
In parallel, the Vatican has announced plans to develop the "first ever NFT gallery" (Non Fungible Tokens) by digitalising some of its artworks, manuscripts and other rare objects and displaying them in a digital gallery, accessible in virtual reality.
“Technology is here to stay just like religion. They can flourish together”. Eric Salobir
The emergence of NFTs in the religious sphere highlights their characteristics that were not raised in the context of the speculative bubble that arose around these innovations. Will these characteristics be put to good use in the creation of a new business model around NFTs?
NFTs (Newsletter on Non-Fungible Tokens) are not necessarily associated with a monetary value. For example, in relation to the Vatican project, Father Philip Larrey stated that the aim was "to democratise art, making it more widely available to people around the world, regardless of their socio-economic and geographical limitations". This suggests that the works will not be commercialised.
The purpose of assigning a monetary value is simply a tool for exchange and a way of defining the value of goods and services. It is thus a means of organising interactions between people. However, there are other ways of organising these interactions which may have the advantage of being less elitist and less centralised.
Religion is full of interactions. Can NFTs transform the organisation of these interactions?
Religions are based on the faith of believers in their divinity (or multiple divinities). This faith is a matter of trust which is immaterial.
In different religions, religious authorities have the power to bless objects, people etc. For example, in Buddhism or Catholicism, the blessing is a rite by which a religious authority, through its prayer, attracts divine blessings. These sacred objects are then passed on from generation to generation. In the same way, this sacredness can affect relics, i.e. the remains of the body of saints, sacred figures, or objects that belonged to them, and which are the object of a cult.
The charity, Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Lisboa (SCML), offered last year some of its art collection and digital replicas of a reliquary of St. Francis Xavier as NFTs.
There is a "market" for these highly sought-after sacred treasures. NFTs could attest to the traceability of the objects and ensure the nature of its blessing. By attesting that it is a relic of St. Francis Xavier, a "blessed host", or "water" from Lourdes. Thus, NFTs have the potential to change the spirituality of believers by reintroducing something tangible between God and believers. However, does this strengthen or weaken trust?
It should be noted, however, that the NFT is only a complementary tool, as many religious traditions are based on incarnation. For example, Catholicism and Zen Buddhism have the concept of incarnated religious practices in common.
Reintroducing this 'material evidence' will not apply equally to all religions. For example, in the Christian tradition, Protestants place much less emphasis on saints, relics and the like than Catholics or Orthodox.
NFTs can renew the sense of belonging to a community. For example, the HENKAKU community is based on a system where the only way users can earn a token is to do something for the community. The founder of the community, Joi Ito, points out that "It was so successful that there were too many tokens issued for the possibilities of use".
This approach is similar to the concept of "utility tokens". The purpose of these tokens is to provide access to a service or product. This use of NFTs allows the development of an experience, where the fact of holding the NFT, offers the possibility of transforming it. This transformation also has an impact de facto on its value, although not necessarily monetary.
"Sometimes, the fact that it is not convertible into money gives even more value to the transaction."
Beyond the possibility of earning tokens, this system creates a sense of community. It also tracks the activities of individual users for the community. Can this traceability also be applied in the context of religious communities, where rituals are important? Through this system, it would be possible, for example, to attest to the performance of a sacrament or the completion of a pilgrimage. This would amount to a proof-of-work validation system, i.e. part of the validation consensus used in the creation of new blocks within a blockchain.
However, this application could have several limitations and even some excesses. How can one measure generosity, compassion or even justice and fairness?
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