Posts tagged ‘Religion’

Steve Jobs and the Cult of Apple

Benjamin E. Zeller
originally published in Sightings, by the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School

Steve Jobs, legendary co-founder of Apple (né Apple Computer) died this month at the age of 56. Immediately a series of memorial shrines sprung up at Apple Stores around the world. Images of such shrines—and that is certainly what they are—reveal personal messages, flowers and other gifts, candles, homemade artwork, and images of Jobs. Jobs’s death is not the first to inspire celebrity memorial shrines, nor will it be the last. But it reveals something profound for those of us who study religion in the public square. Apple is much more than a company and Jobs much more than its founder and CEO. These shrines are not simply secular memorials. They are religious memorials, and there is a religion of Apple, with Jobs functioning as its charismatic high priest. Adherents even call it that—“the cult of Apple” or “the cult of Mac,” referring to Apple’s Macintosh computer platform. Regardless of the negative connotation now associated with the term, “cult” is clearly a subtype of religion, and has been understood as such since the days of sociologists of religion Max Weber and Ernest Troeltsch, who popularized the terms. Today scholars prefer the term “new religious movment” to refer to such recent, small, and alternative religions.

Type the term “cult of Apple” into a search engine (perhaps on an iPhone or Macintosh) and you will be greeted by over sixty million hits. That is more than Scientology, the Unification Church, and the Hare Krishna movement, the “big three” new religious movements combined. You will find that of these sixty million search engine hits, many come from blogs, opinion columns, and websites by dedicated fans of Apple and its wares. Creators of these websites treat their Apple products and their relationships with them in a quasi-religious manner, as something approaching what theologian Paul Tillich called an “ultimate concern.” They approach Apple and Jobs with reverence, and envision the company and man as paragons of ideals such as ingenuity, individualism, and progress. Many other websites are run by detractors of this phenomenon, seizing on the negative connotations of the word “cult” to deride Apple enthusiasts as smug group-thinkers brainwashed by their now deceased charismatic leader.

There are certainly other examples of popular culture religions—the memorial cults of Princess Diana or the living cult of Oprah, as Kathryn Lofton’s recent book Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon reveals—but there is something particularly religious about the cult of Apple. Its religious nature derives from the qualities with which its proponents imbue it, such as individualism, progressivism, and creativity, as exemplified in the “Think Different” of Apple’s advertisements, which featured images of the Dalai Lama, Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, Jim Henson, and others. In Apple’s words, the company represents “the crazy ones, the rebels, the troublemakers.” These are powerful ways of defining oneself, particularly within individualistic American culture. The religion of Apple becomes a symbol of such individualistic self-expression and rugged idealism.

The death of Steve Jobs clearly affected many members of the cult of Apple, as was evidenced by the creation of the memorial shrines. Rather than dismiss this phenomenon, scholars of religion in the public sphere should take it seriously. The loss felt by Apple enthusiasts was real. That is because they have invested in their relationship with Apple as a company and an ideal, and Jobs was the human face of that ideal. A sign left at the memorial outside the flagship 24-hour Apple Store in Manhattan featured a message deeply revealing of Apple as symbol. “Keep Thinking Different,” it declared. Other notes amplified that theme of the cult of Apple as representing a form of individualistic self-identity and definition. Another thanked Steve for “changing the world for good.” Many of the messages followed the latter theme, emphasizing Jobs as a prophet of technology who changed the world for the better. For adherents of the cult of Apple who created these shrines, Apple as an ideal and Job’s innovation in particular represented a world-changing and -shaping force. They mourned his death just as followers of any other prophet or messiah would.

What are we to make of these interlinked phenomena of public mourning, the corporation as quasi-religious ideal, and computer products as forms of molding and defining self-identity? The most important message is that the thing we call religion exists and operates well outside of the boundaries of church, synagogue, and mosque. Though it is easy to find examples of quasi-religious religion outside the churches—consider Gary Laderman’s work on pop culture religion in Sacred Matters, or David Chidester’s similar research in Authentic Fakes—the case of Apple is special. Its proponents talk about it as a religion. Fans call themselves “evangelists.” It functions to provide ultimate meaning and a way of defining oneself with reference to powerful ideals. In other words, the religious emotions of devotion, gratitude, and bereavement felt by the adherents of the cult of Apple are real. Their quasi-religious sentiments and practices are real. In the contemporary world, the products and symbols of a corporation can do real religious work.

Benjamin E. Zeller is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Coordinator of the Religion and Philosophy Major, and Director of Honors at Brevard College, a private liberal arts college in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains. His academic website is

October 20, 2011 at 10:04 am Leave a comment


”Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell, spirituality is for those who’ve been there” anonymous

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May 2, 2009 at 2:07 pm Leave a comment

Religion is Ridiculous?

Sightings  10/23/08

— David G. Myers

Ridiculous, and worse.  So say the new atheist books:  In God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens does not mince words, calling religion “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”  Now Bill Maher’s movie Religulous lampoons the plausibility and social effects of all religion, ominously concluding that the world will end if religion does not end.  But I suggest that social science data point to a different conclusion than do the new atheist anecdotes of hypocritical and vile believers.

Many in the community of faith gladly grant the irrationality of many religious fundamentalists − people who bring to mind Madeline L’Engle’s comment that “Christians have given Christianity a bad name.”   But mocking religious “nut cases” is cheap and easy.  By heaping scorn on the worst examples of anything, including medicine, law, politics, or even atheism, one can make it look evil.  But the culture war of competing anecdotes becomes a standoff.  One person counters religion-inspired 9/11 leader Mohammed Atta with religion-inspired Martin Luther King, Jr.  Another counters the genocidal crusades with the genocidal atheists, Stalin and Mao.  But as we social scientists like to say, the plural of anecdote is not data.

Maher and the new atheist authors present anecdote upon anecdote about dangerous and apparently irrational religious behavior, while ignoring massive data on religion’s associations with human happiness, health, and altruism.  The Gallup Organization, for example, has just released worldwide data culled from surveys of more than a quarter-million people in 140 countries.  Across regions and religions, highly religious people are most helpful.  In Europe, in the Americas, in Africa, and in Asia they are about fifty percent more likely than the less religious to report having donated money to charity in the last month, volunteered time to an organization, and helped a stranger.

This finding – that the religious tend to be more human than heartless – expresses the help-giving mandates found in all major religions, from Islamic alms-giving to Judeo-Christian tithing.  And it replicates many earlier findings.  In a Gallup survey, forty-six percent of “highly spiritually committed” Americans volunteered with the infirm, poor or elderly, as did twenty-two percent of those “highly uncommitted.”  Ditto charitable giving, for which surveys have revealed a strong faith-philanthropy correlation.  In one, the one in four Americans who attended weekly worship services gave nearly half of all charitable contributions.

Is religion nevertheless, as Freud supposed, and Maher’s film seems to assert, an “obsessional neurosis” that breeds sexually repressed, guilt-laden misery?  Anecdotes aside, the evidence is much kinder to C. S. Lewis’s presumption that “joy is the serious business of heaven.”  For example, National Opinion Research Center surveys of 43,000 Americans since 1972 reveal that actively religious people report high levels of happiness, with forty-three percent of those attending religious services weekly or more saying they are “very happy” (as do twenty-six percent of those seldom or never attending religious services).  Faith (and its associated social support) also correlates with effective coping with the loss of a spouse, marriage, or job. 

Maher would surely call such religiously-inspired happiness delusional.  But what would he say to the surprising though oft-reported correlations between religiosity and health?  In several large epidemiological studies (which, as in one U.S. National Health Interview Survey, follow lives through time to see what predicts ill health and premature death) religiously active people were less likely to die in any given year and they enjoyed longer life expectancy.  This faith-health correlation, which remains even after controlling for age, gender, ethnicity, and education, is partly attributable to the healthier lifestyles (including the lower smoking rate) of religious people.  It also appears partly attributable to the communal support of faith communities and to the health benefits of positive emotions.

These indications of the personal and social benefits of faith don’t speak to its truth claims. And truth ultimately is what matters.  (If religious claims were shown to be untrue, though comforting and adaptive, what honest person would choose to believe?  And if religious claims were shown to be true, though discomfiting, what honest person would choose to disbelieve?)  But they do challenge the anecdote-based new atheist argument that religion is generally a force for evil.  Moreover, they help point us toward a humble spirituality that worships God with open minds as well as open hearts, toward an alternative to purposeless scientism and dogmatic fundamentalism, toward a faith that helps make sense of the universe, gives meaning to life, opens us to the transcendent, connects us in supportive communities, provides a mandate for morality and selflessness, and offers hope in the face of adversity and death.


David Myers is a professor of psychology at Hope College and author of  A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists:  Musings on Why God is Good and Faith Isn’t Evil (Jossey-Bass, 2008).

October 23, 2008 at 5:27 pm 4 comments

Brand new religion blog

My friend Jeremy Hinsdale, web genius for PBS, just launched a brand, spanking new blog on religion, He’s encouraging open, honest, interaction on all issues religious and for the moment, isn’t moderating posts. I’m sure that will change, especially after I start posting!

October 7, 2008 at 3:34 pm 1 comment