Looking for a New Religion? Apple Gives Dose of the Divine

Apple could play the same role as religion in a person's life, researchers say.

August 1, 2010, 4:27 PM

Aug. 2, 2010— -- Next time you're in need of a spiritual pick-me-up, maybe you should forego the traditional houses of worship and seek out the technophile's temple instead: the Apple Store.

According to two academics at Texas A & M University, Apple products aren't just consumer-friendly, sexy gadgets, but instruments of the divine.

"[Apple] could offer a religious-like experience. It could basically perform the same role in people's lives that being part of a religious community could, at one time," said Heidi Campbell, a communications professor who co-wrote an academic paper exploring the religious myths and metaphors surrounding the tech giant and its larger-than-life founder and CEO, Steve Jobs.

In "How the iPhone Became Divine," which was published in a new media journal earlier this summer, Campbell and her colleague Antonio La Pastina look at Apple customers as religious devotees.

"It's basically a study of religion and technology and how religious language and images got associated with the iPhone," said Campbell.

In 2007, right after Jobs took the stage in his customary vestments (a black turtleneck and jeans) to announce the launch of the iPhone, tech bloggers started spinning stories about the coming of the "Jesus Phone" or "God Phone."

Campbell said the report looks at how those terms became common parlance for the fan community, technology bloggers and even mainstream media.

The phrase first surfaced in 2006, she said, when Gizmodo blogger Brian Lam wrote a post responding to the Pope Benedict XVI's Christmas warning to worship God and not technology.

"Hopefully, our shepherd, Steve Jobs, will unveil Apple-Cellphone-Thingy, the true Jesus Phone -- or jPhone -- in two weeks, at the Macworld Keynote. It shall lift the hunger and disease you speak of from the land, as it will cure the rabid state of mind infecting Mac fanboys like yours truly," Lam quipped.

It wasn't long before cartoons and stories perpetuating the divine metaphor flooded the Web.

Technology Can Exhibit Certain Aspects of Religion, Scholars Say

But Campbell said the "Jesus Phone" phrase had sticking power because it resonated with an American audience steeped in Christian mythology.

"It's an easy, decodable icon," she said. "You might not like what Jesus stands for but you understand someone as a savior, a revolutionary."

Campbell acknowledged that she and her co-author are hardly the first to make the technology as a religion parallel. Scholars long have equated technology with religion.

"Technology can be seen as exhibiting certain aspects of religion. Not religion in the sense of traditional religion or official religion. But what's called implicit religion," she said. "That's where secular artifacts get imbued with religious-like or sacred significance."

Religions are distinguished by a faith in a transcendent force or divinity, a core set of beliefs, a community of those believers and a set of ritual practices. And all kinds of fan communities, such as those inspired by "Star Trek" or sports teams, can provide a religious-like experience, she said.

But Apple's story is particularly prone to religious imagery and language.

For example, the researchers point out that Apple's humble beginnings in Steve Jobs' garage parallel the lowly manger of Jesus' birth. Jobs' return to Apple in 1997, after leaving in 1985, mirror elements of Jesus' resurrection. "You have the hero myth of Jobs, who kind of ran the company into a negative place, and then he came back and saved it," she said. "It's been written about that he supposedly came to one of the early Christmas parties dressed as Jesus. ... It's kind of urban legend."

Microsoft, too, has a role in the story -- as the "satanic" enemy, she said.

Even the infamous pre-launch store lines support the Apple-as-a-kind-of-religion theory, she added. For some extremely zealous Apple fans, spending a night outside an Apple store waiting for the newest iPhone is as much a ritual as a pilgrimage might be for religious devotees.

To a certain extent, the researchers suggest, Apple customers buying into the divine story might be reaching for some kind of transcendence.

Through technology, they can become super human, and through the Apple community, they can take part in something bigger than themselves.

Being a Mac User Is Part of a Person's Identity, Some Say

But the religious metaphors can hurt the Apple brand too.

"How Steve Jobs has also been praised but also attacked has been because of this cult-like status around him," Campbell said.

Lifting him to the level of a God means that when he fails he has so much farther to fall, she said.

Leander Kahney, editor of the tech blog Cult of Mac and author of a book by the same title, said the group of diehard, cult-like Apple fans is a vocal minority. But, he added, there are still some religious undertones in the larger Apple community.

"If you're joining a church, you're joining a community. And when you buy an Apple product, you're joining the Apple community," he said.

Just as new church members learn the myths, rites and values, new Apple users start to learn the myths and rituals supported by other "believers."

He said other brand communities probably share some religious-like elements, but that, especially during the height of Microsoft's "evil empire," some Mac users felt that their decision to support Apple products had moral significance.

"It definitely becomes part of someone's identity. It's somewhat akin to saying, 'I'm a Christian,'" he said. "If you say 'I'm a Christian,' people will expect you to have certain values and if you say, 'I'm a Mac user,' people expect you to have those Mac user values." #