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Is Apple a Cult, a Religion or a Brand?

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A university professor friend and recent platform-switcher jestingly refers to Apple and its users as “the Church of the Mac.” He’s become an enthusiastic Mac (s aapl) evangelist, and since has perceived some loose parallels between his technology conversion to Apple and his religious conversion to Catholicism.

My learned friend is far from unique in drawing analogies between computer platform affinities and religion. Back in 1994, Italian novelist Umberto Eco (writer of “Foucault’s Pendulum” and “The Name of The Rose”) published a now-legendary, whimsical piece in the Italian news weekly Espresso, contending that the Microsoft/Apple rivalry is “a religious war.” Eco was “firmly of the opinion” that the Macintosh is Catholic; “It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory, it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach — if not the kingdom of heaven — the moment in which their document is printed.” He pointed out that with a Mac you deal with simple formulae and sumptuous icons, and “everyone has a right to salvation.”

On the other hand, Eco contended, the (then mostly DOS-based) PC was Protestant, “or even Calvinistic,” demanding difficult decisions and interpretations, taking “for granted the idea that not all can reach salvation.” The PC user “is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.” When the Windows graphical user interface was added to previously command line-only DOS, there came a superficial resemblance to the Macintosh’s “counter-reformist tolerance.” “Sort of like Anglicanism,” said Eco, with “big ceremonies in the cathedral,” but “always the possibility of a return to DOS to change things in accordance with bizarre decisions: When it comes down to it, you can decide to ordain women and gays if you want to.”

Eco’s tongue-in-cheek theological analysis of the computer wars stands up well and is still entertaining 16 years later.

Scholarly Investigations

Recently there’s another flurry of “Apple as religion” in the blogosphere. The Huffington Post’s Skye Jethani writes of “the power of consumer brands to supplant traditional religions in people’s lives,” noting that “new research has shown that Apple has achieved the same impact on the human brain as religion.”’s Alexis Madrigal posted a riff noting that scholars seriously study Apple fans as “religious devotees,” one even outlining a framework for assessing Apple’s mystical mythology, contending that the company is founded on at least quasi-religious myths.

A four-myth construct compiled by Texas A&M University media professor Heidi Campbell in her paper “How the iPhone became divine” posits:

  • A creation myth highlighting the counter-cultural origin and emergence of the Mac as a transformative moment;
  • A hero myth presenting the Mac and its founder Steve Jobs as saving users from the corporate domination of the PC world;
  • A satanic myth presenting Bill Gates as the enemy of Mac loyalists;
  • A resurrection myth of Jobs returning to save the failing company.

Madrigal observes that these narratives aren’t myths in the sense of being untrue, but are archetypal illustrations that help people make sense of their relationship with the world (or at least Apple). He suggests the only element of core Apple fans’ belief system compromised by “Antennagate” is the hero myth, since Jobs didn’t initially live up to his Teflon reputation. However, he thinks the Antennagate press conference followed by robust iPhone sales in Apple’s quarterly financial report not only restored Jobs’ hero status, but refreshed the resurrection myth, citing Campbell observing that “Apple weathered the storm because there is such brand loyalty through the religious narrative.”

“Implicit Religion”

Fox News’s John R. Quain weighs in on Apple as a “new religion,” likewise referencing Texas A&M’s Campbell, who told him “Implicit religion can happen when the use of, say, technology becomes a substitute for belief and behaviours once attached to religion and religious practice,….The religious-like behaviour and language surrounding Apple devotion/fandom is an example of ‘implicit religion’.”

Campbell has cut to the nub of the issue. As a Catholic traditionalist, I have clearly-defined concepts of what I think constitutes bona fide religion, and notwithstanding that I’m a consummate Mac fanboy, I find it impossible to take “Apple as religion” seriously, as more than parody or satire, or more darkly–cultishness.

Apple Products and Traditional Religion

Not that Apple products aren’t having peripheral impact on real, traditional religion. In June, Fr. Paolo Padrini, a consultant with the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications, launched a free expanded iPad version of his iBreviary app, a daily prayer book for iPhone. iBreviary’s iPad variant, iBreviaryPro, contains the complete Roman missal — all that is said and sung at Mass throughout the liturgical year, plus commentaries, suggestions for homilies, and musical accompaniment, allowing priests to celebrate mass without hard copy Bibles and liturgical missals.

What sets iBreviary apart from other religious apps in the App Store is that it’s the first app with approval of the Vatican. Fr. Padrini has reported some 200,000 downloads of the iPhone version, and expects priests who travel a lot to find the application most useful.

Cult of Mac’s Nicole Martinelli reports that at least one Catholic priest switched to an iPad for officiating at outdoor masses in place of heavy books, commenting to The Apple Lounge (in Italian) that device is really easy to use.

That’s the sort of technology complimenting religion that even religious traditionalists can get behind.

19 Responses to “Is Apple a Cult, a Religion or a Brand?”

  1. It think the analogy that Apple is a religion is absolutely correct, and even have sub division from within – from the high level deacons and priests – the Mac users or as some have coined the “Creative Class”, its colorful, charismatic leader – even down to the look and dress. Iphone, ipad users are some other periphery type – maybe they are a break away faction.
    I dont see them as catholic – more a pentecostal, something with more in line with the devotee behavior. I dont see windows in the same light. WIndows users are more Agnostics. If you are to the extreme right you will see everything as though its to the left. PC fans are more enthusiastic about getting cheap hardware to do miraculous things, making their networks hum with activity, Running high end apps on their home built mega machines – even running OSX and other non MS OSes on it. Always look to spend 100$ here or There to get more bang for their buck! They are NO fans of mr gates and his redmond bunch. they take great pride in having the latest 400$ graphics card and seeing how much performance they could pump out of it using the lastest games, by rigging up the best cooling system with their budgets and making PC’s in cool custom made enclosures. They only use windows out of necessity and tolerate it because windows was made for everyone – not experts. They thrive on performance, capability, efficiency, economy and other real world (agnostic) values. Yes, PC fans are Agnostics – Apple fans are definitely Pentecostals or of the Benny Hinn variety. If you read the iPhone developer SDK agreement – you will see levels of control unbelievable in 2010 – complete with no porn and censorship of newspapers etc. And while apple is not a religion (officially) its definitely a cult – and damned close to a religion if you ask me.

  2. Pat Bowen

    I understand that there is a discrepancy between the original paper and this article’s presentation of the findings. Nevertheless, there is a valid point to be made here.

    To the average user, it is a brand. It’s pretty and has an apple on it.

    To the fanatic, though, it is something akin to a cult. Honestly, the same goes for any operating system, but Apple is the only brand that has managed to drag their hardware into the foray (largely to the detriment of hardware manufacturing).

  3. This is a really interesting article which should challenge most readers.

    I remember Apple from 18 years ago and think at that time there was very much a cult status. Now that Apple has become so main stream (in almost every sense) it has become more of a brand for me. BUT – what a brand, a brand that knows what what we want before we know we need it!

    I have total brand loyalty to Apple now and only wish I had go into it so much earlier.

    Is it a religion – I don’t think so? Saint Steve?

  4. I don’t see much, if any, difference between Apple loyalists and, say, Ford loyalists. It’s a very personal product – a car, computer or phone – and, thus, produces very personal reactions. And a good gearhead brand debate makes an Apple vs. PC geek debate seem rather tame.

    I’m a Mazda guy. I like them, they suit me and my driving style and they’ve consistently provided me with quality product. I’m also a Mac and iPhone guy for the same reason. My brother, OTOH, is a Nissan, Windows and Droid guy. We argue, chide and mock each other over our car preferences far, far more than over our personal electronics preferences.

  5. Your first mistake is believing Fox News! They skew news to the right using half- truths and leaving out context. Not that MSNBC is any better but at least it’s obvious. Oddly, comedy central has more fact based news.

  6. For a lot of people it is just a good brand. But you have to admit there are some hardcore fans that make a reasonable, rational person go “whoah!”

    When Apple was smaller, it didn’t matter so much. But now that they are growing in size and influence, more people are beginning to see some of these “fanbois” and it blows the mind…

    I am not talking about a normal person, I am talking about a delusional person who honestly believes that Apple can do no wrong, that it is blasphemy to suggest such a thing.

    Most normal people would admit that Apple is a good brand but not without their flaws. The fanbois cannot admit this, however. Not even when it is beyond a shadow of a doubt…

  7. It should seem obvious that it isn’t an actual religion, but it could be argued that it is indeed an implicit religion. I love Apple products, but some people take it too far and move over to a worshipping point of view. IMO, it’s probably somewhere between a religion and a brand.

  8. Charles W. Moore

    Note that I attributed the references to Prof. Campbell’s research to the Huffington Post’s Jethani, The Atlantic’s Madrigal, and Fox’s Quain,

    Quain certainly give the impression that he or a Fox researcher had interviewed the professor (“Prof. Heidi Campbell, one of the authors of the study, told…”). She says he did not.

    Quain linked to the original academic paper in his Fox News piece, but the full text of the article is for fee. However the public accessible abstract gives the broad strokes of what it contains, so I think I accurately got the gist.

    My own take on the column’s titular question is pretty much in agreement with Mark’s above.


  9. What a load of horse hockey. People use quasi-logical nonsense because that’s their schtick to case everything in religious terms. That people would publically say such horrendously nonsensical things is beyond straining credulity.

    It’s the principle of the instrument. “Give a child a hammer and everything the encounter requires hammering.”

  10. Simple answer: All three.

    For the sane (i.e. most of us) it’s a brand and a damn good one at that. For the slightly socially incompetent it’s a cult.

    And then you have the real wack jobs.