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 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.”

TheAtlantic.com.’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.

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