Faith Column: Steve Jobs: innovator, inspirational, visionary, saint?
Classifying Apple as a religion
It’s official: Apple is a religion.
Actually, the declaration isn’t really that official, as a brief Google search suggests that such an official claim has been made many times before.
In 2001, Pui-Yan Lam of Eastern Washington University authored a fascinating paper suggesting that the products help users find their place in the world, as religion does. Two days after the death of the idolized CEO of the company, the Washington Post argued that “in a secular age, Apple has become a religion, and Steve Jobs was its high priest.”
Most recently, University of British Columbia’s Kirsten Bell stated three particular elements — a charismatic leader, a process of thought reform and exploitation of the group by leaders — qualify Apple as a “cult,” which is an early iteration of an official religion.
It’s really not a hugely surprising declaration. Walking past an Apple store on the weekend is a spectacle of sorts, with infatuated shoppers showing as much exuberance as charismatic churchgoers.
But let’s slow down here. Apple is a corporation. A very wealthy one at that, with a net income of almost $26 billion last year. It’s the most valuable publicly-traded company ever: Apple’s objective is not to produce a more just world or to create an inclusive global community, unless those factors benefit the bottom line.
This perhaps makes the comparison of the company to a religion slightly odd. Does Apple really serve the same purpose as Christianity or Buddhism? Well, quite possibly.
It’s often cynically stated that religion is a business. There’s plenty of evidence for this accusation, from tithing to massive church buildings to the exorbitant salaries that pastors make (prosperity gospel evangelist Joel Osteen has an estimated net worth of $40 million).
In fact, this reality is a big part of why I don’t go to church. I once donated $100 to a Pentecostal youth gathering that I used to attend, without ever considering where the money was going. The whole “opiate of the people” analysis was evidently accurate.
But there seems to be more to the Apple comparison that the rather obvious acknowledgment that there’s money in the system: after all, we live in an advanced capitalist, post-industrial world, which renders almost everything imaginable into a commodity, including spirituality.
There’s something more insidious and concerning going on that justifies the comparison. It’s intimately associated with neo-liberalism, but has less to do with actual money than with the understanding of what the point of religion — and who the religion’s adherents should be — is.
If someone who had never experienced organized religion before attended church, they would likely encounter an environment that stressed a highly personal type of spirituality. It would be one that encouraged solitary prayer, listening to one particular leader and figuring out your own personal beliefs.
A consequence of this inward focus is that everything becomes consumer-oriented, which is where the money part comes in.
Today, religion is consumed. One attends church, reads their sacred text and namedrops religious figures in conversation. It’s pretty simple, really. Nothing is ultimately required of an adherent to any faith. At all. Sound familiar? Because, in the end, Apple is indeed a religion of 2012.
They might have even perfected it, as they have seemingly done with everything else (marketing, scoring cheap labour and making funky products). We’ve now got a legion of infatuated believers whose religion doesn’t provoke them to do anything but consume.
To begin fixing the failures of religion will take more than simply getting rid of paid clergy or selling off gargantuan churches. Ultimately, Kirsten Bell’s research — as with her predecessors — demands an answer to a crucial question: what’s the point of religion? Because, at this point, Apple is just as deserving of the title of religion as any other organized faith in this world of consumers.
Believers have to start thinking about how the world around them can be bettered by their faith, otherwise we are indeed exactly the same as Apple addicts.