On Being an Apple ‘Catholic’

It is no new thing to compare Apple, Inc. to a religion. The fanatical devotion it has inspired over the decades has made many outsiders eye it suspiciously, as it hawks a kind of techno-faith in which the textbook charismatic leader, Steve Jobs, emits a Reality Distortion Field that turns the skeptical into zealots, hungry for the latest sleek combinations of glass and aluminum like the damned crave absolution. The term “Cult of Mac,” begun by Leander Kahney in his book and website of that title, both pokes fun at and celebrates this comparison.

Those who live inside the Reality Distortion Field, in my experience, rarely resent this. Just as true religious zealots do not mind being known for their blind faith, but wear it as a badge of honor. This is a bit of an exaggeration, of course, as even the most doughy-eyed Apple user will still vent criticisms and complaints, but very often this is done in the spirit of keeping true to a central credo; as in, if device X does or does not have Y feature, is that really keeping with The Apple Way? Is it What Steve Would Have Done? Et cetera.

I, too, have embraced this. Being an atheist, in particular, it’s actually kind of fun to have a pretend religion to subscribe to. I follow the teachings of The Steve, Apple keynotes are like a twice-yearly mass, and I look for signs from the prophets Tim Cook and Jony Ive, just as much as I shook my head in despair at the heretics Scott Forestall and John Browett as they fell from grace.

At New York Review of Books, Edward Mendelson explores the idea of Apple-as-religion anew:

[A]s everyone knows, the world-religion of the educated and prosperous in the twenty-first century is Apple, with its Vatican in Cupertino and its cathedrals in the light-filled Apple Stores that draw pilgrims gripping iPhones and iPads like rosaries. Apple’s flock is secured against heresy by censors who rule the online App Store; only applications with Apple’s imprimatur are allowed on an iPhone. Programmers risk excommunication — with all their works condemned to being listed in an Index of Prohibited Software — if they violate canon law by bypassing Apple’s banking system or ignoring its infallible doctrine. Rebellious heretics can “jailbreak” an iPhone and induce it to accept software anathematized by Apple, but a heretic’s phone is refused communion when presented for repair at the Apple Store.

It’s true. As much as Apple is a corporation, and would publicly laugh off mentions of their quasi-religious status, they are doubtlessly generating a culture around their products and services. Mendelson calls the Apple Stores cathedrals, but I (who worked in one such store for over a year) think of them more as embassies — outposts in the ugly real world set up to represent Apple diplomatically to the local population and to help spread Apple virtues and values (a prime one of which would, of course, be “buy Apple stuff”).

Mendelson focuses his piece on one particular aspect of Apple’s ecosystem that goes somewhat against dogma, the programming language of AppleScript, which allows non-experts to do what is rarely done in the world of Apple: lift the hood of the operating system (on OS X anyway) and tinker with the guts. This leads Mendelson to this comparison:

AppleScript is protestant with a lower-case “p,” as iOS and much of OS X is catholic with a lower-case “c.”

He goes on to make a case for why the “protestant” side of Apple is the preferable one. (“Apple nailed its Ninety-Five Theses to its own door.”) As for me, I’m less sure.

To be clear, I like that AppleScript exists. I like that one can perform more advanced tasks in the Terminal or with Automator. But I almost never, ever do. (That said, if you own a MacBook Air, and would like it to wake from sleep faster, you must use this Terminal command.)

You see, I think Apple’s done, for the most part, a good enough job without me going into the workings and mucking it up. I had played for a spell within the Android universe, a system that encourages and embraces tinkering and augmenting at all levels and, as I’ve written on my own blog Near-Earth Object, I grew weary of the all the choices. When something didn’t quite suit me, or I suspected I could squeeze more power, more battery life, or what have you, out of the device, I would feel personally responsible to make it happen. This is similar to how I felt back when I was a Windows user pre-2004. In the abstract, it’s great to have options, but I began to be exhausted by them.

Apple, in its iron-fist theocracy, leaves few choices beyond ringtones and wallpaper. As someone who is not a programmer and simply wants his tools to work well and seamlessly with each other and other services, that’s pretty much just fine with me. Apple, you make the decisions, and I will just take part.

And receive salvation.

This is very much a parallel to religion. Let’s take AppleScript out of the discussion, and think more in terms of all of Apple being “catholic” and Android/Windows being “protestant.” In a reformed religion, one is freer to find their own way to God, and they become responsible for finding that path and establishing that ideal oneness with the Almighty. An orthodox/catholic faith, on the other hand, spells it all out in advance. In order to get good with the Big Man, you need to follow the rules, buy into the dogma and the catechism, and then your decision-making is over. It is, counterintuitively, a kind of freedom, because it takes away the burden of forging this path for yourself. It takes away the burden of having to decide what is right and wrong. One is “free” within the parameters.

Obviously, when it comes to religion, I am neither Catholic nor Protestant, but “none of the above.” But with my consumer tech products, I have found, even after dabbling with the reformers, that I prefer the orthodox. Blind faith to dogma in religion is dangerous and has existential implications. Blind faith to a technology company, while maybe not admirable from a skeptics’ point of view, is relatively benign.

And, to me, anyway, it’s spiritually freeing.

And so I say, of The Steve, peace be upon him.

About Paul Fidalgo

Paul is communications director for the Center for Inquiry, as well as an actor and musician. His blog is iMortal, and he tweets as @paulfidalgo, and the blog tweets as @iMortal_blog.
The opinions expressed on this blog are personal to Paul and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Inquiry.

  • The Other Weirdo

    Um. Okay.

  • Rev. Achron Timeless

    Yeah, that’s basically the extent of my reaction. Telling people their belief system is just a security blanket, then turning around and saying they got tired of having software options… I’m not sure what to do with this.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    The fanatical devotion it has inspired over the decades has made many outsiders eye it suspiciously…

    Our weapons are fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency, an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope… and nice red uniforms.

  • vexorian

    Blind faith in technology companies can have devastating consequences. RE: PRISM.

  • SeekerLancer

    The same can be said for any brand loyalty. Just take a look at video game console fanatics. Their arguments on the internet are as vitriolic as any holy war.

  • Michael Harrison

    Hail Miyamoto, hallowed be His name.

  • Gideon

    Informed skepticism is still an option, though. Rather than relying on faith in the brand name, a skeptic can dig into online benchmarks and pore over lists of device characteristics. After that process, the faith in the brand name may be either confirmed or rejected on a case by case basis.

    Anand is my chosen prophet.

  • The Other Weirdo

    I am sorry that you feel that way. Personally, I think they were an awesome band. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyH_TTszwS8

  • Mitch

    WWSJD? (What Would Steve Jobs Do)

  • Dirk

    Zelda games are my god.

  • http://v1car.wordpress.com/ The Vicar

    Actually, I kind of like this. Linux, then, is like Islam: messy and kind of stupid (talk for a moment to any developer who has had to cope with the package dependency tree to do any sort of high-level software delivery), used by rabid devotees (ever talked to one?) who are rabidly zealous about goals which don’t really work very well in the real world, and based on ideas which once seemed kind of like good ideas but which have long since turned out to be disasters (the whole “let’s use a client-server model for display” which gave Linux X11, or the idea of a monolithic kernel which means hardware manufacturers have a disincentive to write drivers, etc. ad infinitum) and which the zealots will defend as brilliant to this day.

    The only problem is that I can’t really see an equivalent for Windows if Catholicism is already used. The huge, monolithic organization which gained acceptance largely by state enforcement (in the form of corporate IT departments), and which most devotees mindlessly pursue. I can’t think, offhand, of any better match.

  • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

    Church of England, maybe? Less fanatical than Catholicism, but still very much about protecting its privileges and doing what it pleases. And very much state-based.

  • http://exploringthejungle.wordpress.com/ Kat

    This was mildly amusing, but I swear I used to work with a guy who wasn’t merely a fanatical Apple devotee, but couldn’t seem to help proselytizing on a regular basis. He would not be deterred by my repeated insistence that I was perfectly happy with my PC, that I did not need an iPhone, and that if I was interested in any further information I would be sure to ask him. I don’t mind viewing technological loyalties in religious terms, as long as the adherents don’t reach a similar level of obnoxiousness.

    On the other hand, at least spam in my inbox is easier to ignore than people ringing my doorbell wanting to convert me. So that’s a plus.

  • Adam Patrick

    I’m a CS major and Linux fanboys are everywhere. My advice: stay far, far away if at all possible.

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    So this morning, we had a small impromptu meeting at work, and while we were discussing some things that went wrong, I swear to you that I had my mouth open and was a hair away from blurting out something like, “Weird how Joe Klein wasn’t there to help with the Tuesday delivery.”

    Nobody there would have had a goddamn clue what I was talking about.

  • midnight rambler

    That actually is a very good analogy, IMO. Certain structures are dictated from the top in a hierarchical way, yet ultimately the individual is effectively left to fend for themselves in figuring out what to do. Also, most everyone belongs to it, but no one actually likes it.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    HAHAHAHAHA! Yeah, it’s pretty much an in joke, but I don’t mind. Klein’s crack was an insult only to us, and because it’s one of tens of thousands of similar insults, only we can understand why it’s hurtful without a long and probably tedious explanation to someone who doesn’t share our set of experiences. They’d probably understand, sorta, but there’d be that awkward, unspoken “Yeah, okay, whatever.”

    One day one of us might discover we have a fellow atheist by hearing him or her make a Joe Klein joke. That would be hilarious.

  • http://v1car.wordpress.com/ The Vicar

    The problem is that Windows is really and truly bad for its users in a way that C of E really doesn’t embody. (Just for a start: Windows remains the only desktop/laptop platform where antivirus programs are absolutely required; the common claim that it’s because of the popularity of Windows does not hold water since the number of actual viruses for Mac OS has not altered, even slowly, as the sales of Macs has grown relative to those of Windows PCs.)

    And now Microsoft is pushing a subscription model for the OS as the Next Big Thing; do the Anglicans have mandatory tithing?

    (Oh, and also: Windows is still ubiquitous, whereas C of E is extremely limited. It would be fun if the relative market penetration of Windows and Mac OS X were put into the Catholic/C of E ratio, though.)

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    I swear by Ray-O-Vac batteries.
    “Yes, Your Honor, I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me Ray-O-Vac.”
    “Uh, never mind, the witness may step down.”

  • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

    I kinda think LDS might work better for Apple and Catholic Church for Windows. LDS is kinda cultish, has weird insider rituals, and definitely socially punishes dissenters.

  • Michael

    Windows is the cultural christian movement. Nobody uses it for any other reason than because it’s what people are using.

  • JimGramze

    After I use Windows for about a minute, I have to go wash my hands.

  • Carlos Ribeiro Da Fonseca

    “the common claim that it’s because of the popularity of Windows does not hold water”
    The funny thing about this argument is that its actually pretty easy to find people using it and then using the exact opposit when the comparison turns from Windows vs. Linux+OS X to IIS vs. Apache.

    Then there’s the
    “the number of actual viruses for Mac OS has not altered, even slowly, as the sales of Macs has grown relative to those of Windows PCs” argument which is, in fact, actually wrong. But don’t take my word for it, go look at the reports made by anti-malware companies. Note that I said “malware” not “viruses”. Viruses where hot in the 90s, but in the last 10-20 years most serious malware is actually composed of trojans — the bad guys have long figured that it’s easier to fool the human in front of the computer than the computer itself. Oh, and if you think that those companies are suspect (a fair assumption, I’d say) I’m sure you can find lots of independent experts saying pretty much the same.
    Why, even Apple bundled GateKeeper (which, among other things, scans the stuff you download to see if it’s not known malware) with OS X and even a software-based firewall.

  • vexorian

    You sound more like a religious fanatic.

    You are defending an OS that you didn’t choose. But that hardware/software developers did. Just like people who just stick to their parent’s religion. Tradition! Tradition!

    Like any religious fanatic, you are blinded to your own fanaticism and see others trying to do different things as “failures” or things that are not for the real world. You are no different than a Christian being able to criticize Scientology and being oblivious to his own religion’s lameness.

    You have a partial view of the world, and yet assume it to be fact. You talk of the Linux kernel as useless. And probably would neglect that it is being successfully used in major industry and scientific successes, from TiVo to Web servers (including google). From Android to Supercomputers.

    You like a world with only one view, and see people wanting to try different things as deviants or heretics.

  • The Other Weirdo

    Or you could actually graduate and work in the real world–not academia–for a while to get some experience before criticizing that which you don’t–yet–understand.

  • Adam Patrick

    And you could have actually learned to comprehend what people say. Did you read what I wrote at all? I never criticized anything. Just said Linux fanboys are annoying.

    Btw, I use a Linux OS regularly. I know about it.

  • Seth @ FBT

    This is not limited only to Apple. There are many other brands that also command a similar form of devotion from their followers.