New byte of Apple faith

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 05: A display of Apple iPhone products on display in the new Apple Store In Covent Garden on August 5, 2010 in London, England. The New flagship Apple Store is scheduled to open on Saturday August 7th 2010 (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

I enjoy reading the Bible on my iPhone. The ancient words seem to jump to life in a hip new technology. Moreover, the online Scriptures are easily accessible in a multitude of translations, from the King James Version to the Message.

On the same iPhone, I scan the latest headlines, follow sports scores, check my work and personal e-mail accounts, keep up with GetReligion comments, listen to Texas Rangers’ baseball games, create my own music channels, make sure my bank account balance has not dropped below zero and text my teenagers to tell them to load the dishwasher. On a rare occasion, I even talk on my iPhone.

I am not, however, a disciple of Steve Jobs. At least I don’t think I am. (Come to think of it, I am typing this post on my Mac laptop.)

It turns out, according to Texas A&M University researchers, that tech giant Apple can offer a religious-like experience. I chuckled when I first saw the story from ABC News:

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

But then I started reading the story and realized: They may be serious.

Here’s the top of the story:

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.

The story goes out of its way to draw religious parallels: Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck and jeans as vestments. Apple as an icon. Microsoft as Satan.

To its credit, ABC makes a semi-serious attempt to “get religion” — the religion of Apple, that is.

A bit more of the story:

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.”

It was at this point of the story that I groaned. Please forgive my personal bias.

If indeed there are devotees to the Church of Apple — real-live humans who look up to Steve Jobs as a godly figure — then I think ABC erred by not interviewing some of the faithful.

The story notes:

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.

I’d love to know what theologians think of the researchers’ claims. Is Apple indeed a unique religious experience in American culture? Or could the same kind of research be done — and news stories written — about any number of non-church worship centers with passionate flocks, from Starbucks to the Green Bay Packers?

And, by the way, if I wanted to identify more such examples, is there an app for that?

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Chip


    Sixteen years ago Umberto Eco wrote about the differences between computer operating systems The Holy War: Mac vs DOS

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    If you had an Android phone, you might start using it as a phone. :)

    Journalists need to start acting a little more skeptical of studies. As you point out, just because it has some funding, that doesn’t make the findings newsworthy.

  • Bobby

    Thanks for the link, Chip.

    I agree, Sarah, about the need for a little more skepticism. By the way, who is the prophet of the Android religion?

  • Rachel

    Sounds like what they (the infamous they!) said about Oprah

  • Dave

    If there was nothing about particular religious apps then it really is no more than a story about staying up all night to get the latest rock-star album or Harry Potter tome.

    As I said in the comments about tweeting in church, I daresay the mental skills used to manipulate an iPhone are quite apart from those involved in a deep religious experience. I’d like to see the app-meisters try to bridge that gap.

  • Bobby

    Oprah, exactly! She would have been the perfect third wheel to go along with Starbucks and the Packers. If only there had been an app …

  • Passing By

    …listen to Texas Rangers’ baseball games

    So the patron saint involved is St. Jude?

  • Bobby


    Reuters had a story this week headlined Faith and smart phones commune in religion apps.

    Some apps described in that story:

    With smart phones boasting apps to do everything from finding convenient restaurants to identifying stars in the night sky, developers were bound to make programs that bring age-old religious practices into the digital world.

    Many contain full texts of scriptures like the Bible or Torah. Muslims can calculate the times for their five daily prayers and Hindus can present virtual incense and coconut offerings to the elephant-headed god Ganesh. …

    One Jewish app e-mails prayers to Jerusalem, where they are printed out and placed in a crack in the Western Wall.

    In a popular Buddhist app, the user shakes the phone to spin a prayer wheel. Buddhism and Hinduism have less problems with electronic prayers than western religions might, she said, adding that the Dalai Lama has said such apps are fine to use.

    Another app is a Hindu program called Digital Puja (prayer). There are rosary apps for Catholics and apps to light menorah candles at Hanukkah for Jews.

  • Jerry

    People have used religious imagery and constructs for computers for quite a while now. You can follow the thread which starts at the religious issues topic in the now somewhat obsolete Hacker’s Dictionary:

    Questions which seemingly cannot be raised without touching off holy wars, such as “What is the best operating system (or editor, language, architecture, shell, mail reader, news reader)?”,… See holy wars; see also theology, bigot.

    And one of my favorites, rain dance: .

    Any ceremonial action taken to correct a hardware problem, with the expectation that nothing will be accomplished. This especially applies to reseating printed circuit boards, reconnecting cables, etc. “I can’t boot up the machine. We’ll have to wait for Greg to do his rain dance.” 2. Any arcane sequence of actions performed with computers or software in order to achieve some goal; the term is usually restricted to rituals that include both an incantation or two and physical activity or motion. Compare magic, voodoo programming, black art, cargo cult programming, wave a dead chicken; see also casting the runes.

    So the linkage of Apple to religion is quite ancient (in computer terms).

  • Bobby

    Passing By, a (baseball) club reference? I’m a lifelong Church of Christ member, so you’ll have to work with me.

    Jerry, everybody knows that Mac beats PC, so I don’t understand how there could be a holy war. :-)

  • Passing By

    Sorry, I thought St. Jude was a common enough cultural reference or would have put a link.

    St. Jude is the patron saint of hopeless causes; as well as the Rangers are playing at the moment, I’ve seen them fade in far too many Augusts and Septembers. I’m not bitter, you understand, but they don’t have the charms of the Cubs and Wrigley Field.

    On the other hand, Nolan Ryan (and some other guys) won the bid for the club, so all’s right with the world.

  • Brett

    What the? Are reporters skeptical of anything anymore? Wasn’t anyone else told the credo: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” How do you write a story about whether or not the use of a computer and its products is similar to a religion and not either A) talk to a religious professional or B) let your readers know the source you’re quoting does have some religious studies background?

    No theologians, no pastors, no professors of religion, just one assistant media studies prof at Texas A&M. According to her LinkedIn profile, Dr. Campbell does have a doctorate that vaguely touches religious studies — in “Computer-mediated Communication & Practical Theology” from the University of Edinburgh, but Ms. Heussner doesn’t even tell us that.

  • Jerry

    Jerry, everybody knows that Mac beats PC, so I don’t understand how there could be a holy war.

    That was the old religious war. The new one is iphone versus andoid – the Church of Apple iphone which layeth down rules for thy own good and the Android Reformation bringing many alternatives and freedom to download anything you want onto your phone. I don’t think this will be settled at Megiddo mountain but one never knows, does one?

  • Bobby

    Passing By,

    This has nothing to do with media coverage/journalism, but I will refrain from deleting my own comment.

    I’ve been a Rangers’ fan since 1982 and have endured far too many of the post-All-Star break nosedives. But hope springs eternal, and I am confident that this is the season that the Rangers finally will reward long-suffering fans with a championship. Or at the very least, the second playoff game win in team history.

  • Dave

    Jerry and Bobby, thanks for the info! :-)

  • Passing By

    Bobby – you’re a better man than me.

  • Alex

    If we’re talking about people attaching themselves to pieces of technology with pseudo-religious devotion, why not include video games?

    Kevin Butler’s speech at E3 2010

    That was from this year’s E3 Conference – the biggest video games conference there is. And that was Kevin Butler, Sony’s mouthpiece for speaking to the “videogaming faithful” (as can be seen with a Google search).

    His speech was soaked in language not unlike that which you’d find in many of America’s churches. And it was lapped up with applause. I think that ABC’s reporters may be onto something with the “cult of technology”, as it were, but they may be looking in the wrong place!

  • Judy Harrow

    re Dave (post #5)

    I think it’s a simple and serious observation. There are some things — very often political movements — that occupy the central place in some peoples’ lives that religions do in the lives of others. The behavior that adherents to these movements exhibit is parallel to the behavior of religious people. The movements become the central focus and organizing principle of some adherents’ lives.

    First serious work of theology I read, back in my first year of college (1962, so I may not be remembering perfectly) was Dynamics of Faith by Paul Tillich. His definition of idolatry was allowing anything other than what he called the Ground of Being to occupy that central position in one’s life. He was thinking in terms of material acquisition, but nationalism or some political movement could function in the same way.

    And so could a sports team, or something like Star Trek, or Apple technology.

  • Bobby

    Just came across a Fox News report on the Texas A&M research:

    “The religious-like behavior and language surrounding Apple devotion/fandom is an example of ‘implicit religion,’” Prof. Heidi Campbell, one of the authors of the study, told Implicit religion can happen when the use of, say, technology becomes a substitute for belief and behaviors once attached to religion and religious practice, she said.

    That, according to the authors, explains why fans still believe when the leader of the Church of Apple, Steve Jobs, blames consumers for the poor reception of the company’s cell phone (clearly, users are holding their phones incorrectly). In fact, they flock to buy the device despite its serious design flaws.

    An interesting analysis of the research from The Apple Blog.

    There’s also this from the Bryan/College Station Eagle:

    Campbell said some have confused the message of her research.

    “It’s not that it’s a religion,” she said. “It’s that it’s performing a role that religion sometimes plays in peoples’ lives.”

    She said her paper has journalists from around the world calling for interviews and has caused a stir with readers of the study, too.

    “I’ve gotten quite a few angry Mac fans, saying how dare you call me religious,” she said. “And quite a few angry religious people, saying how dare you call Apple a religion.”

  • Ray Ingles

    Considering how frequently baseball has been compared to a religion here on, I’d think this study wouldn’t be so controversial here…

  • David Charkowsky