October 20, 2011
Steve Jobs and the Cult of Apple
— Benjamin E. Zeller
Steve Jobs, legendary co-founder of Apple (né Apple Computer) died this month at the age of 56. Immediately a series of memorial shrines sprung up at Apple Stores around the world. Images of such shrines—and that is certainly what they are—reveal personal messages, flowers and other gifts, candles, homemade artwork, and images of Jobs. Jobs’s death is not the first to inspire celebrity memorial shrines, nor will it be the last. But it reveals something profound for those of us who study religion in the public square. Apple is much more than a company and Jobs much more than its founder and CEO. These shrines are not simply secular memorials. They are religious memorials, and there is a religion of Apple, with Jobs functioning as its charismatic high priest. Adherents even call it that—”the cult of Apple” or “the cult of Mac,” referring to Apple’s Macintosh computer platform. Regardless of the negative connotation now associated with the term, “cult” is clearly a subtype of religion, and has been understood as such since the days of sociologists of religion Max Weber and Ernest Troeltsch, who popularized the terms. Today scholars prefer the term “new religious movment” to refer to such recent, small, and alternative religions.
Type the term “cult of Apple” into a search engine (perhaps on an iPhone or Macintosh) and you will be greeted by over sixty million hits. That is more than Scientology, the Unification Church, and the Hare Krishna movement, the “big three” new religious movements combined. You will find that of these sixty million search engine hits, many come from blogs, opinion columns, and websites by dedicated fans of Apple and its wares. Creators of these websites treat their Apple products and their relationships with them in a quasi-religious manner, as something approaching what theologian Paul Tillich called an “ultimate concern.” They approach Apple and Jobs with reverence, and envision the company and man as paragons of ideals such as ingenuity, individualism, and progress. Many other websites are run by detractors of this phenomenon, seizing on the negative connotations of the word “cult” to deride Apple enthusiasts as smug group-thinkers brainwashed by their now deceased charismatic leader.
There are certainly other examples of popular culture religions—the memorial cults of Princess Diana or the living cult of Oprah, as Kathryn Lofton’s recent book Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon reveals—but there is something particularly religious about the cult of Apple. Its religious nature derives from the qualities with which its proponents imbue it, such as individualism, progressivism, and creativity, as exemplified in the “Think Different” of Apple’s advertisements, which featured images of the Dalai Lama, Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, Jim Henson, and others. In Apple’s words, the company represents “the crazy ones, the rebels, the troublemakers.” These are powerful ways of defining oneself, particularly within individualistic American culture. The religion of Apple becomes a symbol of such individualistic self-expression and rugged idealism.
The death of Steve Jobs clearly affected many members of the cult of Apple, as was evidenced by the creation of the memorial shrines. Rather than dismiss this phenomenon, scholars of religion in the public sphere should take it seriously. The loss felt by Apple enthusiasts was real. That is because they have invested in their relationship with Apple as a company and an ideal, and Jobs was the human face of that ideal. A sign left at the memorial outside the flagship 24-hour Apple Store in Manhattan featured a message deeply revealing of Apple as symbol. “Keep Thinking Different,” it declared. Other notes amplified that theme of the cult of Apple as representing a form of individualistic self-identity and definition. Another thanked Steve for “changing the world for good.” Many of the messages followed the latter theme, emphasizing Jobs as a prophet of technology who changed the world for the better. For adherents of the cult of Apple who created these shrines, Apple as an ideal and Job’s innovation in particular represented a world-changing and -shaping force. They mourned his death just as followers of any other prophet or messiah would.
What are we to make of these interlinked phenomena of public mourning, the corporation as quasi-religious ideal, and computer products as forms of molding and defining self-identity? The most important message is that the thing we call religion exists and operates well outside of the boundaries of church, synagogue, and mosque. Though it is easy to find examples of quasi-religious religion outside the churches—consider Gary Laderman’s work on pop culture religion in Sacred Matters, or David Chidester’s similar research in Authentic Fakes—the case of Apple is special. Its proponents talk about it as a religion. Fans call themselves “evangelists.” It functions to provide ultimate meaning and a way of defining oneself with reference to powerful ideals. In other words, the religious emotions of devotion, gratitude, and bereavement felt by the adherents of the cult of Apple are real. Their quasi-religious sentiments and practices are real. In the contemporary world, the products and symbols of a corporation can do real religious work.
Benjamin E. Zeller is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Coordinator of the Religion and Philosophy Major, and Director of Honors at Brevard College, a private liberal arts college in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains. His academic website is http://www.nrms.net.