The “functional religion” of Steve Jobs, Apple

After seeing the response to Steve Jobs’ death, a commentator at the Washington Post looks at some sociological research on Apple and concludes that Jobs was the leader of a religion-like movement:

In a secular age, Apple has become a religion, and Steve Jobs was its high priest.

Apple introduced the iPod in 2001, and that same year, an Eastern Washington University sociologist, Pui-Yan Lam, published a paper titled “May the Force of the Operating System Be With You: Macintosh Devotion as Implicit Religion.” Lam’s research struck close to home, quite literally — her husband has a mini-museum of Apple products in the basement…

And what it stands for, apparently, is more than just gleaming products and easy-to-use operating systems. Lam interviewed Mac fans, studied letters they wrote to trade magazines and scrutinized Mac-related Web sites. She concluded that Mac enthusiasts “adopted from both Eastern and Western religions a social form that emphasized personal spirituality as well as communal experience. The faith of Mac devotees is reflected and strengthened by their efforts in promoting their computer of choice.”…

If that sounds like academic gobbledygook, consider how Apple devotees see the world. Back when Lam’s paper was published, there was a palpable sense of a battle between good and evil. Apple: good. Bill Gates: evil. Apple followers, Lam wrote, pined for a world where “people are judged purely on the basis of their intelligence and their contribution to humanity.” They saw Gates representing a more “profane” world where financial gain was priorities one, two and three.

This is an argument based on the work of Emile Durkheim. The argument is one that can be applied to many things that take on the functions of religion such as providing meaning (Apple vs. other corporations, beauty vs. functionality), participating in common rituals (buying new products), and uniting people around common symbols (talking with other Mac users). For example, some have suggested that the Super Bowl also is a “functional religion”: Americans come together to watch football, united in their patriotic and competitive beliefs while holding parties to watch the game and the commercials. Or baseball can be viewed as a “primitive religious ritual.”

While the comments beneath this story suggest some people think otherwise, this is not necessarily a slam against Apple or Steve Jobs. Durkheim argued that individuals need communal ties and we can find this in a number of places: the relationships formed in religious congregations, team-building activities in the office, and at bars and coffee shops where we try to connect with others during our daily routines. This does not mean Apple was necessarily a “false religion”: of course, we could talk about whether people could or should find ultimate meaning in a brand or products but we could also acknowledge that the social aspects of Apple made it more than just a set of technological product.

2 thoughts on “The “functional religion” of Steve Jobs, Apple

  1. Pingback: Turning Apple’s brand and products into a religion | Legally Sociable

  2. Pingback: “Tom Brady, sociologist of religion” | Legally Sociable

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