An anthropologist discusses how the recent iPad mini launch has some religious dimensions:
She [anthropologist Kirsten Bell] came to some of the same conclusions as her predecessors, including Eastern Washington University sociologist Pui-Yan Lam, who published an academic paper more than a decade ago that called Mac fandom an “implicit religion.”…
Apple’s product launches take place in a building “littered with sacred symbols, especially the iconic Apple sign itself,” she said. During keynote speeches, an Apple leader “addresses the audience to reawaken and renew their faith in the core message and tenets of the brand/religion.”
Even Apple’s tradition of not broadcasting launches in real time is akin to a religious event, Bell said. (Today’s event was available live on Apple’s website.) “Like many Sacred Ceremonies, the Apple Product Launch cannot be broadcast live,” she wrote. “The Scribes/tech journalists act as Witness, testifying to the wonders they behold via live blog feeds.”…
Yet there are strong reasons people have long compared Apple culture to religion, Bell said. “They are selling something more than a product,” she said. “When you look at the way they advertise their product, it’s really about a more connected life.” A better life is something many faiths promise, she said.
I wrote about this earlier when a commentator made a similar argument after the passing of Steve Jobs. Comparisons like this, whether it be a product launch or a big sporting event or a rock concert, tend to draw on similar Durkheimian ideas: these are rituals; they can generate feelings of collective effervescence and emotional energy; they can strengthen group bonds; they involve a lot of important symbols that often require some inside knowledge to fully understand; there are clear lines demarcating what is sacred and what is profane. It may not be religion as the public typically thinks of it as involving some real or perceived spiritual or supernatural forces but its actions and consequences could be similar.
One common means that sociologists use to gain perspective on social phenomena is to consider what an alien might observe and conclude if they happened to see human social life. Hampton Stevens takes a similar tack at theAtlantic.com to report on baseball as a primitive religious ritual:
Essentially, the religion of baseball is based on the hurling of a small, white orb that represents the sins of believers, and the attempt to expiate those sins by the ritualized touching of three small white squares. Two bands of warrior-priests wage an intricate, highly symbolic battle to see who can cleanse the most of their followers’ sins.
Each sect has a high priest. He stands elevated atop a circular mound at the very heart of the temple, the sanctum sanctorum of, beneath which are buried his ancestors and martyrs to the faith. Hurling the white sphere, he thus symbolically accuses the entire community of some great wrongdoing, challenging them to defend themselves and their sacred honor.
A cleric from the opposing clan does just that. He holds a weapon, offering a defense by trying to strike the orb in the hopes of being allowed to progress through the series of small white squares and therefore disprove the accusation.
While this may seem like a silly essay, it has value:
1. It is always useful to be reminded how others view practices that we think of as “normal.” Whether the others are aliens or people from different cultures, it is a reminder that what is obvious to us may not be obvious to others. Indeed, social life is made of up of norms and rules that one must learn starting at a young age.
2. Sporting events can be thought of on religious terms. While I have joked that being a Cubs fan is almost like having another religion because of the amount of faith it requires, sports in American society can be analyzed as “functional religion.” Particularly with an event like the Super Bowl, the amount of attention, time, and money spent on sports is astounding. We gather in stadiums/”hallowed grounds” to lustily cheer on our “good” team versus the “evil” team from another place. We might even go so far as to suggest that it may be possible that more Americans pay more attention to sports than they do to religion.