The faux religion of Steve Jobs
August 17th, 2013
09:00 AM ET

The faux religion of Steve Jobs

Opinion by Brett Robinson, Special to CNN

(CNN)— Forget the forbidden fruit logo and the cult of Apple jokes. The legacy of Steve Jobs is anything but religious.

Apple was conceived in the heady days of the counterculture movement. While Jobs and friend Steve Wozniak were busy hacking into AT&T’s long-distance phone lines from a Berkeley dorm room in the 1970s, the culture was awash in New Age experimentation and social unrest. Traditional institutions were under siege by idealistic youth rejecting what they viewed as mass-marketed delusions.

At the top of the hit list was organized religion. When Jobs and Wozniak got the phone hacking device to work, their first call was to the Vatican. They proceeded to hang up on the pope’s personal secretary before he could connect the call to the Holy Father. Jobs the iconoclast relished the prank.

Apple’s Garden of Eden logo is one of several religious parodies aimed at the establishment. A 2007 iPhone ad with the tagline “Touching is Believing” mocks the Biblical story of the Apostle Thomas, who needed to touch the wounds of Christ in order to believe in the Resurrection. Apparently, the iPhone apostles needed the same reassurance leading up to the launch of what came to be called the “Jesus phone.”

Jobs left the Protestant church as a young man and sought spiritual enlightenment in the East. At a pivotal moment in his career, Jobs’ moral compass led him to a Zen monastery in northern California, where he considered becoming a Buddhist monk rather than continuing with Apple. But his close friend and Zen priest Kobun Chino Otogawa told him he could do both.

Jobs embraced the challenge by combining the physics of computing with the metaphysics of Eastern spirituality. The minimalism and intuitive design of Apple products are material expressions of Jobs’ Zen ideals. When Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid, told Jobs to remain at the intersection of technology and the humanities, Jobs knew he had landed at the nexus of a powerful cultural movement.

When a statue of Steve Jobs was erected in Budapest in 2011, it was one of many tributes to the demiurge of digital culture. But to truly immortalize a media technology hero like Jobs, a movie would need to be made.

The din of digital media has eclipsed the dignity of statues, and the screen has become a sacred means for commemorating cultural heroes. Lincoln, Gandhi and Christ have all had their day in the Hollywood sun.

It is fitting that the new movie about his life, "Jobs," edited on Apple computers and eventually distributed to millions of Apple devices, will proclaim the technological gospel fashioned by its creator.

The medium is the message after all.

But baked into Apple products is a troubling paradox. Like a technological Trojan horse, Apple products assail our senses with sumptuous visuals and rich acoustics while unleashing a bevy of addictive and narcissistic habits. The ‘i’ prefix on Apple devices is a constant reminder that personal technology is ultimately all about us.

In addition to his Zen Buddhist leanings, Jobs claimed that trying LSD was one of the most formative experiences of his life. One occasion sounds like a treatment for an iPod ad. After dropping acid, Jobs found himself in a wheat field and felt as though the crops were pulsating to a Bach symphony. It was a sublime experience for the young seeker who saw drugs as a gateway to expanding consciousness and thinking differently – a theme he would return to years later in Apple’s iconic “Think Different” campaign.

Altered perception has become a hallmark of personal technology. The “Music Every Day” ad for the iPhone 5 is a series of visual snippets of Apple users enjoying their music. The study hall, the dance hall and the city are all transformed by the presence of the musical device. Freed from the humdrum of everyday life by their personal soundtrack, many of the actors appear stoned as they enjoy the heightened pleasure of being plugged in.

The Apple religion is not a religion at all, but a celebration of the self through personalized pleasure.

Reflecting on religion later in life, Jobs told biographer Walter Isaacson that different religions were all just doors to the same house, “sometimes I think the house exists, and sometimes I don’t.”

If Jobs had actually spoken to the pope from that Berkeley dorm room years ago, he may have heard something akin to what Pope Leo XIII said in 1885, a century before Macintosh:  “To hold…that there is no difference in matters of religion between forms that are unlike each other, and even contrary to each other, most clearly leads…to the rejection of all religion. ... And this is the same thing as atheism, however it may differ from it in name.”

Steve Jobs did some amazing things, but he was not a prophet. And Apple is not a religion. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Brett T. Robinson is the author of Appletopia:Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs . He is a Visiting Professor of Marketing in the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. 

The views expressed in this column belong to Brett Robinson.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Buddhism • Media • Meditation • Movies • Opinion • Technology

soundoff (974 Responses)
  1. tommaegdlin

    This is the worst CNN article I have ever read. It is just that simple.

    August 19, 2013 at 12:44 am |
  2. Reality

    Just received this on my new iPhone:

    The Apostles'/Agnostics’/Atheists' Creed 2013: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    (references used are available upon request)

    August 19, 2013 at 12:32 am |
  3. dikelmm1


    August 19, 2013 at 12:23 am |
  4. Haha

    Whoa trippy man, my iPod was hatched out of an acid trip.

    August 19, 2013 at 12:11 am |
  5. SkepticalOne

    What a rambling pile of drivel. I suspect the author has been heavily influenced by LSD as well.

    August 18, 2013 at 11:55 pm |
  6. Thomas T.

    Streve jobs should have been known as the great stealer of all time. Good artists copy great artists steal and he amited stealing his work. Thou shall not steal so in my mind his in hell where the guy belongs.

    August 18, 2013 at 11:40 pm |
    • tallulah13

      The man gave millions to children's hospitals without fanfare or publicity. He was a very good businessman who created a product that was quite popular. What have you done with your life?

      August 18, 2013 at 11:52 pm |
    • troy

      This "stealing" meme is totally over-hyped. Where is the evidence of apples copying? It has become such a repeated story, that the trust has become obscured. Check-out the Xerox Alto UI: nothing, NOTHING like what apple invented with windowing, folders, menus, quickdraw, etc, etc, etc. Apple took some rough kernels of an idea from Xerox, paid them in stock, and turned it into a 30 year long revolution in computing. They did it again with the iPad/iPhone.

      August 19, 2013 at 1:05 am |
    • skytag

      Unlike Bill Gates, who made his fortune selling only things he invented himself, right?

      August 19, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
      • Doobs

        You have to admit that the Bill Gates model of releasing a half baked, bug-filled, piece of shit operating system, then letting the end users find and report all the bugs to Microcrap was pretty brill.

        Why spend the time and money to build a quality OS when you can do a half assed job and still sell millions of licenses?

        August 20, 2013 at 1:15 am |
  7. rogue351

    Yes one of the most innovative, self centered ego manics of our time. Jobs contributed a lot to culture and technology. However the fact remains forever imbedded in the history books he could carless about anyone but himself. Not really a good role model for a generation. Almost as bad as nearly every athlete that has played in the last 20 years. And to top off the Jobs legacy they had one of, if not the WORST actor ever to make a dollar on a film, play is rolle on the big screen. A fitting disgrace for greedy man that could care less if anyone else that worked just as hard and as long made a dime. Job is not an icon. He a lesson for how to build a company, how not to treat people. And how getting everything you ever want makes no difference after you die. Job could have done much much more to help people than he did, especially those close to him. A lesson not an Icon. CEO in the United States still are not getting it. Yes they are getting the money by the truck loads. However if no one can make enough to afford food, housing and trasportaion what makes these guys think anyone will but what they are selling, especially when they are still sending thousands of jobs to China.

    August 18, 2013 at 11:22 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      That rant must have been building for a while! I've been there, too.

      August 18, 2013 at 11:25 pm |
      • hharri

        Who the fvck knows or cares? The stupidity of the content of your posts is only matched by the stupidity of where you choose to post them.

        at a girl Cpt. Obvious

        Who the fvck knows or cares? The stupidity of the content of your posts is only matched by the stupidity of where you choose to post them.

        at a girl

        August 18, 2013 at 11:29 pm |
      • hharri

        running doesn't help.

        your life goes by without being lived

        looking back on the years you've tried to escape your murderous rage, do you see any progress by escaping?

        vent your rage

        August 18, 2013 at 11:31 pm |
    • Athy

      Could "carless" or couldn't "carless." Which is it? Or couldn't you "carless?"

      August 18, 2013 at 11:26 pm |
    • tallulah13

      The millions of dollars that Steve Jobs gave to children's hospitals and AIDS research, without publicity or fanfare, proves you a liar. But you just go on and hate him.

      August 18, 2013 at 11:54 pm |
  8. Jim Lee

    Steve Jobs didn't do sh it.

    August 18, 2013 at 11:17 pm |
  9. Jason

    *yawn*...dude, what's your rambling point? get an editor.

    August 18, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
  10. Ed


    August 18, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
  11. Mythbuster

    Wow ... The Good Drug that Brett Robinson took !!! writing like this shows the counter productive side effects of taking drugs ! I recommend that this author takes more time for navel gazing cause he will waste less of the internet resource staring at that instead of writing nonsense against imagined society's ills ?

    August 18, 2013 at 10:49 pm |
  12. Billy

    Brett..........you got too much free time their buddy to "ponder" things ??

    August 18, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
  13. mutanttruth

    "The Apple religion is not a religion at all."

    Hm. I don't know anyone who thinks it is. So, you're claiming people should stop calling it what they're not calling it?

    Do you often invent things to oppose?

    August 18, 2013 at 10:23 pm |
    • lol?? Pithiest, YES!!

      The power to license wheels is the power to destroy them. One could argue it's a restraint of trade.

      August 18, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
    • Richard Bachman

      I was thinking the same thing. That's the first time I've heard of it being a religion. Next up? How Elvis didn't build the pyramids.

      August 19, 2013 at 12:28 am |
  14. Ved

    This is one of the most pointless and ridiculous things I have ever had the misfortune of reading. This is pointless rambling for the sake of rambling. It is something only a narcissistic egotistical bigot would write.

    August 18, 2013 at 10:17 pm |
    • DerDicht


      August 18, 2013 at 10:25 pm |
  15. lol?? Pithiest, YES!!

    Any of the socies seen a nickel candybar lately?? See what happens when those FOUNDATIONS corner the poverty market!

    August 18, 2013 at 10:13 pm |
  16. lol?? Pithiest, YES!!

    Pez Company has produced many flavors of candy over the years, some much more popular than others. The list includes: Apple,..............................

    August 18, 2013 at 10:04 pm |
  17. Jubei

    Religious beliefs between people of all races, culture or demographics usually results in mass death, destruction and persecution. Persecution leading to torture, slavery or both if you can't be indoctrinated. Your right. Steve Jobs/Apple is not a religion. It's a revolution that moved ideas and how we all work and play into a new and actually fun era.

    August 18, 2013 at 10:02 pm |
    • lol?? Pithiest, YES!!

      Wegodians are everywhere.

      August 18, 2013 at 10:05 pm |
  18. amy

    Apple is not a religion, it's actually useful.

    August 18, 2013 at 9:49 pm |
    • CGAW

      Yes, when the technology works but the human spirit is not limited like machines and the physical world. I will trust in I and other humans and God, while you trust in iMachines – so sad.

      August 18, 2013 at 10:02 pm |
      • skytag

        He said nothing about trusting in machines. It's sad you have to think that way about people, and perhaps sadder still you have to put your trust in something there is no evidence it even exists.

        August 18, 2013 at 10:04 pm |
        • nonfattery

          skytag is so right, ALL RELIGIONS ARE FAUX RELIGIONS!

          August 18, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
      • SkepticalOne

        Other humans will lie to you and God is a myth.

        August 18, 2013 at 11:53 pm |
    • JFM1973

      I love you.

      August 18, 2013 at 10:02 pm |
  19. JFM1973


    August 18, 2013 at 9:42 pm |
  20. Nick Todd

    I just hope I live long enough to voice my opinion about Brett Robinson after he's dead and gone.Get a life.

    August 18, 2013 at 9:35 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.