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. Tim Connelly

    Another CNN article in the Belief blog that slams religious belief, and provides yet another platform for the liberals and conservatives to pee on each other's shoes. In other words, business as usual.

    August 19, 2013 at 7:50 am |
    • Ryan Vandenberg

      Saying that Apple isn't a religion is a slam on religion? Either you didn't read the whole article, or you didn't comprehend it.

      August 19, 2013 at 7:57 am |
      • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

        Ryan, Tim is what happens when Applebots try to look at anything not controlled by Cupertino, or that is critical in any way of St. Stephen of Jobs.

        August 19, 2013 at 8:10 am |
    • truthprevails1

      Another christian feeling persecuted...how sad-NOT!!! Get over it...you people are just getting what you've been dishing out to all others for thousands of years.

      August 19, 2013 at 8:48 am |
  2. Thomas

    "Faux religion" is redundant.

    August 19, 2013 at 7:37 am |
  3. iBookmaster

    Who cares what religion he was in? No, Apple was not a religion but, had a following almost like one. The main point to Steve Jobs to me was he was a genius. He was fired by the very company he co founded. Later begged to come back and turned the company in to the best company in the world. Haters can say what they want but, he helped create the best computer products on the planet. People love them, can't wait for the next versions of them and he knew how to make huge profits. These things are things other computer companies struggle to do. For someone who was adopted, he was as successful as you can get.

    August 19, 2013 at 7:36 am |
  4. Jesus was a space alien

    Steve Jobs passion was inventing products he thought would change peoples lives. He probably was not the nicest person to work for but so are many other CEO's. Job's may have been influenced by Buddhist teachings, however, religion was not his driving force. In the end Apple is a technology company and not a religion.

    August 19, 2013 at 7:21 am |
  5. applefan

    Looks like the article is just another round of Apple Hating by an Apple Hater. I'm sure the same type of cr@p can be said about Microsucks.

    August 19, 2013 at 7:13 am |
  6. Emmett O'Riley

    I just counted all the bibles and apple products in my house. ZERO. Maybe I'm too smart to fall for the marketing of at least one of these products.

    August 19, 2013 at 6:59 am |
  7. Soapy Smith

    What is the difference between an iPod and a bird? They both can fly except for the iPod.

    August 19, 2013 at 6:37 am |
  8. Jack of all trades

    Why the cult worship of Jobs by Applebots? He crushed unions, he hired 250000 Chinese workers, he was cruel to his own child, he was nasty to employees, he was not a nice guy. Bill Gates has at least given 34 BILLION to the world through his foundation. I never understood this insane worship of Jobs....but maybe I do. These same idiots now worship all that is Obama.

    August 19, 2013 at 6:26 am |
    • truthprevails1

      An Obama hater...how cute...bet you love Bush and the repubiltards though. There is no comparison between Jobs and Obama and honestly, this article had nothing to do with Obama, so take your hate to an Anti-Obama site.

      August 19, 2013 at 6:43 am |
  9. robertfallin

    When I worked at Gulfstream, the only VIP whose name evoked dread during his visits was Steve Jobs. I was fortunate enough to never meet him; but, after reading Steve Wozniak's comments at another website, I now believe it is really true, that apple lost it soul when Wozniak left and the "Prince of Darkness" had complete control.

    August 19, 2013 at 5:50 am |
  10. John Smith

    The Apple logo was not intended as a religious statement so much as trying to rip off The Beatles. They were nobodies, trying insinuate the Beatles were associated with them.

    As for Apple being a religion, however, that's very close to actuality. Brain scans of techies talking about their equipment is apparently very similar to those of fervent religious believers, discussing religion. There's little room for genuine self-criticism, it's taken for granted that Apple is good.

    August 19, 2013 at 5:32 am |
    • Sara

      Oh, for goodness sake, there are only so many ways to symbolize a damn apple.

      August 19, 2013 at 6:45 am |
  11. ltjx

    Did APPLE ever claim to be a religion? Or did Steve Jobs ever claim to be a prophet? I would say that Brett Robinson has simply come to do battle against "straw men" of his own creation.

    If APPLE ever fought against religion, I would say that it had less to do with Jesus and more to do with "Big Blue" aka IBM, which amounted to a sort of religion among computing professionals from the birth of the industry to the late 1980's, when the PC-revolution started to gain steam (based on what? the IBM PC!). The APPLE crusade was a sometimes lonely attempt to deny IBM a complete monopoly over the new world of "personal computers", as IBM had long achieved in the world of mainframe computers, and to a lesser extent with minicomputers in the 1970's.

    Also, what thinking person has never had any doubts about religion? Good and thoughtful people have long come down on both sides of the question. Is it really so strange for Jobs to express his uncertainty about God? Or does Robinson have air-tight, scientific proof about God and heaven and hell? If so, I would love to see it!

    August 19, 2013 at 3:06 am |
  12. Mopery

    C N N clearly supports the suppression of free speech and expression on their blogs. And now the 2-minutes Hate!

    August 19, 2013 at 3:01 am |
  13. piusIX

    I just hope this guy's company follows him into the grave.

    August 19, 2013 at 2:39 am |
    • ltjx

      What a kind and cheerful thought! Your religion seems to have made you a bit grumpy. Maybe try your luck with another brand – there are plenty to choose from!

      August 19, 2013 at 3:13 am |
  14. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    I guess I'm pleased that none of my various electronic devices are religious artifacts. Or that Steve Jobs has any special standing with a god of any sort. And that now that he is being dead, he will remain that way.

    August 19, 2013 at 2:28 am |
    • Thinker...

      Christianity only gained traction after Jesus died. The thing about dead people; they can never refute the claims of others. If someone can make some money creating a religion with Steve Jobs as its prophet it will happen. In Vegas if nowhere else.

      August 19, 2013 at 8:45 am |
  15. Bob

    Man, this guy Brett Robinson is an idiot!!!

    August 19, 2013 at 2:22 am |
  16. Jack

    I find it interesting that most commenters on this article found it to be a negative piece of writing, with some sort of vendetta against Jobs and the Apple company. Its as if his claim of Apple "not being a religion" serves to demean its importance. Of course, the label of "spiritual" is essentially synonymous with "highly important," I didn't read this article as negative.

    August 19, 2013 at 2:14 am |
  17. skytag

    "The views expressed in this column belong to Brett Robinson."

    As if anyone else would be stupid enough to claim them.

    August 19, 2013 at 1:37 am |
  18. LGM

    Excellent article about a very self centered person that Jobs clearly demonstrated

    August 19, 2013 at 1:22 am |
  19. albie

    It is obviously not a religion - they dont try to force anything down your throat or try to create laws based on their faith based beliefs to force you to live a certain way (all based on some ridiculous book that contradicts itself) they dont tell you that you will burn in hell if you dont listen to them - all religions are destructive and they should be purged

    August 19, 2013 at 1:15 am |
    • drocto

      Re: " they dont [sic] try to force anything down your throat". Now THAT is funny. What exactly are all those advertising dollars for? Persuading you to believe you need something to make you whole. It gets deeper than that, but I'm not going to spend the time here.

      August 19, 2013 at 1:26 am |
    • lol?? Pithiest, YES!!

      What's it all about, albie?
      Is it just for the moment we live?
      What's it all about when you sort it out, albie?
      Are we meant to take more than we give
      or are we meant to be kind?
      And if only fools are kind, albie,
      then I guess it's wise to be cruel.
      And if life belongs only to the strong, albie,
      what will you lend on an old golden rule?

      August 19, 2013 at 1:36 am |
    • Chris

      Yea yea you sound like a baby grow up and stop blaming Christianity for your pain...you Probally hate to see Christians happy..

      August 19, 2013 at 1:58 am |
  20. dee

    After reading this through two times I am left wondering what Brett Robinson was thinking when he wrote this (other than he has issues with Steve Jobs and Apple). This rambling opinion piece never comes together and needs some serious editing.

    August 19, 2013 at 1:01 am |
    • Doobs

      I had the same reaction. It's as if Steve Jobs turned him down for a job in the 90's and he's still pissed about it.

      August 19, 2013 at 1:46 am |
    • Mike

      Couldn't agree with you more, Dee.
      This article is pointless and a waste of time.
      Didn't Mr. Robinson write this article on his "personal computer"?
      According to his blather, I guess that makes him self-centered and narcissistic as well.

      August 19, 2013 at 3:01 am |
    • k

      I can't speak for the author's motives. But I agree that many of the things that Jobs made are all me-centric. It's all me, me, me. This stands in contrast to the tenants of most religions (well, Christian religions anyway) that advocate breaking out of the black hole of ego-centrism and focusing on love, which is willing the good of the other purely for the other person's sake (no ancillary benefit for the individual). In this sense Apple, which can be seen as a barometer of our culture (our purchases measuring what we're about), is like an anti-religion (or faux religion, as the author calls it). It's advocates being an inward looking, while religion advocates being outward looking.

      August 19, 2013 at 4:59 am |
      • Doobs

        I can't think of anything more egocentric than the belief that an omniscient, omnipresent deity raped a young girl so he could sacrifice himself to himself so that I can spend my supposed afterlife groveling to him in gratitude.

        Isn't not going to "hell" an ancillary benefit of Christianity? In fact, isn't that the whole reason for Jeebus' earthly visit?

        Also, it's "tenets", not "tenants".

        August 19, 2013 at 1:04 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.