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. Supercatholic

    Jobs was self centered piece of garbage who inspired a lot of hapless sorts who need to be led because they have nothing of their own. Thos is not a bad article and that's new for CNN. Thanks for further justifying my dislike of Jobs and Apple.I can't believe I felt bad for this guy when he died.

    August 18, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Steve Jobs gave millions to children's hospitals. Unlike christians, he didn't need publicity, praise or rewards to do so. He did it because he believed it was the right thing to do.

      You, on the other hand, read an opinion piece and to take what you were told as factual truth. Apparently, rather than seek true answers for yourself, you happily let someone else form your opinions for you. No wonder you are a "super catholic".

      August 18, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
      • hharri

        Raunchy but overdone

        August 18, 2013 at 7:00 pm |
    • kenny

      and yet all you need is the bribe of eternal life in paradise to be a good person... most of the time....

      August 18, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
      • hharri

        That's rage?

        August 18, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
  2. hharri

    toning down the nature of your comments protracts the inevitable

    August 18, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
  3. Les

    This piece was the best laugh I had all day. I cannot imagine that ANYONE would take this seriously. If I didn't know better, I would think it was an article from The Onion!

    August 18, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
    • Akira

      Brett Robinson sounds extremely envious to me. I have to wonder if he worked for Samsung, lol...

      August 18, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
  4. tallulah13

    It's like crazy people have taken over this blog. Unreal.

    August 18, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
    • Akira

      No kidding. It seems to be a month long full-moon.

      August 18, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
    • Athy

      Where's that monitor guy when we need him?

      August 18, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
      • skytag

        No kidding. It would appear no one at CNN is paying any attention to this forum given some of the spam garbage that isn't being deleted.

        August 18, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
    • hharri

      That's the problem. It is old and doesn't fool anyone except you. You think it works

      August 18, 2013 at 7:05 pm |
      • tallulah13

        Speaking of crazy people...

        August 18, 2013 at 7:21 pm |
  5. kuhihiuhiuhuhhihihh


    August 18, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
  6. hharri

    the new testament
    the testimony of millions
    the inner working of god

    August 18, 2013 at 6:30 pm |
    • hharri

      if you explode you hatred, your eyes and heart and brain will open

      August 18, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
  7. Steven Brooks


    You're spouting a bunch of nonsense, and what's more is that you are motivated by a made-for-TV movie that was given a last minute theatrical release. It's not as though the film had any co-operation from anyone from Apple or from those who knew Jobs. Why mention that movie as though it is something revered by those who are fans of Apple products?

    You also fall into the trap of buying into the falsehood that there are more than a relative handful of people in the world who 'worship' Apple. Silly opinion piece, all around.

    August 18, 2013 at 6:24 pm |
  8. fdyfdghfghsdfgsdfg


    August 18, 2013 at 6:20 pm |
  9. hharri

    captain america
    Derrick Yu
    One one
    Cpt. Obvious
    Bible Clown©
    Brother Maynard
    I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV
    Dyslexic doG
    another good reason to ignore Christians
    another good reason to ignore Christians
    On the belt buckleof millions of Nazi soldiers
    This long-dead horse apparently needs flogging again
    Christian Motto
    Open the pod bay door
    Rodents for Romney
    Cpt. Obvious
    Open the pod bay door
    Rodents for Romney
    Cpt. Obvious
    Rodents for Romney
    My Dog is a jealous Dog
    Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear
    Bill Jamieson
    Cthulhu Cultist
    Tom, Tom, the Other One
    The Floppy and Stunningly Ineffective Zombie Apocalypse of Cluckles the Boneless Chicken

    no one condemns you, (except you?) just let go of the hatred. it is suffocating you.

    August 18, 2013 at 6:20 pm |
    • Observer

      So now we know that "faith" and "hharri" are the same. Can't blame "faith" for changing the name since it was so hypocritical.

      August 18, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
    • tallulah13

      hharri (or whoever you are):
      Let go of your religious delusions. They're blinding you.

      August 18, 2013 at 6:38 pm |
    • skytag

      I didn't see my name on the list at first. Had me worried there for a while.

      Seek professional help, fruitcake.

      August 18, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
      • Observer


        At least your name was spelled correctly. I'm not sure if that's good or bad. It all borders on insanity anyway.

        August 18, 2013 at 6:59 pm |
        • skytag

          He misspelled your name! What a hoot. The guy must be a real mental case to even have such a list.

          August 18, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
        • Observer


          Yep. For some people, even "cut and paste" is too complicated to understand.

          August 18, 2013 at 8:29 pm |
  10. fdyfdghfghsdfgsdfg


    August 18, 2013 at 6:18 pm |
  11. fdyfdghfghsdfgsdfg

    shut up garbage of lcia51 im busie

    August 18, 2013 at 6:17 pm |
  12. Trickles

    CNN has reached a new low on the stupidest crap I've ever read on this site.

    August 18, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
    • Steven Brooks

      Agreed, 100%.

      August 18, 2013 at 6:20 pm |
  13. fdyfdghfgh


    August 18, 2013 at 6:15 pm |
  14. fdyfdghfgh


    August 18, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
  15. skytag

    @Bob Bales: "Skytag: Yet you apparently believe that Christians should accept atheists' statements as to what something means."

    Another straw man. I never said that. Boring.

    "Also, you say "Given the complete lack of objective, verifiable evidence for God's existence I think..." This is not a given, but just your opinion."

    No, this is a fact. If it isn't then feel free to present your evidence all of us can examine and verify. In my experience, and as one who was a Christian for four decades, all of the "evidence" is of a personal nature, subject to personal biases and interpretations, and typically based on feelings and emotions, which are unreliable mechanisms for discerning between true and falsehood because they are so easily manipulated.

    "Regarding God's supposed incompetence causing Him to have to destroy the world: no part of the conditions of the world that led to its destruction was the result of God's actions."

    Did he not create man in his image? Is he not responsible for man's nature, intellect, instincts, emotions, ability to comprehend things of the Spirit, discern truth from falsehood, and every other trait that makes man what he is? Is he not responsible for Satan and Satan's power to tempt and corrupt man?

    God set up the whole human race thing including the kind of beings that would populate it, the conditions under which they would live, the challenges to their understanding of God, the temptations and challenges they would face, the whole nine yards.

    God's decisions to destroy all human beings in the flood save eight is clear evidence man as God created him originally was seriously flawed, and based on the evidence of history the second attempt hasn't turned out much better.

    August 18, 2013 at 6:12 pm |
    • hharri


      August 18, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
  16. lamelionheart


    August 18, 2013 at 5:58 pm |
  17. skytag

    @Bob Bales: "Skytag: You seem to think that reading the original language to determine what something means is suspect."

    You seem to like straw man arguments, which are intellectually dishonest. Why would a real Christian use a dishonest argument?

    I say what I mean and I mean what I say. You should resist the temptation to think I mean something I didn't say, and I never said there was anything wrong with reading the original language to get the most accurate understanding of a passage in the Bible. My point, which was clear, is that this technique is used selectively by Christians. If they like what the Bible says as is, they use it as is. If they don't, they go to the original to see if they can find a meaning they like better, or they declare that passage is allegorical, or they claim it doesn't apply anymore or some such thing.

    But this "go back to the original" thing raises a point of concern for me. If the Bible is "the Word of God," the basis of Christianity and the go-to source of understanding for all Christians, translated by men inspired by God, it seems to me its intent should always be clear to anyone who reads it, not just people who know Greek and have access to the original writings.

    While it may be a relatively simple matter for someone such as yourself in a developed country today to find what Biblical scholars have to say when these issues arise, that's a relatively recent development, and it's information that still isn't universally available even today.

    So basically what this means is that the vast majority of Christians over the centuries the Bible has existed have had to make do with what the Bible says, sans scholarly examinations of versions in the original languages. If it's your position that an accurate understanding of the Bible is only possible if one reads it in the original languages then my position is that the Bible the vast majority of Christians read is seriously flawed and inherently untrustworthy as a source of understanding.

    August 18, 2013 at 5:57 pm |
  18. Peter Ras

    I can't believe a writer actually took the time to write a meaningless, absolutely meaningless, opinion piece. Bret, you must have something better to do with your time!

    August 18, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
    • Razz Peter

      Hey, he got paid for it, you read it, it got hundreds of comments, and lots of people viewed the ads. CNN and the author are happy campers now even though you lose.

      August 18, 2013 at 6:10 pm |
  19. proud atheist

    Apple is not a religion? DUH. Jobs was not a prophet? DUH. Apple is a company and Jobs was a businessman. End of story.

    August 18, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
  20. Is...

    ...hharri Austin or faith? I cannot tell, but the style is familiar, and nonsensical; makes up nicknames for people it disagrees with, but never explains why they're disagreeing...I vote for the poster faith myself.

    August 18, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
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About this blog

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.