In anticipation of the publication of Fabricating Identities (Equinox, 2017), Dr. Richard Newton introduced his REL101 students to selections from the volume. Students read pieces by editor Dr. Russell T. McCutcheon, contributor Dr. Vaia Touna (both at the University of Alabama), as well as a contribution from Newton. Elizabethtown College student Brady Morgan examined the way “religion” can function as a social technology for building products, communities, and experiences with which people will want to identify. Special thanks to Culture on the Edge for providing us an early look at the volume.
When is the last time you looked at your phone? Perhaps right before you read this? Maybe it’s in your hand right now. A study conducted by Allen Downing at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts makes the conclusion that the dramatic drop in religious affiliation in the U.S. since 1990 is closely mirrored by the increase in Internet use. His study links this effect to a variety of underlying reasons, including the ability to experience more points of view.
But there is something interesting being overlooked. Religion as a term for activities or beliefs that people take part in is not losing members due to the issues mentioned in Downing’s study. In fact, humans are simply picking up an additional form of or even converting to a new religion; a religion centered around the mystical body of electricity that connects us all. What’s interesting about this is that it is being done through the same methods by which we were originally drawn to the institutionalized religions previously worshipped. Technology has been introduced into society in a way that appealed to us so much that it has exacerbated our quest for enlightenment and desire for an extension of ourselves. The trick is that we aren’t always aware it’s happening. But due to the work of several visionaries and namely, Steve Jobs, a large percentage of Americans today “take part in a mobile private and anonymous ritual practice.”
Jobs’s childhood was not the most ordinary. In conjunction with his young adult life, it led him to develop and search for the beliefs that would effect his management of Apple and evangelization of his idea. He was given up for adoption quickly after his birth in 1955 and started Apple with Wozniak in 1976. After leaving college, he left the country to pursue enlightenment in India with the help of some psychedelic drugs. They agreed that Wozniak had more experience with computer design, but Jobs was the mind behind how they would embark on the journey that would lead them to being accredited as making personal computers affordable (the first was sold for an ironic $666.66).
Despite the early success, Apple fell short of IBM until 1984, when the Macintosh changed how people saw personal computers. Jobs’s Zen background led him to avoid thinking about technology and spirituality separately. His goal was to allow for further progression of the human experience, of which he thought widely-available technology would allow for. Throughout Apple’s early campaign, nearly every ad had possessed an undertone of knowledge coming from technology and this knowledge allowing for the path to enlightenment. (It’s no coincidence that the company was deemed Apple, the stereotypically biblical knowledge-giving fruit.) Jobs knew that to influence as many people as he wished and to truly make progress with his goal, he needed to appeal to more than facts. In a conversation with his marketing director Jobs said, “We don’t stand a chance of advertising with features and benefits and with RAMs and with charts and comparisons, the only chance we have of communicating is with a feeling… Yeah, we say it’s a cult, and then we say, hey, drink the Kool-Aid.”
Jobs’ use of paradoxical slogans was a key way of making his products appeal to people as more than fancy machines. It is documented that Jobs was a well-known fan of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which seems to be the source of his inspiration for paradoxes. Jobs knew that technology was a powerful medium and, without the restraint signified by Heaven in Blake’s’ piece, could breed an addiction. This type of addiction is dangerous because it can be powerful enough to create a new identity.
The danger is more clear when, as McCutcheon writes, “what is said to be an identity (a noun, naming a seemingly static item) is no longer seen as the source but is always understood as the result of identity claims/acts and counter claims/acts.” The issue in this discussed example is that if an identity is so ubiquitous as Apple’s enthrallment was, it can prevent us from realizing our conversion. Then instead of being a tool for our own development, this technology, to build on Newton’s observation about how names seem to inherently give us identity, would act as your one friend who moves the piece on the oujia board pretending to be a spirit.
The use of popular religious undertones also served as a powerful conduit for Jobs’ proselytization. In contingence with the aforementioned logo explanation, the 2007 slogan was “Touching is Believing” (a shout out to Thomas the Apostle) and was accompanied by an image eerily similar to Michelangelo’s “Creation of Man.” Additionally, Jobs played into the message taught in the Greek myth of Narcissus claiming that men instantly become fascinated by extensions of themselves. People have even argued that this played a huge role in religions like Christianity based on the claim that we are made in the image and likeness of God. Jobs set out to make his devices as humanlike as possible, and this leaves little doubt that being able to talk to our phones increases its grasp on us. It is because of this that the effort previously used for religious perseverance and worship of major institutions commonly spoken of as religion is now used to speak to our phones. All the while, the most devoted of us congregate together as a community awaiting a new product to launch and act as a new conduit to divinity.
The most powerful example of this evangelization is the 1984 Super Bowl ad by Apple, seen below.
The ad directly references the novel and film 1984 which involves a dystopian society ruled by the figure head, “Big Brother,” where technology was only accessible to him. The ad itself shows an athlete evading captivity and throwing a hammer at a massive screen of Big Brother talking while many identity-less minions watched and then bathed in the new-found knowledge as the screen broke. This ad was only aired one time and never mentions the product for which it was made, yet it is incredibly powerful. It perfectly falls in line with the idea that Jobs wanted to overcome the border of technology being scarce and to make it available for everyone. He wanted this to allow for the progressive development of our own identities. This progressive development, discussed well by Touna, is a large part of everybody’s life and reflects fluctuating view points and beliefs possessed by us throughout our lives. Apple’s Macintosh, the product the ad was for, would allow for people to develop their new name. All the while they were creating their shared name as a new group while Jobs was establishing his name as a prophet.
Jobs’s genius was his understanding that even the computer was really about people and that, therefore, his company could allow for a transcendent transformation. A type of transformation discussed by Charles Long as being fundamental for the nature of religion because of the positive and progressive feeling instituted by it. If rising Internet and technology usage is accounting for the major religion disaffiliation, Jobs is surely St. Paul reincarnate. It is no simple analogy that Jobs is compared to Paul either, as it was through the very methods he used to evangelize, and through appealing to the person, their fascination with themselves, and focusing on their progression that allowed Apple to establish its foothold as the new religious institution to which we pledge allegiance– a god worshipped not through prayer but in every iMessage we send. Let’s just hope our Heaven is enough to prevent our Hell from running rampant.
 Allen Downing, How the Internet Is Taking Away America’s Religion. (MIT Technology Review, 2014).
 Paul O. Myhre, “What is Religion?” Introduction to Religious Studies, ed. Paul O. Myhre (Anselm Academic, 2009), 8.
 Brett Robinson, “How Steve Jobs Turned Technology – and Apple – into Religion,” Wired, August 8, 2013, https://www.wired.com/2013/08/how-jobs-turned-technology-and-media-into-religion/
 Chris O’Brien, “How Steve Jobs and Apple turned technology into a religion,” Los Angeles Times, September 1, 2013, http://articles.latimes.com/2013/sep/01/business/la-fi-tn-how-steve-jobs-and-apple-turned-technology-into-our-religion-20130829.
 Robinson, How Steve Jobs Turned Technology – and Apple – into Religion.
 O’Brien, How Steve Jobs and Apple turned technology into a religion.
 Robinson, How Steve Jobs Turned Technology – and Apple – into Religion.
 Russell McCutcheon, “Introduction,” Fabricating Identities, ed. Russell T. McCutcheon (Equinox, 2017).
 Richard Newton, “Naaaaaw You Show Me Your ID,” Fabricating Identities ed. Russell T. McCutcheon (Equinox, 2017).
 “Steve Jobs Biography,” Bio., last modified September 24, 2015. http://www.biography.com/people/steve-jobs-9354805
 Vaia Touna, “Who are You? I’m Vaia and I’m Touna,” Fabricating Identities, ed. Russell T. McCutcheon (Equinox, 2017).
 Charles H. Long, “Perspectives for the Study of Afro-American Religion,” History of Religions 11.1 (August 1971), 60
Brady Morgan is a junior at Elizabethtown College ’18. He is a Biology: Pre-Medicine major.