Everyone seems to be talking about Steve Jobs’ death yesterday (Wednesday, October 5, 2011). Even President Obama. I figured that there was absolutely nothing I could add to the discussion that was in any way related to Apple or Steve Jobs, but then I thought about the whole cult angle.
We rarely see cults in regards to astronomy, geology, or physics, but they do occasionally crop up. The Heaven’s Gate cult – the group that committed suicide because they believed a space ship was behind Comet Hale-Bopp – is the one most often cited for astronomy “what’s the harm?” questions.
I thought I’d give my readers my opinion about cults, what qualifies as a cult, and whether anything going on now-a-days in astronomy would qualify in my opinion.
First, on Apple and Me
I’m a Mac guy. A friend in college called me the “Mac Daddy” and I was effectively her tech support. I was the Mac club’s secretary for a year and VP another year. I have owned three Apple laptops and two Apple desktops in this millennium, and I have owned two iPod classics, two nanos, and one Touch. I will very likely be getting an iPad version 3 when it comes out next year. I have a few t-shirts (all given to me for free) and one jacket (again, free). I use two Microsoft programs only (Word and Excel) except I had to load up Windows via Parallels for the work I do since GIS products on the Mac are absolutely horrible.
That said, I do not consider myself “in the cult of Apple / Steve Jobs.” Why? I’ll get into the exact reasons a bit more specifically below, but for now, there are several reasons. Mainly, I am not blinded by devotion to the brand/products.
I find many faults with the software: I hate how 10.7 is merging with the iOS as I’m a power user and need actual access to things other than “apps;” I don’t like the whole “apps” shortening; iAm sick of iPrefixes; Apple’s version of a lot of software (Aperture, Pages, Numbers) I think is a poor substitute for the other brands.
I find faults with the hardware, mainly the price and subsequent huge profit margin for Apple (their RAM is well over 2x as expensive as any competition). And their veil of secrecy and tactics to maintain it are obnoxious and may be illegal (that whole thing where Apple employees convinced the SF PD to get them to someone’s house where they searched for a missing prototype thing? I hope the guy wins a massive settlement).
I put all that there because I wanted to lay my cards on the table. I’m a fan of Apple products, but I find them far from perfect and I do not consider Steve Jobs – alive or dead – my Dear Leader.
What’s a Cult?
Many people smarter than I and actually having degrees rather than a four-fifths-finished minor in psychology have studied and written about cults. I’ll direct you RationalWiki for a more thorough discussion if you’re interested.
In the end, though, it’s a spectrum. And different people have different definitions and different qualifiers for when they consider something to be a cult. For example, at what point is a system of beliefs a “religion” versus a “cult?” In the play and movie “Angels in America,” the line goes something like, “Any religion younger than a few thousand years is just a cult” (that was paraphrased, I don’t remember the exact line). Many Christians still consider Mormons to be a cult*, and I know at least one Jew who considers Christians to be a cult.
*Edited to Add: A day after I wrote this blog post, this article was in the New York Times: Perry Ally Calls Mormonism ‘a Cult’.
In my book, though, I look for a few specific things:
- Is there a charismatic leader who people believe without thought?
- Do they try to isolate you from anyone outside of it?
- Do they have different beliefs at different levels, especially those inside versus outside?
That’s really it — I look for three things. I try to keep it simple. I know on some lists there are over 60. Maybe a fourth on my list would be “are former members talked incredibly negatively about, to the point of encouraging harmful acts against them?”
Now, granted, MANY of other peoples’ items fit into my first, such as “the leader is always right,” “the leader is beyond reproach,” “the leader has a direct line of communication with the divine,” “the leader’s dictates are absolute” … that sort of thing.
When you put these together, no, I was/am not in a cult. And I think very few people would ever consider Apple to be a legitimate cult under most psychological/social definitions of a cult.
Are There Astronomy-Related Cults Today?
I’m sure there are a few VERY small ones out there. They will usually crop up around a predicted astronomical event that is observed, such as what happened with Hale-Bopp. People who follow the idea of the “Hopi Blue Star Prophecy” may possibly qualify, in time, if a leader emerges to capitalize on it. However, I think that this type of cult could be lumped into the category of general “doomsday cults,” it just so happens that there’s something in the sky that is part of their belief system.
UFO cults actually occasionally crop up, though even those would rarely fit more than one of the criteria I look for. These usually center around a single individual or pair who claim to have had an extraterrestrial encounter. Their story touches people and the people giving the story are usually highly charismatic and seem sincere.
Betty and Barney Hill are a good example, where for many years, despite their story changing, people believed everything they said. Even today, they have a “sort of” cult following where people think that they represent the most convincing evidence for alien abductions. This is despite that later in life they were highly marginalized by the UFO community, to the point where Betty Hill was nearly jeered off the stage at a convention several years ago.
If you’ve made it this far, pat yourself on the back. This post was more a stream-of-consciousness and thanks for coming along for the ride.
Getting back to the beginning and the news du jour, I think that Steve Jobs co-founded a great company, brought it back from the brink of failure in the mid-1990s, and oversaw some amazing product developments. I hope that Apple will be able to continue to innovate as before even without his leadership.