Your iPhone Might Be Making You Less Religious

New studies show the first commandment may need to be revised: “Thou shalt have no other brands before me.”

When Guy Kawasaki became Apple Computer’s chief evangelist in 1983, he didn’t mess around with the evangelism part. He even attended the Billy Graham School of Evangelism to learn the tricks of the persuasion trade from the greatest religion persuader of modern times.

Today, “evangelist” is a commonplace term in the business world, and it’s just one small aspect of the ways big business and consumer culture are intersecting with religion. Psychologists, social scientists, and business scholars are taking this intersection more and more seriously — and with little of the nonchalance of a young Kawasaki looking for a marketing edge among the fire-and-brimstone brethren.

Previous academic studies have found that faithful Protestants are more likely to shop for deals versus brands, that “brand evangelists” actually do function a lot like Christian missionaries, and that the whole “church of Apple” thing is not just a joke or a useful metaphor — the obsessive Apple fan community really does exhibit many features of a religious community.

Steve Jobs and one of his religious icons.

Likewise, a new paper titled “Finding Brands and Losing Your Religion” (pdf) in the Journal of Experimental Psychology opens with some lines you might not expect to find in a business journal: “What leads individuals to turn their backs on an omnipresent God? Another omnipresent force may be a viable culprit: brand name products.” The four authors hail from some of the top business schools in the world — Keisha M. Cutright at Wharton, Tülin Erdem at Stern, Gavan J. Fitzsimons at Fuqua, and Ron Shachar at Arison (in Israel). In recent years, these scholars have been examining what the religion and business intersection mean for people who practice either or both.

In this latest study, the scholars posit that lifestyle brands like Apple, Nike, Starbucks, and Harley-Davidson — brands that are “highly salient” — may lead people to disassociate from their religious faith. To test the hypothesis, they conducted three different tests designed to measure levels of commitment to religion. “We were trying to figure out whether people expressing themselves with brands [has] any impact on how committed they are to religious activities and behaviors,” says Cutright.

She says it’s become a popular truism that “branding is overriding people’s religious beliefs,” so she and her colleagues wanted “to see if we could see that in the data.” And sure enough: “When people are using brands to say something about their identity, then they tell us that they are less religious.”

Why might this be?

Brands help you express who you are — so religion doesn’t have to

“Style” is something more substantive than we normally give it credit for. Lifestyle brands like Nike, Burton, and Apple — as opposed to functional brands like Dell and Hoover — help us express who we are, or who we aspire to be. As a 2010 study in the journal Marketing Science puts it, “brands allow people to express that they are meaningful, worthwhile beings, and deserving of good things in their lives.”

Of course, religion is about more than self expression, but people do use religion to tell themselves and the world who they are or want to be. Religious belief is not just an inward feeling; it’s a projection of the self onto the world. So religious identity and personal style are linked.

“Religious identity is a little less stable than we would like for it to be,” says Cuthright. The results of this current study “suggest we have to be more careful about the things we’re using to express ourselves to make sure it’s not replacing important things that are supposed to be sacred to us.”

People want to be honest about the problem of materialism

While “Finding Brands and Losing Your Religion” does not address this issue directly, Cutright says that one insight she gleaned is that “people want to feel as if they are very consistent” — they intuit that being religious and being stylish are in conflict, so they’ll indicate a decline of religious affiliation in light of their embrace of name brands.

“When they are using Apple or Nike to express who they are, it feels more self-oriented or materialistic,” says Cutright. “So they don’t simultaneously say, ‘Hey, I’m a big brand person, and I’m also religious.'” People aren’t fooling themselves — they know here’s an inherent tension between materialism and faith.

Cutright acknowledges that the audience she and her colleagues studied are “lower in terms of levels of religiosity” than, say, your average megachurch attendee. “It would be nice to get results from a large group of very religious people, who may look at these brands and not even consider them to be relevant ways in terms of how they express themselves.” On the other hand, says Cutright, “we may see even more movement from highly religious folks, just because they have more room to move.”

Patton Dodd
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  • bakabomb

    These results strike me pretty much as expected for a study that originated in the secular sector (3 of the 4 sponsoring institutions are business schools). Its big flaw (from this churchgoer’s viewpoint) is that it tosses vastly different world religions — not to say Christian denominations! — all together into one, big, plain, unbranded bag of generic “religion”. It seems there was little thought given to “brand recognition” and “brand affiliation” as it relates to the portion of the study that addresses “religion”.

    It’s a little like a study that tests “Wendy’s hamburgers”, “Burger King hamburgers”, “Nathan’s hot dogs”, and “Boar’s Head hot dogs” against — generic “pizza”. Hellooo! Pizza has brand recognition just as much as hamburgers and hot dogs do. Any study that fails to take “religious brand affiliation” into account in its design is barely worth consideration. All the analytical rigor, all the p-values of <0.001, can't make up for a design that's deficient a priori.

    And evidently no thought at all was given to differentiating "religious" versus "spiritual" practice. It's all thrown together willy-nilly, like the toppings on a no-name frozen pizza.

    The results are interesting, I'll admit, but scarcely conclusive or determinative. What's actually more interesting is to study apples and apples: the growing SBNR phenomenon ("spiritual but not religious"). Congregations that want to prosper in the current climate should look more closely at attracting the SBNRs rather than worrying about whether the congregation would prefer more iPhone users or Android users.

    I recommend Linda Mercadante's recent book, "Beliefs without Borders", as an excellent introduction to the SBNR phenomenon.