The Sacred and the iPhone

(Cross-posted from The Philosopher’s Eye)

By Toby Betenson

Since its release, the iPhone has managed to take charge of most of its users’ lives, and now it seems it will take charge of their souls as well. Once a simple device that granted you access to phone calls, text messages, emails, social networking and twitter, the internet, weather forecasts, news and sports results, music, photos, books and other reading materials such as comics and PDFs, simple yet surprisingly addictive gaming, organisational tools such as calendars, notes, lists, and memos, and a wealth of other apps including of course the vital ability to turn your phone screen into a visual representation of a pint of beer which slowly empties as you “drink” it, now the iPhone has ascended to the sacred status of a divinely-endorsed religious tool. Where once the inbuilt google maps (complete with location indicator and integrated compass) enabled the iPhone user to navigate the temporal world trouble free and with contemptuous ease, now “Confession: A Roman Catholic App” – developed by Little iApps and released last week – will enable its user to navigate the inner-world of your conscience, leading you to your desired destination sin free and with, well, perhaps not with contemptuous ease, but at least the iPhone’s functionality has made the journey slightly easier.

“Confession” provides the user with a “personal examination of conscience” that is tailored to each individual penitent. You will receive a different examination of conscience depending on your age, sex, and vocation. You will have the ability to “add sins not listed in standard examination of conscience”, and “choose from seven different acts of contrition”. The app has been released at a price of £1.19, and has received the endorsement of the Catholic Church in the form of an imprimatur given by Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne in Indiana. This means that the app has been deemed to be free from any doctrinal or moral errors, so the developer noted – when interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live – that it would be fairer to say that the Catholic Church does not disapprove, rather than saying that the Catholic Church approves the app. Given the direct line to the divine that the Catholic Church claims, we conclude this app must be endorsed by God!

It is perhaps difficult to come to any conclusions about where this app stands theologically… The developers are at pains to stress that the app is intended as an aid to confession, and is not a substitute for a valid confession; though they have included the allegorical feature of the app ‘deleting’ your sins from its memory once you have completed a valid confession. The distinction between the sacred and the profane is not an easy one to determine. This is by no means the first religious or spiritual app to have been released. I’ve noticed an iPray app in the past; an app that alerts Muslims to localised prayer times (complete with integrated compass function of course). If a book can become sacred, can an iPhone? What if the sacred book is on the iPhone?! If an act of confession is sacred, and that act is partially facilitated by an iPhone app…does the app become partially sacred? Is that sacred status confined within the programme language of the app, or does it extend to the object of the phone? Does the object of the phone remain sacred if it’s then used to play a game in which you slice fruit, or does it rather oscillate between sacred and profane depending on the function being used at the time?!  Of course not, that’s just silly. The latest iPhone operating system allows apps to run in the background…

Emile Durkheim said that the religious and the profane life cannot co-exist in the same place, nor in the same time. One of the greatest virtues of the iPhone is making the use of time more efficient; you check your emails and facebook whilst waiting for a bus; you write a memo whilst taking a phone call; you listen to a podcast whilst reading a book, playing a game, sending a tweet, and navigating your way through town… Can you reflect on your sins and examine your conscience, immediately after, or perhaps even whilst, listening to a podcast, checking your emails, and attempting to catapult some angry birds into a surprisingly resilient fortification?

In case you were wondering: Yes, I do own an iPhone. (And no, I do not own the Confession app. What is the price of a soul? Well, I don’t know, but £1.19 is too much it seems.)

Related Articles:

Incarnation: Metaphysical Issues
Robin Le Poidevin

The Realism/Anti-Realism Debate in Religion
Clare McGraw

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