How Silicon Valley’s “Techtopia” Turned Work Into Religion

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(RNS) — Americans gave up on religion a long time ago. But just like the scientific principle that matter, although it changes form, never disappears, the religious impulse never quite disappears.

Carolyn Chen identifies where this religious impulse resurfaced – at work. In her new book, “Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley,” she examines how highly skilled workers have disengaged from organized religion and instead find belonging, identity, purpose, and transcendence in office.

Chen, a sociologist and professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, spent five years interviewing techies at Google, Facebook and small startups to find out how and why they decided to give their undivided loyalty to companies where they work.

She has also interviewed managers who have invested in the health and spiritual well-being of their employees in an effort to increase productivity. In addition to meditation and mindfulness practices, many of these Silicon Valley companies offer executive coaching and a host of services such as gourmet cafeterias, gyms, swimming pools, carpentry studios and game rooms. video. In one company, she even found an outdoor walking labyrinth, like the medieval spiritual labyrinths of ancient European cathedrals.


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One of the downsides of technology’s embrace of integrity and well-being is that it has forced many religious practitioners, especially Buddhists hired by these companies, to downplay the religious backgrounds and traditions of their faith to make it acceptable in a non-religious workplace. Chen calls it “bleached Buddhism,” stripped of its Asian origins and ethical teachings and without its rituals of bowing, chanting, and incense burning. Instead, many of these practitioners need to emphasize the scientific evidence for mindfulness, which she points out is often inflated or circumstantial.

The biggest problem with worship work is that it sucks employee interest and energy for any kind of civic engagement in neighborhoods, cities, local and national politics. “Techtopia,” she writes, “corrodes the collective ability to build and sustain the common good.”

Author Carolyn Chen. Courtesy picture

Religion News Service spoke to Chen about her book and whether worship work has changed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get into this project?

My frustration with being a religion scholar in the Bay Area is that there are a significant number of people who don’t identify as religious. How do you study them? I was interested in the presence of religion in secular spaces. I started looking at yoga studios because they are secular spaces with religious icons. In interviews with yoga practitioners, the theme of work kept coming up: “I practice yoga and it helps me to become a better teacher, lawyer, nurse. It became clear that something was going on. What was sacred in their life was work. They used yoga to support their work or relieve work stress. That’s when I thought, maybe I was looking in the wrong place and started looking at workplaces.

What is it about high tech work that makes it so important to people? Is it the prospect of wealth or economic security or being the next Steve Jobs?

In the technology industry or the startup, the chances of failure are high. Nine out of 10 startups fail. So you go for it all. You invest your whole being in it. Someone said to me, ‘Why the hell would I do this, if I didn’t think I would be 1 out of 10 to succeed?’ This kind of intense betting you make requires some kind of faith. It is a spiritual fervor towards work.

You finished your research in 2019. How have things changed now that people are working from home? Did the Great Resignation affect Big Tech?

“Work Pray Code: When work becomes a religion in Silicon Valley" by Carolyn Chen.  Courtesy Image

“Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes a Religion in Silicon Valley” by Carolyn Chen. Courtesy Image

Companies are always very caring for their employees and still practice a kind of corporate mothering. They send snacks home, they offer book clubs via Zoom, mindfulness meditation, executive coaching, therapy. These improvements are continuing. The work has become more demanding, if anything, because there is no commute. But the job does not offer the same social and spiritual benefits as before. You can’t have lunch with your friends or do crafts with your friends or play video games with your friends. It also does not offer the same spiritual benefits. This, in addition to more hours, leads to burnout.

But the majority of workers quitting under the Great Quit tend to be low-skilled service workers. I really doubt the workplace will change for highly skilled workers. This tendency for people to love work has been in the making for 40 years. People have withdrawn from social institutions, churches, synagogues, neighborhoods, schools, civic associations. You must rebuild new institutions where you can find meaning, fulfillment, and community.

You write a lot about ambient Buddhism in the Bay Area. It is a Buddhism stripped of its history, its culture and its rituals, even of its language. This has been a success for these companies, but at what cost for religion?

In Silicon Valley, Buddhist virtues, or so-called “healthy states,” are seen as professional skills, means to an end. Compassion and empathy, which we might consider a virtue or a good in itself, become a way to improve product design or be more empathetic towards consumers. Meditation teachers who taught in schools or in prisons found that it was no longer financially tenable. The only way they can do that is to bring it to Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn. But in doing so, they must secularize the teachings to fit the goals of the workplace. They must teach it as a productivity practice. It actually changes the religious experience itself. This is basic Buddhism. It must change to be profitable. Or they have to suppress the ethical teachings of Buddhism because they weren’t hired to teach ethics or tell businesses how to operate more ethically. They were hired to make employees more productive.

Do these companies also have Christian or Jewish offers for employees?

These are called employee resource groups. They are like clubs organized by the employees themselves. You might have a Christian organization alongside the China-American Association or the knitting club. I have spoken to pastors who are also facing the same problem there. Churches attract people from different walks of life. In the tech workplace, it only appeals to an elite group of workers.

How should religious leaders respond to this cult of work?

They might help by naming what they offer – alternative, life-giving traditions and spaces for people to create lives, communities, meaning and fulfillment outside of work. What I’ve seen instead is that the religions have just accepted this and are finding a way to live with it. Some Christians try to figure out how to affirm the meaning of work. There is a danger in this. The first mention of work in the Bible is essentially a punishment. There is no inherent goodness in work. There is this effort to adapt to that. But when religious communities fail to name the age-old dangers, they totally miss the boat. There’s this other thing that people love and don’t see.


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