Has work replaced religion in Silicon Valley? Sociologist Carolyn Chen asks if the Valley’s long days, free cafeterias and mindfulness workshops have replaced church and community. She explores why organized religion can’t seem to take root there and how tech firms use spiritual movements to feed profits. Within this overview, she offers a particularly strong case of watered-down religion in the trivialization of sacred Buddhist practices. Of course, as Robert Putnam reported in Bowling Alone in 2009, Silicon Valley isn’t the only cause of declining community and religious observance – even in Silicon Valley. And Chen herself would need a crystal ball to know if techies will keep worshipping work as big tech lays off staff and quits serving free lunches.
- For many Silicon Valley employees, “work is replacing religion.”
- When people crave a spiritual life but barely have time for it, they may find religion in their work.
- Young tech workers from faraway places often find identity in their work; their colleagues become like family.
- Burnout is one of the biggest problems in the tech industry.
- Tech companies’ perks attract and retain top engineers.
- Journeys of self-discovery might lead employees to discover they are in the wrong job.
- Using meditation and mindfulness in the workplace can incorrectly reduce Buddhism to simple “secular mindfulness.”
- “Techtopia,” a society where people garner ultimate fulfillment from their work, has emerged from the tech industry’s disruption of religion.
For many Silicon Valley employees, “work is replacing religion.”
Silicon Valley workers are turning away from organized religion and filling the void with work that gives them a sense of “belonging, identity, purpose and transcendence.” Workers who once sought meaning, morality and behavioral guidelines in religion are now finding those values at work instead.
As one commentator put it, “Meaning is the new money.” That quest for meaning leads workers to look for a sense of community in their work. In fact, research reports that 90% of people would willingly accept lower salaries if their work provided meaning.
Stressed tech workers find a form of spirituality in the office through sponsored mindfulness classes, speakers and retreats. Many large corporations invest in their employees’ spiritual well-being as part of their benefits package. Some big tech companies bring in meditation teachers, even beyond Silicon Valley; in fact, some 22% of US companies offer mindfulness practices to their employees.
“Asking Americans what gives their lives meaning, 34% answered ‘career,’ making work one of the most important sources of meaning to Americans, second only to family (at 69%).”
Silicon Valley workers often talk about how 60 hour work weeks make sustaining religious observance challenging. To succeed in the tech industry, workers must devote their time and resources to their work. Tech start-ups try to give their employees a sense of purpose, and that can become akin to religion.
When people crave a spiritual life but barely have time for it, they may find religion in their work.
American companies seek to create a familial culture and build a sense of community among their staff members, and they expect to reap profits from those efforts. However, the more people work, the more society’s “mother institutions,” such as houses of worship, suffer. In 1990, 91% of Americans reported having a religious affiliation; that number fell to 77% by 2018. People have abandoned more than just their congregations; their communities are suffering also.
Participation in all civic organizations has declined drastically since the 1970s. As people increasingly invest their identity in their careers, they often pull away from traditional societal foundations like religion. They work nearly every waking hour and neglect other aspects of their lives, including worship, living a balanced life, and membership in communities outside of work.
Many tech workers emphasize how difficult religious observance is given their tremendous workload. Religious people who live in Silicon Valley find that they have to be particularly observant to continue active participation.
“Most Fortune 500 companies have adopted key elements of religious organizations — a mission, values, practices, ethics, and an ‘origin story’.”
Some people who were active in religious communities elsewhere in the United States neglect their former religious practices when they move to the Valley, where their jobs replace and subsume their religion. Yet, other people who belong to local religious communities – often older people with established families and roots outside the company – manage to spurn the seduction of the holiness of tech work. These “nonbelievers” hew to their former practices and can detach from their occupation.
Many believe the Silicon Valley ethos runs contrary to their religious beliefs, but often those who leave organized religion don’t depart consciously; they just drift away.
Young tech workers from faraway places often find identity in their work; their colleagues become like family.
Tech engineers tend to be young, single, far from home, impressionable and vulnerable to the call of work. They spend all day at the office, socialize mostly with coworkers and believe in the sanctity of their work. Tech workers have faith in their output. Much as religions expect congregants to adhere to certain articles of faith, tech companies expect employees to believe in their mission statements.
“The ‘religious’ bonds that employees develop with their coworkers are similar to those of another institution that forges intimate ties: the family.”
Many Silicon Valley workers who have moved from far-flung places regard their colleagues as closer than family. Sometimes, a sense of “moral obligation” to their work families keeps employees from slacking. The company becomes part of their identity; they cannot reject any request. Loyalty is a badge of honor in Silicon Valley, and everyone must buy in wholeheartedly.
Burnout is one of the biggest problems in the tech industry.
In tech companies, spiritual practices such as meditation and yoga have become as ubiquitous as free food and on-site gyms, all with the goal of preventing burnout. But given that the industry standard is a 60-hour workweek, burnout is common. Burnout exacts a toll on tech workers’ minds and bodies and makes them less productive, which is problematic for their organizations. Paid sick leave and medical expenses cost companies money, but companies care for their staff members and support wellness programs because they believe “caring for employee well-being is profitable.”
Tech engineers work hard and, generally speaking, neglect self-care. In 2000, Susan Lamott, vice president of talent and development at Tech Pointe, launched a firm specializing in “corporate maternalism.” She helps companies support employees’ personal needs by providing such perks as meals, yoga classes, meditation retreats and enrichment workshops. As a return on this kind of investment, companies expect employees to perform at their best.
“In the past, human resources managed workers defensively by ‘protecting the company from its employees,’ as one person put it, by enforcing compliance. Now human resources ‘protects’ the company by caring for its most valuable assets, its high-skilled employees.”
In Silicon Valley, true balance between work and life issues is rare because employees spend most of their waking hours in the office. Companies assume the burden of care in order to squeeze more work hours out of each worker. After all, helping staffers avoid burnout enables them to work harder.
Companies offer lavish benefits as part of an intense battle to hire, nurture and retain quality engineers. Big tech companies embroiled in “the war for talent” have learned from experience that engineers will leave a company over perks.Some giant companies, such as Google, built their campuses with restaurants, meditation rooms, art studios, libraries, and other amenities, so their employees feel they never have to leave. Google meets staffers’ personal needs by offering services such as on-site child care and laundry, so they can keep working. The line between work and life isn’t just blurry – it’s practically invisible. Yet many employees don’t avail themselves of corporate perks, other than free food.
Tech companies’ perks attract and retain top engineers.
Companies pit themselves against one another to offer the widest array of treats and temptations. They want their employees to be happy or at least look happy. However, no yoga class or tray of free snacks can fix the damage 16-hour workdays do to a person. As workloads increase, workforces grow leaner. No matter how hard a maternal corporation tries to make its employees happy, profits matter the most.
When a company undergoes a major shift, such as a takeover, the stress can push employees into “change fatigue.” Human resources departments often offer meditation and mindfulness classes to help ease the burden of corporate change. Executive coaching, which has roots dating to the ’60s, is a booming industry in Silicon Valley. Executives and managers hire coaches to help workers “connect with their authentic selves” and become better at their jobs.
Yet a majority of people don’t connect to their jobs, and many suffer alienation at work. Mostly, organizations don’t blame workers for such symptoms; they see alienation and burnout as corporate culture problems.
“Growth requires care and nurturing of a living thing. You have to water it every day, not just tons of gallons all at once, and then you come back in six months. No. A little bit every day. It needs good soil and nutrition. It needs time.” (Hector Gomez, human resources professional)
Companies generally reserve coaching and spiritual development programs for executives and other high-potential employees. The coaches’ goal is to help high-ranking employees become more engaged, have more fun and find meaning in their work. In the past, companies viewed an executive who needed a coach as someone whose work was flagging. Now people see having a coach as a status symbol.
Journeys of self-discovery might lead employees to discover they are in the wrong job.
Corporations sponsor meditation and training programs to help employees work more devotedly, not to help them hear the call of a higher power, though that might happen. The new generation of Silicon Valley residents uses religion somewhat like it uses technology; individuals don’t prioritize the spiritual aspect of practices such as yoga and meditation; instead, those practices become the means to an end – and the end is to become more productive at work.
“Thinking of work as a form of ‘calling,’ ‘love’ and ‘service’ might get workers closer to their own enlightenment, but it also fulfills management’s desire to get an extra return on labor.”
Of course, many managers do appreciate their employees as people. They want to learn about their lives and help them develop. And they want them to stay. People once worked for a single company for their entire careers. They earned perks, such as pensions, that are nearly a relic. Today, a tech worker typically changes jobs every few years, as soon as the work grows stale. Considering this trend, employees constantly need to make sure they’re marketable for the next job while still training on the current job’s newest programs and innovations. Part of being marketable means handling yourself well under pressure and remaining focused, both areas in which meditation and mindfulness are helpful.
Tech workers must remain calm and focused to cope with their tasks without feeling overwhelmed. Some tame their minds with modified Buddhist practices, such as chanting and breathing exercises. Some employees practice “nonattachment,” a method of regulating their emotions and muting the triggering effects of stress.
Using meditation and mindfulness in the workplace can incorrectly reduce Buddhism to simple “secular mindfulness.”
The tech world renounces the “religious baggage” of religion, although that attitude can reduce Buddhist practices, such as meditation, to a commodity. Corporate America often crassly whitewashes Buddhism’s sacred religious teachings to boost workers’ productivity. Some companies hire only instructors who offer secular classes. This gives teachers an incentive to remove religious aspects from their lessons, so large firms will hire them. Meanwhile, prayer beads and incense have become meditation room decor. Some people incorrectly see Buddhism more as a philosophy or science than as a religion. Many Asian-Americans criticize this viewpoint, which mutes the moral underpinnings of a foundational religion.
Since the early 2000s, studies into the science behind mindfulness have exploded. Many mindfulness teachers point to science that supports meditation’s impact on productivity. They use such terms as “neuro-self-hacking” to describe mindfulness as a tool that enables people to work harder and more efficiently. Whether mindfulness classes actually help productivity remains an open question, but research has found that tech engineers are more likely to partake in mindfulness classes that are rooted in credible scientific sources.
“There may be no better example of the desacralization of Buddhist meditation than the fact that so many tech workers must catch a ‘mindful moment’ in the bathroom.”
“On-the-go” Buddhism removes the inconvenience of religious practice and tries to squeeze an entire religion into one minute bites, akin to apps that claim to help you focus and meditate with just a few minutes of practice each day. They present meditation as a handy tool, although real meditation is holy – the exact opposite of a tool.
“Techtopia,” a society where people garner ultimate fulfillment from their work, has emerged from the tech industry’s disruption of religion.
When tech employees’ lives revolve around the office, churches and community institutions lose their role and status. Techtopia aims to fill this gnawing void as workers seek wholeness, fulfillment and meaning. Techtopia’s specialized workers are the harbingers of the mainstream. When society worships work, community and social institutions will begin to crumble, allowing social and income inequalities to grow.
To escape the “theocracy of work,” people must decide collectively to worship something else, something worth worshipping, such as family, community, civil society and religion. That’s not to say that society should abandon work. Rather, it should pour energy into the rest of people’s lives as well. As writer David Foster Wallace said, “There is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”
About the Author
Carolyn Chen, an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, also wrote Getting Saved in America: Taiwanese Immigration and Religious Experience.
In “Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley,” Carolyn Chen delves into the captivating and thought-provoking intersection of work culture, spirituality, and technology in the unique context of Silicon Valley. With meticulous research and insightful analysis, Chen explores how the work environments in the tech industry have evolved into quasi-religious spaces, where employees often find their purpose, identity, and community. This engaging book sheds light on the hidden complexities of the Silicon Valley work culture and its impact on individuals and society.
Chen takes readers on a journey through the intricate landscape of Silicon Valley, where work has transcended its traditional boundaries and become a form of religiosity. Through in-depth interviews, observations, and analysis, the author examines the rituals, ideologies, and beliefs that have emerged within the tech industry. She explores the ways in which companies foster a sense of mission and purpose among employees, often blurring the line between personal and professional life. Chen also investigates the role of technology in shaping this work-as-religion phenomenon, exploring the influence of mindfulness practices, digital connectivity, and the constant pursuit of innovation.
The book sheds light on the pressures and expectations faced by those working in Silicon Valley, as employees often feel compelled to devote excessive time and energy to work, sacrificing personal well-being and relationships. Chen discusses the impact of this work-centric culture on mental health, burnout rates, and the erosion of work-life balance. Furthermore, she examines the consequences of intertwining work and spirituality, such as the potential for exploitation, the reinforcement of hierarchical power structures, and the exclusion of marginalized groups.
Chen also explores the influence of religious and spiritual practices within the tech industry, including meditation, yoga, and other mindfulness techniques. She investigates how these practices have been co-opted and reimagined to align with the values and goals of the tech world. Additionally, the author investigates the ways in which Silicon Valley’s work culture intersects with broader societal issues, such as gender disparities, diversity and inclusion, and the ethics of technological development.
Throughout the book, Chen maintains an objective and balanced perspective, presenting a range of viewpoints and experiences. She skillfully weaves together personal narratives, sociological analysis, and historical context to create a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the subject matter. The book encourages readers to critically examine the work culture in Silicon Valley and prompts reflection on the balance between work, personal fulfillment, and societal values.
- The Rise of Techno-Spirituality: Chen argues that the tech industry has become a new kind of religious institution, with a culture that blurs the lines between work and spirituality. Tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple are seen as sacred spaces where employees can find meaning and purpose in their work. This techno-spirituality is fueled by the belief that technology can solve social problems and bring about a utopian future.
- The Cult of the Entrepreneur: Chen examines the cultural heroes of Silicon Valley, such as Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, who are revered for their innovative ideas and their ability to transform industries. These entrepreneurs are seen as modern-day prophets, whose vision and leadership can change the world. This cult of the entrepreneur has created a new kind of religious hierarchy, with tech giants at the top and small startups vying to join their ranks.
- The Rituals of Coding: Chen analyzes the rituals and practices of coding, which have become a form of spiritual practice in the tech industry. Programmers see coding as a form of meditation, a way to connect with the divine through the act of creation. The author argues that these rituals are not just technical exercises but a way to access a higher state of consciousness.
- The Impact on Work-Life Balance: Chen raises important questions about the impact of techno-spirituality on work-life balance. As work becomes increasingly sacred, it can be difficult to disconnect from the demands of work, leading to burnout and exhaustion. The author argues that this can have serious consequences for employees’ mental and physical health, as well as their relationships outside of work.
Here are some of the key takeaways from the book:
- The tech industry is creating a new religion, one in which work is the ultimate goal and salvation.
- This ideology is harmful, both to individuals and to society as a whole.
- It leads to burnout, depression, and anxiety, and it undermines our values of family and community.
- We need to resist this ideology and create a more humane workplace.
“Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley” is a meticulously researched and thought-provoking exploration of the convergence of work, spirituality, and technology in the context of Silicon Valley. Carolyn Chen’s writing style is accessible and engaging, making complex concepts and theories accessible to both academic and general readers alike.
One of the strengths of this book lies in Chen’s ability to present a balanced perspective. She does not approach the subject matter with a preconceived bias, but rather allows the voices of those working in Silicon Valley to be heard, while also critically examining the potential pitfalls and negative consequences of the work-as-religion phenomenon. This balanced approach adds credibility to her analysis and invites readers to form their own conclusions.
Furthermore, the extensive research conducted by Chen is evident throughout the book. The inclusion of interviews, case studies, and historical context provides a rich tapestry of insights into the Silicon Valley work culture. The author’s ability to connect individual experiences to broader societal and cultural trends enhances the book’s impact and relevance.
One minor criticism is that at times, the book may delve into too much detail, which could potentially overwhelm some readers. However, this meticulous approach also ensures that no aspect of the subject matter is overlooked, making it a comprehensive resource for those interested in the topic.
Here is a comprehensive review of the book:
- Engaging storytelling: Chen masterfully weaves together personal narratives, interviews, and scholarly research to create a captivating narrative. The book takes the reader on a journey, providing firsthand accounts of individuals who have embraced the workaholic ethos prevalent in Silicon Valley.
- Unveiling the work culture: The author delves deep into the work culture of Silicon Valley, exposing its intensity, long hours, and the pressure to constantly strive for success. Chen highlights how this culture has become all-encompassing for many individuals, blurring the boundaries between work and personal life.
- The rise of techno-spirituality: The book examines the emergence of techno-spirituality, where work takes on religious dimensions, fulfilling the need for purpose, identity, and belonging. Chen explores how individuals in Silicon Valley often find transcendence and meaning in their work, almost akin to religious experiences.
- Ethical implications: Chen raises important ethical questions surrounding the work-as-religion phenomenon. She addresses the potential consequences of this convergence, including burnout, mental health issues, and the erosion of work-life balance. The author challenges the prevailing narrative of success in Silicon Valley and encourages readers to critically examine their own relationship with work.
- Societal impact: By analyzing the broader societal implications of the workaholic culture in Silicon Valley, Chen encourages readers to question the social and economic structures that perpetuate this phenomenon. The book prompts discussions on the role of corporations, societal expectations, and the pursuit of happiness in modern-day work culture.
- Nuanced perspective: Chen presents a balanced view, acknowledging both the benefits and drawbacks of the work-as-religion phenomenon. She offers a nuanced perspective, avoiding simplistic judgments and allowing readers to form their own conclusions.
- Chen’s writing is clear and engaging, making the book accessible to a wide range of readers.
- The book is well-researched, with a wealth of examples and case studies from Silicon Valley companies.
- Chen raises important questions about the impact of work-pray code on employees and society, and encourages readers to think critically about the role of work in their lives.
- Some readers may find the book’s focus on Silicon Valley to be too narrow, and may wish for more examples from other industries or regions.
- Chen’s argument could be stronger if she provided more concrete examples of how work-pray code is affecting employees and society, rather than simply highlighting the potential risks and consequences.
Chen’s book has important implications for our understanding of the modern workplace. Firstly, it highlights the need to recognize the spiritual dimensions of work and to create spaces for employees to explore their own spirituality. Secondly, it challenges the traditional notion of work-life balance, suggesting that the divide between work and personal life is becoming increasingly blurred. Finally, it raises important questions about the impact of techno-spirituality on society as a whole, particularly in terms of the distribution of power and resources.
Overall, “Work Pray Code” is a thought-provoking and timely book that sheds light on the ways in which work is becoming a form of religion in Silicon Valley. Chen’s writing is engaging and accessible, and her research is well-documented and thorough. While some readers may wish for more concrete examples or a broader focus, the book is a valuable contribution to the discussion of workplace culture and the impact of technology on society. I would recommend “Work Pray Code” to anyone interested in the intersection of work and religion, or the impact of technology on society and culture.
In conclusion, “Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley” is a compelling and insightful examination of the convergence of work, spirituality, and technology. Carolyn Chen offers a nuanced analysis of the Silicon Valley work culture, provoking readers to question the societal implications of work-centric values and the potential consequences for individuals and communities. Whether you are familiar with the tech industry or simply intrigued by the intersection of work and spirituality, this book provides a valuable and thought-provoking exploration of a significant contemporary phenomenon.