Carolyn Chen, a sociologist and associate professor of ethnic studies at U.C. Berkeley, spent over five years in Silicon Valley interviewing more than 100 tech and human resources professionals to explore questions about the relationship between work and religion. Her book, Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley (Princeton, Mar. 8), reveals the ways in which the workplace has, for many, replaced houses of worship as centers of purpose, fellowship, and meaning, and what that could mean for American society moving forward.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What do you mean when you say work is replacing religion in America?
The last 40-50 years have shown a decline in American religious participation and affiliation, and an increase in the number of hours that high-skilled professionals are devoting to work. Fifty years ago, white-collar professionals were looking to fulfill their needs for identity, belonging, meaning, and purpose through organizations outside the workplace, such as their churches, temples, synagogues, or neighborhood associations. These days, work consumes so much of their lives, it's in work that they find their identity, their belonging, their source of meaning, fulfillment, and purpose in life.
How are people finding a deeper meaning at work?
Companies are hiring executive coaches who often bring practices like spiritual reflection and discernment. They're encouraging their senior leaders to align their authentic selves with the mission of the company, and to think of their work as a form of service and a form of calling. They use practices, terms, and ideas that we normally would see in the religious sphere.
Why are so many employees in the tech industry seeking more meaning in their work lives?
There isn’t anything particularly soul-sucking about [the tech] industry. When I spent time in Silicon Valley with these companies, the energy was palpable. There was excitement and passion among the workers, guided by a particular kind of ethos of, ‘We're going to change the world.’ One person I spoke to used very religious language—he called it a burden, like we have this burden to change the world. This is similar language you might hear among Protestants speaking of a missionary burden they have to change the world. The person I interviewed took that very, very seriously. That was indeed their purpose.
How does the stress of competition within tech contribute to this newfound religious tenor?
Nine out of 10 startups fail. How do you exist in an environment where you're likely to belong to that majority? I saw that these workers had a sense they had to have faith, believing that their company was the one that was going to make it—that it was either going to IPO or get acquired.
Do you believe this change is here to stay?
I hope it isn't here to stay. Workplaces have become alpha institutions in the lives of professionals and highly skilled Americans. Work is gobbling up everyone's time and devotion, but work institutions also increasingly provide for their peoples’ needs—emotional, social, and spiritual as well as financial. This has left our public institutions, our civil society, impoverished in terms of engagement and participation. My book is a call for us to reinvest in our faith communities, neighborhoods, and community organizations—collective institutions that offer us sources of meaning, fulfillment, purpose, belonging, and identity outside of work. Our value is not solely based on how much we can produce or perform. Faith communities offer an ethic of stewardship, love, and compassion, where we can be more than productive beings.
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer and is coauthor of two books about yoga and health.