Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley

Written by Carolyn Chen Reviewed By Christopher Chen

Where can we find religion in a place like Silicon Valley, which ranks among the least religious regions of America? When Carolyn Chen, a sociologist and professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, sought to study religion in Silicon Valley, she found it in the most unexpected of places: tech companies. Although Silicon Valley is ostensibly one of the least religious places in America, Chen argues that people in the Valley are more religious than we might think. Indeed, the religious needs of tech workers are typically fulfilled by their companies, rather than by institutional religion. In this fascinating book, Chen explains how work has replaced religion in Silicon Valley—and the societal implications of this shift. Although focused on the tech industry, Chen’s findings are broadly applicable to workers in the knowledge economy beyond the Bay Area.

Work Pray Code is the fruit of several years of Chen’s research on tech professionals and the companies they work for. The book begins with an introduction, which is followed by five chapters, a conclusion, and two appendices. It is loosely structured in four parts: (1) an overview of work as religion (Introduction and ch. 1); (2) companies as providers of spiritual care (chs. 2–3); (3) popular Buddhism as a tool to maximize employee productivity (chs. 4–5); and (4) the impact on society when work becomes religion (Conclusion).

As a tech worker living in Silicon Valley, I found Chen’s insights to be both intriguing and useful for ministry. While writing as a Christian, Chen is not writing explicitly to a Christian audience. Nevertheless, her keen observations are helpful for anyone who ministers in contexts where people tend to find meaning, identity, and purpose in their jobs. Chen presents a convincing case for why rewarding jobs and lavish company perks are insufficient to fulfill the needs of tech workers and their local communities. While past generations tended to find meaning and purpose outside of work in social institutions such as family or church, today’s tech workers increasingly find personal and relational fulfillment at work. In Chen’s research, the employees who did not treat work as a religion tended to be those who had stronger ties to another social institution outside of work. Throughout the book, I was reminded that the church is uniquely positioned to bring wholeness to individuals and communities in ways that companies cannot.

Chen accurately depicts tech workers’ devotion to their jobs under the enabling influence of “corporate maternalism”—a term Chen uses to describe the situation “where companies provide for the personal care of their employees to make them happy, healthy, and (therefore) productive” (p. 60). By tapping into an employee’s craving for self-fulfillment at work, companies encourage workers to unlock their “true and limitless self” which is “an infinite source of energy” and productivity (pp. 103–4). Amid aggressive project schedules, companies provide wellness programs (like mindfulness) to help employees focus on work while mitigating burnout. Ironically, while Buddhist mindfulness is meant to cultivate detachment from the world, companies repurpose mindfulness towards an entirely different goal: increased productivity (p. 144). Thus, companies utilize meditation in ways which conflict with Buddhist ideals, while downplaying human finitude and the toilsomeness of work (cf. Gen 3:17–19; Ps 127:1–2; etc.). Although some wellness programs have low rates of employee participation (p. 79), many tech companies still emphasize spiritual care, even if only symbolically, as a way of “keeping up with Google” in their corporate perks (p. 78). Thus, even if many employees do not participate in mindfulness programs, work nevertheless functions as a religion through the symbiotic relationship of employees who are dedicated to their jobs, and companies who attempt to provide for their employees’ spiritual needs.

When I first picked up this book, I was expecting to glean insights into how work becomes an idol in individual lives. The book certainly delivered on that expectation, but what I did not expect was that Chen would also powerfully portray the societal impacts of work-as-religion. In my opinion, Chen’s concluding essay on “Techtopia” is worth the price of the book. What happens to a society when work increasingly seeks to satisfy all types of human needs—including those meant to be fulfilled by religion—but only for an elite class of workers? What happens to those who are ineligible to receive such perks, and especially those lower-paid workers (like cooks or bus drivers) whose services form the backbone of corporate programs? In Silicon Valley, Chen argues, tech companies have increased social inequality by privatizing public goods and services (like mass transit) into corporate perks (like company buses). Is it any wonder that corporate maternalism has nurtured a generation of tech workers who are indifferent to the common good of the communities in which they live? As tech companies take care of the elites, who is looking out for everyone else?

To be fair, I would point out that many tech companies (and their workers) are involved in philanthropy. Though charitable giving typically accounts for only a nominal percentage of the total budget, there are exceptions. One Silicon Valley CEO, a prominent Christian, donates over half of his gross income each year and also helped start an organization to facilitate collaboration among local churches and nonprofits. Despite these efforts, Chen’s critique of tech companies is still legitimate.

Where tech companies tend to bifurcate society by offering exclusive perks to their workforce, the church freely proclaims the gospel which unites people across socioeconomic classes. To address the issues Chen raises, I would suggest it is imperative for churches to build healthy disciples who have a biblical view of work and are sensitive to the needs of the world. Through the power of the Holy Spirit and the gospel of Jesus Christ, the church has unique resources to form whole people who care for the common good of society. As the pandemic has meant that many tech workers have shifted to hybrid or fully remote working models, churches have a unique opportunity to fulfill relational and spiritual needs, as they were meant to do all along. To differentiate themselves from tech companies who use religion as a tool for productivity, churches must demonstrate the countercultural message of the crucified and risen Lord as the pattern for the Christian life.

Work Pray Code is essential reading for Christians seeking to reach those who work in today’s knowledge economy. This book would be a profitable read in discussion groups where it could be studied alongside other resources which provide a biblical perspective on: work (e.g., Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work [New York: Riverhead, 2012]); technology (e.g., Tony Reinke, God, Technology, and the Christian Life [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022]); or the church (e.g., Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family: Recovering Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community [Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009]). Although not all readers will be comfortable with two brief vulgarities (pp. 142–43, quoting the words of a tech worker) or agree with the passing comment that “Christ learns who he ‘really’ is during his forty days in the desert” (p. 120), the book’s many strengths far outweigh these issues and should still prove beneficial for discerning readers.

Christopher Chen

Christopher Chen
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Louisville, Kentucky, USA

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