A Short Note on Christopher Bartley’s An Introduction to Indian Philosophy

Christopher Bartley, An Introduction to Indian Philosophy: Hindu and Buddhist Ideas from Original Sources (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).

(Amazon; Bookshop)

The other day, while reading Christopher Bartley’s An Introduction to Indian Philosophy, I sent a text to a friend marveling at the fact that Indian philosophers like Ramakantha and Dharmakirti were debating ideas related to the self centuries ago that sound a lot like what we might hear from David Chalmers and Daniel Dennett today. But it takes some work to find these thinkers and their writings. For this reason, I’m grateful to Bartley for the volume he has created. This book introduced me to a wide variety of Hindu and Buddhist intellectual traditions with which I was unfamiliar. It made most apparent something I teach my students over and over again: “religions are internally diverse”.

Hinduism and Buddhism are oversimplified labels that we use for pragmatic reasons. Beneath these labels there are many Hinduisms and many Buddhisms. Bartley guides the reading through the dense arguments. The reading takes some work, or at least it did for me. (I purchased the book in May, 2022, and it’s only about 300 pp. of content!) But it’s worth it.

In my estimation, the major philosophical topics that this book addresses are the self, consciousness, cosmology, and epistemology. The reader will learn that Indian philosophers have been addressing questions centuries before Descartes, Hume, et al. Yes, the Indian milieu is different but I contend that Hindu and Buddhist philosophers are easily as thought provoking and challenging as their European counterparts

A year ago, I finished reading Bryan Van Norden’s Taking Back Philosophy, which passionately argued that we must include world philosophies into our philosophizing or start honestly labeling what we call “philosophy” more precisely as “Anglo-European philosophy”. I’ve taken his argument seriously, and in doing so, I feel like my brain has been stretched in a good way. Indian thinkers have been deeply engaging our world for millennia and we do ourselves a disservice if we ignore their contributions or mistakenly dismiss them as “religious”. I highly recommend Bartley’s book for anyone interested in world philosophies, the philosophical categories I mentioned above, or Indian traditions in general.


A Short Note on Sylvester A. Johnson’s African American Religions, 1500-2000

Sylvester A. Johnson, African American Religions, 1500-2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge, 2015).

(Amazon; Bookshop)

The subtitle to Sylvester A. Johnson’s African American Religions, 1500-2000 is key to understanding the aim of the book. It isn’t a generic overview of the history of African American religion but a precise examination of how African American religion intersects with American ideas around colonialism, democracy, and freedom. The reader will encounter figures, events, movements, etc., that you expect, whether that be the Transatlantic slave trade, American slavery, the American Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, or major characters in those stories ranging from Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. But the directions Johnson goes with those stories, and the stories he tells that may be less familiar, are what make this book an essential addition to your religious studies or American studies library.

Johnson’s history introduced me to pasts with which I had little familiarity, ranging from people like Dona Beatriz and her role within Kongolese Christianity to the rise and role of corporations, to the subversive interpretation of the Bible modeled by Olaudah Equiano, and on and on and one. I found myself encountering a history of which I knew little. Concepts like Black Settler Colonialism in relation to places like Sierra Leone and Liberia, or Marcus Garvey’s “Garveyism” as a philosophy of Black identity and a strategy for engaging White supremacy may be ignored in most American and American religious history textbooks but upon reflection appear to be essential elements to those histories. If you want an excellently written book with dynamic content that will give you a broader understanding of the worlds that shaped our own, then this book is a “can’t miss” read.


A Short Note on Aaron W. Hughes Muslim Identities

Aaron W. Hughes, Muslim Identities: An Introduction to Islam, 2nd Edition (Equinox, 2022).

(Amazon; Bookshop)

Aaron W. Hughes’ Muslim Identities is an introduction to Islam that I would highly recommend. His goal in creating this resource is to “maneuver delicately between an overly critical approach and the apologetic approach” (p. 1). Muslim readers should find a fair representation of their various traditions; non-Muslims should find a sound, scholarly introduction to one of the world’s most prominent religions. Hughes avoids framing a single, “normative” Islam (p. 2), instead introducing readers to the varieties of Islam that exist. This project is framed around the shared, inherited, and created identities to be found among Muslims (hence the title of the book). Hughes understands the varieties of Islam as being a variety of ways that Muslims enter into and shape “communities” that “are socially constructed or imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of a group” (p. 6). He comments that “identity is something that was and is actively constructed in response to various needs, and these constructions derive their potency from being projected onto the past, where they are thought to exist in pure form.” (pp. 6-7)

This framework of seeing Islamic history, traditions, sectarianism, etc., through the prism of identity formation is what makes this introduction unique. In many ways, it’s similar to the other introductions to Islam that can be found in the type of content it covers but the emphasis on identity formation is far more enlightening than it might seem at first glance. In fact, I would say that since reading this book, almost everything related to religious studies that pass through my brain must now cross a checkpoint that evaluates how these elements relate to the way people shape their personal and group identities. Shia and Sunni aren’t mere opposites or sects, but groups that form their identities in relation to one another. Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Muslims in Iran may shape their forms of Islam with an eye toward how their neighboring country is practicing the religions. When we ask why a religion took this or that shape, aligned with this or that political movement, or thrived in this culture but not that one, we’d do well to inquire how it is that said religion provided people with a sense of identity in a given time and place.

Interviewed on Notes From Nash

A former student of mine, Farouk Ramzan, is a Staff Writer and Podcaster for Vanderbilt University’s official student newspaper, The Hustler. He hosts a podcast called “Notes From Nash” (as in Nashville) and he invited me on to talk about religion (of course!). Unfortunately, only half of the conversation’s recording was saved. I thought the second half got pretty interesting but the first half is good too. Enjoy!

Notes From Nash: Interview with Dr. Brian LePort

Apocalyptic, Restorationist Christianities and the United States in the 19th Century

This semester, I’m teaching my “Religion in the United States” class. In a couple of months, I’ll introduce four branches of Christianity that emerged in the United States in the 19th or very early 20th century: The Latter-day Saints (1830); the Adventists with the Millerite Movement (1840s); the Jehovah Witnesses’ (1870s); and the Pentecostals (1900s). I tend to emphasize the pre- and post-Civil War ethos as a rationale for these movements but that seems incomplete. This past week, the question has lodged in my head and keeps coming back to me: What was it about the United States in the 19th century that made it the place that birthed these expressions of Christianity?

I have the Kindle version of Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis but I need a physical copy because I can’t sustain reading in a digital format. Also, I see there are books like Anthony Avenue’s Apocalyptic Anxiety: Religion, Science, and America’s Obsession with the End of the World and the collection of essays that make up Apocalypse and the Millennium in the American Civil War Era but other than those two books, and histories of the origins of the aforementioned groups, I’m not sure where to start. Any American historians out there who would recommend a history of 19th century America that captures the country’s mood and movements? This is a topic I want to explore further.

(Side note: I’m aware that the origins of Pentecostalism can’t be limited to Los Angeles alone but I think it’s fair to say that what because global Pentecostalism was greatly influenced by American culture and events.)

A Short Note on Liz Bucar’s Stealing My Religion

Liz Bucar, Stealing My Religion: Not Just Any Cultural Appropriation (Harvard, 2022).
(Amazon; Bookshop)

Liz Bucar’s Stealing My Religion is a humble, open-hearted, scholarly examination of the ethics of appropriating the religion of others. I say that because this is not a book where you will find Bucar demonizing other people nor will you find an apology for why anyone, anywhere should be able to practice whatever element of whatever religion they want. Instead, you will find a sincere attempt to navigate between these two poles, with Bucar using her own pedagogical practices as a case study for one of the chapters, and transparently questioning herself and thinking out loud about taking students to Spain to participate in Camino de Santiago de Compostela, even when they are not Catholic, or even religious at all. Her other case studies—non-Muslims wearing a hijab in solidarity with Muslim women and people practicing yoga divorced from its Indian spiritual roots—are both thought-provoking.

It is fair to say that for Bucar, not all borrowing is the same. Her presentation shows that appropriating religious practices can be far more ethically ambiguous than say appropriating something that has to do with another race. And some religious appropriation, e.g. wearing the hijab, seems to be more problematic than others, e.g. practicing yoga for its health and psychological benefits. The key point is that we should be careful when engaging the religion of others when we do not intend on becoming part of the communities and histories that gave us this or that belief or practice. If this ethical engagement with religions that are not your own is a concern to you, then I highly recommend this book as a thought partner.

Book Note: La Carmina’s “The Little Book of Satanism”

La Carmina, The Little Book of Satanism: A Guide to Satanic History, Culture, and Wisdom (Ulysses Press, 2022). (Amazon; Bookshop)

La Carmina “is an award-winning alternative travel/culture/fashion blogger, author of four books, journalist and TV host.” She reached out to me a few weeks ago to ask if I’d be interested in reviewing her new book, The Little Book of Satanism. Of course, I was happy to review it. (And I wasn’t told how I should review it, so everything I say here is my opinion.) On this blog, I’ve reviewed biblical studies scholarship on the development of Satan in the Jewish and Christian Bibles and modern religious studies scholarship on contemporary Satanism. In my “Religion in the United States” class, I teach a lesson on American Satanism. It’s always my goal to represent religious movements as fairly as possible, so reading La Carmina’s book provides me with a resource that explains Satanism from a perspective that practicing Satanists would recognize. If you want to understand Satanism, its history, and what draws people to it, I highly recommend this book.

First of all, it’s short at a little over 130 pages of content. It’s very readable; very accessible to all audiences. You don’t need to know anything about Satanism to jump into it.

After the Forward by Lucien Greaves, one of the co-founders of the Satanic Temple, La Carmina provides a brief history of the development of the figure of Satan, going back to predecessors in, for example, Zoroastrianism and the Hebrew Bible and Satan’s emergence in Judaism and Christianity. La Carmina explores the various names given to the Devil; artistic depictions; and symbols associated with Satan.

Part 2 summarizes how the figure of Satan evolved from the Middle Ages to the present, highlighting the influence of Dante’s Inferno, the concept of exorcisms, and European and North American Witch Hunts. By the end of this section, La Carmina notes on p. 56, “By now, a theme has emerged: it is always ostracized out-groups who are targeted as Satan’s bedfellows.” And this will become part of the motivation of modern Satanists. On p. 61, we read that some of the events in the past (e.g. “the Affair of the Poisons”) have led to many Satanists, “striving to defend reproductive rights and disempowered minorities.” Part 2 continues with a look at John Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost and its influence, as well as other writers who are classified as “Romantic Satanism,” viewing Satan as a rebel against tyranny.

This last part is key. Satan’s “meaning” changes. Rarely Satan is seen through the lens that most Christians see this figure through. It could be argued that while the same word/name is used, as Wittgenstein would show us, the “language-game” isn’t the same. This isn’t to deny the intentionality of the use of the word/name “Satan” but to say “Satan” doesn’t mean to everyone else what it might mean to you!

Part 2 wraps up with a hoax (“the Taxil Hoax”), a couple of groups, and a major figure, Aleister Crawley, who influenced what Satanism would become. Part 3 continues the history of Satanism but with a focus on modernity. We meet groups like the Process Church of the Final Judgement and the Church of Satan (CoS), the latter led by Anton LaVey out of San Francisco, and the group that marks the birth of modern Satanism as we know it. It would seem to me that when most people think of “Satanism” they think of the CoS and “LaVeyan” Satanism, specifically. La Carmina’s exploration will help clear away cartoonish ideas that people may have about LaVey and his movement. Satan’s place in pop culture (e.g. Rosemary’s Baby), association with serial killers in the 1960s, and the Satanic panic round out this era and Part 3.

Part 4 focuses on Satanism in the 21st century. The Satanic Temple (TST), founded in 2013, dominates this section. La Carmina discusses their origin, ideologies, and activism, as well as what makes them a modern religion (e.g. rituals and holidays). For those interested in the trajectory of modern Satanism, this will be the most important chapter. (No offense to the CoS but TST is the most prominent representative of Satanism today!)

The Conclusion glimpses Satanism in a global context, looking at other “dark” figures (e.g. Santa Muerte; Yama) who have received similar veneration, both metaphysical and symbolic, and La Carmina predicts that this new religious movement will continue to spread.

Again, if you’re interested in a fair presentation of modern Satanism, and if you want to know what this movement is about without all the posturing that can occur when Satanism is discussed, this is a great place to begin.

Book Note: Harvey Cox’s The Market As God

Harvey Cox, The Market As God (Harvard University Press, 2016). (Amazon; Bookshop)

In The Market As God, the Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard University, Harvey Cox, ponders the deification of “the Market”. This begins will a series of comparisons between the way people have spoken of the personified “Market” and deities like the biblical “God”. For example, the “Invisible Hand of the Market” echoes discussions around Providence in Christian theological works. The Market is presented as a Creator who brings into existence the “corporation-person” or the corporation-with-personhood. This deity is contrasted with some of the images of the biblical “God” who prohibits things like “usury” (i.e. predatory lending) and calls for periods of wealth redistribution (e.g. the “Jubilee”).

Once Cox has accustom the reader to a theological way of talking about economics, he explores the many unhealthy deficiencies in our capitalist system. To be clear, Cox will come to argue at the end of the book that “the Market” can redeemed when it is saved from the burden of being “divine,” so he doesn’t appear to be anti-capitalist, per se, as much as critical of what he perceives to be abusive forms of capitalism that can’t bear the weight of our expectations.

The final third of the book explores the history of how money and religion have related, looking at how money may have played a role in providing St. Augustine with his victory of the (declared heretical) monk Pelagius; how Adam Smith’s economics was grounded in his theology; and other similarities between modern economic-speech and theological-speech, such as a sense of mission and the missionary mindset, the function of “liturgical” seasons, and various forms of eschatology.

This book is insightful. While connected, certain parts could be read independently of the others as mini-essays. Whether or not Cox’s confidence in the small-m “market” is justified is something not all readers will resonate with but his broader comparative insights are thought-provoking and at least raise the question of whether work and business is taking the place in people’s lives that religion once occupied.

On a related note, I’m happy to promote a video that I had a small part in scripting: Religion For Breakfast, a.k.a. Andrew Henry, has addressed a related book, Carolyn Chen’s Work Pray Codehttps://brianleport.home.blog/2022/06/03/book-note-carolyn-chens-work-pray-code/ in the video (“Tech Companies: A New Religion?”) linked below:

A balanced high school religious studies curriculum

I’m writing this for myself. All my blogging is basically journaling. If I wanted more interaction, I’d have to catch up with the times and shift to Tik Tok. But Tik Tok isn’t like journaling, so I won’t be doing that. Also, this is for me because there are few people with jobs like mine who work in schools like mine with departments like mine. So, why do I put it on a blog? Well, a way that blogging isn’t like journaling is the decision to make your thoughts public. I want to make these thoughts public just in case (A) someone out there has feedback to contribute or (B) one of the estimated seven people in the world who are in similar situations come across it and find inspiration—or whatever the opposite of inspiration is.

What’s my situation? Well, I teach at an Episcopal school. Episcopalianism isn’t a monolith but among Christian traditions in North America, it tends to be one of the most hospitable to academic freedom. I’m confident that there isn’t even one other school in the Greater San Antonio region that would give me the green light to teach what I do like I do. Also, I teach high schoolers, and as anyone reading this is aware, very few high school teachers get to say much about religion in their courses let alone teach multiple classes completely devoted to the discipline. While you can teach religion in a public school setting, for various reasons related to sensitivity around the Establishment and Free Exercises Clauses of the First Amendment, and trouble budgeting for someone qualified to teach these types of classes, few public schools are willing to offer anything like what I teach. If you teach religious studies in a high school, usually you have major “confessional” restraints. You need to stay in line with the Catholic or Evangelical doctrine of the schools that exist independent of the public school system for the central purpose of raising young people to adhere to the worldviews they are promoting. Episcopalian schools exist to shape young people from within the Christian tradition but most Episcopalian schools see fidelity to Christianity as compatible with higher levels of pluralism and academic freedom than their Catholic and Evangelical counterparts.

Many public high school teachers won’t be interested in what I’m saying because while they may be able to talk about Hinduism for a class period while teaching more specifically about India, they can’t spend a month on Hinduism. Many private school teachers won’t be interested in what I’m saying because they either disagree with my approach or have administrations that would never allow anything like it. This brings me back to the seven or so people out there who may be in similar situations! And this ends a prolegomenon to this blog post.

When I first began teaching high school religious studies, our courses were (A) “Old Testament”; (B) “New Testament”; (C) “World Religion”; (D) “God Debate: An Introduction to Philosophy”. I’ve worked to change some of the names to better align with how I teach and how I think religious studies should be taught at our school. “Old Testament” is now “Hebrew Scriptures” because we consider Jewish interpretations of the Tanakh as much as, if not more than, Christian interpretations of the Old Testament. “New Testament” is now “Christian Scriptures” because we don’t restrict the content to what’s canonical—for example, the Gospel of Thomas and Infancy Gospel of Thomas get a lot of attention—and most of the class is now spent on the Gospels with only a little time being given to the Epistles. “World Religion” has been abandoned in favor of “Religion in Global Context” because (1) our freshman-sophomore classes, Global Studies I and Global Studies II, led me to realign the focus to parallel those classes and (2) the “world religion” model tends to focus on overviews of some of the “big” religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, usually—at the expense of literally every other religion. Since my pedagogical philosophy is concerned more with teaching students how to think about “religion,” the concept, rather than trying to provide them an impossible overview of these “major” religions, it made sense to change the name. Finally, due to personnel changes, the “God Debate” class was dropped.

A few years ago, I added a class titled “Religion in the United States” that examines, amongst other things, the concept of “religion” as it has been interpreted and applied in this country. We talk about Supreme Court “definitions” of religion and rulings related to the First Amendment; the role of the IRS; Native American spirituality; religion when the United States was founded; race and religion; how religions that were “imported” (i.e. pre-existed the country’s birth, e.g. Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism) have evolved in this context; and what expressions of religion have been created in and “exported” from this country (e.g. Scientology, Pentecostalism).

As I prepare for my seventh year, the catalog (not including classes like “Religion in San Antonio” that were designed specifically for the summer school context) will be:

  • The Hebrew Scriptures
  • The Christian Scriptures
  • Religion in Global Context
  • Religion in the United States

Now, what I’m about to suggest may be rejected by my superiors but I want to process it out loud here anyway. Generally, I’m comfortable with these offerings but I think some improvements can be made. For one, while Episcopalians are Protestant or Protestant-ish (the so-called “Middle Way”), they aren’t biblicist, usually. Many within the Anglican tradition, of which Episcopalianism is part, talk about a “three-legged stool” upon which the tradition sits: (1) the Bible; (2) the “great” tradition; and (3) reason. Some within the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition add (4) experience, which I see as a positive addition. (Pentecostals add experience too…though their meaning is slightly different at times!) For this reason, while most of my academic training has been in biblical studies, I think the catalog is flawed when half of the religious studies offerings are related to the Bible. This means that the Bible receives as much attention as every other religion combined—including Christianity, which isn’t limited to the Bible (even when traditions are biblicist ones). One alternative would be to shrink “The Hebrew Scriptures” and “The Christian Scriptures” into a single class and then add a course on church history or theology. There are contexts where this may work. Ours might be one of those contexts but I’m doubtful for a whole variety of reasons, beginning with my presumption that only a handful of students want to talk about the intricacies of the Trinity or care for a week on the Nicene-Arian controversies.

What then is the alternative I’m suggesting? In my uniquely Episcopalian context, with the pluralistic student body we educate, and considering the present context of the world into which they’ll be graduating, here are the four courses I think would provide the most balanced high school religious studies curriculum (if only four can be offered):

Why these four? First, they encourage critical thinking that’s introductory in nature and “meta”. By the latter, I mean I’ve noticed that most of my students are very engaged when we’re thinking about the subject we’re thinking about. In other words, I can teach them the content of the Bible but they’re more interested in the concept of the Bible. The content of the Bible becomes more relevant when they’re considering what the Bible “is” and what’s at stake when we interpret it. Second, this balances what they need to know as emerging citizens while also aligning with the decision to go to a private school with a religious affiliation. Third, and related to the second point, it’s an alternative to the aforementioned approach of Catholic and Evangelical schools—our school has a daily chapel where constructive spiritual formation occurs for a pluralistic student body through the paradigm of Episcopalian spirituality. How that works exactly is the concern of our chaplain. My concern is that spiritual formation will be as strongly equated with human formation as possible so that my atheistic and agnostic students can take a religious studies class and come away just as mature in their thinking and acting as my Christian or Muslim students. In other words, there shouldn’t be any confessional barriers to their learning and participation.

“Introduction to the Bible” would retain the Bible’s place within a school that reads from it in daily chapel while focusing more so on what the Bible “is” than the type of deep dive that may be better suited for seminarians who plan on preaching and teaching from it. It would connect to whatever literary studies are happening in our English classes and study of the ancient world that’s happening in our history classes.

This would bring philosophy back into the mix. When my colleague Fr. Nate Bostain left, our curriculum developed a gap that needs to be filled. Also, I’m increasingly interested in philosophy, sponsored our school’s philosophy club for years, and have incorporated philosophy into our biblical and religious studies classes, so this would be more natural than say a course on historical theology or church history.

The theory class, “Introduction to Religion,” would be “Religion in Global Context” with a simplified name. It would retain the “global” focus which aligns nicely with “Religion in the United States” which has more of a local focus and is more historical and social in nature with an emphasis on our civic lives. Also, as I plan on doing this year, it’ll place more emphasis on the 3 B’s model that encourages students to recognize that while “belief” is part of what makes something religious, religions don’t always center on belief—rituals, holy days, communities, etc. can be even more central to someone’s religious identity.

Finally, and most importantly, each of these classes can become stand-alone so that there’s no need for one to be a prerequisite for the other like “The Hebrew Scriptures” is for “The Christian Scriptures” and “Religion in Global Context” is for “Religion in the United States” in our current catalog. I’m sure that would make scheduling easier for our Registrar!

Now, this blog post may be a futile writing exercise, and it may be that my superiors will disagree, but I plan on making a pitch like this to them this year in preparation for the 23-24 academic year.

Book Note: Carolyn Chen’s “Work Pray Code”

Carolyn Chen, Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in the Silicon Valley (Princeton University Press, 2022).

(Amazon; Bookshop)

In Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in the Silicon Valley, Carolyn Chen asks us (p. 196), “What happens to society when its members worship work?” Then she responds, “Silicon Valley offers us an answer.” The answer is, on the one hand, enlightening, and on the other hand, terrifying. It’s enlightening because it provides us with much-needed insight into the spirituality of the so-called “Nones” (i.e. those who answer the question “With what religion do you affiliate?” with the answer “none”). When people hear “Nones” they may think of people with a religious void, or people who claim to be “spiritual-but-not-religious” (which is a claim founded on a misplaced concreteness regarding the word “religion”). But few “Nones” are religiously apathetic; they place the energies that others may devote to going to a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, etc., to something else but with similar vigor and intent.

While Chen doesn’t provide a working definition of “religion” until Appendix A, her implied definition is clear and aligns with her stated one in the appendix. In short, Chen admits (p. 213), “To find ‘religion’ in Silicon Valley, I realized that I’d have to reexamine my assumptions about what is ‘secular’ and what is ‘religious’.” To do this, she says that there “are two ways of studying religion empirically in a secular age” which she claims are through the clearly “religious” “religious traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and so on” which doesn’t work well for finding religion in the Silicon Valley, and through the less clear idea of “the sacred” which are “the institutions, ideas, practices, spaces and things a community sets aside as special and worthy of worship. Something is sacred because of the power it has over the members of the community.”

This reminds me a bit of Paul Tillich’s definition of “religion” in Theology of Culture (pp. 7-8), “Religion, in the most basic sense of the word, is ultimate concern. And ultimate concern is manifest in all creative functions of the human spirit.” For a Christian, ultimate concern may be a relationship with their god through the person of Jesus resulting in the award of eternal life, and for a Buddhist, ultimate concern may be to reach nirvana, extinguishing the pain of suffering and dissatisfaction. For a Google employee, ultimate concern may be the creativity inherit in their job and the mission of the corporation of which they’re a part.

And this is where it’s terrifying. We should use the word “cult” cautiously because as we know it’s a pejorative that’s often used to dismiss or demonize a religious movement that seems fringe or unfamiliar. As it’s said, “cult plus time equals religion”. Most religious movements are seen as fringe and unfamiliar, dismissed and demonized, in their earlier state but come to receive some level of “respectability” over time. But I do think that when most of us use the word “cult” casually, we’re expressing discomfort not only with the difference we’re observing but the difference plus the level of demand. We’re used to Catholic priests and Buddhist bhikkus giving their lives but outside of these very old, well-established institutions, when a religious movement begins to demand all of someone’s life, especially when it results in that person becoming divorced from the world outside of their religious community, popular discourse refers to this level of control as “cultish” or “cult-like” and the group/community/organization as a “cult”

As you read Chen’s account of how much tech employees pour of their lives into their place of work, and how much it shuts them off from the outside world, you’ll begin to understand why some people see the religious devotion of Silicon Valley workers to their companies as, at least, “cult-like”.

In the Introduction, “How Work is Replacing Religion”, and Chapter 1: “Losing My Religion…and Finding It at Work”, the reader comes to see how and why work has begun to fill the hole where religion used to reside in the hearts of many people. In Chapter 2: “Corporate Maternalism: Nurturing Body and Soul” and Chapter 3: “Managing Souls: The Spiritual Cultivation of Human Capital” we receive insight into how the tech industry sees their employees, in a competitive “knowledge economy”, as investments. They can’t burn out their workers when these are some of the best and brightest minds coming from the top universities and colleges, so they must invest in them, and keep them healthy and happy. Pardon the analogy but it’s like this: you won’t get as much from a cow if you work it to death, so for as much extraction as you may require, there better be an investment. Similarly, free snacks and drinks, yoga lessons, on-site gyms, child care, etc., help corporations keep their employees happy and satisfied, and in return, with every need met on location, it allows for the employee to put in more hours for the corporation.

Now, if this seems dehumanizing, remember what the introduction and first chapter establish: work has become one of the ultimate forms of fulfillment in our society. And as I read these sections, I was reminded of something I’ve seen stated by people who survived the tragedies of The Peoples’ Temple, the Branch Davidians of Waco, and Heaven’s Gate: those were some of the most excited, fulfilling, best days of their lives, even if it all came crashing down on them. And many survivors of these movements, while recognizing something went wrong, never could get the same high as when they were on a mission to save the world. Silicon Valley is full of companies that encourage their workers to see themselves as world-changers, so 12-16 hour days, 6 days a week, isn’t a sacrifice.

Chapter 4: “The Dharma according to Google” and Chapter 5: “Killing the Buddha” examine what happens when workplaces import religious practices while often stripping them of their religious affiliations. This process is what Chen calls, “the secular diffusion of religion” (p. 16). We’ve seen it: yoga has hardly anything to do with Hindu thought and practice in the minds of most Americans who practice it; mindfulness has little to do with the Buddhist meditative practices from which it derives. So, what happens when a Zen teacher is contracted by a corporation to come and teach mindfulness while leaving their Buddhism at the door? Cognitive dissonance is often what happens. For many “spiritual coaches” in the Bay Area, there’s the pragmatics of needing to afford to live in one of the most expensive places in the world, so if they have to offer “Diet Buddhism” so be it. For others, there’s a sense that some Buddhism, even if unnamed, does more for the world than no Buddhism. And for others, it was too much, and some tech workers, meditation teachers, etc., decided that their religion was being corrupted by its marriage to big tech and then decided to choose their religion over big tech.

Chapter 5: “Killing the Buddha” may be worth the price of the book (though, you benefit from the rest of the book when it comes to understanding this)! Chen takes from the Zen saying, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him” (which, while interpreted diversely, has come to mean for some that you should kill the “religious trapping in the practice of Buddhist meditation” [p. 155]), and shows that this can be very problematic when we observe how it’s applied. Chen discusses five types of Buddism that emerge when corporations want the perks of Buddhist practice without all the things that may be considered “religious” sounding and looking. Those types of Buddhism are “Hidden Buddhism” as in the practices are Buddhist, but out of fear of violating Title VII, must be done without reference to their origins. Whitened Buddhism is Buddhism not only without its religiosity but “It erases the ‘ethnic’ and ‘religious’ Buddhism of Asians and Asian Americans in favor of the thinking and experience of White Westerners.” (p. 162) Scientific Buddhism is when CEOs or HR can be sold the benefits of Buddhism by appealing to the scientific studies that may indicate that meditation/mindfulness has certain psychological and physical benefits to it that will benefit the company (remember the themes of chapters 2 and 3). Bottom-Line Buddhism is directly connected to Scientific Buddhism: if workers are serene, peaceful, and free from anxiety, this will bring down lost hours, health-care costs, etc. So, Bottom-Line Buddhism is sold to corporations on the promise that it’ll increase productivity, reduce costs, and ultimately result in profit. Finally, On-the-Go Buddhism is just as it sounds: a religion that may ask you to spend time being in meditation is squeezed into a fast-food version of itself that’s suitable for busy tech workers.

The Conclusion: “Techtopia: Privatized Wholeness and Public Brokenness” examines the fallout of this sort of work-as-religion worldview, ranging from work “colonizing” the time of its employees to the displacement and economic turmoil the tech industry has caused in the Bay Area. Now, as I’ve spent much more time on the negative impact of work-as-religion, I want to be clear that this book isn’t a hit job. It’s quite fair to tech industry at many points. Chen embedded herself in that world for five years, so she got to know the people, the companies, and their culture. And as a former resident of San Francisco myself, I can resonate with the high of Bay Area life. It’s not just the West Coast of the United States but it often feels like you’re on the edge of the future, and I didn’t even work any jobs even remotely related to tech. So, while we may be rightly concerned with people giving their everything to work so that they’re no longer part of a church, or a PTA or HOA, or local politics, etc., let’s remember that tech jobs do provide purpose and mission, and as many religious institutions have failed to be able to show people their “purpose-driven life” (to borrow from Rick Warren’s 2000s approach to American Christianity), the tech industry has been able to do it. As religion becomes less relevant in the lives of many Americans, new forms of “ultimate concern” are created and offered to seekers everywhere.