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).

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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.