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  • Writer's pictureRyan Panzer

Book Review: Work Pray Code by Carolyn Chen

Charles Taylor, famed sociologist and author of "A Secular Age," argued that secularization is not a process of subtraction. Taylor writes:

Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can’t be explained in terms of perennial features of human life.

In other words, secularization is not a product of our surrounding culture stripping away faith and religiosity. Rather, secularization is a product of positive construction, where our surrounding culture produces a new spiritual identity apart from the traditions of the church. And nowhere has this been more true than in the technology industry.

Carolyn Chen, author of "Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley,"

has observed that the tech industry has become a leading laboratory in this great spiritual reconstruction.

By tracing the stories of once-religious tech workers who relocated to Silicon Valley, Chen demonstrates the encroachment of the workplace into spheres once occupied by religion. The mechanisms of this encroachment are often described by Silicon Valley corporations as amenities, as enhancements to workplace culture. From meditation programs that teach "scientific Buddhism" to coaching offerings that promise "inner transformation," the tech industry has used these cultural offerings to displace the role once held by pastors, rabbis, and spiritual directors.

The once-religious emigrants that Chen describes are not rejecting Christian doctrine. They are not making an active choice to leave their upbringing in the church. Rather, they are shaped and molded by employers seeking to make the mundane into the transcendent. As our work becomes a source of our spiritual identity, we become more attached to and dependent on our employer. Chen's emigrants often look back on their religious past not with judgment or criticism, but with an acknowledgement that they have moved past their past spiritual selves.

When work becomes a spiritual journey, we approach it with an enhanced sense of purpose. We work harder, we produce more deliverables, we work longer hours. Chen is quick to point out that this transformation is taking place within a late capitalist frame. One wonders, while reading Chen's work, what will happen to the Google engineer or the Facebook account manager upon the next round of layoffs.

How will individuals who derived their spiritual identity from the workplace react when those same workplaces replace their jobs with AI? How will those who found transcendence through coaching and meditation regimes respond when their access to such programs is suddenly revoked? In a time where organizations are leaner and less committed to their employees, the juxtaposition of faith and labor has all the makings of a looming spiritual crisis.

Chen concludes her book by describing this transformation as a "cautionary tale." She asks:

"What kind of society do we become when human fulfillment is centered in the workplace What happens to our families, religions, communities, and civil society when work satisfies too many of our needs? Silicon Valley is a bellwether of what happens when we worship work - when we surrender our time, our identities, our resources, and even our cherished traditions in service to work. It is what will happen if we don't invest in building and sustaining social institutions and traditions that nurture community, identity, and purpose outside of work." (pg. 197)

As a sociologist, Chen asks these questions with a remarkable sense of clarity and urgency. The workplace has indeed encroached upon the spiritual sphere. Employers, not congregations, are forming faith identities. Chen has supplied the questions. It is time for the church to come up with the answers.

Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley, was published in 2022 by Princeton University Press.


Ryan Panzer (@ryanpanzer) works in the technology industry. He received a master's in theology while working full time for Google. He now wonders whether the seminary or Google has had a more profound influence on his theology.


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