Findings & Footnotes

■  Carolyn Chen’s new book Work, Pray, Code (Princeton University Press, $27.95) looks at a fairly old trend—the way companies have attempted to bring spirituality into the workplace—in a fresh and provocative way, as she argues that the workplace and work itself is replacing religion for many American hi-tech professionals. The book, based on in-depth interviews with high-tech workers in Silicon Valley and observation of their work lives, finds that while non-affiliation has risen fastest in places like the San Francisco Bay Area that have large high-skilled populations, such professionals haven’t abandoned religion: “work has become a spiritual practice that inspired religious fervor. People are not ‘selling their souls’ at work. Rather, work is where they find their souls.” Thus Chen’s book challenges Max Weber’s classic thesis that work and capitalism disenchants people and society, although she does note that religion as work changes both traditional companies and society and the nature of faith and spirituality. As work has expanded to cover more aspects of people’s lives and also become more enjoyable—at least for higher-level professionals—it has taken on religious aspects, especially in the hands of management consultants who have increasingly used the concepts of “family” and “community” and spoken of the company as serving a meaningful higher goal.

In economic terms, companies and work crowd out the resource-intensive social demands of religion. What are called “human capital clusters,” geographical areas where highly skilled professionals gravitate, have created their own cultures and institutions—from coffee shops to yoga studios—where competition with religious institutions is greatest. At the same time, religion is moving into the workplace, most notably meditation techniques from Buddhist and Hindu sources. Chen’s interviews reveal that many Silicon Valley professionals (especially engineers) don’t have a crisis of faith so much as they quietly put religion off to one corner of their lives or neglect it because of negative peer pressure, professional busyness, and the move away from their hometowns. Chen finds a secularizing effect of moving to Silicon Valley among both domestic “tech migrants” and South Asian immigrants. Even those who maintain religious involvement find it difficult due to the more secular environment of the San Francisco Bay Area. Yet Chen notes that older people with families and traditionally religious people are distinct from the 70 percent of her respondents she calls “true believers” in their work, in that they find alternative sources of meaning outside of their jobs.

But the pressure to succeed amid the high rate of failure among start-ups in Silicon Valley as well as the way work is invested with more meaning than that found in most other kinds of jobs (leading to another kind of crisis of faith) also push workers to find support and belonging in their companies—what Chen calls “work conversions.” This is also where the infusion of spiritual techniques and teachings into workplaces (as well as many other perks) assumes importance, as many managers see them as a form of self-care as well as making for happier workers. While workers deride open use of the term “spirituality,” “behind closed doors with me, many corporate managers said that spirituality is an important—if not the most important—dimension of the work they do,” Chen writes. They even used terms like “helping people connect to self and Universe,” “awakening mystery,” and “sneaking in spirituality,” even if in public they would say “unleashing your potential.” The executive coaching industry has come to specialize in integrating spirituality into workplace learning, development, and human resources, often using the language of overcoming workplace alienation by developing one’s “authentic self” and seeking work as a “spiritual journey.” Chen writes that while these ideas complement the instrumental approach that hi-tech workers take to their lives and professions, such use of spiritual traditions shapes them to accommodate productivity and performance over mysticism. In particular, the ethnic and religious dimensions of Buddhism are papered over to make the spirituality more scientific and secular, with meditation teachers having to make significant trade-offs to continue their work.. The book concludes with the sober observation that as workplaces increasingly draw social, spiritual and communal energies, they can deplete the energy people usually devote to other social institutions, including organized religion, that have traditionally been sources of life fulfillment and social betterment.