|Carolyn Chen is Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, whose research focuses on the Asian American experience. Her book Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley (Princeton University Press, 2022) explores how workplaces employ spiritual practices to exploit productivity at the expense of workers and their communities. She will speak on Silicon Valley’s spiritual culture, Asian Diaspora, secular searches for meaning, and the way in which corporations are increasingly dominant in our national spiritual life. Carolyn was Associate Professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies at Northwestern University, where she served as Director of the Asian American Studies Program. She is also the author of Getting Saved in America: Taiwanese Immigration and Religious Experience (Princeton University Press, 2008).|
Most of us will work for most of our waking hours, for most of our life. Over the past forty years, highly skilled workers have been devoting more time and energy to their jobs than ever before, which raises questions about employee happiness and wellbeing, their values, and the compromises they must make in the pursuit of work-life balance. The workplace is therefore a very significant place for the majority of working adults, especially as many big companies have tried to centre the workplace in their employee’s social, political – and increasingly spiritual – lives. In this Big Questions lecture, Professor Carolyn Chen will help us to ask, what does it look like for work to become religion, and how might doing so conflate or even confuse the pursuit of “happiness” with that of profit?
Chen will show how, in Silicon Valley, tech companies are bringing religion into the workplace in ways that are replacing traditional places of worship, blurring the line between work and religion and transforming the very nature of spiritual experience in modern life. As a result, workers are leaving churches, synagogues, and temples in droves—but they have not abandoned religion. Chen spent more than five years in Silicon Valley, conducting a wealth of in-depth interviews and gaining unprecedented access to the best and brightest of the tech world. The result brings us to ask how work now satisfies workers’ needs for belonging, identity, purpose, and transcendence that religion once met. Chen shows that tech firms are offering spiritual care such as Buddhist-inspired mindfulness practices to make their employees more productive, but that our religious traditions, communities, and public sphere are paying the price.