The Theology of Work

June 11, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

A University of California-Berkeley sociologist contends that work is replacing religion as the thing that gives structure to our thinking and meaning to our lives. This is especially true, she contends, in a place like Silicon Valley where work takes up almost every waking hour and provides a pseudo-religious context—such as, “We’re going to change the world”—for devotion to its demands.

Carolyn Chen, an associate professor of ethnic studies at U.C. Berkeley and co-director of the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion, writes in a recent New York Times article:

But as I discovered during my research, the gospel of work is thin gruel, an ethically empty solution to meet our essential need for belonging and meaning. And it is starving us as individuals and communities. New York Times, May 24, 2022 

Chen says that the theology of work is constricting social interactions and starving other institutions such as churches, social organizations, unions, and political parties, just to name a few, where people of different backgrounds and experiences can come together to hash out problems together. 

The number of people who say they have no traditional religious affiliation is on the rise in this country and elsewhere. Yet, of human necessity, people must “believe in” something. Increasingly, what they believe in is their work.

Chen writes:

Across different faith traditions, clergy members in Silicon Valley say that their congregations are dwindling because people are too busy working. A few decades ago, a pastor told me, the typical member attended Sunday service and Sunday school most weeks. Today that member attends only Sunday service once a month, he said. And he is scraping for volunteers as never before.

Worshiping work is also weakening our democracy, as well-paid professionals — historically among the most politically engaged demographics in America — check out politically. Silicon Valley politicians I talked to lamented the political apathy of busy rank-and-file tech workers who live in a bubble. (The Musks and Thiels are a different story.) “They don’t get involved,” a public official told me. “They don’t vote. They don’t know their local representatives.”

This tendency to make a religion out of our work is a disturbing direction for our society to take.

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