Spotlight Interview with BCSR Co-Director Carolyn Chen

Miranda Schonbrun

BCSR was thrilled to recently sit down with our new Co-Director Carolyn Chen for a spotlight feature. Carolyn Chen is an Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies, whose research interests include ethnicity, immigration, race, religion, and work. Carolyn Chen has taught courses on comparative analysis of religion, race and ethnicity, social science methods in ethnic studies, religions of Asian Americans (including Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Christianity), and contemporary issues in Asian American communities. She is author of Getting Saved in America: Taiwanese Immigration and Religious Experience (Princeton 2008). Her new book, Work Pray Code: When Work Replaces Religion in Silicon Valley about the transformation in work, religion, and community in late capitalist America, will be published this spring by Princeton University Press. 

We also invite you to view Carolyn Chen’s fall 2020 interview with BCSR to learn more about her research into the role that religion and religious institutions play in providing a sense of purpose, identity, community, and belonging in modern life.

BCSR: Could you start off by telling us about what originally inspired you to explore religiosity and America in your work and in your research?

Carolyn Chen: My interest in religion comes from my own background. My parents are immigrants from Taiwan, and I grew up in a deeply religious immigrant ethnic community, and that ethnoreligious experience early on very much shaped my way of thinking and my worldview. It wasn’t until later, when I studied religion in college and in graduate school as a sociologist, that I learned that that experience that I had of living in this ethnoreligious immigrant enclave was actually a fairly common one across many different immigrant groups in the past and in the present in the United States. It struck me that this was a pretty significant pattern, and that this was a fundamentally American thing, for American newcomers to get socialized and integrated into American society through religious institutions.

I grew up in Southern California in the San Gabriel Valley, which is also the site of my first book. That area has the largest community of Taiwanese immigrants outside of Taiwan, and it was a fascinating place to study religion and immigration. One of the things that I had noticed was that a lot of the people in the community had become religious by converting to a different religion after coming to the United States. In Taiwan, Christians are less than 2% of the population, however, in the Taiwanese immigrant population they were anywhere between 20–25%. You see this similar pattern of religion’s growing salience in other immigrant communities. Not all immigrant groups become more religious, nor do most convert, but religion plays a different kind of social role for them in the United States. That’s an important part of the story of American religion that hasn’t really been told. 

BCSR: Could you speak to why you think this phenomenon is particular to America, compared to immigrant communities abroad where perhaps you have to renounce your religious beliefs when migrating to a new place?

Carolyn Chen: I think that it has to do with the unique legacy of religious disestablishment, Protestantism, and a weak welfare state in the United States. We never had an established church. Essentially religious institutions and congregations operate as voluntary organizations. This is very different from a place like France, where there is both a legacy of a state church and anti-clericalism—as Denis Lacorne spoke about recently, France has a sort of very aggressive secularism. While the United States is secular, religion has always been an important part of the public sphere, and as some people would argue, such as Alexis de Tocqueville, religion is integral to the maintenance of American democracy and civil society. I think it has to do with this structural distinctiveness that religion has in the United States where religion is a voluntary organization. The United States also privileges organizations that identify under the category of religion—they are tax exempt, and their freedoms are protected under the First Amendment. In Margarita Mooney’s book, Faith Makes Us Live, she compares the role of the Catholic Church in the lives of Haitian immigrants who migrate to France, Canada, and the United States. You see that in the US, compared to France and Canada, the Catholic Church is a prominent presence in the lives of Haitian immigrants to the US. It provides so much social support. In comparison, the Catholic Church is weaker in a place like France that has a stronger welfare state where immigrants rely more on state resources rather than on these private resources through voluntary organizations like churches, etc. So the United States structurally encourages the formation of social groups and identities on the basis of religion in a way that a place like France does not.

BCSR: In your own experience teaching and discussing religion in universities within the United States, would you say that you have encountered any interesting differences depending on geographic area?

Carolyn Chen: There are very clear demographic differences in religion when you compare the Midwest, where I used to teach at Northwestern University, to the Bay Area. The Bay Area is one of the least religious regions in the United States. It’s known for being very secular and having a high proportion of folks who are “spiritual but not religious.” But I think that aggregate generalization really overlooks the distinctive religious experience of racial ethnic minorities. Many of my students in Ethnic Studies who are racial ethnic minorities (Latinx, Asian American, Native, and Black) come from deeply religious communities. This is a dimension of their racial and ethnic identities that they don’t feel comfortable talking about in the public. I always tell my students to bring their religious identities into the classroom in the same way that they bring their race, class, gender and sexuality. These are really important axes of their social location. Yet most don’t have the conceptual tools or vocabulary to understand how their religion shapes their social worlds and social location. 

A public university like UC Berkeley needs to be relevant to the public. I see the public university playing an important role in providing the conceptual tools and vocabulary for students to understand the significance of religion in their lives, in social processes and histories and cultures, etc. 

BCSR: That’s an excellent point, and I think you’ve really highlighted the importance of studying religion at a school like Cal, and especially at Cal where there is no department of religion. Could you tell us a bit about what your goals and hopes are now that you have come aboard as the new Co-Director of BCSR, for both the students and faculty on campus and also for our broader initiatives?

Carolyn Chen: I’d like to help people understand the relevance of religion to contemporary social problems. Again, I think that we need that vocabulary and training to see those connections. As a brief example, I teach a class on social science methods in Ethnic Studies and I had all of these students do research projects on fascinating topics such as mental health in their communities, undocumented workers, etc. And again and again religion came up. For example, folks in the Latinx community would seek the help of a healer or a priest over that of a doctor or therapist because not only did they not have insurance but they trusted and believed in their spiritual leaders more. But none of these students saw themselves as studying religion, and I had to point it out to them. It’s like there is a big religion blind spot when it comes to analyzing contemporary social phenomena. So I’m hoping the Center can illuminate the relevance of religion to contemporary social problems, for instance issues of racial justice, white nationalism, voting rights, vaccine resistance, housing insecurity, climate change, and wealth inequality. As part of the Henry Luce Foundation funded Berkeley Democracy and Public Theology Program at BCSR, I’m starting a public lecture series on race, religion, democracy, and the American dream. 

BCSR: Can you speak to what role, if any, you think that the religious or spiritual community should play in BCSR’s work?

Carolyn Chen: I think that there is so much creative energy when we bring practitioners, faith leaders, and scholars together. That’s a really generative space, so long as people go in with an open mind. 

Speaking here as a sociologist who is interested in these issues of race, democracy, and inequality, religious congregations are still the most popular form of community organization in this country. We cannot mobilize communities unless we also engage their religions. We’ve seen in the history of the United States how important religious communities have played in so many movements of justice such as the Civil Rights Movement and the United Farm Workers Movement. 

BCSR: Speaking more broadly about the field of the study of religion, what kind of research are you excited about coming out in the future? Thinking of your book coming out next year, it seems like in your own work you’ve taken this route of studying work in Silicon Valley and how that relates to, or replaces, the role of religion in everyday life. 

Carolyn Chen: In Work Pray Code, I found that tech companies are the new “faith communities” of Silicon Valley, replacing the social and spiritual functions of religions. Tech workers find belonging, identity, meaning, purpose, and transcendence at work—things that many Americans used to find in their religious communities. The question is, why should we care? Shouldn’t it be a good thing that people love work? I found that because work provided for all of their needs and took all of their time and energy, people withdrew from the public sphere. What I call “Techtopia,” a society where work is the highest form of human fulfillment, exacerbates the existing social inequalities in the United States. Spending time in Silicon Valley really impressed on me how hyper-neoliberal marketized forms of logic and ethics are threatening our democracy, unravelling our social fabric, and exacerbating inequality. Then the question is what can replace that, what can resist that, when that kind of market logic and ethic is so prevalent and pervasive, so ubiquitous in the society that we live in. It’s part of our university, it’s part of our workplace, it’s part of our state, it’s the language of all these secular spheres. And it is also now becoming a part of our religious spheres too. What fascinates me about religion today is its potential to be an alternative to all that—its possibility to offer counter-practices, counter-ethics, and counter-communities—where market logic and optimizing productivity, isn’t the end. When I have conversations with faith leaders about this, they’re aware of work taking over the lives of their congregation members. But they can’t address it because they don’t have a name for it because it’s just the waters that we swim in. I’m hoping that by naming the theocracy of work that we live in, faith leaders and other community leaders can build institutions and communities that provide an alternative vision and way of being in the world.

BCSR: I’m curious if you think that outside of tech workers if scholars as well tend to adopt work as a sort of religion?

Carolyn Chen: My book is about tech workers in Silicon Valley. But I think Silicon Valley is a harbinger for the future and particularly among highly skilled workers. So many companies and workplaces are looking to Silicon Valley as a model of how to engage our workers. They are asking the same questions—how do we make sure that our workers find meaning in work? I think that work becoming a religion is not just a Silicon Valley thing, but a phenomenon among highly skilled workers in other parts of the country. 

College-educated workers are now almost 40% of the American labor force. They devote a considerable amount of time and money to increasing their “marketable skills” or “human capital.” At Berkeley, when students speak about the value and meaning of education—well it’s to get a good job. We’ve invested so much into the institution of work that in a way we can’t afford not to have work give us meaning, fulfillment, and purpose. Pew Research did a study among Americans asking what gives you meaning in life, and the answer that was second to family was work. When they had people rank what was most important to them, work came before grandchildren. I think that we in the university are part of this larger movement. Academics devote even more of their lives to their education and training. If you put it in religious language, they perform sacrifice and devotion for their work. 

BCSR: From your interview last fall with BCSR it sounded like, in your recent research, people who were more involved with their religion and religious community were more resistant to taking on this religion of work than people who were not religiously affiliated.

Carolyn Chen: Yes that’s absolutely right. These people who are religious, they were still stressed out about work, but in my own work it was clear to me that they had this other thing that was telling them to do and be something else, something they felt obliged to. They had a community that depended on them, and teachings and a whole tradition, that provided them with sort of a different worldview and orientation to the world. Part of what I argue in my book is that work has become an alpha institution, there’s almost nothing that can compete with its claim on people’s lives anymore.

BCSR: As compared to the highly skilled laborers you interviewed, people in the technology field, how do you think work and religion interact in the lives of lower income people?

Carolyn Chen: That’s a great question. I think that they would have a very different relationship to their work, and that work would not be a source of religion for them in the same way. People who do low-skilled work don’t belong to companies these days—they are contracted labor and most don’t belong to unions—so the workplace doesn’t provide that sense of belonging. Just think about the way we talk about our relationship to work. We say we “joined,” as in I joined Google, I joined Facebook… “joined” suggests a community, it’s the way we talk about clubs or religions and that’s how we talk about our companies. That says a lot. Most working-class people don’t talk that way about work today. Moreover, companies aren’t investing in cultivating the full devotion of their low-skilled workers because they see them as expendable. 

BCSR: On the topic of shared language and developing a vocabulary to talk about religion, could you speak to your experience working with folks from across disciplines and departments on the topic of religion? What do you see as the benefits of BCSR bringing all these people together from different disciplines who are studying the topic of religion through different lenses?

Carolyn Chen: I think religion is best studied in an interdisciplinary manner. I’ve had the most generative conversations with people about my book and studying religion with people who are not sociologists. I love talking to scholars from other disciplines about religion because they really bring innovative perspectives, methods, histories, etc. At a place like UC Berkeley, where there is no religious studies department, BCSR plays a really important role. In a way, no one is really a bona fide religion scholar here because no one belongs to a religion department. But because of that it also opens the possibility for everyone to be a religion scholar, anyone can belong to BCSR and discover their “inner religion scholar” (laughs).

BCSR: And would you like to share any of your own personal hobbies outside of work?

Carolyn Chen: I have an eleven-year-old and a twelve-year-old who are super fun to play with. I’m pretty obsessed with gardening these days. And I love swimming in open water.