The Work of Salvation, the Salvation of Work: Searching for Belonging in an Age of Global Precarity

Carolyn Chen, Ethnic Studies, UC Berkeley, and Rachel Min Park, Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion

While the United States has historically been exceptionally religious, even with the onset of industrialization and urbanization, studies indicate that fewer Americans today claim a religious identity than ever before. Yet as Carolyn Chen argues, this does not mean the disappearance of religion, but a shift in what Americans invest their time and energy into, and where they find meaning: namely, work. In this interview, Carolyn Chen (UC Berkeley, Ethnic Studies) discusses the ways work has gradually taken on the functions of religion in modern American life, and how work organizes people’s religious lives—especially in high-skilled, white-collar jobs that belong to the “knowledge economy.” However, the changing nature of religiosity is not limited to those in a specific sector of the economy. By examining the roles religion plays in Asian-American lives—from evangelical Christian immigrants to second-generation Buddhists—Prof. Chen highlights how religious trajectories more broadly are changing as the institutions that once gave us a sense of identity and belonging have shifted in late capitalism. 

Carolyn Chen is Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. She is the author of Getting Saved in America: Taiwanese Immigration and Religious Experience (Princeton 2008) and co-editor of Sustaining Faith Traditions: Religion, Race and Ethnicity among the Latino and Asian American Second Generation (NYU 2012). Her research focuses on religion, work, immigration, race, and ethnicity in the United States. Her new book, Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley, is forthcoming with Princeton University Press.

Rachel Min Park is a freelance translator, film critic, and researcher. She received her B.A. in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley and her M.A. in Korean Studies from Korea University. Her translations have appeared in Korean Literature Now and the Verso blog, and her film criticism can be found at Koreanfilm.org. Broadly speaking, her research interests include modern Korean literature and film, gender and social movements, and critiques of racial capitalism.

As part of the Berkeley Democracy and Public Theology Program, BCSR’s Public Forum on Religion and Pandemic brings together scholars and the public to address the current pandemic and its commensurate crises, exploring the intersection between religion and timely topics such as the environment, public health, elections and democracy, religious freedom, and nationalism in order to foster dialogue and reflection.

The Berkeley Public Forum on Religion and Pandemic is generously sponsored by the Henry Luce Foundation