August 10, 2012 5:01 pm

Valley of God

Faith in technology is at the heart of Silicon Valley but Christianity is a force here too– from Bible apps to the divine power of the internet
Silicon Valley©Winni Wintermeyer

In Silicon Valley, 43 per cent of residents belong to religious institutions

Alexa Andrzejewski sits in the balcony watching the pastor pace the floor below. Before the sermon gets rolling, she sneaks out her iPhone and opens her social networking app. She “checks in” at her San Francisco church, and looks to see if anyone else from her technology start-up world is in the packed pews this Sunday morning. The pastor asks them to pray and then to turn to Mark 15:21 in their Bibles. In unison, Andrzejewski, her husband and their friend all pull out their phones and swipe through their Bible app to the passage.

It is the week before Easter, and Andrzejewski is in the middle of some unsettling business hurdles around the start-up she runs, a mobile app called Foodspotting. It’s a typical lurch in the constant rollercoaster that all Silicon Valley entrepreneurs ride. Some of them, like Andrzejewski, turn to the story of Jesus’s crucifixion to find solace.

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“My faith helps me to separate what I do from who I am,” she says, after the service. “Recognising that I have a value that comes from being loved by someone outside of myself, who created me for a reason, has given me a lot of strength as a founder. Because of that, I don’t have to worry about losing my identity if I fail.”

Silicon Valley, the epicentre of the global technology industry, is ruled by rationality and science. Data drives decisions, computer code solves problems. And yet there is a strong current of faith that permeates everything – an extreme idealism that motivates entrepreneurs, a staunch belief among engineers that technology can cure the world’s ills and contribute to the progress of humanity.

Sometimes that belief is drawn directly from a Christian teaching. But rarely are such values expressed in the boardroom or on the demo stage. Getting the job done is paramount in Silicon Valley, so religious believers often keep quiet about their faith in public forums, for fear of alienating co-workers or customers, says Jan English-Lueck, a professor of anthropology at San José State University. “Dogmatic faith would get in the way of good work relationships,” she says, “and that is the true sin in Silicon Valley.”

But within Christian circles, a shared faith can also turn into a powerful business alliance. Christians find each other at informal prayer groups at Google and Facebook, and at fellowship gatherings for entrepreneurs, forming social bonds that segue back to the office.

“There is a network of people who are Christian that help each other in the workplace,” English-Lueck says. “In Minnesota, you wouldn’t find people so openly and freely drawing on any domain in their lives to create a work relationship. There would be a boundary that you don’t exploit your religious network. That’s not the idea in Silicon Valley: it’s not exploiting, it’s leveraging.”

In Santa Clara County, into which most of Silicon Valley falls, 43 per cent of residents claim membership of a religious institution, the majority of them Catholic and Evangelical, according to a religious census in 2010. Though that’s less than the national 50 per cent, it is more than expected from an area perceived as godless.

Just as religion influences their business goals and decisions, technologists of faith are in turn pushing the boundaries of traditional preaching, reshaping how Christianity is taught in the region. Local churches have no choice but to adapt, in an attempt to stem the haemorrhage of young members. Nearly 60 per cent of young Christians drop out of church life after the age of 15, many of them citing their perception of the church’s antagonism to science as one of the main reasons, according to a 2011 study by the Barna Group, which tracks religious trends.

Alexa Andrzejewski and her husband Seth outside the restaurant where they organise an 'eatup'©Jamie Kingham

Alexa Andrzejewski and her husband Seth outside the restaurant where they organise an 'eatup'

Local Christian churches are making explicit efforts to address the concerns of technologists, and talk about the role of faith in work. City Church in San Francisco, which attracts a number of Silicon Valley stars, offers weekly faith-based discussion groups for tech entrepreneurs and employees, as well as occasional weekend retreats. The pastors say they learn as much from entrepreneurs about how to shape their message as the entrepreneurs learn about how the stories of the Bible fit with their modern lives.

“Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are some of the most creative and curious people when it comes to how Christian faith is understood,” says Chuck DeGroat, a pastor at City Church. “They’re curious about the intersection of faith and globalisation. They want to understand the intersections of faith and science.”

Andrzejewski wants to build a similar com­munity within her church, Reality SF, by organising lunch-time meet-ups for other techies. After services on Sunday, she and her husband stand outside holding a sign reading “eatups”. People from Google and Facebook and other start-ups join them for burgers. Among them are engineers she’s tried to hire in the past, and a few she might try to hire in the future. They talk about which new mobile apps have the best design, coding challenges for iPhones versus Android phones, and how their work aligns with God’s plans for human flourishing.

At the 'eatup', after church in San Francisco©Jamie Kingham

At the 'eatup', after church in San Francisco

She also draws solo inspiration while sitting in church listening to the sermon. As the band plays a lilting rock song and the pastor talks about sacrifice, she pulls out a small black journal and starts writing notes. Some are philosophical ponderings about what matters in life, some are ideas for a new feature for her app. “I got the idea for our logo and our website redesign in church,” she says.

. . .

Jim Gilliam needed a lung transplant when he was 27. After two bouts with cancer in a year, the radiation had scarred his lungs so badly that he couldn’t breathe without a new pair. He tried to get his name on a waiting list for the surgery at the University of California at Los Angeles, but surgeons rejected him, saying the procedure would be too complicated.

Gilliam took his frustration to the internet. He wrote an angry blog. A friend who saw the blog emailed the university. Then more friends emailed, then colleagues. The UCLA inbox was flooded. Two weeks later, Gilliam’s name was added to the list. A year after that, he was recovering from lung transplant surgery. Today, he’s 34, cancer-free, and born again, though not in a conventional Christian sense.

“The internet is my religion,” he says, in an online video about his conversion. “As I was prepped for surgery, I wasn’t thinking about Jesus, or whether my heart would start beating again after they stopped it, or whether I would go to heaven if it didn’t. I was thinking about all the people that had gotten me there.”

Gilliam speaks in heated, punctuated language, like a preacher. Raised as a fundamentalist Christian, he has given a lot of thought to the dynamics of a successful religion – compelling stories, solid infrastructure, and a place to meet on a regular basis and build a community. As a student at Liberty University in Virginia, founded by the ultra-conservative evangelist Jerry Falwell, Gilliam worked in the computer lab, built the university’s first website, and even fixed Dr Falwell’s computer. The power to meet other people online, to find information and share stories, evolved into a faith in and of itself. It’s a faith he holds to now as he works to get his second internet start-up off the ground, and one he sees shared by fellow entrepreneurs, even if they do not articulate it the same way.

“The thing you are believing in is the power that people are connected,” he says. “The leap of faith that you have to make is that we have the potential, when we are connected, to really do something amazing. And that’s not obvious. You have to believe that.”

When Gilliam was five years old, he moved with his family to Silicon Valley, where his father had a job at IBM. They knew no one, but their new home was across the street from a popular megachurch with thousands of members. It was 1982. “It was a ready-made community,” he says. “This was the rise of the suburb and exurb, and the church stepped in to fill that void.”

Jim Gilliam©Steve Schofield

A battle with cancer made Jim Gilliam an evangelist for the power of technology

Gilliam went to Christian schools, watched only Christian television shows on the devoted Christian satellite network, and played on Christian soccer and baseball teams. “We prayed during practice,” he remembers.

Megachurches were popping up all over the US at the time, with the largest number of them in California. The intense, highly produced church experience, helmed by a charismatic leader, appealed to educated, upwardly mobile suburbanites searching for meaning in new places. Silicon Valley mirrored this national trend, as it has many other religious quests through the decades. In the 1960s, as the hippie movement took hold of the Valley, so did the countercultural movement of “Jesus freaks”, who wanted to reclaim earlier Christian practices that focused on a personal experience of God and social justice.

Today, evidence of both shows up in Silicon Valley. The late Steve Jobs, Apple’s chief executive, took a seven-month trip to India in search of enlightenment, meditated regularly and lauded the spiritual benefits of LSD. Google offers regular meditation sessions and yoga classes to its employees, and has a modern-day commandment as its corporate motto – “Don’t be evil”. Other entrepreneurs are building apps that help people find kosher restaurants and synagogues, calculate tithe amounts, even confess from their smartphones. Almost 15 per cent of US mobile phone owners have downloaded a Bible app, according to data from the Barna Group and the American Bible Society.

Taken together, all these points illustrate the most widespread expression of religious values in the Valley – what English-Lueck calls a “cheerful mash-up of religions”. The Valley’s steady flow of immigrants has brought a diverse collection of religions to the area, with Eastern religions, especially Zen Buddhism, receiving a particularly warm welcome. The practice-based, disciplined nature and the lack of a deity appeal to the intellectual side of engineers, and make it a good match for blending with traditional monotheistic religions. Jewish Buddhists – “Jew-Bus” – and Christian-Buddhists are common.

“We’re seeing this curatorial effect, where people see a menu of spiritual practices and are unmooring them from traditional contexts,” says Rachel Hatch, research director at the Institute for the Future, a research group. “They’re using that as a zone for self-improvement.”

As a teenager, Gilliam had difficulty reconciling his beliefs with technology. He led what he calls a double life – one where he went to church three days a week, and another online. The division peaked in college, when he got sick for the first time. Two weeks after he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, his mother was diagnosed with adrenal cancer. She died five months later.

Gilliam had a crisis of faith. He didn’t feel that Christianity provided sufficient explanation for losing his mother. “What ended up working for me was believing that it was all a big coincidence. That there was no great purpose, there was no big plan,” he says. “All of a sudden, this huge burden was lifted off of me. The world just made sense.”

He stopped going to church. Instead, he went to the computer – “there was this thing called Google” – and started researching theories of evolution to recast his understanding of the world. After the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, he discovered the potential to organise political activists on the internet. And when he got sick again, he credited the internet with saving his life. He replaced his faith in the Christian God of his childhood with faith in technology.

Today, Gilliam is the founder of an internet start-up called NationBuilder, which builds and sells tools to help political organisers. And he’s become a kind of evangelist for his new internet religion, retelling his story – in person and online – and collecting similar stories from other entrepreneurs. He refers to this as testimony, borrowing the Christian term, and believes it will help build faith in the internet. Worship, to him, comes in the form of engineers building more web tools and software that connect people. “The internet is the saviour, so to speak,” he says, “and yet it’s not really that. It’s people connected that is. God is all of us connected together.”

. . .

The internet and social media present a conundrum for Chuck DeGroat, the pastor at City Church. With a congregation of hip modern professionals, from architects and financial advisers to programmers and venture capitalists, he can’t afford not to have a Facebook page, Twitter handle, or website. And yet, the social media channels that dominate so many of their lives conflict with various Christian principles he hopes they will live by.

“We follow people on Twitter,” he says to a half-full church on a recent Sunday. “We follow news stories. We follow celebrities. We check boxes to say ‘I’m a fan of this.’ But what does it really mean to follow?” He launches into a text from Corinthians 1, telling of a city whose people are obsessed with reputation, who boast of their prominent roles in the community. He draws a parallel to today and people’s obsession with how they present themselves online. “God is not impressed with your status update,” he says. “He’s impressed with what’s beneath the pretence.”

Pastor Chuck DeGroat (centre) among his congregation©Jamie Kingham

Pastor Chuck DeGroat (centre) has many tech entrepreneurs among his congregation

DeGroat is a down-to-earth guy. He wears jeans when he preaches and sometimes swears in conversation. He talks more in philosophical, intellectual terms than religious ones. The services he leads at City Church are utterly lacking in the multimedia shows of many modern churches that try to appeal to a younger audience. There are no flashing lights here, no video clips interspersed through the sermon, no eight-piece rock band.

With such a technically talented population, DeGroat figures they better not even try. Instead he appeals to their intellect with solid reasoning. He wants to take sceptics seriously. “We don’t want to bullshit people because, particularly in San Francisco, there’s a big bullshit meter,” he says.

Taking a page from the Facebook playbook, DeGroat tries to build the relationship with his congregants around two-way conversations, rather than one-way Sunday sermons. He gets as much advice from his tech entrepreneurs as he gives. One works for Google and travels to Africa frequently. She challenges the church to think about the Christian principle of being a good neighbour to people in the developing world. Another works in social media, and thinks about how to build tools that nurture the best of human relationships, not the narcissism and self-promotion that is often fostered by such public broadcasting channels. “Technology can be used in ways that are very dehumanising,” DeGroat says.

While these technologists talk closely with their pastor, most are reluctant to speak publicly about their faith. Several prominent Silicon Valley leaders deliberately keep their beliefs private for fear that they would influence consumers’ perception of their business, or give their bosses or investors the idea that they are not 100 per cent committed to the success of their company.

“Faith tends to be more under the surface here,” says Jon Dahl, chief executive of Zencoder, which formats television and radio content for the web and mobile devices. He says he must compartmentalise his Christian beliefs to meet the demands of the Valley. “Something feels a little bit off, spending 10 hours a day focused on profit,” he says, “and spending the rest of my life focused on what I believe is good for the world.”

Dahl grew up in a Christian household in Minnesota. He went to church regularly. At university, he studied religion and philosophy, then went on to get a graduate degree in theology. While he pored over Kierkegaard, he wrote software on the side for money. That grew into a full-fledged consulting business. “Then I got the start-up itch after that,” he said.

He came to San Francisco with his wife and two children in 2011, and they found City Church through a Google search. They go almost every week and participate in outreach projects with the homeless and prison populations. Dahl relies on his faith to keep the deal-striking, money-making ways of Silicon Valley in context. Buyers have been courting him for six months, and Dahl has just agreed to sell his company to Brightcove, an online video host. He sees the payout he’ll get as a responsibility, rather than a ticket to a lavish lifestyle. “Everyone is entrusted with money and time and resources and gifts for a reason, to steward and to use well, and not just for ourselves,” he says.

At City Church’s weekly meetings for entrepreneurs and at weekend retreats, the challenges of the working world are explored in depth, as people worry that advertising campaigns that they help create are promoting a harmful image, or that they are merely a cog in a wheel at a huge technology company.

DeGroat sees his job, in a place like Silicon Valley, as one that helps remind people that their identity is not just their work. He helps steer them away from the status updates and think about building technology that helps humanity. “That’s what worship is really about – us rediscovering our core identity as a beloved of God,” he says. “So when we go back in life and say stupid stuff on Twitter, I have good people in my life who can call me on it.”

Alongside the strict science of the computer industry, there is so much ambiguity. Nine out of 10 start-ups fail, as the local meme goes. Patent wars and talent wars plague the large technology companies. Colleagues become competitors overnight. The uncertainty is as much a part of the culture as the certainty. And people seem to revel in it as much as they struggle with it.

“They are seekers,” DeGroat says. “People here are on a faith journey, not necessarily a Christian journey, but they’re seekers trying to find ‘what is meaning for me’.”

April Dembosky is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent

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