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An iPod is blessed at Saint Timothy's church in Hatchet Lake, Nova Scotia on Sept. 1, 2010. (PAUL DARROW For The Globe and Mail)
An iPod is blessed at Saint Timothy's church in Hatchet Lake, Nova Scotia on Sept. 1, 2010. (PAUL DARROW For The Globe and Mail)

Technology

Silicon Valley: The valley of God? Add to ...

“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 globalization. They want to understand the intersections of faith and science.”

Ms. Andrzejewski wants to build a similar com­munity within her church, Reality SF, by organizing 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.

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 questions 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.

Internet as religion

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.

Mr. Gilliam took his frustration to the Internet. He wrote an angry blog. A friend who saw the blog e-mailed the university. Then more friends e-mailed, then colleagues. The UCLA inbox was flooded. Two weeks later, Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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 U.S. 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 counter-cultural movement of “Jesus freaks,” who wanted to reclaim earlier Christian practices that focused on a personal experience of God and social justice.

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