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 U.S. mobile phone owners have downloaded a Bible app, according to data from the Barna Group.
Taken together, all these points illustrate the most widespread expression of religious values in the Valley – what Ms. 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, Mr. 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.
Mr. 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 Sept. 11 2001, he discovered the potential to organize 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, Mr. Gilliam is the founder of an Internet start-up called NationBuilder, which builds and sells tools to help political organizers. 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 pretense.”