I majored in comparative religious studies, which isn’t exactly a ticket to a great career. But many of the techniques I used to study religion now provide the lens through which I view the real world. Religion is our primordial social organization. So even in havens of modern rationality like office buildings, old religious instincts silently inform daily life.
After graduating, I dove straight into an office in the postmodern wasteland known as the Denver Technological Center. I work for a software company that specializes in financial reporting and compliance for some of the largest, vilest companies in the world. After the financial crisis, the SEC mandated that all publicly traded companies submit their earnings statements in a file format that ostensibly makes financial reports more transparent. My company translates these companies’ financial statements into this magical new computer language.
When I describe my office to people, they say it sounds like a great place to work. Yet I would rather get a Tabasco colonic than spend another day in that place. I blame religious studies, which taught me that the best way to examine a religion is through the “perks” it offers its adherents.
For example, upper management purchased several dozen Razor scooters so we no longer have to walk around like plebes. They created the “Innovation Station,” a room painted in garishly bright colors with a Wii and flatscreen. For a while, we had happy hours every Friday where they bought expensive microbrews for the whole office (these stopped after one lady got sent to the ER to get her stomach pumped). Management clearly wants the company to appear quirky and youth-friendly.
One time, they brought in a Wild-West themed clown named Cactus Pete, whose balloon animals all looked vaguely phallic. He refused to make anything other than giraffes, Dachshunds, pistols, and muskets. The sight of Cactus Pete wandering from cubicle to cubicle distributing dick balloons was bizarre enough to get me thinking: management pays a ton of money for these perks, but this is a start-up company that hasn’t yet turned a profit.
It began to feel like these pleasant perks were a smoke screen. Most Western religions promise personal betterment, meaning, and some claim on a paradisiacal afterlife. Some, like Scientology, offer fantastic material perks in this life, such as the complete healing of the subconscious and the attainment of all goals. These perks mask something far more sinister: the abuse of the vulnerable by those who can exploit the promises of religion for personal and institutional gain. They turn people into cats chasing laser pointers.
In fact, my job is an abyss of despair in which I spend all day under impossible deadlines trying to make huge documents coherent. The stress is unbelievable. When you’ve got an executive from one of the largest publicly traded companies in the world screaming at you, it can be hard to take. I once saw a grown man collapse weeping in the field next to the office because a client added weeks of work with one five-minute phone call. The joke du jour is, “It’s gotten to the point that I think my wife is a quilt-covered lump because I haven’t seen her during waking hours in weeks.” And people laugh at that. I guess it’s either that or cry.
The majority of employees at my company are under thirty and make well below the state average for workers with bachelor’s degrees. They work mandatory twelve-hour days and seven-day weeks for months at a time, with no overtime because they’re salaried. (People in my position are the only hourly employees because we make less than everyone else. But at least we get overtime.)
I never took a single course in finance or business, and I’m one of the last people to see these documents before they’re released to the public. I am a mosquito feeding on the backs of the giant beasts at the watering hole of the information age.
In the end, it seems like management ran a cost-benefit analysis: they can offer proper compensation for life-consuming jobs or placate workers with frivolous perks just enough so they keep showing up. It’s the same principle used by other exploitative organizations, religious or not: distract people from their unhealthy situation with nebulous promises of better days.
Is my bachelor’s degree irrelevant? It certainly didn’t guarantee me a particular career. But like most humanities majors, it gave me the ability to see institutions in terms of how power flows through them. Something superficially innocuous like a bunch of scooters can conceal a more wicked attempt to exploit workers in bad economic times. Sure, I’m unhappy because I know I’m in a less-than-ideal work situation. But that knowledge will motivate me to get out as quickly as possible. And in the meantime, I can think about the Reformation all day long.