By Cole DeSantis
One of the most popular shows currently airing on CBS is the series “The Big Bang Theory.” First premiering eleven years ago, the show tells the story of four young, socially awkward scientists in their various social and personal exploits. The show quickly gained popularity due to one of these characters, the young theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper. A blunt, smart-aleck rationalist who is socially awkward even by the standards of his social clique, he quickly took center stage for his extreme social naiveté, his borderline OCD behaviorisms, and his (often unintentionally) sarcastic statements.
In fact, over the course of the past a little over a decade, the character of Sheldon – played by actor Jim Parsons – has become such a major character within the show, even among the show’s central group of characters, that, last fall, CBS aired a spinoff show, titled “Young Sheldon.” Narrated by Parsons, the show attempts to unfold the backstory of Sheldon prior to when “The Big Band Theory” takes place.
The show in particular is supposed to expand upon the dynamic of the contrast between the smart, rationalist, scientifically-minded Sheldon and his average intelligence, working-class Texas family, particularly his overly-religious mother. This latter dynamic – the contrast between the scientifically-minded Sheldon (who “The Big Bang Theory” heavily implies is an atheist) and his devoutly Baptist mother – was put on display in a recent episode titled “Demons, Sunday School and Prime Numbers.”
In this episode, Sheldon is introduced to the game of Dungeons and Dragons by his friends. When his mother finds out about this, she becomes mortified, believing the game to promote demonology, and thus believing that her son’s soul is at stake. She then begins to bring him to the Bible School associated with her local church, in the hopes that he will be inspired to then accept Jesus. When Sheldon reads through the entire Bible within a relatively short period, he, applying a scientific mindset to the study of religion, is then inspired to do research on other religions before coming to a conclusion concerning which one, if any, is correct.
The episode is, at best, anticlimactic, and in many ways reflects the attitude of modern-day society. There is a sense in which this is perfectly fine – the writers of the show are attempting to create a sense of continuity with “The Big Bang Theory.” Since the character of Sheldon, as an adult, is meant to be an atheist, I doubt that the story of his childhood would show Sheldon becoming a Born Again Christian or growing up to take monastic vows.
Nonetheless, notwithstanding that Sheldon is supposed to be an elementary school-aged child (which wasn’t an issue for artificially upping his intellectual prowess), there is no explicit decision made by the main character. He doesn’t firmly make the decision to come to the Christian faith, nor to any other religion. He doesn’t even come to the conclusion that religion and spirituality is a hefty, nuanced and multi-faceted issue, and one can never be sure what the truth is, nor does he explicitly and firmly reject the concept of the Divine.
The episode does reach its climax in a dream in which he sees an anthropomorphic version of the numbers 1 and 0 (the two numbers involved in the binary code system). While this is meant to explain his later fascination with science, the view of God which these two numbers convey to him deeply reflects the ideology of modern society. When he approaches them and says, “I want to understand God,” what they say to him is the following:
We are the binary underlying the universe. … It’s a binary universe. God is yes and no, left and right, on and off, something and nothing, positive and negative, male and female, light and darkness.
This is the answer towards which the entire episode tends towards. This is the breakthrough we all waited for. In an attempt to imitate the profundity of many of the classical definitions of God – St. Anselm’s definition of God as “that than which nothing greater can be thought,” St. Thomas Aquinas’s definition of God as ipsum essum or as the necessary, uncaused cause of existence, the Deist definition of God as the “supreme architect of the universe”, or even the abstract and sometimes paradoxical definitions of God found among apophatic theologians or mystics – what was said comes off as a poorly written plagiarisation of The Law of Attraction or some other New Age literature.
This definition naturally brings up many questions, including, “What does it mean to say that God is ‘yes’ and ‘no’? How can God be something and nothing? Does this mean that God simultaneously exists yet does not exist? And how can God have a gender, let alone have multiple genders, or be associated with physical directions (left and right), when God is an immaterial being existing outside of space and time?”
But, before they have to do any real, substantial philosophy or theology, Sheldon quickly shifts the conversation away from the nature of God to the problem of evil, asking, “But, why is there evil and suffering?” The answer to this is, “Without evil and suffering, there is no good and happiness” – to which Sheldon simply responds, “Oh…sure, binary.” Well, at least they are still trying to keep alive a sense of internal logical consistency (everything in the universe is explained as a binary similar to the binary in a computer code). But, this raises more questions, such as, “What is good? What is evil? How do either of these things relate to God?”
To avoid hurting their brains by having to unpack the implications of either of these ideas, or risking the possibility of Sheldon asking any more in-depth theological questions, the number zero then turns to the number one and asks whether they should tell him the secrets of how the universe works, and just as they are about to do so, Sheldon conveniently awakes from his dream.
It is not that the writers of the show have some great moral and spiritual knowledge, and are refusing to share it with us. The point is this: the answer here leaves much to be desired. Again, not that I expected Sheldon to begin engaging in Medieval, Scholastic-style university debates with figments of his imagination in the middle of a half an hour-long comedy show, but when one looks at the larger society, what one sees is that the spiritual answers that most people receive to their inquiries are similar to this answer. Much of it is vague statements that sound much more profound than they are, often leaving more questions than they answer. A lot of times, it is meaningless and vacuous at best. At worst, it is completely heretical. The answer provided in the show seems to have vaguely pantheistic overtones, by aligning God with various physical phenomenon (the two different genders, light and darkness, etc.). There is the explicit aligning of God with non-being or non-existence, which is completely nonsensical. Even worse, it seems to have undertones rooted in scientism – that is, the notion that everything, not just natural phenomenon, can be explained by science. This can be seen in the fact that the first principle of existence, with which God is identified, is the binary system found in computer coding. (So, I suppose Aleister Crowley or Michael Losier meets Richard Dawkins?)
It is easy to see how most people wouldn’t think twice about this, or how they would actually think this is profound. The average American, through the utter failure of current religious educational programs, probably bases much of their spiritual life on a lot of this fluffy, vacuous nonsense, confusing it for real spirituality. The numbers corroborate this. According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2014, only about 36% of Americans attend religious services once a week or more, while 33% say they attend religious services once or twice a month or as little as a few times a year. As many as 30% of all Americans say that they seldom or never attend religious services. These same studies showed that only a little over a third of all Catholics, a little over half of all Evangelical Christians, and a third of all mainline Protestants, as well as only a little under a third of all Orthodox Christians, and a little over half of all members of historically African-American denominations, go to Church at least once a week. This is just among Christians, who make up the majority of the population. Among the other Judeo-Christian religions, who also mandate weekly religious worship, only a small number actually act upon these obligations. Only 19% of all Jews and 45% of Muslims attend worship services once a week or more. Jehovah’s Witnesses’ (at 85%) and Mormons (at 77%) have the highest rates of religious service attendance. Only 17% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 attend religious services once a week or more. A 2010 survey of religious knowledge – also done by the Pew Research Center – showed that atheists and agnostics, on average, scored better than religious people, and among religious people, Jews and Mormons scored the highest. In this test of religious knowledge, which included 36 questions concerning the core teachings, major figures, and history of major world religions, atheists and agnostics, on average, got 20 of the questions correct, whereas white Evangelical Protestants only got 17 out of 36 correct, white Catholics getting only 16 correct, and white Mainline Protestants only got 15 correct. Among minority groups, the numbers were even lower, with Hispanic Catholics only being able to answer 11 out of the 36 questions correctly, and African-American Protestants being able to answer only 13 out of the 36 questions correctly. Yet, most Americans are still as spiritual as ever – which means, in the lack of knowledge of theology or of personal investment in religion, they start to gravitate towards alternative spirituality (which can be seen in the fact that books and persons supporting New Ageism have found support in allies as varied as Oprah Winfrey and the New York Times Bestseller List, and the well-known studies showing how contemporary youth are increasingly gravitating towards “Therapeutic Moralistic Deism”).
It’s not that Americans are stupid. In 2013, the American Psychological Association reported that between 1900 and 2012, the average IQ in the United States rose by nearly 30 points. In 1900, the average IQ was 70, but about a century later it is a little under 100. This is due, in part, to better education and the fact that our brains have adapted to the world being more complex. Those who have worked on the show are also not stupid. According to IMDb, Chuck Lorre, the executive producer and writer of the show, also worked on such shows as “Roseanne,” “Two And A Half Men,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and “The Big Bang Theory.” He is obviously a creative man, which requires a decent level of intelligence. Also according to IMDb, writer and producer Eric Kaplan, who worked on one of the episodes, was the son of a biology teacher and a lawyer, was a Harvard graduate, and began (though never completed) a Ph.D. program in analytic philosophy at UC Berkley. He also worked on shows such as “Malcom in the Middle,” “The Big Bang Theory,” and “Futurama.” So, it is clear that there are intelligent and creative people working on the show, writing for an audience with pretty decent I.Q.’s. It’s not through a lack of intelligence that most Americans lack a proper spiritual basis; rather, it is the lack of being told the truth.
Why Americans are not as invested in organized religion, or as knowledgeable about theological or spiritual issues (all while continuing to claim to be spiritual in some sense) is the result of many and complex social, historical, cultural, and ideological factors. But, one thing that is true is that many Americans have what it takes to understand the truths revealed by God, and the desire, but, they are not being spiritually fed. And so they often turn to other sources, and often receive answers similar to the ones provided above. What is seen in that answer is a combination between faux spirituality, New Age theology, and scientism. This represents the current tripartite threat to Christianity, and religion in general – rabid secularism, fluffy, meaningless theology, and morally, theologically and spiritually unstable ideologies. Ultimately, what people desire is intelligibility, order and meaning to the universe, which for many people is intimately tied with the notion of the universe being ordered towards a higher cause. When one does not receive this from their own religious community, they will find this in atheist ideologies or in New Age ideology or in secularism, for example. But, the fullness of the truth of this matter can be seen in looking to the Christian tradition in its fullness, as something handed on to us from He Who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
- The Pew Research Center provides some good resources on the current state of religion and spirituality in the United States. Cited in this essay are the following: “Attendance at Religious Services” (http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/attendance-at-religious-services/) and “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey” (http://www.pewforum.org/2010/09/28/u-s-religious-knowledge-survey/). The following survey on the reasons for the increase in “nones” – that is, people who do not identify with any given religion (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/08/24/why-americas-nones-left-religion-behind/) – is also insightful, as is the following article on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/controversy/common-misconceptions/on-moralistic-therapeutic-deism-as-u-s-teenagers-actual-tacit-de-facto-religious-faith.html).
- A fruitful discussion on how to evangelize in the face the challenges created by the religious views of modern-day society can be found in the discussion between two famous apologists, Bishop Robert Barron and Dr. William Lane Craig.
- Some good discussions on the classical view on the nature of God include Bishop Robert Barron’s many talks on scientism (the following link includes just one example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ZkHv8iTJPo). David Bentley Hart’s critique of Theistic Personalism also provides some good insight into this.
- As a counterbalance, just for good measure.