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Sep22MonHow does TV's most popular comedy explore the science-vs.-religion debate? September 22, 2014 by Kristin Ostensen
You'd think a show about four geeky scientists wouldn't exactly be compelling TV. A typical episode of The Big Bang Theory could feature a discussion of string theory, a trip to the comic book store or a video game marathon.
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And yet Big Bang is the most popular show in Canada, drawing in 3.5 to 4 million viewers each week (and another 20 million in the United States). As it heads into its eighth season, which premieres September 22, the show is more popular than ever. So what's its secret?
First, for a group of three physicists and an engineer, Leonard (Johnny Galecki), Sheldon (Jim Parsons), Howard (Simon Helberg) and Raj (Kunal Nayyar) are surprisingly relatable. Scientists or not, we've all had times when we've felt like we don't fit in. And while the show plays their socially awkward behaviour for laughs, it does so with an underlying compassion for them as “real” people who can grow and change. (Even Sheldon, the show's egotistical misanthrope, has his moments.) The cast also includes non-scientist Penny (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting), next-door neighbour to Leonard and Sheldon, who acts as an audience surrogate—the “every person” who is introduced to geek culture by her new friends.
That's the other key to Big Bang's popularity: the mainstreaming of geek culture. Fantasy heroes are front-and-centre during summer blockbuster season with film franchises such as The Avengers and X-Men. Traditionally “geeky” interests such as card games, collectibles and comic conventions are no longer seen as abnormal. And interest in science continues to grow as we become more dependent on technology and people turn from religion to science as a way to explain the mysteries of the universe.
The apparent tension between science and religion is a theme that is explored throughout The Big Bang Theory. The show is not overtly hostile toward religion, with Raj being nominally Hindu and Howard Jewish. However, Sheldon, who grew up in a conservative Christian home in Texas, frequently expresses his reservations. After discovering that his World of Warcraft (an internet-based video game) account has been compromised, he exclaims, “Why hast thou forsaken me, O deity whose existence I doubt?” Amy (Mayim Bialik), Sheldon's girlfriend, expresses a similar agnosticism when she says, “I don't object to the concept of a deity, but I'm baffled by the notion of one that takes attendance.”
If we ignore science because we think it will challenge our faith, what does that say about our faith?
Sheldon's main foil in this respect is his mother, Mary (Laurie Metcalf), whose Christian beliefs he once refers to as “pre-Enlightenment mythology.” For the most part, Mary is a caricature of a fundamentalist Christian. She shows up throughout the series, but gets a special focus in a season 5 episode called “The Rhinitis Revelation” when she comes to visit Sheldon in Pasadena, California. While there, she plans to attend a cruise called the Born Again Boat Ride, which features activities such as Jonah and the Whale Watching, all-you-can-eat Last Supper Buffet and, her personal favourite, Gunning with God.
Along with being somewhat judgmental and occasionally racist, Mary is a creationist who is not interested in science. When Sheldon offers to take her to a scientific lecture while she's visiting, he warns her, “He will be stating that the universe is older than 6,000 years, but I thought you could stick your fingers in your ears and hum Amazing Grace during those parts.”
Is this an accurate portrayal? Are Christians anti-science? The church doesn't have the best track record when it comes to science, often regarding advances with suspicion. Young-earth creationism is a thorny issue for many people. According to a recent poll, 14 percent of Canadians think that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years, and that number jumps to 38 percent among people who attend religious services. In other words, a large percentage of religious people choose to ignore empirical evidence in favour of a literal interpretation of a book that is not a science textbook and was never intended to be treated as one.
There are people who use science to argue that faith is irrational, like believing in the Tooth Fairy. But if we ignore science because we think it will challenge our faith, what does that say about our faith? What are we afraid of?
Science and faith are not incompatible. If we believe that Jesus is the truth (see John 14:6), then all truth—including scientific discoveries—is God's truth, a revelation of his goodness and his love for all of creation.