Responses to Young Sheldon: Religion and Science

Background

My wife Kristen recently started watching Young Sheldon on Netflix. If you’ve been hiding under a rock, Young Sheldon follows Sheldon Cooper, a genius character from the show The Big Bang Theory, as a child.

Young Sheldon is set in Texas and in Episode 3, it introduces Pastor Jeff.

Pastor Jeff is a terrible pastor, and I’m not just saying this because he’s a Baptist and I’m PC(USA) – there are better Baptist pastors – or because he’s a strawman created by the showrunners – I’ve heard worse.

When I was watching the show over my wife’s shoulder, she said, “I bet you’d love having [young Sheldon] in church.” She wasn’t joking, she was serious… and she was right.

And she got me thinking.

Pastor Jeff is a recurring character in Young Sheldon, and Sheldon confronts him fairly regularly, so I thought it’d be fun to reply to Sheldon’s questions or challenges. Without further ado…

Response #1

Pastor Jeff: Sometimes people say to me, “Pastor Jeff, how do you know there’s a God?” And I say, “It’s simple math. God either exists or he doesn’t. So let’s be cynical. Worst-case scenario, there’s a 50-50 chance. And I like those odds.

Sheldon: That’s wrong.

Young Sheldon, “Poker, Faith, and Eggs: Ep. 3”

Correct, that’s wrong. Sheldon, a few lines later, is right: Pastor Jeff is confusing possibility and probability – there are only two options and if they are both equally probable, it’s 50-50.

But they’re not equally probable, and this conflation was so far-fetched and intellectually bankrupt that I had to read Sheldon’s response to it multiple times before I figured out how he managed to even come up with the 50-50 odds. It’s embarrassing.

But besides the possibility / probability mix-up (and that mix-up is very screwed up), there’s a theological problem here, too:

There’s a range of odds on the existence of God, based on what you mean when you say “God.” I personally don’t believe in many of them. Some of them provably don’t exist. (Not probably, provably).

A god who is visibly in the room with everyone all the time? Provably doesn’t exist.

A 5-story visible unicorn who lives in New York City and gives all the residents candy every day? No.

A god who created the earth 6,000 years ago? Ask a good scientist; unless that God is also trying to trick us with the fossil record, that god doesn’t exist either.

A god who keeps bad things from happening to everyone who believes in him? Only if you redefine “bad things” to mean “things that didn’t happen to people who believe in God.”

But what about other ideas about God?

What about a God who is active in the world mostly behind the scenes, who doesn’t force anything, whose love is uncontrolling – a God who acts in the world by influencing people to love one another more? What if “God” is just another word for “Love”?

That’s uncontradictable. You can’t prove that God doesn’t exist because you can’t prove love doesn’t exist. If that’s what you mean when you say God, God absolutely and provably exists.

But when Pastor Jeff just says God’s existence is a 50-50 chance, he hasn’t defined what he means when he says “God.” And to be fair, the show doesn’t have time to show us Pastor Jeff’s entire sermon library and tell us everything he believes about God.

Response #2

Pastor Jeff: So what do you think the odds are that God exists?

Sheldon: I think they’re zero. I believe in science.

(Later in the same episode)

Given the theology I’ve seen in this show, I don’t think the odds are good that what people in this show mean when they say “God” exists.

But people mean so many diverse things when they say “God” that before you can say such an entity does or doesn’t exist, or is likely or unlikely to exist, you have to know in advance what they mean by “God.”

But it’s a fair guess there’s a good amount of things in Pastor Jeff’s picture of God (I haven’t gotten far enough to know for sure) that range between very unlikely and provably wrong.


Okay, that was fun. I thought I’d cover the whole interaction in one post, but I’m going to have to break off the religion and science part of the conversation for next time, if there is one.

About David M. Schell


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