Chris Redmond exposes the empiricist roots of House, Dexter and Breaking Bad.
Last month, an article in The Huffington Post documented the decline of religion and the rise of atheism in America. Since 2005, the number of Americans who claimed to be religious has declined from 73% to 60%, while the number of people identifying themselves as atheists has increased from 1% to 5%. Significant figures, to be sure, and most people will cite the success of the New Atheism movement as chiefly responsible for these startling numbers. While the achievements of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have undoubtedly shaken people’s faith in religion and superstition, there is another source that I feel might be playing a significant role – television.
Let’s look at an interesting similarity between three important shows – House, Dexter and Breaking Bad. Each of the protagonists – Greg House, Dexter Morgan and Walter White – is a committed empiricist and proud exponent of rationality. House leads a diagnostics team, Dexter is a blood spatter expert, and Walter is a chemistry teacher who once contributed to a Nobel Prize-winning research team. Furthermore, their empirical natures are anything but incidental. They are central to each show.
Take the character of House, for instance. As well as being an out-and-out atheist, House delights in the triumph of science over superstition, and like Sherlock Holmes, House discovers rational explanations for seemingly irrational occurrences. Dexter, too, is an atheist, and his highly effective scientific approach allows him to stealthily dismember and dispose of hordes of corpses. He is clinical and concise, and that, as he puts it, is “what makes him a scientist”.
Although religion does not play a prominent role in Breaking Bad, the appeal of the scientific method certainly does, and once again it provides the impetus to power the show. Walter uses his genius as a chemist to become the leading manufacturer of crystal meth in New Mexico. The moral implications of this are for another discussion, but it was pretty cool watching this extremely over-qualified teacher blowing up a drug lord’s headquarters with Mercury Fulminate.
The question, however, remains – have these shows really affected the decline in religious numbers in America? Well, with such astronomical viewing figures, I suspect they probably have. If nothing else, they are a microcosm of the growing respect for science and reason that is, at last, gaining momentum in the U.S. Just 15-20 years ago, the supernatural explanation was favoured in The X-Files, but things were different then. Twenty-first century television writers are clearly excited by the scientific method, and so, too, are the legions of viewers who just can’t get enough of these shows. Science has often been portrayed as dull, but we didn’t always have Walter White and Greg House.
Religion and science, whether we like it or not, are inextricably linked, and one’s effect upon the other is usually pretty obvious. Where science reigns, religion invariably retreats. The writers of these shows may not be consciously implementing this, but they have, at the very least, made science sexy again.