"Choosing agnosticism as a means of faith is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation."
So said narrator Piscine Molitor Patel in Yann Martel’s engrossing novel Life of Pi. It’s a crankily accurate sentiment worthy of Dr. Gregory House … except the self-professed atheist often comes across as more of an agnostic himself.
Religion has always been a thread running throughout House. In an interview a couple of years ago with the Canadian Jewish News, creator David Shore gave some insight into why, saying he found the absence of religion on TV artificial. "Even if someone's not religious, religion is a significant part of their life, especially at times of crisis."
Cuddy and Wilson are clearly Jewish, but their religion is a background fact, like that Wilson’s full name, according to sharp-eyed viewers who have honed in on the diploma in his office, is James Evan Wilson. J.E.W. Hmm, I want to believe that was unintentional. If not, at least they refrained from calling Hugh Laurie's character Gregory Oliver Dwelling.
The doctor with the God complex positions himself as an atheist and dismisses faith as a way to fill the holes of our ignorance. While he can’t believe in religion on faith, he does believe in his medical hunches on faith; his faith lies in himself, not in God. It's only fitting that he often wittily conflates the two ("This is exactly why I created nurses").
Despite Shore's contention, it’s impossible to imagine House following a religion even in crisis, when following is anathema to him, never mind faith. But his peculiar relationship with religion took on new prominence in the first episodes of the fourth season, from his duels with Mormon fellowship candidate Cole (a.k.a. Big Love), to the patient who sees dead people, to House's quest to examine even his own atheism through a scientific lens.
"97 Seconds," brought to us by the writing team of Russel Friend and Garrett Lerner, had House attempting to prove the nonexistence of an afterlife. But why prove something he already firmly believes, with results he couldn't possibly prove to others and that he only shared with a dead man?
He'd already been clinically dead twice before, and neither time was a religious experience. In "Three Stories" and in "No Reason," the dead doc used his downtime to let his rational mind sort out a problem, and yet he felt the need to test his knife-wielding patient's claims this time. Is it possible House has doubts about his religious doubt? That the atheist equivalent of a Doubting Thomas is a Doubting Gregory?
While pondering the ecstasy of his "97 Seconds" clinic patient who wanted to briefly die again for another taste of the afterlife, House faced the calm of his paralyzed patient welcoming death as a release from his restricted, painful life. "Don't be an idiot. There is no after, there's just this," was House's coldly rational response.
Wilson: You can't let a dying man take solace in his beliefs?
House: His beliefs are stupid. … He shouldn't be making a decision based on a lie. Misery is better than nothing.
Wilson: You don't know there's nothing. You haven't been there.
House: Oh god, I'm tired of that argument. I don't have to go to Detroit to know that it smells.
Wilson: Yes, Detroit, the afterlife, same thing.
After unintentionally goading his friend into a pseudo-empirical test, Wilson was distraught at what that reveals about House's state of mind. "Maybe you didn't want to die, but you didn't care if you lived," he chastised. That line echoes the season two finale "No Reason," written by David Shore and Lawrence Kaplow:
Moriarty: You don’t care whether you live or die?
House: I care because I live. I can’t care if I’m dead.
"97 Seconds," however, represents a leap from responding to a brush with death to actively courting death, and in an immediate, knife-in-an-electric-socket kind of way rather than the usual truth-telling, Vicodin-popping, alcohol-guzzling, motorcycle-riding, baiting-large-angry-men kind of way. And House's payoff after his 97 seconds of death looked awfully like a letdown to the atheist who was supposedly proving his own beliefs correct.
Wilson: House? What did you see?
Wilson: Nothing you don't want to talk about it, or nothing?
Later, we heard the answer, as a sorry-looking House confronted his dead patient: "I'm sorry to say I told you so."
Sowing the seeds of disbelief
The copper-allergic nun in season one’s "Damned If You Do" first spotted House as a possible atheistic fraud. “You can’t be angry at God and not believe in him at the same time,” she pointed out when he catalogued the horrors of the world as proof of religion's irrationality. And who can question the wisdom of a nun? Well, perhaps an atheist.
That Humanitas Prize finalist episode, which outed Chase as a former seminary student, was our first hint that faith, from atheism to as Catholic as you can get without being Pope, would be treated with respect by the series. Of course our equal-opportunity bigot lead character scorns any sign of it, but isn't being disrespectful to all points of view the next best thing to being respectful?
"What I have difficulty with is the whole concept of belief," he told Sister Augustine then. "Faith isn’t based on logic and experience."
The problem House encounters, the problem he overlooks that makes him electrocute himself in "97 Seconds," is that atheism requires faith, too. Richard Dawkins notwithstanding, it's impossible to prove the nonexistence of a deity. An agnostic might say it's unknowable, but that wouldn't satisfy the man who must know. Yet rejecting the answers provided by religion means having faith that what we don't know is explainable in terms other than the supernatural.
Religious belief bugs House almost to an irrational degree, but so does doubt. "Faith — that's another word for ignorance, isn't it?" he's said. Atheists don't have the magic answers for the inexplicable either, other than an understanding that we don't know everything there is to know about science.
House's normally convoluted metaphors got an even greater workout in Doris Egan's season two episode "House vs. God." He ranted about our tendency to fill ignorance with religion and resist rational argument:
"You know, I get it if people were just looking for a way to fill the holes. But they want the holes. They want to live in the holes, and they go nuts when someone else pours dirt in their holes. Climb out of your holes, people!"
Or, as he put it less dramatically this season in Egan and Leonard Dick's "The Right Stuff": "Rational arguments don't usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people."
Yet House has acknowledged that his beliefs are a choice based on the most unscientific of principles: personal comfort. In David Shore's Emmy- and Humanitas-winning "Three Stories," the penultimate episode of season one, Wilson questions whether the visions House had while clinically dead were real.
House: Define real. They were real experiences. What they meant? Personally, I choose to believe that the white light people sometimes see, the visions this patient saw, they’re all just chemical reactions that take place when the brain shuts down.
Foreman: You choose to believe that?
House: There’s no conclusive science. My choice has no practical relevance to my life. I choose the outcome I find more comforting.
Cameron: You find it more comforting to believe that this is it?
House: I find it more comforting to believe that this isn’t simply a test.
In "House vs. God," Wilson defined the choice another self-preserving way: "That's why religious belief annoys you. Because if the universe operates by abstract rules, you can learn them and you can protect yourself. If a supreme being exists, he can squash you anytime he wants."
This season, he again doubted House's atheism by questioning House's sudden obsession with the afterlife, just as I'm doing. "My only obsession is with the idiots in the right-here-and-now life who think there's an afterlife," House responded.
But it's more than that. House acts as though he has absolute faith in himself, which is a very different thing from saying he has absolute faith in himself. The exodus of his original fellows has thrown him off-balance, though he won't admit it out loud. Wilson thinks his Survivor game is a reaction to letting them get too close, and indeed, House has almost-but-not-quite sent out feelers to see if the fired Chase and driven-out Cameron want their jobs back.
The death of his patient in "97 Seconds" caused him some serious self-doubt, until he was proven right in theory, just wrong in carrying out the theory. He may blame Thirteen for her error, but as Cuddy pointed out, House is ultimately responsible, and made himself slightly dead when he should have been making sure his patient lived. More to the point, the short death of his clinic patient caused him to doubt his disbelief in the afterlife.
Losing his religion
The most backhanded compliment I've ever received was "you're a nice person for an atheist." No one would accuse House of being nice, but lest we confuse religion with morality, he is far from amoral. Even though “Do unto others as you would have done unto you” and "Above all, do no harm" would seem to be foreign concepts to the man, he has his own morality and code of ethics, quite apart from the Golden Rule or the Hippocratic Oath.
That code has always been to do whatever it takes to save the patient, but with season three's attempts to treat himself, and this season's reality show hiring fair, he is more prone to lose that focus, as "97 Seconds" proved.
Even when his single-mindedness works in his patients' favour, House is a troubling character to revere. His agnostic atheist philosophy is no less inconsistent than that of the congregation of fans who worship this insulting and, in the big picture of health care, dangerously short-sighted character.
As Foreman's former boss put it, "There's a reason we have rules. If every doctor did whatever his gut said was right, we'd have a lot more dead bodies to deal with. … You confused saving her life with doing the right thing." Or, as Foreman put it to Cuddy about his current boss, back in season two's "Deception":
"House is not a hero. A person who has the guts to break a bad rule, they’re a hero. House doesn’t break rules, he ignores them. He’s not Rosa Parks, he’s an anarchist. All he stands for is the right for everyone to grab whatever they want, whenever they want. You tell doctors that’s okay, your mortality rate is going to go through the roof."
However, House is a hero on a smaller scale. Coming from the real world where doctors are often kind but dismissive, no wonder we congregate to a fictional doctor who's personally dismissive but professionally dedicated to finding the answers. If I were House's patient, I'd rather have his religion tell him to save my life than do the right thing (Of course, to be an "anti-semantic bastard" like House, if I died, I wouldn't have the option to care).
What does it mean, then, if, as in season three's "Insensitive" or this season's "97 Seconds," House loses sight of his redeeming feature, his saving grace, his one true thing, his own personal religion? The church of House just might crumble. But if, like the prodigal son, he keeps coming back to it in the following episodes, as in "Half-Wit" or "Whatever It Takes," the show's vision remains on its firm foundation … unlike House's atheism.