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The Church of House

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"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.

Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory HouseThe 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?

House: Nothing.

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.

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About Diane Kristine Wild

Diane travels. She doesn't tan.
  • Tina

    “Nonetheless, the show clearly presented it as testing a theory. The point is that House is not actually an atheist, despite identifying himself as one, so we agree on that.”
    This assumes that an atheist apriori rejects the testing of theories that may prove the existence of a god. This is not so in House’s case because he is a firm believer in rational knowledge. It would rather be the agnostic for whom a test would be meaningless since the fact cannot be knowable. And of course the testing of a theory is the scientific method of gaining knowledge, even if the presented claims of facts are considered dubious. I don’t see how he displays self-doubt in his atheism if he sets out to test a hypothesis – it’s the rational scientist’s only way to explore the world, otherwise he would make claims on a basis of a method similar to religious faith – call it unscientific arrogance. Scientific knowledge is provable, testable and hence refutable if proven wrong. One also doesn’t need to believe in a theory in order to test it (even if to disprove it). It’s called objectivity as opposed to faith. As to House following his hunches as a “faith”, the comparison is not accurate since he trusts himself because he trusts his knowledge rather than his vanity. As for the nun’s remark, it is of course her interpretation of what his exasperation means, and she is biased towards faith in god. What she interprets one way may also be interpreted in another, i.e. as anger with human folly.

    I still don’t see a strong case being made that House is an agnostic or a doubter rather than an atheist, but the show is indeed to be commended for exploring aspects of the religious debate and making a strong showcase of how a rational scientific mind would approach the subject of god’s existence.

  • Louise

    Sometimes, I wonder, if 1,000 years from now people will look at our wrangling about the existence of God and smile condescendingly at our world view that fragments, classifies, and struggles with literal empiricism. I imagine they will still be wrangling–just with a different world view. I look at the Elizabethan notion of the Chain of Being that way–it’s quaint. But without that orderly concept what foundation would Darwin have had to build on? Standing in Westminster Abby one morning,just after taking communion, I looked back in the beautiful morning sun and saw the tombs of both Darwin and Newton. All the Saints, you know. It made me smile.

    Yes, I agree with the nun. House believes in God; he’s just angry with her.

    I love this quote from Shaw’s Saint Joan:
    JOAN. I hear voices telling me what to do. They come from God.
    ROBERT. They come from your imagination.
    JOAN. Of course. That is how the messages of God come to us.

  • Though if we invented him, House wouldn’t believe in him, either 😉

    (And yeah, exactly, Christopher!)

  • Si Richard Dawkins n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer.

  • Dawkins is just as big a jerk as House! Fictional or not, what is it with these people? 😉

  • Thanks Phillip! That’s sweet.

    Christopher, I might be missing your joke, because I know you know I’m talking about the events of a TV show, but the point is that *House* thinks it’s necessary to prove everything, which is why he can’t ever be a true atheist. I’m not trying to make a case that atheists must prove their beliefs – Richard Dawkins has tried and in so doing, makes me wish I wasn’t on his side.

  • Diane, it’s not necessary to prove or disprove the non-existence of something, that’s simply a logical fallacy put about by faithists.

    The burden of proof lies with those making the positive case, end of story.

  • Brilliant, brilliant stuff, Diane. You’ve made my evening!

  • Aww, thanks C. I’m still around, just slacking 😉

  • C.

    Dearie me, I’ve missed you. Not to disparage the other newly appointed House critics on this site, they just aren’t my cup of tea. You’re not a House apologist; forgiving everything like a schoolgirl with a crush; there was always a scope & depth in your writing that explored his compelling relationships with Wilson, Cuddy, his fellows and patients his flaws and as shown here the interlinking clues from past episodes regarding his belief or disbelief. I’ll stop gushing, but hope that you continue writing about House however often that you can.

  • Thanks BoffleB., enjoyed your thoughts too. I’ve always loved the way the show dips into ethical areas, and how the character constantly surprises me and yet always seems true to a vision.

  • BoffleB.

    Thanks for writing on this topic, Diane. Very well-thought out take on one of the central themes of House, as brilliantly shown in the episodes you mention, especially Damned If You Do and House vs. God, two of the strongest entries in the series.

    It’s ironic that the most un-PC, aggressively rude character on TV is also the one that shines an unbiased light on the topics of ethics, morality, hypocrisy and religion. They are topics House thinks about and tests, as in 97 seconds, and really, all the time. His personal ethos seems to be something he relies upon only as much as it can withstand his ruthless testing of its tenets.

    Churches are traditionally said to provide sanctuary, which House seems to need, but they also create divisiveness and isolation, both of which he has in spades. Your comment, “House is a troubling character to revere.” is exactly right. You feel you understand him, but he’s always a step or two ahead and then when you see how he got there, it seems to have been either inevitable or, well, inexplicable.

  • Nonetheless, the show clearly presented it as testing a theory. The point is that House is not actually an atheist, despite identifying himself as one, so we agree on that. I think he’d argue against nihilism though, since he believes in objective right and wrong – though his version of that absolute truth often goes against the accepted version.

  • Elaine

    House isn’t your typical atheist. The character is more of a nihilist. There is a huge difference. House is a breed of non-theist that the religious oh so love to use to attack atheism. You know the cynical doom and gloom outlook on life. As far as his behavior in the show as pertaining to momentarily killing himself, I don’t think that its a very realistic assessment of any sane or rational person testing any hypothesis. It seemed more an act of desperation from a pill junky. Possibly seeking a reprieve from his addiction, pain, and nihilist outlook on life. The reprieve being one of two possible options death or a spiritual experience that will prove his pessimism wrong. Not to mention his attention seeking behavior. He’s screaming for attention and confrontation anything to help him feel human. It seems that the character identifies humanity with the negative aspects of life, maybe something to do with his father the colonial.

  • I love those quotes, Terri!

  • Terri

    Very nicely done! Religion is a wonderful topic for the writers of House to tackle because the character is so tortured. Houses’ views remind me of two quotes that I once heard. One was from an islamic leader of all people who said “the human race is the only one that goes to war to prove that their imaginary friend is better than their neighbor’s.” The next is simply that dogs are the only living creatures that know beyond a shadow of a doubt who their God is; human’s. Both sound like something that House would say.

  • You’re preaching to the converted here, and I’d say you’re arguing semantics. The fact remains, as we both are saying, you can’t disprove the nonexistence of something. When we get into quantum physics, it starts to sound like scientists are inventing purely imaginative assumptions. Call it what you will, but believing that logic can explain everything when we are not actually able to put that into practice with what we know today is something other than entirely empirical.

    It’s far more rational than the alternative, but I’m calling it faith in science. Call it whatever you want, but neither side, religious or atheist, can claim the ability to test their hypothesis.

    And to get back to House, which is what this is all about, he’s an atheist who did try to test it – what does that say about common sense and logical thinking?

  • Elaine

    “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.”

    LOL thats like saying, “Prove that there are no purple and green spotted flying horses roaming the Appalachian mountains.” You can’t disprove the existence of anything. But you can prove the existence of something. So you see its not a question of having faith that there is no God. The simple fact that there is no proof of a god makes the assumption that there is no god quite sound. I don’t have faith that there aren’t purple and green spotted flying horses. I know that there isn’t such a creature living based on the fact that there are volumes of scientific observation and documentation of the wildlife in the Appalachian mountains and those sort of flying horses have never been observed. Denying the existence of purely imaginative assumptions based on zero evidence isn’t taking a leap of faith, its using common sense and logical thinking.