My mom was the one who told me to watch The Big Bang Theory. It was a show about nerds—and I was a nerd. She thought I’d enjoy it. A friend had already mentioned that the main character, Sheldon Cooper, was “exactly like” me. After I watched the show, at Mom’s encouragement, I joked that I had mixed feelings about the comparison.

The Big Bang Theory was extremely popular and not just with my mom; at its height, it averaged 20 million viewers a night. But it never really resonated with actual dweebs. Its audience was largely Gen X women—not people who were Sheldon but people who “knew a Sheldon,” not the geeks themselves but their mothers and friends.

It’s fitting, then, that the even-more-popular Big Bang spinoff would be Young Sheldon, a prequel about the title character’s childhood in East Texas—and that Sheldon’s relationship with his mom, Mary, would be at the heart of the show. Young Sheldon sits at the top of the prime-time rankings; one recent week, the show (which streams on Netflix, Max, and Paramount+) topped all streamed content across US household televisions.

As Young Sheldon comes to an end (its series finale airs May 16; a spinoff starring two breakout characters—Georgie and Mandy—has already been announced), so too does the onscreen dynamic between Sheldon and Mary. So too does a nostalgic vision for how the “science vs. religion” debate plays out in our families.

Mary is Sheldon’s opposite in nearly every way. He’s a logical atheist physicist with no people skills; Mary is a warm, folksy conservative Christian. In many ways, she serves as an audience surrogate. (For what it’s worth, Mary was my mom’s favorite character on TBBT; she stopped watching when she felt like the writers disrespected her faith by making her violate her Christian sexual ethics.)

Brainy Sheldon loves comic books and doesn’t believe in God; his working-class family includes not only his deeply religious mom but also a football-coach dad, an eye-rolling sister, and a charmingly slow-witted brother. They don’t understand Sheldon; he doesn’t understand them. Therein lies the fun. Like many sitcoms, Young Sheldon makes comedy out of clichés. Jokes abound about how emotional and unreasonable women are, how lazy and dumb men are, how annoying kids are, and how out-of-touch parents are.

The portrayal of Mary’s faith is just as stereotypical, if lighthearted. In season 7, she attempts to secretly baptize her granddaughter at her Baptist church out of fear her daughter-in-law Mandy’s mother will make her a Catholic first. She temporarily gets duped into giving money to a televangelist. She pushes her son and daughter-in-law, who are “living in sin,” to get married.

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These scenes are played for laughs. But Mary’s faith is also an obvious sticking point in her relationship with Sheldon. In season 7, episode 1, when Sheldon asks whether everyone in the family is okay after a natural disaster, Mary says, “Thank God, yes.” “You’re thanking the Deity who sent the tornado?” quips Sheldon. “I’m not in the mood for this!” she retorts.

“I don’t need to seek help from an invisible man,” her son says in episode 4, rejecting Mary’s offer to pray for him. “You’re right. You’ve got your invisible strings,” she replies.

Young Sheldon’s portrait of the Christian-atheist divide conforms to old clichés about these two groups. We still associate religion with less education and secularism with more education; faith with emotion and atheism with logic; faith with women and atheism with men. Religious people are backward and narrow-minded, though wholesome and grounded. Atheists are smarter and arrogant. We laugh at Sheldon’s mom—how silly she is to care so much about which church a baby is baptized in! But we also cheer for Sheldon’s humiliation; he constantly brags about how much smarter he is than the rest of his family, and that’s annoying.

Some of these clichés are partially grounded in reality—at least, they used to be. More women than men have long been dedicated churchgoers. Post-Enlightenment, intellectual life in the West has been largely synonymous with secularism and science, while religion has been the domain of the non-college-educated working class.

But today, these demographic realities are flipping. Gen Z is the first generation in ages where men outnumber women as regular churchgoers. Statistics show that the higher education you have, the more likely you are to be religious.

Young Sheldon’s portrayal of the atheist vs. Christian divide might be familiar, understandable, even funny—but it’s no longer entirely accurate.

Today, someone like Sheldon might have more in common with his mom than not. Like many young men, he might listen to Jordan Peterson; he might agree that Christianity is at least metaphorically true, if not literally accurate. He might appreciate how Christians stand up against various strands of “woke” ideology, which is increasingly rejected by young men and their married mothers alike.

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As Young Sheldon comes to a close, Sheldon and Mary haven’t reconciled their disagreements. But they have learned to appreciate each other. Sheldon recognizes that his mother’s love has given him what he needs to thrive; he’ll miss her when he leaves for Caltech. Mary acknowledges her son’s brilliance; she knows that he needs to leave to access greater opportunities than she or his family can provide. They don’t understand each other. But they love each other. (Loving despite differences also defines Sheldon’s relationship with his father, George, whose shocking death in the pre–series finale changes how Sheldon thinks of the family patriarch.)

The sitcom trope of an atheist young man and Christian older woman might be outdated in a few generations. But the vision of a family amicably “agreeing to disagree” is already old-school. For all the Sheldons aligning with their conservative Marys, there are plenty more parents and children experiencing estrangement over political, theological, and cultural debates.

“I’ll go [to church] with you, Mom,” Sheldon says in an earlier season. His sister replies, “Why are you going? You don’t believe in God.” “Nope,” Sheldon agrees. “But I believe in Mom.” “I’ll take it,” Mary says.

Can we imagine a similar scene playing out today?

Christians and atheists, men and women, older and younger generations—Young Sheldon doesn’t take these conflicts too seriously, or at least, it sees them as less important than love. No wonder the show’s been so successful; since 2017, it’s provided relief from the rancor of a particularly angry time in American life. Grace may be unpopular at the level of today’s culture wars. But for seven seasons, audiences have found it worth watching.

Joseph Holmes is a Christian culture critic and host of the weekly podcast The Overthinkers.