Sundays at the Altar of Science

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“I think it’s sad that you feel like you’re alone in the universe,” my mom recently said to me.

We were talking about the fact that I’m an atheist. Unspoken but understood was her dismay that my son and daughter aren’t religious, either. At ages 6 and 3, I’m not sure they’ve ever heard of God.

I was raised differently.

When I was growing up, my family attended a Protestant church in our small Connecticut town. On scarlet velvet pew cushions, I sang hymns and read scripture. In Sunday school, I imagined a God who knew everything about me and everything else.

I believed in biblical miracles: stories of walking on water, talking bushes and multiplying loaves of bread. These tales injected the possibility of imminent magic into my childhood. I assumed they were true because our white-haired minister told them with the same sincerity with which he praised honesty, generosity and other earnest virtues.

Church made sense to me and helped me feel safe. And then it didn’t. During my teenage years I examined what I’d heard under the glare of growing skepticism. War and tragedy filled the news, unanswered by any God I could perceive. I felt drawn to the language of biology and medicine, which — to my ears — clanged with the cadences of liturgy.

Eventually I became a physician and a scientist. As I passed through medical school and residency, my religious belief faded until it was gone. I’ve encountered wonders in the hospital and laboratory. A child paralyzed by botulism who sat up the morning after receiving an antibody. Complete genomes arrayed on my computer screen like books on a shelf. These achievements were the product of centuries of human thought and preparation. Where some people might see miracles, I see the fruits of reason.

“I don’t feel like I’m alone,” I said to my mom. “I’m surrounded by people I care a lot about.”

Two of those people are my children. After I became a dad, I wrestled with whether I should return to church for their sake, in order to pass along rituals that were formative during my childhood. I knew that my religious belief couldn’t be restored; it was as if I had undergone an irreversible chemical reaction. But I remembered how certain sermons — especially the miracle stories — once made the world seem more vibrant. I wanted my kids to have that experience.

I was looking for a new tradition for my young family, one with ancient origins and dazzling, interconnected forces, but without the supernatural overlay.

My wife, also an atheist, was a willing partner. Together we considered our options.

We established our own Sunday custom that checked all the boxes: science experiments instead of church.

Rather than kneeling in prayer, we might swab a petri dish with environmental samples from our living room floor. The appearance of bacterial and fungal growth over the next week astonishes my kids the way a rod turning into a snake in the Book of Exodus once astonished me. Their communion bread and wine are replaced by baking soda and vinegar, which when combined generate a satisfying volcanic eruption and the opportunity to talk about the ethereal realm of atoms. Sprouts in our windowsill herb garden offer a chance to introduce the concept of DNA. When I tell my son that the granular basil seed holds millions of chromosomes, the look on his face can only be described as revelatory.

Children, of course, are rigorous scientists. Toddlers observing something unusual respond with an attitude every researcher strives to maintain: open to many interpretations until they have decisive evidence for one.

I remember the first time my daughter saw a candle flame, staring at it with acquisitive curiosity.

“Don’t touch that, Maya,” I said. “You can’t hold fire, and it’s too hot to try.”

She gave me a skeptical look and — sure enough — leaned in to pinch the burning wick the moment I glanced away. Tears followed, but so did firsthand discovery. One experiment at a time, children test and refine their understanding of the world.

While I’m sure my kids will encounter religious ideas and stories of miracles before long, I won’t rush them there. Christmas in our house is a celebration of festive decorations and family reunion. We steer clear of the virgin birth and angelic tidings. And although my kids have heard about Santa, they express doubts that I make no effort to dispel. I don’t want to indicate that the natural laws they’ve painstakingly established are subject to occasional suspension.

When they eventually ask me about God, I’ll say that He’s part of a theory a lot of people believe, but which no one has ever proven. And if they want to go to a church, temple or mosque to learn more, I’ll gladly take them. Above all, I want them to reach their own conclusions, whatever those might be.

Some biblical passages remain foundational in my life — guidance whose poetry transcends faith. I carry them with me, and I’ll share them with my kids when they’re older.

“Who is wise and understanding among you?” asks the Book of James. “Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”

As a dad, I’m always wishing for more wisdom, and I’m often humbled. I worry about the challenges my kids will face on our imperiled planet, and fret about how to prepare them. I would welcome divine inspiration, but so far I’ve had to rely on intuition.

I hope that when they grow up, they’ll think of our homespun science experiments as early steps in a fruitful quest for hidden truths. I know that same hope motivated my parents to take me to church, and I consider our different approaches an evolution rather than a schism. We all want to pass on to our children a durable appreciation for the intricate splendor of the universe. By introducing science into our weekend routine, I feel I’m equipping them for the future while sharing experiences that often feel sublime.

When my son explains how the moon causes the tides or my daughter speculates about what a worm sees underground, I hear them contemplating a marvelous and mysterious reality. They summon a memory from my childhood of stepping out of church into the sparkling New England afternoon, awed by the grace and grandeur of existence.

And on Sunday morning when they dash to their plastic microscope shouting, “Let’s check on our petri dishes!” there’s only one word that captures how I feel: blessed.

Dr. Thomas Hooven is a neonatologist and microbiologist at Columbia University.