Sy Garte
 on December 03, 2019

From Generational Atheism to Community in Christ: A Scientist’s Journey

Sy tells his story, from growing up in a nonreligious family to finding Christ in the midst of pursuing his scientific career.

church congregation with raised and open hands

Photo by Pedro Lima on Unsplash

My journey to faith in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior was a very long one, mostly because of where I started from. My parents had been members of the American Communist Party and were fierce, militant atheists. After moving to a new street in Brooklyn, New York, I was asked by one of the neighborhood kids why he hadn’t seen me at Mass. “What’s Mass?” I replied. He gave me an odd look and asked, “Are you a Jew?” I was just as confused: “What’s that?”

I asked my mother what these strange new words meant, and her answer was not exactly crystal clear to my nine-year-old self. It was something about how religion has always been the worst thing in human history, and how our family disregarded all of it and believed in the unity of humanity to fight for justice and dignity.

Even in the mid-1950s, in the absence of Google, an inquisitive kid could find stuff out if he really wanted to. I learned that my family was in fact Jewish, in that we were all descended from Russian Jews, but not a single member of my (extended) family on either side had set foot in any kind of house of worship for three generations. My ancestors were founders of several trade unions, members of the “Wobblies,” fought in the Russian Revolution, and so on. We celebrated no holidays other than New Year’s, at which time presents were exchanged, as was the custom in the Soviet Union.

I also had a deep-seated conviction that people were, in fact, remarkably special, that human life was…I would now say “holy,” but at the time I had no word for it.

Sy Garte

So that was my starting point: I never even thought about not believing in God. The concept of an invisible supernatural being in the sky was laughable to me as a teenager and beyond. Only uneducated or desperate people would entertain such nonsense.

I studied science in college—first chemistry, and then biochemistry in grad school. There were times during my early adulthood when an experience or discussion raised some doubts about my purely materialistic worldview, but they passed. I found myself passionately absorbed by the beautiful, undeniably true secrets of the chemistry of life and the even more wondrous excitement of doing scientific research. I should say that those feelings have never left me, and I remain an active scientist.

As a young adult, I began reading more deeply into physics. I was shaken by the mysteries revealed by the modern understanding of elementary particles and the nature of light. If space can bend, time can slow down, and wave functions collapse upon observation, then how valid could a rationalist view of nature be?

Doubts began to produce noticeable cracks in my solid wall of materialistic faith, and the cracks slowly spread. I was also increasingly troubled by contradictions in my overall worldview. I knew that human beings were products of blind evolution, and thus there was no special purpose to their existence, but if that was true, why was it important for us to fight for universal justice and dignity? After all, the world is a harsh place, where survival is the goal and natural selection the law. Why does it ultimately matter if people are oppressed or miserable? And why were there so many Christian clergy among African-American civil rights activists?

Of course, there are nonreligious answers to these questions, but I didn’t find them convincing. I also had a deep-seated conviction that people were, in fact, remarkably special, that human life was…I would now say “holy,” but at the time I had no word for it.

I was in my late 40s when a friend asked me to accompany her to Mass. It would be the first time I ever set foot in a church and I was terrified. I had no idea what to do, and I was sure that at some point the priest and the congregants would scowl and point at me, shouting, “Heathen, you will burn in hell!”

That didn’t happen. The priest gave a sermon about the power of love. The people next to me shook my hand and wished me peace. By then I had come to understand that my parents had lied to me about the magnificence of communism and the truth of materialism, and now I began to suspect that their view of the nature of Christianity as the chief source of historical evil was also distorted.

inside of a church

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

I decided to read the Gospels and was shocked again: I found them beautiful and inspiring. I continued, and I noticed that Acts read like actual history, not at all like a fictional account concocted to enslave the masses.

At that point, I became an agnostic. I didn’t know what to believe, but I certainly thought I could never believe in an actual God, let alone in a man who did miracles and rose from the dead. I was, after all, a scientist! And then, over the course of two or three years, the Holy Spirit had mercy on me, took hold of me, and showed me the truth of Jesus Christ in a way that was totally convincing. While there is no space to describe these events here, I do so in detail in my book.

If my scientific studies had not cracked the solid wall of my denial, and if my experience of Christianity and the Gospels had not led me to the point where I could hear God’s call to me, I probably never would have. But they did, and when the call came, I accepted Jesus, and everything changed.

But that isn’t the end of the story. For years, I followed Jesus in my heart, but I told few people, and did nothing about it. I thought I was the only scientist who believed in Christ. Seriously. I knew of no others, and I didn’t know how to look. It was a private faith, and though solid, it was not complete. And then, praise the Lord, Francis Collins wrote The Language of God and started BioLogos. I went to a meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), and I met dozens of other scientists and students who were singing hymns and praising the Lord. I found a home with BioLogos and the ASA, and I knew I was not alone.

calligraphy pen resting on a journal

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

I was baptized into the United Methodist Church at the age of 65, and today I am the lay leader of my congregation. I’m also editor-in-chief of ASA’s online magazine God and Nature. My life is now devoted to serving the Lord, and part of that mission is to share my story with others, as others have done for me.

I started writing a book about my long journey to Christ several years ago. After some fits and starts, I seriously got to work putting all the pieces together and the book has been now released by Kregel Publications. My fervent hope is that it will help those who are struggling to reconcile their faith with modern science. As BioLogos has maintained since its origin, we must do all we can to show that the so-called “war” between science and Christianity is not real. Blessed are the peacemakers.

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