Stephen Jay Gould was born and raised in the community of Bayside, a neighborhood of the northeastern section of Queens in New York City. His father Leonard was a court stenographer, and his mother Eleanor was an artist whose parents were Jewish immigrants living and working in the city's Garment District. When Gould was five years old his father took him to the Hall of Dinosaurs in the American Museum of Natural History, where he first encountered Tyrannosaurus rex. "I had no idea there were such things—I was awestruck," Gould once recalled. It was in that moment that he decided to become a paleontologist.
Raised in a secular Jewish home, Gould did not formally practice religion and preferred to be called an agnostic. Biologist Jerry Coyne, who had Gould on his thesis committee, described him as a "diehard atheist if there ever was one.