I'm excited to kick off my sub-project of The Discovery Project with someone who has known me my entire life: my older (and only) sibling, my brother, Jason Gurley. Even though we were raised under the same roof(s) with the same parents, we have forged very different paths as far as spiritual understanding and beliefs go. I've always looked up to Jason, and not because he's so much taller than me; he has a very solid understanding of who he is and he has always given me permission to disagree. In fact, it's possible he is the first person I learned that from - the agreeing to disagree while maintaining a relationship, even when sometimes it's very difficult.
Jason is a writer as well, he's authored many books, most recently Eleanor: the story he began writing 15 years ago. I have seen Eleanor through many drafts and revisions; it's the story I fell asleep to while he was reading it to me and, not wanting to hurt his feelings, pretended I had only closed my eyes to "soak it in". Sorry, Jas!
Jason is an amazing storyteller. If I never read another book or saw another movie, I'd only need my brother to recount the stories and scenes from his own perspective to feel as if I'd read, watched, or experienced them myself.
Responses by Jason Gurley
What do you believe, and why?
I believe it to be extraordinarily unlikely that there is a god. If there is a god, or many gods, or any form of more-evolved or supernatural being, then I believe he/she/it/they are unlikely to be concerned with our existence, our problems, our hopes, our dreams. This isn’t a belief that I arrived at lightly, given the many years spent in the Pentecostal church. I sincerely believed, for a very long time, that I was somehow flawed: I watched people around me jitter and writhe and shake and speak in tongues; I listened to them share stories of conversations they’d had with God; they described their answered prayers, their miracles. I was quite capable of being whipped up by the frenzy of the crowd; we all are, really, under the right circumstances. And I believed that all of this was true, and that I had to learn to access it, and that if I failed, I would die and be punished for eternity. But from an early age, the concept of eternity frightened me — even the idea of spending it in a supposedly positive environment, like heaven. I could not speak in tongues. I just…went along. I pretended, and convinced myself, I think, that I wasn’t pretending. The alternative was to be singled out as one who did not belong, or worse, one who was rejected.
How did you discover your beliefs?
It wasn’t until my early twenties that I began to discover books and lectures that resonated with me, that seemed to explain why I was the way that I was. I read books by Christopher Hitchens, by Richard Dawkins, by Carl Sagan, and they helped me to look at my experiences very differently. Carl Sagan once said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. He also said that he wasn’t an atheist, that an atheist has compelling evidence that there is no god. Sagan allowed for the possibility that there was a god, and that we had yet no evidence to support the existence of one. This made sense to me. This was rational, reasonable thinking. I had no evidence that I had ever spoken in tongues, that any god had ever answered a prayer that I’d uttered. Nothing proved, conclusively, that it was the work of any god, and coincidence seemed a more likely explanation.
How do you interact with your beliefs?
I don’t, really. I left the Pentecostal church in my early twenties, and I’m not far from forty now. My beliefs don’t really require much action on my part, frankly, only an openness to the possibility of evidence, if any ever arrives, that I’m incorrect about the existence of a higher power. I did spend many years wrestling with the consequences of the decision to leave the church. After all, it had formed the backbone and the protective shell of most of my life. My family, my friends, all were connected to the church. Leaving felt like an act of rebellion as well as a step in the direction of my own personal independence. To process all of my varied emotions about this, I spent years writing a novel that explored those feelings through the lens of fiction. Looking back, that only prolonged my ability to process things; when I realized that, I stopped writing that story, and began writing another.
What do you do when you doubt your beliefs?
I don’t doubt my beliefs. But those were beliefs that I inherited, and that I held during my formative years. As such, I have many conflicting feelings about them now. There are aspects of the way that I grew up that I am oddly nostalgic for, and yet that I strongly disagree with now. I sometimes resent my upbringing and feel that it caged me for a very long time, giving me a later start than others on the process of coming into my own, and understanding myself. Sometimes I’m grateful for it, because I feel that it gave me a structure that I could push against and question, and I wonder: if not for that structure, would I have such well-defined feelings about this topic now? Occasionally the subject of belief and faith comes up because I’m a parent now, and my wife and I are raising a daughter, and deciding what to teach her, what to expose her to, and other faith-related subjects, can be tricky to navigate. It’s our job to equip her to make decisions on her own. We have strong feelings about faith and belief, but we don’t want to push her down any particular road. We prefer to give her the tools she needs to consider these things for herself, before making up her mind. In other words, she’ll have the opportunity that I didn’t: to choose her own path, using her own common sense and understanding of the world to do so.
To read more My Discovery Process submissions, you can find them here.