Why (and How) You Should Read Books You Won’t Agree With
Have you ever picked up a book to read it, knowing you would disagree with its main message? I’m convinced we must do that as Christians. One obvious reason is to broaden your knowledge. Here are three less obvious reasons to do the same.
Three Reasons to Read Books You Don’t Agree With
1. The Steel Man. Most of the time when we approach perspectives different from our own, we do it so we can respond with arguments against them. Too often we take on a weakened form of the opposing argument — a ‘straw man’ that can be knocked down easily. But that is no response at all. The best answers are those that target the best version of the argument, a ‘steel man’ that is as strong as — or stronger than — what a proponent of the argument would present. A great way to do this is by reading how the foremost advocates of the position argue for it.
2. Filters. Reading authors you disagree with allows you to step into their shoes and see things from their perspective. It’s different from having their views explained by someone else who’s on your side of the issue. No matter how charitable they may be, they’re still promoting their own views. They still filter opposing views through their own aims and biases. Authors also tend to simplify opposing views, weakening their force. Directly reading an opponent’s views gets rid of these filters, allowing you to discover what an opponent really believes.
3. Blind Spots. Our own perspectives are often be riddled with blind spots, hindering us from seeing valid aspects of others’ views. Reading opponents’ writings can unmask these blind spots, wake us from our dogmatic slumbers, and force us to rethink things. This can contribute to strengthening our own positions, but it might also lead us to change our mind — for good reason!
How to Read Books from Other Perspectives
But how should you read a book you disagree with? Here are three suggestions:
1. Stick with It. It’s easy to lose interest when reading opposing views. It’s easy to give up. I suggest you dedicate a part of your day to reading the book. I do this by listening to audiobook versions on my hour-long commute to school. However you decide to do it, stick with it.
2. Critical, Not Hyper-critical. It’s great to be on the lookout for fallacies and errors. But it’s also important not to read with a hyper-critical attitude, a committed effort to find fault with the book, so much that you miss seeing positive points the author might have made. (Christian critics who mock The God Delusion for its infamous reference to God of the Old Testament as “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction” quote often fail to mention a remarkable section in the same book that pays homage to the King James Bible.) So take notes on both the good and the bad as you read.
3. With Others. You might think that reading anti-Christian books might cause you doubts about your faith. I can assure you, even the best anti-Christian authors’ arguments are no match for great Christian thinking. Still you might want to form a reading group, where members read a selected book together. You can do this on social media and not have to worry about finding a physical place and time to meet. And you can ask faith-related questions, and support each other with answers.
A Recommended “Other Side” Reading List
These books are great starting points. Remember: These books aren’t listed as recommended ways for you to think, but ideas for you to think about.
1. Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens’ final book records his reflections on the physical ordeal he goes through during his battle with terminal esophageal cancer. By coming to terms with his own mortality, leaving out much of the bombastic rhetoric he displayed on the debate stage, Mortality reveals a human chink in the armor of the otherwise stoic and hardened atheist.
2. A Defense of Abortion, by David Boonin. Setting aside common caricatures of the pro-life movement, Boonin attempts to engage with pro-life advocates on their own terms, serving up a robust critique of popular objections to the pro-choice position.
3. Ethics in the Real World, by Peter Singer. Christian apologists frequently cite Singer’s pro-infanticide views as a tragic case of atheism followed to its logical conclusions. Rather than hearing his views through the filter of a Christian critic, however, reading Ethics in the Real World for yourself allows you direct access to Singer’s thoughts on matters ranging from abortion and animal rights to the meaning of life.
George Brahm is a philosophy student and pro-life advocate based in Canada. He runs Cogent Christianity, a group blog on theology, philosophy and cultural issues, as well as the popular YouTube channel “Apologetics ThugLife.” You can find him on Twitter at @GeekPhilosopher.