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Why reading books you disagree with helps you grow

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March 29, 2021

Amidst the constant distractions and shallowness on social media, reading a book can serve as a reprieve from the onslaught of information and as a way to challenge yourself to go deeper than 280 characters. Social media draws us in because it leads us to think we are staying connected with others, keeping up with what is going on around the world, and often takes less concentration than picking up a book. But these tools are constantly discipling us to seek expediency over the long process of learning and variety over sustained concentration. And with each click, scroll, or flick of the thumb, we are usually only being exposed to ideas that fit our preconceived beliefs about the world.

However, picking up a book that you know you will disagree with can help you understand another’s perspective and clarify why you hold to another position. This doesn’t mean that you run to just any book, but as you grow more comfortable with ideas, you can expose yourself to contrary positions in order to strengthen your own.

Understanding your neighbor

As part of my doctoral program in ethics, I recently picked up a copy of Peter Singer’s classic work Practical Ethics. This was the first time I read Singer’s work myself, but I was familiar with his line of argument for a particular form of ethical evaluation called preference utilitarianism. Singer has made waves in ethical and philosophical circles for decades, often making controversial claims about the nature of personhood and abortion, animal rights, and embryo experimentation. Originally published in 1979, the work has been reprinted countless times. Singer released two updated editions in 1993 and 2011. The book has become a staple in ethics courses across academic disciplines and has influenced countless readers, shaping their approach to ethics and morality.

As one who hopes to teach and continue to study in this field, I am behooved to be aware of these classic works and to be intimately familiar with their arguments. In so doing, I am able to better understand those around me and the true nature of the debates surrounding complex ethical decisions about the rise of technology, medicine, economics, and other social issues. Regardless of whether or not you plan to specialize in a field of study, being exposed to seminal works across a variety of disciplines can open up a world of ideas and a comprehension of your neighbors that is more than worth the time and effort.

One of the most devastating effects of the culture wars happening all around us, especially on online platforms like social media, is that we are often told that we need to be protected from the world of ideas or that reading something outside of our own beliefs might lead us down a path of destruction. While this is understandable to some extent, this siloing effect is dangerous to the life of the mind and treats the very concept of understanding our neighbors as a bridge too far.

Do we really think so little of our ability to think and reason that we cannot engage divergent positions or even allow them in the public square? Frequent examples of this are seen in our society such as Amazon delisting a book on transgenderism because it deviates from the secular orthodoxy on sexuality and the derision of entire concepts out of fear of being brainwashed. This happens on both sides of the political aisle. But one of the simplest things we can to ratchet down the tensions with our neighbors and seek to love them as ourselves is to put down our phones, pick up a book, and have an honest and humble conversation with someone who disagrees with our position on a particular topic. Living in a constant cycle of outrage shapes us into more cynical people and prevents us from growing in our faith. I am not saying that all ideas are equally valid, but regardless of what you take away from a book, it is worth the time and effort to comprehend your neighbor’s beliefs and engage them on their own terms.

Understand why you disagree

One of the joys of reading is growing in knowledge about the world around us, including those to whom we are called to minister and share the hope of the gospel with. But a second and extremely important reason behind reading things we disagree agree with is for our own personal growth. Over the years, I have found that I grow more by reading books outside of my own tribe than only reading those with whom I mostly agree. This is because when we are challenged in our own beliefs, we often dig deeper as we wrestle with various ideas and beliefs.

When reading or engaging the world of ideas, I am often reminded of the words of the Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 3:14-16 (emphasis mine):

“But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”

Reading books that you do not agree with or believe to be true can help sharpen your own ability to “make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Not only will it push you to understand your own beliefs better, but it will also equip you to engage those around you in good conscience and faith.

Recently, I was reading a work by evangelical scholar Carl F.H. Henry and was struck by how he talked about divergent ideas. Henry was quick to give credit to various thinkers when they picked up a thread of truth. In his classic work, Christian Personal Ethics, he wrote that the “world did not need to wait for Utilitarianism to assert that benevolence is good, that whatever imperiled the public good was not virtuous, that true morality tends to the welfare of the social whole. The revealed morality of the Bible had affirmed all of this.” As I read his examinations of those ideas, it became clear that he was not afraid to engage ideas contrary to his own. Not only did this equip him to better understand the world around him, but it clearly helped strengthen his own convictions about the nature of truth, morality, and even the gospel itself.

So go grab a book, a cup of coffee, and a friend to dialogue with as you engage the world of ideas and grow in your ability to interact with contrary positions, all for the sake of loving others and sharing the transformative truth of the gospel message with your neighbor.

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Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as chair of research in technology ethics at ERLC. He writes and speaks on various topics including human dignity, ethics, technology, public theology, digital governance, and artificial intelligence. His book, The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity, released March 2020 with Zondervan. He is … Read More