Broaden your perspective with the ‘1 after 2’ reading rule

By Matthew Gagnon

Bart Ehrman is currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of several best-selling books on religious topics. His writings range from the historical Jesus, to the development of Christianity from humble beginnings to the worldwide religion we know today. 

He is also a self-described “agnostic atheist,” and a textual critic

Ehrman is not the kind of writer one usually finds on the nightstands of devoted Christians. As Anglican priest Michael Bird once put it, “for conservative Christians, Ehrman is a bit of a bogeyman, the Professor Moriarty of biblical studies, constantly pressing an attack on their long-held beliefs about God, Jesus, and the Bible.”

And yet I, a lifelong Catholic, just finished his book “Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife.” 

In it, Ehrman attempts to trace the origins of the concept of heaven and hell as we currently conceive of them, and historically explain how those notions were developed within Christianity. He does not himself believe in an afterlife, and declares outright that the ideas of the afterlife that we have today are at odds with what Jesus taught, and what the first Christians believed. 

To explain my counterintuitive reading choice, I read Ehrman’s book because of my longstanding “one after two” rule.

Here is the basic rationale: it is impossible to seek truth, insight, wisdom or knowledge without directly challenging your beliefs. For every two books I read that align with my worldview in some way, I will read one book that opposes those views. 

As a self-described classical liberal and fusionist, I enjoy reading books that more fully develop my ideological worldview. Thus late last year I read through “Road to Serfdom” by F.A. Hayek and “The Virtue of Selfishness” by Ayn Rand, two important texts of the libertarian right. 

After I read those two books, I picked up “Das Kapital” by Karl Marx. 

Doing so was incredibly important for me, not only because it exposed me to the actual arguments, rather than the cartoonish characterizations of the communist icon contained in most mainstream discourse, but also because it forced me to consider his logic and arguments directly and sincerely. 

It is important to keep the subject-matter of the one in line with that of the two. For instance, after reading memoirs from right-wing politicians, such as “Decision Points” by former President George W. Bush and “For the Record” by former conservative British Prime Minister Kingdom David Cameron, I picked up “A Journey” by Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. 

“The Dictatorship of Woke Capital” by Stephen Soukup and “The Coddling of the American Mind” by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff were followed up by “How To Be An Antiracist” by Ibram X Kendi. Yes, I really read it. 

Sometimes I will even double up the one after the two. This happened after reading “The Power of Silence” by Catholic Cardinal Robert Sarah and “When the Church Was Young” by Marcellino D’Ambrosio. Afterward I read both “A Universe from Nothing” by Lawrence Krauss and “Zealot” by Reza Aslan. 

The point of doing all this is pretty simple. My beliefs are worthless to me if they are unable to withstand criticism or scrutiny. My ideas aren’t really ideas if I haven’t thought through the possible ways they could be wrong.

Human beings have a tendency to want to be right, and resist any confrontation of ideas that may prove them wrong. Avoiding the discomfort inherent in self-examination doesn’t actually make any of us right, however. It simply avoids any need for us to consider the possibility that we may be wrong, thus making us feel secure in ourselves. Yet that comfort is a rather cowardly form of avoidance. 

We should instead be constantly fostering skepticism. When we read things that we agree with, it is usually best to read them critically and identify logical inconsistencies throughout. When we read things we disagree with, it is best to read them sympathetically, and sincerely consider the perspective.

Doing so doesn’t mean we have to necessarily change our mind, or abandon our beliefs. I’ve found that doing this actually makes the opinions you are left with all the stronger, because you now can see the opposing point of view, and have thought much deeper about the issue.

This won’t make us all agree with each other, but it will make us smarter, and much more reasonable. Consider creating your own “one after two” rule, and see how it goes. It might surprise you how much you enjoy disagreeing with yourself.

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