Malcolm Gladwell Say We Should Take Action When There is Ample Evidence of Harm… but Gives Religious Thinking a Pass

Popular author/journalist Malcolm Gladwell recently gave a talk at the University of Pennsylvania about “proof” — specifically, “How much proof do we need about the harmfulness of something before we act?” So he talks about, among other things, why we continue to play football when the evidence for players developing life-long head injuries/brain trauma is overwhelming.

At the end of his talk, during Q & A, someone asked Gladwell how his talk applies to the nature of God… (47:05)

Questioner: Hi, Malcolm. Thank you for the compelling talk. I have a more general question about proof. So I wanted to ask you, in your opinion, Do you think, based on what you said, absolute proof should not be a reason for someone to believe or not believe in God?

Gladwell: Oh, in God? Oh, wow… that’s… unanticipated… Well… I should say, as someone who comes from a very, very religious family, I would say I don’t think that any of my family members would say that they require absolute proof to believe in God. I think they are satisfied with their own faith, and that the existence of God has met whatever evidence they need to live a Christian life, and that they would say that absolute proof in that instance is impossible to find. I think that’s actually a very reasonable position. In most cases, absolute certainty is not something we’re ever gonna find. We have to learn how to make sense of our lives in the absence of that kind of perfect evidence.

Questioner: So what about for you?

Gladwell: For me? Well, I’m not a believer in quite the same way as my family, and probably because I have different standards for what I consider to be evidence of that sort. But I have enormous respect for that position.

Questioner: Thank you.

As much as I agree with Gladwell’s first point — that we have to make sense of our lives in the absence of perfect evidence — I don’t get why he pays respect to the ridiculous conclusions his family members have come to, the ones that Christianity demands: Jesus rose from the dead, someone else can pay for your sins, there’s a Heaven/Hell, etc. It goes so far beyond a semi-plausible theory that there might be something bigger “out there.”

After a long talk about how proof is often staring us right in the face yet we’re hesitant to act on it, Gladwell is basically backtracking by letting the complete lack of evidence for God’s existence slide just because someone else’s “standards for Truth” may be different from his.

Either God exists or He doesn’t. There’s no evidence for the former; there’s plenty of evidence for the latter. No, you can’t prove a negative, but when there are only two options and all the evidence points in only one direction, it’s foolish to suggest otherwise.

Gladwell knows that’s the case when it comes to football or black-lung disease. He even urged Penn students to boycott football games to take a stand against the violent sport because the evidence of football being dangerous was so strong.

I just wish he would have called out those guilty of faulty thinking when it comes to religion, too. Because religious delusions, like football injuries, can also be harmful to our well-being.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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