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.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    … and that they would say that absolute proof in that instance is impossible to find.

    It isn’t in principle, only in fact. If a God existed, there are plenty of ways in which He could provide absolute proof of His existence.

  • Rich Wilson

    Gladwell also thinks we should just let professional athletes take whatever drugs they want.

  • Edmond

    I think I hear the sound of eggshells crunching tenderly underfoot…

  • David Philip Norris

    Point #1: Gladwell was doing fine until that last sentence. For someone who’s made a decent career based on promoting empirical evidence, it’s disingenuous to hold his family to one standard while himself and everyone else to another. My own family is deeply religious, and while I don’t respect their beliefs, I’m not responsible for what they believe. So it would’ve been nice if Gladwell could’ve been a little less diplomatic.

    Point #2: I think this is a matter of picking and choosing battles. People can believe whatever the hell they want and are free to make themselves as happy or miserable as they want. But ultimately, we all have to find a way to live together on this planet peaceably and without killing each other or putting up walls. If you aren’t trying to force your personal beliefs down others’ throats, hurt or attempt to make them unhappy, believe whatever you want. It’s those who are proselytizing, attempting to fetter education and curtail human rights who need to be resisted, not the ones who are trying to get through the day.

    That said, if someone expects me to take an absurd notion like the deity of Jesus Christ seriously, I have complete license to take them to task, but most of the time it’s not worth the effort.

  • wmdkitty

    Teeny tiny nitpick.

    “…may be different from his.” makes me cringe.

    The proper phrasing is “different to“!

  • 3lemenope

    It seems like this is one of those imaginary English rules (like ending on a preposition or splitting an infinitive) that tend to get taught fairly broadly but lack actual justification.

  • 3lemenope


  • Rich Wilson

    I’m desperately trying to relax my grammar sphincter. It’s hard.

  • 3lemenope

    If Stephen Fry weren’t already one of my heroes, that first video certainly would have placed him there.

  • Bertram Cabot, Jr.

    There is plenty of evidence of the harm Science can cause.
    But it always gets a pass from atheists.

  • Bertram Cabot, Jr.

    Religious freedom is a human right.
    And atheists try to curtail it when they have the political power to do so. No doubt about it. They do. Face it. Deal with it.

  • 3lemenope

    What does religious freedom mean to you? Be specific. What should not be regulated or curtailed by the state as pertains to religion? What should?

  • Pseudonym

    I can’t speak for Gladwell, obviously, but surely the key question here is one of “harm”. He presumably believes (based on observation) that his family’s particular beliefs and practices are harmless, unlike football, black lung disease, or the religious beliefs of Fred Phelps.

  • Pseudonym

    I get what you’re saying, but I’m not sure that it does get a pass, exactly. Certainly in debate the problems with religion are amplified and the problems with science are diminished, but I think that’s the nature of debate.

    Richard Dawkins famously pointed out that science delivers many of the things that religion has traditionally promised: extended life, healing the sick, and so on. My first thought upon hearing that was “and the promise of a firey apocalypse which destroys humanity”.

  • Pattrsn

    Are you referring to the freedom to force others to follow the dictates of your religion?

  • 3lemenope

    Kids drown in water. Are you soft on the dangers water poses to our children?

    Attaching one adjective to a thing and pretending that that description tells the whole story is usually a bad idea. There are few, if any, things that are purely ‘good’ or purely ‘bad’ for example, but exist on a continuum of a compresence of those opposites. The RMS Titanic was big compared to a rubber dinghy, but small compared to the planet Jupiter. So when describing it’s always important to try to establish what the relevant frame is. If you’re comparing seafaring vessels, it becomes reasonable to call the Titanic “big”, because it is rather on the larger end of the scale of seafaring vessels.

    Science (in its applied sense) has both good and bad effects as generally judged by the people affected. The good effects are incalculably vast; without applications of science, most of the people participating in or witnessing this conversation would not have been alive (or perhaps never existed at all), and of course the conversation itself is only made possible as well by applications of science. With the aid of science, billions more mouths are fed, backs are clothed, diseases vanquished, than would pertain by its absence. We can also communicate across vast distances, fly through the air, sail under the water, explore our solar system, replace injured or missing limbs, enrich our lives through the dissemination of art of various sorts, and come to understand the delicate dances of the building blocks of the universe.

    Along the way, science has also provided applications that are horrible. Ever more inventive weapons to slay one’s neighbors, ever more disruptive abuses of the ecosystem, and sometimes inventions that seem wholly beneficial have unanticipated harms that come with their application. Precisely because applied science is an amplifier for capacity, it magnifies the consequence of human proclivities of all sorts, and humans are certainly not perfect.

    The question becomes, what frame would one have to construct to say, point blank, that science is harmful? Harm is usually analyzed proportionately to benefit; remember, water can be harmful, but we don’t panic about its ubiquity. Please, if you could, convince me that *on balance* science should be understood has harmful, rather than helpful, to the flourishing of humanity (past, present, and future).

  • 3lemenope


    Well, as much as that is unsettling, it is a good reinforcement of the general point that science at least has the capacity to fulfill these religious promises, whereas religions themselves have heretofore been impotent. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really quite glad that religion doesn’t bestow the actual power to destroy the world along with the desire.

  • Pseudonym

    Yeah, I heard that. I’m pretty sure that Gladwell doesn’t understand why we have professional sport, otherwise he’d know that’s a bad idea.

  • chicago dyke

    lots and lots of people have used political power to force their own beliefs on the people they control. if you’d like a list of all the religious ones who do this, please consult all history since the beginning of time. while there have been some atheists in command of states, their number pales in comparison to the number of believers who have dictated to their people what they may and may not believe.

    like a lot of defenders of religion, your projection is showing. all atheists want in a secular democracy is for it to act like one, where no one belief or lack of them is favored.

  • chicago dyke

    once again we see the not so hidden cost of the bigotry against atheists in action. i’m guessing he’s not a believer at all and thinks his very religious family are silly mythology worshippers. but he can’t say that in public, even while giving a talk about skepticism and things that need to be banned.

    he’s a journalist and would likely lose his job or get chewed out by his editors for such a “controversial” statement. that it makes just as much sense to doubt religion as it does to ban dangerous sports that kill. odd, that. religion is a dangerous game that kills people, but if you say that out loud in public you risk losing your job.

  • David Philip Norris

    Religious freedom falls under the “freedom of thought” category. Atheists do not try to “curtail” it. It’s radical conservative Christians in government who have been overtly attempting to limit religious freedom in recent years by making theirs the de facto religion of the United States, which for many years it was (thus, the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954). While some atheists would probably like to do away with religion, the majority of us are pretty laissez-faire when it comes to belief. We take issue when someone thinks the rules don’t apply to them and attempts to circumvent the Constitution.

  • Silo Mowbray

    I like the clown, Mommy! It’s funny!

  • Renshia

    Fuck, not near as much as we should, or you would be keeping quiet.

  • Renshia

    Really, what evidence?

  • Ewan

    Lots of people in other sectors of the entertainment industry take a lot of drugs and it doesn’t seem to put people off.

  • Rich Wilson

    The difference is that it doesn’t give them a clear advantage such that people who don’t take drugs can’t also participate.

    Performance enhancing drugs (and things like blood doping) provide both a competitive advantage, and carry an inherent risk. Making them ‘optional’ (as opposed to prohibited) is essentially forcing everyone who wants to compete to assume that same extra risk. And granted, any sport carries risk. But we seek to mitigate that risk with things like required safety equipment.

    Making drugs optional would be a little like making helmets optional, except that I don’t think going without a helmet is nearly as much of an advantage as going with drugs.

    People who advocate that ‘free enterprise’ solution don’t consider the effect on those who can and would like to compete but not take on the really unnecessary risk of doping.

  • Derrik Pates

    Wrong. All the atheists I know are perfectly fine if you believe whatever you wish – we’re all fine with religious freedom. The problem comes when, as is so often the case, those religious people decide that their personal religious opinions are *so* good, right, and proper, and so much better than everyone else’s, that it’s a good idea that their religious opinions be forced on EVERYONE.

    You want religion? Fine. You’re welcome to it. But everyone else needs the same freedom. I don’t care how great you think your religion is.

  • baal

    Fracking folks. It’s the modern version of smoking or coal mining. The risk to our ground water is beyond the ‘maybe’ phase.

  • baal

    Hi Bertram, I haven’t seen your nym before so welcome. Also, since you’re new, please excuse the piling on from the atheists here. You might, however, better support your arguments and not start with a fact claim (atheists actively squash religion when in political power) when the facts cut the other way. You might read the FA posts for a few days and see, for example, a man who pointed out a leaky pipe is now in fear for his life and has had to leave India least he be arrested (or killed). That’s from the RCC. You might also consider the plight of the Copts (xtians) in Egypt. The political power there is with a certain group of Muslims (not atheists). In both cases, the ‘religious freedom’ side is curtailing the human rights of others. So, again welcome but please try to make better arguments.

  • kaydenpat

    But everyone doesn’t agree with your position that religious beliefs are harmful. Yes, too many religious beliefs are harmful, but obviously there are millions of religious people for whom religious beliefs provide comfort, inspiration and hope.

    Gladwell’s mother is Jamaican so I understand where he’s coming from with his observation that his family is religious and doesn’t need absolute proof of God’s existence to believe in God. Not sure how many atheists there are in Jamaica, but I would gather that the number is very low.