In the early 17th century, Galileo wanted visiting theologians to look through his telescope so that they could see for themselves the moons orbiting Jupiter, and the priests said that they didn’t need to look because the Bible taught them that the earth was the only still center and that everything else revolved around it. The priests, indeed, went further: they said that the moons could not exist for this reason and that the telescope must be faulty. In the 17th century and thereafter, as people got used to the idea of scientific evidence, and to the idea that the Bible was all the more powerful and truthful when read as poetry, the initial conflict between science and religion in Europe dwindled to the point where both groups realized that they occupied a different space in human thought and experience. Science was shown to have little or nothing to say about God, and religion could only benefit from the greater understanding of, and increased awe for, God’s creation that scientific investigation invariably brought about.
This debate — between those whose thinking is based upon evidence, and those whose thinking is based upon precept — underpins the political oppositions of our age. Left-wingers say what they say based upon information they have, whereas those on the right say what they say based upon ideas they have. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney tried to shape the world according to ideas they had; President Obama changes things on the basis of information he has. The former, in effect, is dramatic, catastrophic and often illegal; the latter is pedestrian, piecemeal and often ineffectual.
Let’s take an issue like the death penalty. If you do some research, you will find that there is no evidence to show that capital punishment is a deterrent. That is, it is not an effective punishment in that it does not reduce the crime rate. In fact, there is some evidence to show that because of the ‘brutalization effect’ crime rates rise, particularly in the vicinity of the location of executions. But this evidence does not make any difference to the person (George W. Bush, with his 131 executions in Texas under his watch as governor) who moves in his thinking not from evidence but from an idea, say, of ‘just retribution.’ In the former Texas governor’s mind it is right to execute a murderer no matter what the evidence or outcome. For the left-winger, however, there are a host of other issues to discuss when considering the death penalty, not least among them being race, a flawed legal system that has too often executed the innocent, and the above mentioned ‘brutalization effect.’
It’ s the same with the abortion debate, or any discussion about whether or not to go to war in given circumstances, or even whether public education is worth the price or not.
Maybe the way forward is to persistently persuade right-wingers to consider the information, while at the same time to convince the left-winger of the usefulness and importance of a given precept.