In the latest Point of Inquiry podcast, frequent host Chris Mooney appears as a special guest, interviewed by Ronald Lindsay.
Religious claims that cannot be (or have not been) scientifically tested are, according to Mooney, compatible with science because science has not demonstrated them to be false. Mooney seems to admit that this lack of conflict is often purely accidental, contingent on the limitations of the scientific technology we happen to have today or, as he also points out, contingent on the availability of funding.
To me, this seems like a rather poor way of defining compatibility, because it ignores a more fundamental source of disagreement that is often present. In short, a conflict between two claims occurs whenever those claims cannot, in principle, be true simultaneously. This conflict holds whether or not a test can (in principle or in practice) be performed to determine which (if either) of the claims is true.
For instance, there is a conflict between the claims “I am in Colorado” and “I am in New York”, since it is not possible for me to be in Colorado and New York simultaneously. It simply isn’t necessary to make any observations of my location in order to know that these beliefs are in conflict. They are logically incompatible.
(Mooney also claims that if beliefs occur within a single mind, they must be compatible, and he points to religious scientists like Francis Collins to make his point. However, using the above example, it is quite plausible for someone to be in a very confused state of mind in which they simultaneously believe they are in Colorado and New York. However, no one would concede that the mere presence of these beliefs in a single mind removed the conflict between them.)
Just about every supernatural religious claim is in logical conflict with a scientific claim. It cannot simultaneously be the case that 1) man evolved through entirely natural, unguided processes from an ape-like ancestor and that 2) God created man. It also cannot simultaneously be the case that 1) people recover from illnesses purely through the intervention of medical therapies and through their bodies’ natural, self-healing processes and 2) God heals the sick.
Mooney, however, wants to argue that as long as these conflicts are not resolved through scientific experiment, they should not be regarded as conflicts at all. The fact remains, though, that if ever a test were conducted, it would be guaranteed to produce a result that favored one claim over the other (or showed both of them to be wrong). Why, then, should we pretend that there is no conflict until such a test is performed?
The only rational approach to take in such situations is agnosticism: if no evidence points toward either claim, then the possibility remains that either (but not both) may turn out to be true. This is what an unresolved conflict is. Mooney, however, would like to pretend that it is no conflict at all.