Science Series: The Flat Earth Myth

Posted: April 7, 2015 in Apologetics
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1Flat-Earth_Myth_01_240x305 Quickly, answer the following question: “Who proved the world was round?” If you said Columbus, you are certainly not alone. We have all heard the idea that before Columbus, the Church and all the Christian intellectuals of the Middle Ages taught that the earth was flat.  If you sailed out far enough you would fall off the face of the earth. Unfortunately, you, along with many others, have been vastly misinformed. No Christian scholar, theologian, philosopher, or priest in the Middle Ages believed that the earth was flat. Where did this idea come from that the earth was flat?

This is my second post in the series on science and religion.  Just this past week I was involved in a discussion about Galileo’s imprisonment, which I had blogged on recently, and the flat earth myth was thrown in my face as proof of the churches backward beliefs before science came and corrected it. At that moment I knew immediately what my next post in this science series would be: the flat earth myth.  The flat earth claim is part of the propaganda of a conflict between science and religion.  Here is a quick video to introduce this myth: Who else has purported this defamation of the Medieval thinkers?  And more importantly why was this myth perpetrated upon the Middle Ages?  Contemporary perpetrators include examples from pop culture to high school and college textbooks to established academics:

Contemporary Perpetrators

  1. Infinite Car Commercial:

“If no one ever challenged the status quo, the earth would still be flat.”

  1. America: Past and Present (5th grade textbook):

“Columbus felt he would eventually reach the Indies in the East. Many Europeans still believed that the world was flat. Columbus, they thought, would fall off the earth.” (1983)

  1. We The People: A History of the United States of America (8th grade textbook):

“The European sailor of a thousand years ago believed that a ship could sail out to sea just so far before it fell off the edge of the sea.” (1982)

  1. A History of Civilization: Prehistory to 1715 (College textbook):

“The fact that the earth is round was known to the ancient Greeks but lost in the Middle Ages.” (1960 ed., 1971, 1976)

  1. Daniel Boorstin (the former Librarian of Congress):

“Christian faith and dogma suppressed the useful image of the world that had been so slowly, so painfully, and so scrupulously drawn by ancient geographers.” – The Discoverers (1983)

  1. John Huchra (Harvard Smithsonian Institution of Astrophysics):

“Back then [when the New World was discovered] there was a lot of theoretical, yet incorrect, knowledge about what the world was like. Some thought the world was flat and you could fall off the edge, but he explorers went out and found what was truly there.” – (1990)

The belief that educated people in the Middle Ages believed the earth was flat and Columbus braved superstition and ignorance by sailing across the Atlantic when his contemporaries thought he would fall of the edge has been circulated so widely it is held as common sense today.

Origins and History of a Myth

The seeds of the invention of the Flat Earth myth were planted by Copernicus (1473-1543), watered by Washington Irving (1783-1859), and came to fruition with Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918).

– Copernicus, Preface to On The Revolutions (1543) – Copernicus compared his opponents who insisted on geocentric model with the ignorance of those who believed in a flat-earth like Lactantius.

– Washington Irving, History of the Life of Columbus (1828) – Irving invented a fictional telling of Columbus and the fictitious “Council of Salamanca” in which Columbus was assailed by a parade of biblical and medieval sources touting a flat earth.

– Antoine-Jean Letronne (1787-1848) – Established the flat-earth myth as academically acceptable with his article “On the Cosmographical Opinions of the Church Fathers” (1834). Claimed that astronomers were “forced” to believe the earth was flat and “had three irresistible arguments: persecution, prison, and the stake.”

– Andrew Dickson White, History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) – First president of Cornell University: “Many a bold navigator, who was quite ready to brave pirates and tempests, trembled at the thought of tumbling with his ship into one of the openings into hell which a widespread belief placed in the Atlantic at some unknown distance from Europe. This terror among sailors was one of the main obstacles in the great voyage of Columbus.”

As you can see the Middle Ages were maligned with a belief that was invented and spread by the creative fiction of subsequent generations particularly in the nineteenth century but has had continual ramifications in the twentieth and twenty first century. In contrast the ancient world was quite progressive in its near universal adherence to a spherical earth: Pythagoras, Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes, Strabo, and Ptolemy all believed in spherical earth.  The so-called “Dark Ages” glimmered with enlightenment concerning sphericity of the globe with Christian intellectuals such as Isidore of Seville, Bede, Basil of Caesarea, Ambrose, Augustine, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, Brunetto Latini, and Dante all believing the earth was a globe. Even the Enlightenment rarely charged the Middle Ages with the belief in the flat-earth, being fully aware that sphericity was central to their beliefs about the earth.

Jeffrey Burton Russell, emeritus professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, states, that “nineteenth and twentieth-century writers flattened the medieval globe.” What this myth tells us, according to Russell, is that historians and scientists pass on error as well as truth, especially when led by biases rather than evidence and fact. When methodology and sources are not checked it can lead to myths that can take on a life of their own.

The flat-earth myth is based on the conviction that church was opposed to science leading to a conflict model. This model is relatively recent beginning with John W. Draper in his History of the Conflict between Religion and Science as the first influential figure to declare a war between science and religion followed closely by Andrew D. White.

The flat earth myth is a slanderous falsehood concocted by opponents of Christianity in the 19th century which has been debunked by historians today. Along with the myth that Galileo was thrown in a dungeon for promoting a heliocentric model of the universe, the flat earth myth needs to be buried.

The conflict between science and religion is smoke and mirrors.  There is no conflict as it is popularly presented to us today.


Quick Quotes from the Experts:

No one thought that Columbus would ‘sail of the edge of the earth’ since the sphericity of the earth had been fully established in Europe for over 1,500 years before Columbus. The notion that people before Columbus thought the earth was flat is a 19th century invention. Medievals would have had a good laugh at that idea!” (L. Principe, The Scientific Revolution, p. 15)

“The widespread conviction that all in the Middle Ages believed in a flat earth until Columbus showed otherwise was an invention of the nineteenth century.” (Edward Grant, God and Reason in the Middle Ages, p. 341)

“There never was a period of ‘flat earth darkness’ among scholars (regardless of how many uneducated people may have conceptualized our planet both then and now). Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the earth’s roundness as an established fact of cosmology.” (Stephen Jay Gould, “The Late Birth of a Flat Earth” in Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History, 1997, pp. 38-50)

Books and Articles:

“Myth of the Flat Earth” by Jeffrey Burton Russell, American Scientific Affiliation, August 4, 1997 at Westmont College

Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and the Modern Historians, by Jeffrey Burton Russell (Praeger, 1991)

“The Myth of the Flat Earth” by James Hannam, Medieval Science and Philosophy (website for the book The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution)

“The Assault on the Middle Ages” ch. 7 in God and Reason in the Middle Ages by Edward Grant (Cambridge University Press, 2001)

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