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The Flat Earth Myth

Anyone who writes “Is your Earth still flat?” is trading on an anti-Christian myth promoted by late-nineteenth century Darwinists. Although many of you probably already know this, it’s worth repeating periodically. Below is the text of a handout distributed at the 2002 Ohio School Board Debate between Kenneth Miller, Lawrence Krauss, Stephen Meyer and Jonathan Wells.

THE FLAT EARTH MYTH

“The earth isn’t flat – end of story.” So says Case Western Reserve University physicist Lawrence Krauss, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “We don’t have to have classes or be sensitive to the issues of those who believe that, because they’re wrong.”

Defenders of Darwinian evolution sometimes compare their critics to believers in a flat earth. According to the standard story, Christians used to believe for theological reasons that the earth is flat. When modern science demonstrated that the earth is actually a sphere, most Christians acknowledged their mistake, but a few continue to persist in their outmoded belief. Since modern science has likewise demonstrated the truth of Darwinian evolution (so the story goes), its critics are like people who still believe in a flat earth.

But the story is false. It began as fiction, and it was elevated to a historical claim by late-19th century Darwinists who used it as a weapon to ridicule Christians.

The spherical shape of the earth was known to the ancient Greeks, who even made some decent estimates of its circumference. Christian theologians likewise knew that the earth was a sphere. The only two who are known to have advocated a flat earth were a 4th-century heretic, Lactantius, and an obscure 6th-century writer, Cosmas Indicopleustes. [These were really second stringers. The leading theological lights of that period were Origen, Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, and Augustine -- none of these thought the earth was flat.]

A major promulgator of the flat earth myth was the 19th-century American writer Washington Irving. In his fictional History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), Irving wrote that flat-earth churchmen had opposed Columbus on the grounds that he would fall off the edge of the earth if he tried to sail across the Atlantic. In actuality, Columbus had been opposed by people who not only knew the earth was a sphere, but also had a pretty good idea of how big it was – but who knew nothing of the Americas and thus thought a voyage to the Far East would take too long and cost too much.

The flat earth remained clearly in the realm of fiction until after Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859. Two of Darwin’s followers then elevated it to a historical claim in books defending Darwinism and attacking Christianity: John Draper’s The History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874), and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896).

So defenders of Darwinism who ridicule their critics for being like believers in a flat earth are being misled by a myth that Darwinists themselves helped to create.

************

For an objective and very readable account of the flat earth myth, see Jeffrey Burton Russell (Professor of History, University of California at Santa Barbara), Inventing the Flat Earth (New York: Praeger, 1991).

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29 Responses to The Flat Earth Myth

  1. Not to be terribly religious here, but even the Bible seems to make reference to the earth being a sphere. I’m thinking of a passage in Isaiah, but I can’t remember the reference right now. If you accept the Bible as God’s word, then of course they got it right. If you don’t, it is interesting that humans 2,500+ years ago got this fact right, demonstrates that not all thought the earth was flat.

  2. The flat earth myth is not so far removed in origin from the Draper/White myth of religion at war with science. Both came out of the same rhetorical purposes, and both are just plain wrong.

  3. “…he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof [are] as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in…”

    - Isaiah 40:22

  4. There’s also a similar passage about “the circle of the earth” in Job that escapes me. Anyone?

  5. Also, that the earth was suspended in space (unlike early myths that had the earth sitting on something, otherwise it would “fall” due to gravity):

    ” He spreads out the northern skies over empty space;
    he suspends the earth over nothing.”

    Job 26:7

  6. All you had to do was watch a sailing vessel dip below the horizon to understand the truth.

  7. Or the fact you can see the sun a lot longer than 12 hours in a summer day. Since the ancients study the stars and sun movenment a lot no doubt some of them figure this out.

  8. russ – thats exactly what people did. That solved the whole flat earth theory early on. As for Columbus, the size was also known quite accurately 2000 years ago.

    Eratasthones used basic trigonometry, assuming the earth was round he measured the distance between a shadow in Alexandria and a well in Syene when the sun was directly overhead.

    The different angles he measured were about 1/50 of a circle. Then, taking camel paces between the two places and multiplying by 50, he got the size of the earth. (in actuality, many of his calculations were wrong, but the errors seem to have cancelled out).

    So, Eratasthones 250BC calculation of 25,000 miles was quite close to the 24,901 miles that it actually is. He was off by 99 miles!!

    However, Columbus based his earth measurement on Ptolemy’s estimation of 18,000. Always the optomist, I guess :-)

    He had a difficult time finding investors because the smart money was on Eratasthones, and not Ptolemy.

  9. “The modern flat earth movement originated when an eccentric English inventor, Samuel Birley Rowbotham (1816-1884), based on his literal interpretation of certain biblical passages, published a 16-page pamphlet, which he later expanded into a 430 page book expounding his views. According to Rowbotham’s system, which he called Zetetic Astronomy, the earth is a flat disk centered at the North Pole and bounded along its southern edge by a wall of ice, with the sun, moon, planets, and stars only a few hundred miles above the surface of the earth.” From Wikipedia

    IDists that deny MET are like modern day Flat Earthers in that MET and the nearly spherical shape of the earth, is well tested, with scientists having done probably many many experiments for over a hundred years, without falsifying either theory.

    The definition of a valid scientific theory is that it is well tested and has not been falsified.

  10. paulm: Produce the experimental evidence which confirms that Darwinian mechanisms are responsible for biological novelty, i.e. novel cells, tissue, body plans.

  11. paulm, give us a break. Propaganda posts like yours serve no purpose here.

  12. Let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. It’s true that the flat earth myth was imposed on the 15th century by revisionists historians motivated by Darwinism. But let us not forget that in ancient times, prior to Hellenistic astronomy, all Near-Eastern cultures had a flat-earth cosmology. This included a solid dome for a sky resting on pillars, a flat immovable earth, waters above the heavens resting on the firmament and the heavenly bodies were seen as tiny light fastened to the underside of the firmament. The Semitic people, out from the Hebrew nation came, had a similar cosmology.

    During the time that God inspired the biblical authors to record the Old Testament, the ancient Near-Eastern cosmos was not disputed. Even the Bible clearly describes the earth as flat, fixed, and immovable, the firmament as solid, and the waters above the heavens as real. If there is any doubt abou this, just read the writings of the church fathers. Without the bias of modern science, they clearly understood the original intent of the texts. Even long after the Ptolemiac system was adopted in the middle ages, the discovery of the solar system during the Renaisance was fist seen as contrary to Scripture.

    Martin Luther, in his commentary on Genesis, clearly used Scripture to uphold the solid firmament, the geocentric universe, and the ocean of water above the heavens. John Calvin, however, took a different approach. In his commentary on Genesis, Calvin allows for Moses to be ignorant of astronomical facts, because he wrote only of the “common appearenc of the world.” Calvin also states that the Holy Spirit “had no intention to teach astronomy.” He clearly understood that any robust hermenutic must distinguish the timeless theology from the cultural vehicle of inpired delivery.

    We would do well to consider this today. If Moses had used any other model of the universe than that which was clearly understood by all ancient Semitic people, the method of delivery would have been a distraction from the theological message of creation. Quite simply, there were bigger fish to fry at the foot of Mt. Sinai than flat vs. round, geocentric vs. heliocentric, or even miraculous creation vs. creation via a material mechanism. These are all issues that later generations of believers had to deal with.

  13. russ, or see Earth’s shadow on the moon.

  14. “IDists that deny MET are like modern day Flat Earthers in that MET and the nearly spherical shape of the earth, is well tested, with scientists having done probably many many experiments for over a hundred years, without falsifying either theory. ” – paulm

    O’ contrare – I’d say that evolutionists that deny ID are the flat earthers of today. Dawkins calls the features ID describes as only apparent designs. But that remark is done purely to accomodate his “flat earther-like” faith in a dogma of materialism.

  15. “The modern flat earth movement originated when an eccentric English inventor, Samuel Birley Rowbotham (1816-1884), based on his literal interpretation of certain biblical passages, published a 16-page pamphlet, which he later expanded into a 430 page book expounding his views.”

    There is some degree of controversy concerning the Biblical passages used to infer a flat Earth.
    Consider that the term used in several passages translates to “circle” which is a 2-dimensional object. “Sphere” is 3-dimensional.
    Isaiah 22:18 –He will surely violently turn and toss thee like a BALL (duwr) into a large country: there shalt thou die, and there the chariots of thy glory shall be the shame of thy lord’s house.

    Isaiah 40:18-23 To whom then will ye liken God? ….It is he that sitteth upon the circle (chuwg or khug ) of the earth.

    Strong’s Concordance (no. 2328 & 2329), Holladay’s A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (p97) and Brown Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (p295) gives the verbal form of the word as “to draw a circle”. The noun is translated as either “circle” or “vault”. Young’s Literal Translation Isa 40:22 http://www.biblegateway.com/pa.....version=15 also gives “He who is sitting on the circle of the earth.”

    Ball rwd duwr (1754 Strong’s Concordance) a circle, ball or pile

  16. It’s odd to see “flat earth” allegations being seriously dealt with here. Maybe William Dembski runs into this more frequently than I do, but “flat earth” comparisons just don’t seem to be worth the time to knock down.

    Moreover, this theme quietly suggests to readers familiar with the history of Christianity and science of a much more apt and challenging comparison for ID — the “Darwinian” challenge of Galileo and Copernican heliocentrism.

    The facts there are not controversial. Bellarmine had Giordano Bruno hauled off for execution in 1600 for refusing to recant his ‘heretical’ teachings in 1600. Galileo was under similar pains to recant his astronomy, which was in violation of established church theology of the time.

    What do the faithful do when the science goes against there theology? Well, Bellarmine brought whatever temporal powers he could down on the offending science. The temporal powers of modern (creationist) Christianity are different than those of Bellarmine, but significant in their own right. These powers — the vote, the law , the lawsuit, the PR war and polemic weblog are the weapons of choice for ID against mainstream science.

    This comparison is much more apt and important, I think than dismissing comparisons to “flat earthers”, which I agree is a bogus and hostile comparison.

    More on this if you are interested in a blog post of mine on this at:

    http://evangelutionist.com/blo.....ellarmine/

    -Touchstone

  17. The earth only “appears” round. Cells only appear designed. The universe only appears fine tuned. I think we know who are more like the flat earthers.

  18. Actually, there are religious people who think that the earth is flat, but they don’t come from Christedom.

  19. I’m sorry to post off-topic – well, this post is about myths, and I remember all the commotion when those penguins seemed to be “helping” each other in a non-Darwinian fashion a while back, which is kind of a myth that animals always act according to Darwin. Here is a video-clip someone sent me that is worth watching. It’s a dog rescuing another dog in an apparent selfless act. The dog may have been trained to do this, but I doubt it. Maybe the moderators can put my post somewhere else if they deem it worth watching?

    You may have to scroll down to “Doggie Rescue”

    http://ellen.warnerbros.com/ga.....?=web51107

  20. Collin,

    Great point. I was taken by surprise at the substantial degree of curvature of the earth that was visible when looking at the horizon from onboard a boat.

    Yep, a little simple inference from the curvature, and we concluded that the earth is round. And we look at complex design in the cell, and a little inference can take us a long way…..

  21. Touchstone

    These powers — the vote, the law , the lawsuit, the PR war and polemic weblog are the weapons of choice for ID against mainstream science.

    Evidently you’re confused about who the complainants were in Cobb and Dover. Hint: It wasn’t the ID guys.

    And I challenge you to find an ID site that matches the polemics of any of these:

    http://www.pandasthumb.org

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/

    http://www.antievolution.org/c.....=14;t=3606

    http://www.antievolution.org/c.....=14;t=1274

    http://scienceblogs.com/dispat.....pidity.php

    I’ve had it with you. Go find somewhere else to post your pap.

  22. I started (never finished–alas) The Discovers by Daniel Boorstin. He talks quite at length about Portuguese born Henry the Navigator. The Portuguese, during the 1400′s, routinely made trips around Cape Horn and on to the East. Don’t you think that given that they “navigated” themselves using the stars that they reflected a little bit about how different the southern and northern nightskies were? When Columbus left for the “East” (going West), I’m sure they were more concerned about provisions and getting lost–not about falling off the edge of the earth–as I was taught in school. Just another myth here.

    As to Touchstone and Galileo: the former seems to not have read any books about the latter since doing so reveals that the Cardinals were upset with him because he printed books without their permission, even though he had promised to seek their permission first. In other words, he tweaked their noses, and …… was never really ever in the position of being executed. He lived quite comfortably and was a friend of the pope. I don’t know where Touchstone gets his info.

  23. I keep pointing this out every time Galileo comes up but there is also the “little” issue of Galileo assuming perfectly circular orbits which meant that his model couldn’t be used to predict the apparent movement of the stars accurately which in turn meant it couldn’t be used for circumnavigation of the globe by sailors very well which of course led to some skepticism of his claims since at least the Ptolemaic model could be adjusted for navigation albeit with many adjustments over the years. Not that Galileo’s opponents behaved the best but it’s not so black and white as some modern history books make it out to be.

  24. Just so everyone is clear-

    It was the SCIENCE of the day that put the Earth at the center of the cosmos. It was the scientists who held to that view who convinced the church this was the view eschewed by the Bible. And it was the scientists, who behind the scenes, pushed the church to persecute Galileo.

  25. Even in those days Christians held differing opinions on exactly how much weight to give scientific discovery when it appeared to contradict the clear meaning of Scripture. Martin Luther said the following of Copernicus : “People give ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. Whoever wishes to appear clever must devise some new system, which of all systems is of course the very best. This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.”

    However, John Calvin said: “nothing is here treated but of the visible form of the world, he who would learn astronomy and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.”
    These are same kind of debates we are having today, only we seem to all be content with the modern astronomical rendering of the cosmos. We have now turned our attention to the biological sciences. In his commentary on Genesis, Calvin Goes on to say, “the Holy Spirit had no intention to teach astronomy.” – could we not also say the same thing today about geology or biology? Are there other ways of investigating natural history other than consulting the the Holy Scriptures?

  26. Touchstone appears to want to imply that Giordano Bruno’s condemnation for heresy was an example of religion vs. science. However, …

    “…in 1600 there was no official Catholic position on the Copernican system, and it was certainly not a heresy. When Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was burned at the stake as a heretic, it had nothing to do with his writings in support of Copernican cosmology.”
    Sheila Rabin, Nicolaus Copernicus in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

    In any case, perhaps there is an opportunity for wide agreement that it is never a healthy thing for an established scientific paradigm to be sustained through abusive exercise of power.

    This is true, regardless of whether the establishment is defending Aristotle or Darwin, and whether the defenders are theists or atheists.

    If Touchstone is consistent on this principle, I would expect him to also deplore the abuses by the Darwinist establishment, including those documented in Jonathan Wells’ book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design (recommended), especially in chapter 16 on “American Lysenkoism”.

    In general, I would think that it might not be wise for Darwinists to draw much attention to the issue of abuse of power to support a dominant paradigm. Those in the current position of power, i.e. the Darwinists, will suffer the most in that comparison.

  27. Ekstasis, I think you’re deluded if you think you can see the curvature of the earth from a boat.

  28. peanutaxis

    Actually viewing the curvature of the earth works well in two different ways from a boat.

    The first is watching another boat disappear from the bottom up as the distance to it increases and it falls below the horizon.

    The second way is by observing the earth’s shadow projected onto the atmosphere. Here’s a good picture of earth shadow with a white line showing the curvature.

    http://www.sunandsky.org/image.....9_765q.jpg

  29. Yes I was thinking more along the lines of directly seeing the curvature of the earth, like when you go really high. So I was discounting the boat disappearing. But I hadn’t known about the second way, which again is indirect.

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