One of the things that I want to do with this blog is stick together rebuttals to atheist arguments commonly found on the internet. One of the most common is the flat-earth myth. The idea is fairly simple. The atheist explains that at some point before the enlightenment, ignorant Christians were all sure that the earth was flat. Some versions say that the Catholic Church persecuted anyone who claimed that the earth was round. Others insist that when Christopher Columbus first looked for funding to sail westward from Spain, nobody supported him because they all though he would sail off the edge of the world. Taken together, it all comes to a dramatic demonstration of the fact that superstitious Christians held the human race back for centuries until the superior, enlightened, secular folk showed up and saved the day with their superior enlightenment.
The only problem with this is that it’s, to use the technical term, complete &$!%*@&#.
For starters, we have no record that people believed in a flat earth at any time in the history of western civilization. In the cosmologies of Ptolemy and Aristotle, both dating from centuries before Christ, the world is as round as a cantaloupe. Christian scholars from the middle ages generally accepted what these guys said about the cosmos, though with some notable exceptions. We have no evidence of anyone important advocating for the idea of a flat earth either in Ancient Greece or in medieval or Renaissance Europe. This article by James Hannam, a historian of science, covers the topic thoroughly: The Myth of the Flat Earth.
So where does the notion that folks once believed in a flat earth come from? From lies, prejudice, and ignorance. It seems to have become widespread thanks to a book called The Warfare of Science with Theology, by Andrew White, a scholar and co-founder of Cornell University. His book today is known to be a complete fraud, with White himself making up most of the claims in it and burying any evidence that didn’t match his thesis. (Some people apparently still feel proud to provide the book, though.) From there it wandered to other books and sources, and just became some part of general knowledge. I recall as a kid reading a picture book about Christopher Columbus which explained that “in those days people thought the earth was flat as a pancake” and offered a picture of ships falling of the edge of the earth to prove the point.
On the plus side, intelligent people today are generally aware of the truth, but there are plenty of people who aren’t intelligent. We’ll probably continue hearing versions of the flat earth myth from them for a while.