Today is Pearl Harbor Day, the anniversary of the day when the Japanese bombed a naval base in Hawaii killing thousands and drawing the United States into the Second World War.
I’ve written several posts commemorating historical events, but usually in a spirit of fun and frivolty. In real life, I do my humble best to take history seriously when appropriate. Ours is not an age that pays much attention to history. Anniversaries of major events in our history go past and we barely notice. The media barely mentions them, if at all. I’d wager that the majority of Americans will not even note that today is Pearl Harbor Day.
But history matters. The attitude that we take towards past events shapes how we deal with present and future events. Keeping ourselves aware of history helps us to remember what sort of things guided civilization to its present state, and what will continue to guide us in the future.
Please take some time today to remember those who died at Pearl Harbor and all those who fought in the Second World War, or any other war.
It’s now late in the evening of September 10. Tomorrow we will comemorate the anniversary of one of the most important events in human history, a time when the forces of Muslim extremism launched a brutal attack on of the greatest cities in western civilization. But though taken by surprise, the defenders of the West united and made clear that they would never be defeated.
The date I’m refering to, needless to say, is September 11, 1683, when the Ottoman Turks were laying seige to Vienna, capital of the Austrian Empire. Acting in accordance with an earlier treaty and following an appeal from the Pope, King Jan Sobieski of Poland led his army to the defense of the beleagured city. Finding the Turkish force unprepared, the Polish army attacked at once and easily routed the enemy. This was the last time that the Ottoman Empire posed a serious threat to central Europe.
Today, many of us know very little about history, and even those who do probably don’t pay much attention to the history of eastern Europe. For myself, I knew nothing of the siege of Vienna until I read Hilaire Belloc’s The Great Heresies. Belloc truthfully reminds us that though we tend to be dismissive of Muslims as backwards, their civilization was larger and stronger than ours for many centuries. It is only because of a centuries-long string of heroics by men like Sobieski and his army that Christian civilization survived the constant attacks from the south and east. We owe them endless thanks and praise.
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.