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Monday, September 03, 2007

Materialist myths: The flat earth myth ... another go-round

In his review of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion last January, Nobelist Steven Weinberg opines,
In the early days of Christianity, the Church Fathers Theophilus of Antioch and Clement of Alexandria rejected the knowledge, common since the time of Plato, that the Earth is a sphere. They insisted on the literal truth of the Bible, and from Genesis to Revelation verses could be interpreted to mean that the Earth is flat. But the evidence for a spherical Earth was overwhelming to anyone who had seen a ship's hull disappear below the horizon while its masts were still visible, and in the end the flat Earth did not seem worth a fight. By the high Middle Ages, the spherical Earth was accepted by educated Christians.

Now THERE’s a wheeze that never finally croaks. A friend wrote to wonder why Weinberg had not received the Nobel Prize for Literature (fiction) rather than Physics, drawing my attention to a flyer distributed during Ohio school board hearings in 2002, which reads in part,


... 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.

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).

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).

Weinberg’s review is worth reading for a number of reasons, not least for Weinberg’s enthusiastic endorsement of evolutionary psychology as devastating to religious belief,
It became plausible that our love for our mates and children, and, according to the work of modern evolutionary biologists, even more abstract moral principles, such as loyalty, charity and honesty, have an origin in evolution, rather than in a divinely created soul.

Worth keeping in mind when someone reassures you that no reputable scientist really believes in concepts like the Big Bazooms theory of human evolution. The trouble is, some can’t help it. They don’t HAVE anything better to believe in.

Here and here cosmology is more on older cosmologies.

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