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Medieval “Flat Earth” Belief: Another Evolutionist Fallacy!

by Richard Peachey

[Featured as an advertorial in Cascade News, University of the Fraser Valley student newspaper, Dec. 4, 2009]

The medieval church retarded the progress of science by insisting on teaching that the Earth is flat! Isn’t that crazy! And the creationists, who are so foolishly opposed to science, are just like them!

With words like these, evolutionists regularly attempt to mock creationists, linking us to those obscurantist "flat-Earthers" of the middle ages. A recent instance of this is in a letter to the editor from UFV philosophy instructor Peter Raabe:

"In fact," he confidently intones, "those who undertook scientific inquiry had to be extremely careful not to contradict the church's misguided claims regarding the functioning of the natural world. Disagreement with church doctrine could result in being burned at the stake. For example, the church demanded adherence to the belief that the earth is flat for many centuries after it had already been proven by scientific observation not to be flat at all" (Cascade News, Oct. 30, 2009, p. 2).

With rhetorical flourish, Peter Raabe incorporates words of power such as "fact," "proven," and "misguided." But unfortunately for his credibility (and for the credibility of evolutionists in general), this sort of persistent, strident rhetoric is completely mistaken! The claim that the medieval church hindered the progress of science by teaching that our planet is flat, rather than spherical, is simply wrong, as a matter of historical fact.

Ancient Greek thinkers, including Aristotle and Eratosthenes, well understood that the earth is round, and this remained the view of Christian leaders in later centuries. The Earth's sphericity was was explicitly affirmed by medieval scholars such as the "Venerable" Bede (673-735), Roger Bacon (c. 1220-1292), Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Jean Buridan (c. 1300-1358), and Nichole Oresme (1320-1382).

In the late 1400s, contrary to what is taught in some textbooks, Christopher Columbus and his critics actually agreed with each other on the shape of the Earth. Jeffrey Burton Russell, a historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializes in intellectual history. He writes:

". . . it is falsely supposed that one purpose, and certainly one result, of Columbus's voyage was to prove to medieval, European skeptics that the earth was round. In reality there were no skeptics. All educated people throughout Europe knew the earth's spherical shape and its approximate circumference. This fact has been well established by historians for more than half a century" (Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997, p. 2).

Noted evolutionary spokesman Stephen Jay Gould, a paleontologist and historian of science at Harvard, has acknowledged:

"There never was a period of 'flat earth darkness' among scholars (regardless of how many uneducated people may have thus conceptualized our planet both then and now). Greek knowledge of sphericity was never lost, and all major medieval scholars accepted the earth's roundness as an established fact of cosmology" ("The Persistently Flat Earth." Natural History 103[3]:12-19, 1994).

Gould is able to cite only two minor churchmen who argued for flatness: Lactantius (245-325) and Cosmas Indicopleustes (6th century). And the views of those two men were not typical of their times.

This scurrilous "flat Earth" charge against the Christian church was spread by two anti-Christian (and pro-Darwinian) books of the late 19th century: John W. Draper's 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). Draper and White were both prominent university academics who ought to have known better, but it seems that their anti-church, pro-evolution bias led them astray on this matter.

"What can the Flat Error [sic] teach us about human knowledge and our own worldview?" asks J. B. Russell. "First, historians, scientists, scholars, and other writers often wittingly or unwittingly repeat and propagate errors of fact or interpretation. No one can be automatically believed or trusted without checking methodology and sources. Second, scholars and scientists often are led by their biases more than by the evidence. . . . We are so convinced that medieval people must have been ignorant enough to think the world flat that when the evidence is thrown in front of us we avoid it, as we might, when driving, swerve around an obstacle in the road. Thus our worldview is based more upon what we think happened than what really happened. A shared body of 'myth' can overwhelm reason and evidence, as it did in Nazi Germany" (Inventing the Flat Earth, pp. 75f.).

I’m happy to say that when I pointed out this evidence to Peter Raabe, he quickly admitted that he had been wrong. He did not see fit, however, to say so publicly, which I think is a shame. His rationalization (in an e-mail to me) included the thought that his error was "trivial." At the time he wrote his letter to the editor, however, he presented the "flat Earth" business as his prime example of the church’s "misguided claims." Indeed, he brought it in immediately after a mood-setting reference to "being burned at the stake."

When he thought it was truth, it was high drama. But now that he recognizes it as a mistake, it has become "trivial." Interesting!

There are a few other "icons" in the evolutionists' "science versus religion" arsenal that also need to be removed from the public consciousness:

• Pope Urban VIII's harsh treatment of Galileo, represented as persecution of a scientist (see Timothy Moy, "Science, Religion, and the Galileo Affair." Skeptical Inquirer 25 [5 ]:43-45, 2001).

• The Scopes trial of 1925, showcased as a significant and enduring win for evolutionists (see Randy Moore, "The Lingering Impact of Inherit the Wind." The American Biology Teacher 61[4]:246-250, 1999; also Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods. New York: BasicBooks, 1997).

• The Wilberforce/Huxley "debate" of 1860, pictured as a moment of decisive moral victory for the scientists allied with Darwin (J. R. Lucas, "Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter." The Historical Journal 22[2]:313-330, 1979).

The moral of the story is: Go ahead, friends, bring on your arguments against creation. But first, take a little time to make sure they have some validity!

Richard Peachey is UFV's first science graduate (BSc, Biology and Chemistry, 1995); he is a past vice-president of the Creation Science Association of British Columbia