This week my Skeptoid podcast episode was on the history of the Flat Earth Theory. By now most everyone knows that there really wasn’t a time when any governmental or scientific authority actually believed the Earth was flat, and most of us also know about the existence of a Flat Earth Society. But there is a fascinating, and sometimes quite dramatic, intertwinement of the two.
As I discussed, Flat Earthers have, for as long as they’ve been a movement, been of two basic varieties. There are the Biblical literalists who interpret certain Bible passages to mean the Earth is flat, and consider science to the contrary to be blasphemous. The second type consists of alternate science conspiracy theorists, cranks who think they’ve overturned Newton’s laws, and who point to the United Nations flag as a hint from the Illuminati as to the true shape of our world.
There were two particular points of “pseudoskepticism” that I found, in particular, that have characterized the Round Earthers, and that were an interesting lesson for me. These were cases where bad arguments were made against the Flat Earthers — when really, the facts are so obvious that we should hardly need to resort to those.
First was the use of the famous “Turtles all the way down” joke. There is no culture that ever believed this. Moreover, ancient cultural references to a World Turtle were never intended to mean that the world is literally on the back of a giant turtle, any more than we believe in a literally human Mother Earth. The World Turtle was allegorical at best, and meant many things to many peoples other than the modern caricature. Our joke of “Turtles all the way down” is an ignorant and insulting straw man.
Second was the overzealous finger-pointing at Christians by early secular humanists for responsibility over the existence of a (really nonexistent) Flat Earth movement. “Christians are so stupid they believe the world is flat” was a frequent charge since the middle of the second millennium, and really came to a head in the mid 1800s. That’s the time when a guy named Parallax and his followers were trying to promote their Flat Earthism, and it’s true that Biblical literalism was a part of their evidence. However, we’re talking about a very, very small number of people, probably fewer than 100 in Europe. By no rational logic can it be said that “Christians are so stupid they believe the world is flat.”
For space constraints I was not able to thoroughly explore this aspect of flat Earth history, though it probably deserves a larger treatment than I gave it. Historian Jeffery Burton Russell ably summarizes his book Inventing the Flat Earth:
Contortions that are common today, if not widely recognized, are produced by the incessant attacks on Christianity and religion in general by secular writers during the past century and a half, attacks that are largely responsible for the academic and journalistic sneers at Christianity today.
A curious example of this mistreatment of the past for the purpose of slandering Christians is a widespread historical error, an error that the Historical Society of Britain some years back listed as number one in its short compendium of the ten most common historical illusions. It is the notion that people used to believe that the earth was flat–especially medieval Christians.
It must first be reiterated that with extraordinary few exceptions no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the earth was flat…
The reason for promoting both the specific lie about the sphericity of the earth and the general lie that religion and science are in natural and eternal conflict in Western society, is to defend Darwinism. The answer is really only slightly more complicated than that bald statement. The flat-earth lie was ammunition against the creationists. The argument was simple and powerful, if not elegant: “Look how stupid these Christians are. They are always getting in the way of science and progress. These people who deny evolution today are exactly the same sort of people as those idiots who for at least a thousand years denied that the earth was round. How stupid can you get?”
But that is not the truth.
Having spent a full week immersed in the history of the flat Earth while researching my episode, I agree with everything Burton says, although I believe he overstates the zeal by “Darwinists” to show that Christians are stupid. In my experience, that’s a sort of behavior generally found only among atheist activists, and rarely among evolutionary biologists, who generally have more productive things to do with their time. I did not uncover much evidence of smear campaigns against Christians at all; that is, not until the Flat Earthers who based their beliefs on Biblical literalism raised their ugly heads.
It’s probably not true that there was ever a period of open warfare over the shape of the Earth, not even in the press; but rather that it was a curiosity that popped up now and again when a person like Parallax staged his various PR stunts. I find no reason to believe that a significant number of Christians ever formed an organized movement promoting a flat Earth, and I find no reason to believe that a significant number of anti-Christians ever made an organized movement to sling mud based on the myth of Flat Earthism. The true story of the Flat Earth is not one of large movements and tales of Hollywood proportions, but rather one of fascinating individuals and small incidents that become all the more intriguing in their proper context.