Just doing a little fact-checking of the New Atheist History Channel.
I just saw a comment on one of my posts here on Patheos from a fellow atheist who said: If we had given up on exploring in the 15th century because some ninny had insisted the earth was flat, we would still be wondering what might be out there. It appears this poster thinks that most people in the Middle Ages believed that the Earth is flat. It turns out this misconception is widespread among anti-theists, and though the attempt to disabuse these skeptics of that notion should be as easy as presenting evidence of historians and essayists discussing the basis of the misconception, my correspondent resisted correction.
The Shape of Things to Come
When, last year, rapper BoB declared that the Earth is flat, Neil deGrasse Tyson joined the publicity pig-pile by tweeting, “Being five centuries regressed in your reasoning doesn’t mean we all can’t still like your music.” This must have been meant to imply that people five hundred years ago still believed that the Earth is flat, a claim only slightly less mistaken than that the Earth is flat.
There’s no evidence that people in the Middle Ages thought the Earth was flat. We could wonder why science educators like Tyson, whose careers involve spreading the understanding of the development of scientific knowledge, keep the myth alive that medieval people didn’t know the world is round. But, ironically, the reason is that the urban legend is central to the mythology of Enlightenment science bringing humanity out of the darkness of religion and superstition.
It’s not like the phenomena that point to a round Earth were exclusive knowledge reserved only for the elite or anything. Sailors realized they see different constellations in the night sky in the Southern Hemisphere. Scandinavians realized that their days were endless in the summer and nonexistent in the winter, unlike their neighbors in Europe. The shadow of the Earth during lunar eclipses was invariably round. Europeans who traversed the Alps probably could even perceive the curvature of the Earth from high altitudes. It’s not like you had to know ancient Greek to understand what the ancients knew.
Stephen Jay Gould, in his essay “The Late Birth of a Flat Earth,” describes how nineteenth-century educators like Andrew Dickson White created the conspiracy theory that religion is so inimical to knowledge and science that the medieval Church suppressed the truth of the round Earth —which even Aristotle knew— for centuries. White was establishing a secular university called Cornell, and understandably wanted to discourage church interference. So he created the secular Promethean hero-myth that the Enlightenment thinkers restored the light of Truth to humanity despite the tyranny of the forces of darkness.
Virtually all major medieval scholars affirmed the earth’s roundness. I introduced this essay with the eighth-century view of the Venerable Bede. The twelfth-century translations into Latin of many Greek and Arabic works greatly expanded general appreciation of natural sciences, particularly astronomy, among scholars—and convictions about the earth’s sphericity both spread and strengthened. Roger Bacon (1220-1292) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) affirmed roundness via Aristotle and his Arabic commentators, as did the greatest scientists of later medieval times, including John Buriden (130(1-1358) and Nicholas Oresme (1320-1382).
So who, then, was arguing for a flat earth, if all the chief honchos believed in roundness? Villains must be found for any malfeasance, and Russell shows that the great English philosopher of science William Whewell first identified major culprits in his History o f the Inductive Sciences, published in 1837—two minimally significant characters named Lactantius (245-325) and Cosmas Indicopleustes, who wrote his “Christian Topography” in 547-549. Russell comments: “Whewell pointed to the culprits … as evidence of a medieval belief in a flat earth, and virtually every subsequent historian imitated him—they could find few other examples.”
This mythology flatters our sense of superiority to our not-so-distant ancestors and panders to our modern ideas about progress. But, as with all stories that are too good to be true, it should make our skeptic alarms go off long and loud.
What do you think? Is the belief in our ancestors’ ignorance more wishful thinking than reality?