The idea that the medieval Church taught the earth was flat, that Columbus bravely defied their primitive Biblical superstition and proved they were wrong by sailing to America, is a great story. Unfortunately, it’s also historical nonsense – a fable with zero basis in reality. It’s bad enough that I have had the experience of intelligent and educated atheists repeating this story as an example of the Church holding back progress without bothering to check if it’s true. What’s worse is that I’ve also experienced atheists who have been shown extensive, clear evidence that the medieval Church taught the earth was round, and that the myth of medieval Flat Earth belief was invented by the novelist Washington Irving in 1828, and they have simply refused to believe that the myth could be wrong.
Neat historical fables such as the ones about Christians burning down the Great Library of Alexandria (they didn’t) or murdering Hypatia because of their hatred of her learning and science (ditto) are appealing parables. Which means some atheists fight tooth and nail to preserve them even when confronted with clear evidence that they are pseudo historical fairy tales. Fundamentalists aren’t the only ones who can be dogmatic about their myths.
One of the main reasons for studying history is to get a better understanding of why things today are as they are by grasping what has gone before. But it only works with a good grasp of how we can know about the past, the methods of analysis used, and the relevant material our understanding should be based on. It also only works if we strive to put aside what we may like to be true along with any preconceptions (since they are often wrong) and look at the material objectively. Atheists who attempt to use history in their arguments who don’t do these things can not only end up getting things badly wrong, but can also wind up looking as misinformed or even as dogmatic as fundamentalists. And that’s not a good look.
The enormous popularity among atheists of the massively historically illiterate thesis that Jesus never existed is such a gigantic howler that any atheist who asserts it instantly renders himself absurd to me, like a high school sophomore who sneeringly announces, “If evolution is true and clams are older than dinosaurs then how come there are still clams but no dinosaurs? Huh? Huh? How come? See! You can’t even answer me!” It’s so ignorant of so many elementary things and so cocksure that you don’t even know where to start. O’Neill is a better man than I am in treating this stuff patiently.