Monday, July 16, 2012

On the Flat Earth Myth

A redated post.

Did Columbus have trouble getting his voyage funded because everyone believed in flat earth? I was taught that in school. But it is a piece of anti-medieval slander, perpetrated by people like Andrew Dickson White.

Are there myths today that advocates of religion-science warfare like to propagate?

41 comments:

Mike Darus said...

What do you mean, "myth"? I grew up in Zion, Illinois and attended the church that Wilbur Glen Voliva had pastored before I was born. He was the president of the Flat Earth Society.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilbur_Glenn_Voliva

This does not nullify your point but rather substaniates it. You can find somebody for ANY position.

Jeff Carter said...

I find the most laughable myth is that rational atheists are "brights" and believers are "dulls."

Rob G said...

The most persistent and widespread myth is the one about Galileo: the progress of science being opposed by the backwards, anti-science Catholic Church. For a much more nuanced and historically accurate picture, see the book GALILEO IN ROME by Shea and Artigas

unkle e said...

I have read of many such myths. A good source is the Quodlibeta blog, written by four "clerks", two of whom are historians. Some examples:

the exaggeration of christian opposition to evolution

supposed christian opposition to vaccination and the use of chloroform to relieve pain during childbirth

Columbus and the flat earth

the faith (or otherwise) of Adolf Hitler

myths about the persecution of Giordano Bruno

I recommend the blog as a useful adjunct to Dangerous Idea.

Rob G said...

David Bentley Hart's new book 'Atheist Delusions' (Yale) is replete with examples of modern atheism's "myths" about theism and Christianity.

Victor Reppert said...

I've always found it easy to understand why the Flat Earth Society should have been founded in Illinois.

Edward T. Babinski said...

The Flat Earth Myth? It's true that Columbus and most Church Fathers were not flat earthers, but don't start cheering just yet. . .

http://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2011/02/flat-earth-myth-its-true-that-columbus.html

BenYachov said...

>http://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2011/02/flat-earth-myth-its-true-that-columbus.html

So what is your point?

rank sophist said...

The Enlightenment myth that everyone born before the 1600s was a cave man is up there. Also the idea that the Middles Ages were barbaric and superstitious. Also the one where Galileo was a genius silenced by the church. Also the idea that the Catholic church's heretic killing can be applied to religion and Christianity at large. Also the one where polytheism has been on a steady declined since monotheistic Judaism took hold. Also the idea that people have always personalized the Christian God like they do now. I could go on.

BenYachov said...

BTW little known fact the Greek Materialist Philosopher Democretus credited with being an early Atheist (He said the gods did not exist and we are nothing but atoms in the void) he was in fact a Flat Earther.


I wonder how Ed gonna take that?

B. Prokop said...

Pythagoras in the 6th Century B.C. not only knew the Earth was round - he measured it! (quite accurately, by the way) Eratosthenes referenced a round world in the 3rd Century B.C. The earliest known globe was made by Crates of Mallus in 150 B.C. In the 5th Century A.D., Saint Augustine in The City of God discusses the spherical nature of the Earth at length. Hildegard of Bingen drew several pictures of a round world in the 12th Century A.D. (one of which charmingly shows two travelers setting out in opposite directions, and meeting up on the far side of the globe). Dante, of course, described a round world in The Divine Comedy, and even accurately depicted how the sun and stars would appear to move in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Myth of a Flat Earth was dreamed up out of whole cloth by the xenophobic anti-immigrationist Andrew Dickson White in the mid 19th Century. He hated the Irish and Eastern European immigrants then coming to America in large numbers, and invented this Flat Earth idea to tar them (and incidentally, all Catholics) as ignorant, and undeserving of coming to the USA.

Karl Grant said...

Bob,

Adding to your list we have Aristotle's On the Heavens (from The Internet Classics Archive):

Now revolution about the centre is circular motion, while the upward and downward movements are in a straight line, 'upward' meaning motion away from the centre, and 'downward' motion towards it. All simple motion, then, must be motion either away from or towards or about the centre. This seems to be in exact accord with what we said above: as body found its completion in three dimensions, so its movement completes itself in three forms.

If he is saying that up is away from the center and down is toward the center doesn't that mean that Aristotle must have believed the earth is spherical?

Papalinton said...

Here we go again.
Christian revisionism in action, airbrushing out the embarrassing bits.

B. Prokop said...

On the popular level, we might add the Medieval symbol of kingly power, the Orb, a sphere which represented the physical world. Also, one may view the great wall paining still surviving at the 13th Century English parish church in Oddington, in the Cotswolds. Christ is shown enthroned atop a round world.

But really, how many thousand examples must one produce to show that this myth is what it is - a myth. True, it wasn't the product of self-styled "enlightened" skeptics, but the sad result of bigotry and xenophobia.

Bottom line: Educated humanity as a whole (at least in the West - I can't speak for the East) never believed in a Flat Earth - never.

Cale B.T. said...

"Here we go again.
Christian revisionism in action, airbrushing out the embarrassing bits."

Papalinton, the link in Victor Reppert's post attempts to present a case for why a commonly held belief is actually a myth. In your comment, you seem to have asserted that this is an example of Christian revisionism. Please, present your case.

Bilbo said...

Bob: "Bottom line: Educated humanity as a whole (at least in the West - I can't speak for the East) never believed in a Flat Earth - never."

Never?

Bilbo said...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flat_Earth

Bilbo said...

BTW, I also had been taught that most people believed the Earth was flat before Colombus's voyage. Then one day I asked myself the question, "How did Chris not only convince Queen Isabella that the Earth was round, but also that it was small enough to circumnavigate?" So I started doing some research and found out about the Flat Earth myth.

Bilbo said...

I would say there are two other myths:

1) That pre-moderns believed the Earth was large in comparison to the rest of the universe.

2) That because the Earth was at the center of the universe, therefore it was the most important place in the universe.

I believe both of these statements are false.

Bilbo said...

I haven't read it yet, but this discusses "The Great Copernican Cliche."

http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2001AmJPh..69.1029D

B. Prokop said...

"Because the Earth was at the center of the universe, therefore it was the most important place in the universe."

You are absolutely correct when you say it is a myth that people believed this.

The Medieval conception of the Earth's place in the universe was not that it was at the center, but rather that it was at the bottom of Creation - that is, it held the least favorable position. The (round) earth's center was, in Dante's memorable phrase, "where there is no more downward".

Papalinton said...

Cale B T
"Papalinton, the link in Victor Reppert's post attempts to present a case for why a commonly held belief is actually a myth. In your comment, you seem to have asserted that this is an example of Christian revisionism. Please, present your case."

Cale B T, you seem to be under the impression this is the first such inquiry that has been presented. James Hannam's version contributes little to the debate other than a particular Apologetical perspective. A case in point is to read the presentation that Ed Babinski offers. The structure of Babinski's reportage allows the facts of the historical account to speak for themselves. You make do with them what you will and are not constrained within a particular frame of reference as Hannam's account, drawing reference that weaves a somewhat apologetical for sustenance, such as, Edward Grant's, "God and Reason in the Middle Ages."

As acknowledged a historian as Grant is, one should not be unmindful of his personal soft spot for christian theism. This is best exemplified in Eric Lewis's:

"Grant gives ample examples of anti-scholastics' pithy criticisms, but he spends little effort trying to understand their motivations. Instead he jumps quickly over the ages and suggests that critics of scholasticism somehow misunderstood the intellectual vitality of their heritage. For example, Grant assures his reader that Galileo's criticisms of the schoolmen "should not be seen as also representative of behavior by scholastic natural philosophers in the late Middle Ages" (311)."

http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/journal_of_the_history_of_philosophy/v040/40.3lewis.html

Cale B.T. said...

"you seem to be under the impression this is the first such inquiry that has been presented"

I am aware that this is not the first such inquiry presented.

If a person were to say, "Ed Babinski has no degrees in history or anthropology. His only published work on Jewish and Christian Cosmology is in an atheist apologetic work published by a "freethinkers" press. He's a former fundamentalist with an axe to grind." this would not address Babinski's claims. This is just abuse.

To make a substantive criticism, the critic has to show how the writer is incorrect. Your "Christian revisionism" and being "mindful of [Edward Grant's] personal soft spot for christian theism" is but an assertion along the same lines as my example above.

Now as for, "particular Apologetical perspective" and "drawing reference that weaves a somewhat apologetical for sustenance", I think you meant this as an insult but the word apologetic, according to the OED, means,

"constituting a formal defence or justification of a theory or doctrine"

Papalinton said...

You seem to have glossed over the critique of Edward Grant's, "God and Reason in the Middle Ages from Eric Lewis, Professor of Philosophy at McGill Univ.

Cale B.T. said...

That's because I haven't read Grant's book.

Jim S. said...

Here are a couple more links to Quodlibeta posts on the flat earth myth written by my own self:

A Spherical Argument
Yes Virginia, there are flat earthers

physphilmusic said...

Also the idea that the Catholic church's heretic killing can be applied to religion and Christianity at large.

The myth that the Catholic Inquisition tortured people frequently and killed "tens of thousands" or "millions" of people.

The myth that the witch hunt craze (which was more of an early modern phenomenon) was systematically encouraged by the Medieval Church.

The myth that "religion" was a major cause for wars and conflict throughout history. (This can be debunked statistically).

The myth that the Enlightenment is the sole cause for all forms of scientific and social progress.

The myth that Giordano Bruno was a "scientific martyr", or anything more than someone that Dawkins and Myers would be more than happy to expose and denounce as a crackpot were he alive today.

The myth that Galileo had a legitimate case for heliocentrism.

Papalinton said...

How do we recognise one myth from another?
By belief or fact?

Let's take the myths back a little further:

The myth of parthenogenesis
The myth of transubstantiation
The myth of walking on water
The myth of Genesis
The myth of Exodus
The myth of the loaves and fishes
The myth of revivification
The myth of levitation
The myth of Adam and Eve and the talking snake
The myth of Yahweh
The myth of manna falling from the skies

Why is it that some myths are acceptable while others are not? What better field can there be that characterises the gargantuan mythic proportions than Christian Theology? Theology: "the study of the nature of God " [All References Library] Let me just read that again, The study of the nature of God. How does one do that?

"manna |ˈmanə|
noun
(in the Bible) the substance miraculously supplied as food to the Israelites in the wilderness (Exod. 16).
• an unexpected or gratuitous benefit : the cakes were manna from heaven.
• (in Christian contexts) spiritual nourishment, esp. the Eucharist.
• a sweet secretion from the manna ash or a similar plant, used as a mild laxative and as a principal source of mannitol."
[All References Library]

Methinks the myths outlined above are fairly represented by the third definition of 'manna', " ... a sweet secretion .... used as a mild laxative .."

Victor Reppert said...

You are talking to people who don't agree that Christianity is a myth.

Papalinton said...

"You are talking to people who don't agree that Christianity is a myth."

I know that, Victor. How does one reconcile or find common ground when there are two diametric perspectives?:

For christians; the myth of naturalism.
For atheists; the naturalism of myth.

Cale B.T. said...

"How do we recognise one myth from another?
By belief or fact?

Let's take the myths back a little further:

The myth of parthenogenesis
The myth of transubstantiation
etc."

Here, you seem to be conflating myths with miraculous events. But why do miraculous events have to be myths (that is, myths in the sense of "a widely held but false belief or idea")? Is it because there are good reasons to reject miracles in principle? If so, then show us these reasons. Using words like, "superstitious supernaturalism" and "primitive" doesn't actually prove naturalism, or even disprove the items you listed above. Neither does toilet humour. Present your case.

Cale B.T. said...

Also, Papalinton, in case you hadn't noticed, people aren't engaging all the points you bring up in your comments. I will reiterate my suggestion: perhaps you ought to separate some of your ideas into blog posts, so that they can be addressed more fully. Don't you think you might find this to be far more productive than your current strategy of behaviour?

Several months ago, I put this same request to you, asking, "Do you actually want a substantive discussion on these issues, or were you just using them as rhetorical soundbites?"

To which you replied "I guess you see my point. How does one have a substantive discussion on any theological idea? ...For me there is no value to be had from holding an elongated discussion on theological tripe, such as 'Father, Son and Holey ghost'. That would simply legitimate an already fraudulent and unsubstantiated proposition and derail a process now in train in which the great inconsequences of the failed jesus program in now being quietly put out to pasture."

But that is just the question that has to be addressed: IS the Trinity a fraudulent and unsubstantiated proposition? If you include criticisms of such ideas in your comments, but (as implied by your comments above) ultimately don't think productive discussion can be had on this and other similar topics, and don't even care if people attempt to address them, then I question why you even bother posting here. But, if you sincerely do want a productive discussion of all the points you raise, I can see no reason whatsoever why you wouldn't follow my suggestion.

Papalinton said...

Cale B T
"Also, Papalinton, in case you hadn't noticed, people aren't engaging all the points you bring up in your comments. I will reiterate my suggestion: perhaps you ought to separate some of your ideas into blog posts, so that they can be addressed more fully."

The principle factor for not responding to my contribution has little to do with the number of points I raise. Believers are affronted by my questioning, the result being they can only characterise my inquiry as unwarranted challenge, or provocation, or confrontation, or a hostile argumentative stance. And if I was a believer in supernatural superstition, I too would probably deem it a perverse intrusion. But their discomfort is a function of having to defend supernatural superstition. That is the nature of unfounded belief. If the belief is predicated on an invisible means of support, then it has nothing to fall back to in substantiating its claims. The single issue approach is highly problematic in that, for example, I base my argument on what seems to be a christian truth-statement, such as, cracker and wine turning into flesh and blood, only to be casually dismissed by incalculable numbers of christians, who claim that they personally don't believe that, and that it is allegory, a metaphor. The same happens with the supposed 'reality' of Adam and Eve; many christians [but not all] tell me that the story is simply a metaphor. Stupidly, it seems, unknowingly to the ignorant, that if the Adam and Eve story is just allegory, then clearly 'original sin' must also be allegory, both by definition and by causal relationship. It seems so ironic, that jesus died but for a metaphor. The problem with single issue discussion is that christian theism is a deeply embedded cultural memeplex, not dependent on any one single issue, as outlined above, but is an amorphous convolution of accreted legendising embellishments encrusted over centuries. But it is not alone. It shares with every other religion exhibits that consistent pathology.

CONT

Papalinton said...

CONT
You see Cale B T, every believer on the planet believes there is only one religion [there was only supposed to be religion (singular)], one true, and therefore compulsory, factual statement about the spiritual world and moral imperative flowing from those facts. Here, most purely and profoundly, religion implodes - not because religion and anti-religion (i.e. science or symbology) meet but because religion and religion meet. Nothing is more destructive to religions; it is like meeting one's own anti-matter twin.

As Prof David Eller, anthropologist, says it, "First, other religions represent alternatives to one's own religion: other people believe in them just as fervently as we do, and they live their lives just as successfully as we do. Then, the diversity of religions forces us to see religion as a culturally relative phenomenon; different groups have different religions that appear adapted to their unique social and even environmental conditions. But if their religion is relative, then why is ours not? Finally, awareness of other religions reduces the truth-probability of one's own. Assuming that there are, say, 1,000 religions in the world, each with an equal chance of being true and all at least to some degree mutually exclusive, then each religion has a 1/1000 chance of being true and a 999/1000 chance of being false. In other words, whatever you believed before the comparison, there is only a 0.1% chance of being correct and a 99.9% chance of being incorrect."

And please spare me, don't tell me that's a miracle too. For which one of the 1000 religions is the miracle? And how do you prove a miracle?

Papalinton said...

Cak=le B T
"Here, you seem to be conflating myths with miraculous events."

A miraculous event is the circumstance under which we are all ignorant of an, as yet, natural causal explanation.

Mike Darus said...

I only know about Bayesian probability from lurking here, but I wonder if a miracle could be defined as an improbable event?

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Hi Victor --

I was taught the same thing in school. But is this motivated by anti-religious sentiments, anti-medieval sentiments, or both?

I've never examined the historical evidence on this, so I don't know the answer.

B. Prokop said...

Both, plus anti-immigrant sentiments. The flat Earth Myth is verifiably a product of xenophobia, anti-Catholicism, and chronological snobbery.

Edward T. Babinski said...

BenYachov mentions that Democritus was a Greek atomist/atheist and "flat earther," but Democritus never claimed his ideas were inspired holy writ. And he wrote centuries before any of the early Christian church fathers who simply accommodated their interpretations of cosmological passages in Scripture to the prevalent Hellenistic idea of a spherical earth.

Also, early Church Fathers resisted the idea that people lived on the opposite side of the earth. And resisted the idea that human history stretched back much further than Adam. Neither did they argue over whether or not humans were descended from ape-like species, as today's Evangelicals are doing.

Also check out BIOLOGOS.org, a site by and for Evangelical Christians, and check out these research papers at BIOLOGOS:

"Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography in the Bible" http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/godawa_scholarly_paper_2.pdf

"Biblical Creation and Storytelling: Cosmogony, Combat and Covenant" http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/godawa_scholarly_paper.pdf

And check out Wheaton professor, John Walton's latest book, GENESIS 1 AS ANCIENT COSMOLOGY (2011): http://www.amazon.com/Genesis-1-as-Ancient-Cosmology/dp/157506216X

Evangelicals above are admitting the Biblical authors were flat-earthers, as I pointed out in "The Cosmology of the Bible" in The Christian Delusion.

And isn't what the biblical authors thought more of an embarrassment, relatively speaking, than questions regarding medieval views of the world?

But see my article on that as well. http://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2011/02/flat-earth-myth-its-true-that-columbus.html

B. Prokop said...

The Old Testament writers most emphatically did not have a Flat Earth cosmology - they had no cosmology. Big Difference. It was not something they were interested in - in fact, they were hostile to it. The Hebrews were surrounded by cultures that worshiped the Sun and the Moon and various other aspects of the natural world, and they wanted nothing to do with all of that. Look at the lengths they went to - the writer of Genesis can't even bring himself to use the words Sun and Moon. He instead calls them "the Greater Light" and "the Lesser light".

So no, the Hebrews did not believe in a Flat Earth, except maybe in the most passive of senses. They did not give the matter any thought.

BenYachov said...

>Evangelicals above are admitting the Biblical authors were flat-earthers, as I pointed out in "The Cosmology of the Bible" in The Christian Delusion.

So what?

I read those books and I those articles a long time ago.

Conservative Catholic authors like Fr Jaki & have been saying that for decades. Even going back to the 19th century.

Both Aquinas & Augustine said the writers of the Old Testament wrote for their audience "a primitive, unsophisticated and rude people".

Augustine said if the known science contradicted a particular interpretation of Scripture then it is the Scripture that must be reinterpreted. The Science is not ignored.

Fr. Stanly Jaki in his books showed when it came to the particulars the Fathers didn't have a uniform concordant interpretation of scripture. In fact I believe no two Fathers had the same view of the nature of the firmament.

>And isn't what the biblical authors thought more of an embarrassment, relatively speaking, than questions regarding medieval views of the world?

So what?

What does it matter what they thought? The essence of Divine Inspiration is that God is also the author if scripture along with the sacred writer. How do you show definitively the text was meant to teach us to believe in a Flat Earth?

When the Bible says God enfolds us in his wings the word is intending to teach us God is a giant bird?

Philo one of the first interpreters of Genesis one said we should take it literally.

>BenYachov mentions that Democritus was a Greek atomist/atheist and "flat earther," but Democritus never claimed his ideas were inspired holy writ.

That last bit is stupid. Why would an Atheist claim divine inspiration from gods he doesn't believe exists?

The point is the world's first Atheist was wrong & his science was wrong. You OTOH have given no proof the Bible intends to teach any science.

>Also, early Church Fathers resisted the idea that people lived on the opposite side of the earth.

So what? Where did they ever claim that was a definitive teaching recieved from the Apostles?

>And resisted the idea that human history stretched back much further than Adam.

So what?

Humans are defined metaphysically. A human is a rational animal with a soul you are modling them using post Darwinian concepts of species. Catagory mistake.

Besides the Rabbis seemed to believe Adam had souless humanoid contemporaries.

http://www.aish.com/tp/i/moha/48931772.html

>Neither did they argue over whether or not humans were descended from ape-like species, as today's Evangelicals are doing.

Agains so what?

Bob wrote:
>So no, the Hebrews did not believe in a Flat Earth, except maybe in the most passive of senses. They did not give the matter any thought.

They didn't put any religious significant to it.