Thomas Woods: The Flat Earth Libel Against Religion

Thomas Woods, at (7-13-05):

In the course of promoting my new book, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, I have made the point that major historians of science today no longer hold the simplistic position that"religion" has been nothing but an obstacle to"science." This contention doubtless comes as a surprise to some people, since most of us have gone through life hearing and being taught that very idea.

The standard view was given its classical expression by Andrew Dickson White (1832–1918) in his two-volume History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Yet it is safe to say that scarcely any serious historian of science today views White’s work as anything but quaintly risible. (That doesn’t stop hostile e-mail correspondents even now from dutifully quoting him to me, as if the past century’s revolution in our understanding of the history of science had never occurred.) And while the claim of Pierre Duhem and Stanley Jaki that certain Christian theological ideas were indispensable to the rise of Western science (see, for instance, Jaki’s discussion of inertial motion – and, indeed, his entire thesis – in Science and Creation: From Eternal Cycles to an Oscillating Universe) has not become the dominant view, the opposite position – the one drilled into the heads of 99.9 percent of American students at all levels, from elementary school onward – has for all intents and purposes been abandoned.

This just can’t be true, say my critics. After all, didn’t the Church teach that the world was flat?

Actually, no. Essentially no one during the Middle Ages believed the world was flat. Of the many myths about the Middle Ages this one is perhaps the most widespread, and yet at the same time the most roundly and authoritatively debunked.

In fact, the evidence is so overwhelming that refuting this myth is like refuting the idea that the moon is made of cheese.

The two figures routinely cited by the myth peddlers are Lactantius (c. 245–325) and the early sixth-century Greek traveler and geographer Cosmas Indicopleustes. Lactantius was actually a Christian heretic who argued that God positively willed evil and who held a Manichaean worldview that posited Christ and Satan as equal but opposed creations of the one God. He believed that the pagan philosophers had no good arguments in favor of the earth as a sphere, and that since the Bible took no position one way or the other the issue was unimportant. At least some of his contrarianism in positing a flat earth can be attributed to his misplaced enthusiasm as an ex-pagan to contradict everything the pagans said. But he was in no way representative of the early Christian thinkers and his ideas appear to have had no influence.

Cosmas constructed an elaborate if peculiar model of the physical universe that portrayed the earth as flat. And even he did not intend his model to be taken as a literal description of how the cosmos was actually ordered. He thought of the physical universe in terms of an analogue to its spiritual meaning, rather in the way that Dante, much more elegantly, would later attempt in literature....

Andrew Dickson White, the fallen guru of the warfare-between-religion-and-science crowd, lent what prestige he had to the ludicrous falling-off-the-edge theory, which had no basis in fact whatsoever:

Many a bold navigator [wrote White], who was quite ready to brave pirates and tempests, trembled at the thought of tumbling with his ship into one of the openings into hell which a widespread belief placed in the Atlantic at some unknown distance from Europe. This terror among sailors was one of the main obstacles in the great voyage of Columbus.
David Lindberg, who is among the most accomplished modern historians of science, corrects the record:
In the usual story, theoretical dogma regarding a flat earth had to be overcome by empirical evidence for its sphericity. The truth is that the sphericity of the earth was a central feature of theoretical dogma as it came down to the Middle Ages – so central that no amount of contrary theoretical or empirical argumentation could conceivably have dislodged it.
European monarchs’ initial hesitation to support Columbus’s proposed expedition had nothing to do with the idea that the world was flat and Columbus might fall off the edge. It was precisely the accuracy of their knowledge of the earth that made them skeptical: they correctly concluded that Columbus had drastically underestimated the size of the earth, and that therefore he and his men would starve to death before they made it to the Indies....

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Jonathan Dresner - 7/16/2005

Religion does not become (or rather, attempt to become) a significant obstacle to science until the 19th century. Until then, aside from Galileo, there really wasn't much in the way of philosophical challenges one way or the other. And by the 19c, though the Church and churches may be a hindrance in public science education, they are no barrier to actual scientific progress. They may try, but they're not succeeding.

Douglas K. Bissell - 7/16/2005

I'm willing to accept the argument that the Church
didn't believe that the world was flat. What I don't see is how this proves the larger argument that the Church was not an obstacle to science. There are many other issues besides the flat earth that need to be dealt with.

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