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January 12, 2007

Flat out wrong! Medieval Dogma and the Shape of the World

A couple of months ago, I got an iPod for my birthday. All the kids are doing it these days, and with the 2-year-old having control of the stereo, it seemed like my best option for listening to something more challenging than Laurie Berkner. Don't get me wrong, Laurie is great, but how many times can a grown man listen to "We are the Dinosaurs" without going nuts? Well, more nuts.

After installing iTunes, converting hundreds of albums to AAC format from WMA format (okay, I was foolish), and loading them into the iPod, I turned my attention to podcasts.

I had heard mentions of podcasts numerous times in the past and I understood the basic idea. Someone records a show and makes it available over the Internet; you download it to your iPod and listen to it. Simple. However, since I didn't have an iPod, I didn't pay much attention. After I got an iPod, I looked into the matter some more -- and learned that you don't actually need an iPod to listen to them. Oh sure, now you tell me! For anyone out there who is under the same misimpression that I was, all you need is a way to play MP3 files. Windows Media Player on your PC will do just fine.

Anyway, so I poked around the iTunes store and found several related to skepticism. My favorite so far has been Logically Critical, particularly the episodes Live! From the Realm of the Dead and Vintage Monsters, both of which are extremely funny.

But that's not what this post is about.

This post is about a point raised by Derek in an early episode of Skepticality, "the official podcast of Skeptic magazine". I feel like I'm required to say that last bit, almost like it's part of the full name of the podcast. (The intro to this post was just to explain why I'm writing about a podcast that was first broadcast more than a year and a half ago. I'm a bit behind the times.)

In the episode for May 14, 2005, "Flat Earth, Private Property, Sweden...", Derek objects to the claim made by atheists that Medieval Christians believed that the Earth was flat. This, Derek said, was a false claim that was perpetrated by atheists and still exists today. One example he gave of how this myth persists was the book The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin.

This caught my attention because a couple of years ago, I gave a presentation to our local skeptics group about this very subject. The title of my talk was "Medieval Dogma and the Shape of the World". One of my main sources of information in preparing this talk was The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin.

What the...? Had I fallen for a bit of bad information? I immensely enjoyed reading The Discoverers. It was an extremely interesting topic to me and was well-written. But was it also wrong? Or was Derek the one who was wrong?

So I began searching on the Internet to find the answer.

In his book, Boorstin didn't claim that people still believed the Earth was flat at the time of the voyage of Christopher Columbus. However, he wrote that for around a thousand years, 300-1300 AD -- the Great Interruption, he called it -- "Christian faith and dogma suppressed the useful image of the world that had been so slowly, so painfully, and so scrupulously drawn by ancient geographers." I had found that part of the book particularly amazing. But was it true?

In my initial searches of the Internet to find the answer, the first sites I checked that addressed the issue were those coming from an obviously pro-religious perspective. Had Derek fallen for some pro-religious propaganda? Sorry, but I generally don't consider the Discovery Institute or William Dembski to be reliable sources of information.

However, I eventually located The Flat Earth: A Detailed Study of Personal Bias and Historical Thinking at the Ethical Atheist. In this article, the author explains that, sure enough, it is a myth that the belief in a flat earth was widespread in Medieval times (at least among the educated). This article was particularly interesting because it was a revision of an earlier version of the article which had reached the opposite conclusion!

The question is not whether people once believed that the earth was flat -- they definitely did. The question is when did they accept that the earth was a sphere. More specifically, when did Christians come to this view, since the issue is the role that the church played in opposing scientific advances that conflicted with the bible.

The question also isn't whether the church opposed some scientific advances -- they definitely did. Specifically, the church opposed the idea that the earth was not at the center of the universe and that the earth moved. Everyone is familiar with what Galileo went through.

I think it is also safe to say that an objective reading of the bible would indicate that the authors of the bible believed that the earth was flat. For example, Isaiah 40:22 states, "It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth." Many Christians will claim that "circle" doesn't actually mean "flat and round" but instead means "sphere". I think you would only reach that conclusion if you start from the basis that the bible can't be wrong, so therefore it must mean something other than what it appears to mean.

But as to the question of when did most (educated) Christians and the Christian church hierarchy come to accept that the earth was a sphere, the answer appears no later than somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 AD. In any case, it was long before the 1300 AD time period that Boorstin's book stated.

So what happened? How is it that Boorstin (and others) got it wrong? Well, for a full explanation, I highly recommend reading the Ethical Atheist's The Flat Earth: A Detailed Study of Personal Bias and Historical Thinking, as that goes into plenty of detail about the whole subject.

Now I have to figure out how to correct the misinformation that I passed along in my earlier talk. Should I give another talk to explain where the first talk was wrong? Certainly. When I'll get the time to do so is another question, given the aforementioned two-year-old. It's been awhile since I read The Discoverers, so I'd need to read the relevant portions again to figure out which bits were wrong. Oh bother! In the meantime, hopefully this post will help to correct some of the misinformation. (Of course, if it turns out that Boorstin was right and the Ethical Atheist is the one who got it wrong, then I'll have to post a correction to this correction!)

One of my favorite blog posts is one written by hilzoy at Obsidian Wings, Hatred is a Poison, which begins with this quote from Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis:

"Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, 'Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that,' or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?"

I always try to keep that in mind as I evaluate the various claims and counterclaims that I read about various paranormal, pseudoscience, religious, and political topics. I think it's quite relevant here.

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January 12, 2007 in Creationism and Evolution, Religions, Cults, and Miracles | Permalink


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Hi there,

I did a quick blog about the flat earth society here;


They themselves claim the bible as the basis of their belief. Of course I am sure that more than one such "cult" has existed but nevertheless this shows the huge variety of beliefs stemming from just the one book.



Posted by: Psiloiordinary | Jan 24, 2007 6:53:04 AM

I think the flat-earth discovery of the way people have wriiten in the bible , shows where peoples beliefs and discovery of the earth started , and the discoveries we have made to present day..this merely shows us of our evolution . The bible is a time piece in history. Just like all of the discoveries we have made in other cultures .People want to take the bible literely and they are forgeting the time period which these people lived in and of course their learning and discovery of the world.

Posted by: Hi | Jun 2, 2007 10:18:42 AM

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