|Do you remember hearing about Columbus convincing the
Spanish monarchs that he would not fall off the edge of the Earth during
his voyage to the Indies? It makes for a good story, but historians now
recognize that it never could have happened.
Although some have blamed Christianity for teaching that the world
was flat, most educated people of Western society since the 4th century
have believed that the Earth was a sphere. Yet, the flat Earth myth was
widely believed to be spread by those with an agenda to pit science
against religious belief.
The origin of the flat Earth theory
- Lactantius (245-325) — a Christian convert who
believed that the region known as Antipodes, the theoretical place
that would on the “other side” of a spherical Earth could not
exist because everything there would be upside down.
- Cosmas Indicopleustes (6th Century) — Also a
convert to Christianity, he produced illustrations and documents of
the flat Earth based on the literal interpretation of the biblical
passage Hebrews 9:1-5, where the writer declared that the “earthly
sanctuary” must resemble the ancient tabernacle of Moses.
Accordingly, Cosmas drew Earth as a rectangular box covered by a lid
that represented the heavens. However, most scholars in the Middle
Ages were unable to read Cosmas’ manuscripts until 1706 because
they were not translated into Latin, the lingua franca of
the Western world.
The start of the flat Earth myth
J.B. Russell, historian and author of Inventing the Flat Earth,
foundin a study of history textbooks for secondary schools, that few
mentioned the “flat Earth myth” before 1870, but almost all of them
mentioned the myth after 1890.
Russell pinpointed John W. Draper’s History of the Conflict
between Religion and Science published in 1874, and Andrew Dickson
White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in
Christendom published in 1896, as the first two works that
introduced the idea that Christianity was responsible for the medieval
belief that the Earth Was flat.
- John Draper (1811-82) —Met with great acclaim
across the globe, Draper’s book was translated into 10 languages
and reprinted 50 times in 50 years. The annual reprinting of his
book is proof Draper succeeded in convincing his audience that the
flat earth teachings of Lactantius and Cosmas replaced the classic
and scientific findings of the Greeks. Today, scientists and
historians alike have charged Draper with propagating the flat-Earth
myth to widen the gap and increase the hostility between science and
- Andrew White (1832-1918) — He founded Cornell
University as one of the first completely secular colleges in
America. White simply wanted to keep science from what he viewed as
the dogmatic and constricting procedures of the church. Like Draper,
White does not mention that Lactantius and Cosmas were minor players
whose views were rarely referenced by other medieval theologians or
scientists. More respected and popular theologians such as the
Venerable Bede, Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon all wrote that the
Earth was a sphere.
The notoriety of Draper and White’s books has caused many current
authors to implicate Lactantius and Cosmas as the key figures in the
religious formulation of the flat earth theory.
- 1988 — In his book Coming of Age in the
Milky Way, author and scientist Timothy Ferris also accuses the
Christian church of teaching that the earth was flat. Probably
referring to Cosmas, Ferris blamed the “conservative churchmen who
modeled the universe after the tabernacle of Moses.”
- 1997—In his book The Dancing Universe,
physicist Marco Gleiser wrote that because of the church, “the
seeds [of a spherical Earth] planted by the Greeks were to lie
dormant for quite a while.” Without identifying a specific person
or source, Gleiser wrote, “The state of astronomy was so
regressive that for seven hundred years, from roughly A.D. 300 to
1000, the Earth was once again considered to be flat!” Gleiser
does not blame this on the church, but he does group every human and
every scholar of the time under the same blanket of ignorance.
Summing up the myth
As Stephen Jay Gould (the late, highly respected evolutionary
biologist who went out of his way to defend theologians) concluded, the
flat earth myth was invented by scientists to blame the Christian church
for the supposed “Dark” age of human enlightenment.
- “For the myth itself only makes sense under a prejudicial view
of Western history as an era of darkness between lighted beacons of
classical learning and Renaissance revival-while the
nineteenth-century invention of the flat earth, as we shall see,
occurred to support another dubious and harmful separation wedded to
another legend of historical progress- the supposed warfare between
science and religion.”
SOURCE: Article by Seth Glick who is an editorial
intern at Science
& Theology News.