September 16, 2010

How the Myth of the Flat-Earth Dogma Started the Religion-Science War

Matt J. Rossano
September 16, 2010
The Huffington Post

Starting a war on false pretenses is nothing new. But when a few nineteenth-century academicians declared a science-vs.-religion war, they did us all a disservice.

John W. Draper (1811-1882) was born in England into a devout Methodist family. In 1832, he emigrated to the U.S., studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and later became professor of chemistry and biology at New York University and head of the medical school. Along the way he rejected his family's religion and acquired an intense antipathy for Catholicism. Two factors were pivotal in shaping his attitude: the debates over Darwinian evolution erupting shortly after the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, and the reactionary attitude of Pope Pius IX toward liberal progressivism encapsulated in his Syllabus of Errors published in 1864.

In 1874, Draper published The History of Conflict Between Religion and Science, in which he argued that current (nineteenth-century) events were reflective of the totality of Christian history. Christianity was currently opposing progress because it has always been an impediment to science, reason, and progress. An especially egregious example of this was the Church's insistence on a flat earth, a laughable dogma that stubbornly persisted until Columbus demolished it, bravely prevailing despite the ignorant protests of the Spanish cardinals.

Draper, with a little help from Washington Irving, thus popularized the "flat earth" myth, the idea that prior to Columbus there was a widespread, religiously-inspired belief that the earth was flat. Contemporary historians have squashed this myth, with Jeffrey Russell's book Inventing the Flat Earth probably being the most detailed account of how and why it arose. Historian of science David Lindberg summarizes the medieval understanding of the earth and cosmos in his book The Beginnings of Western Science: "At the center of everything is the sphere of the earth. Every Medieval scholar of the period agreed on its sphericity, and ancient estimates of its circumference (about 252,000 stades) were widely known and accepted" (p. 253).

The rather mundane fact is that most educated Christian writers accepted Greco-Roman teachings about the earth and cosmos and quickly moved on to more urgent matters of sin and salvation. No Christian authority of any consequence ever taught that the earth was flat.

So from where did Draper get the idea of a medieval Christian belief in a flat earth? He read William Whewell's book History of Inductive Sciences, published about three decades earlier. Whewell, a Cambridge Vice-Chancellor and Anglican priest, made intellectual stars out of two minor Christian authors, Lactantius and Cosmas Indicopleustes. Lactantius was a fourth-century pagan convert to Christianity who took particular delight in arguing against pretty much everything any pagan philosopher ever said, including that the earth was round. Christians wanted converts, but even they couldn't stomach Lactantius, whose works were posthumously condemned.

Cosmas Indicopleustes was an even more peculiar specimen. A sixth-century merchant-sailor who later adopted monasticism, Cosmas boasted a hopelessly literal mind. To him, the projected rectilinear-shaped maps of Strabo and Eratosthenes meant that the earth was physically flat. Furthermore, they confirmed a literal interpretation of Biblical descriptions such as the "four corners of the earth" (which most everyone else took allegorically). Unlike Lactantius, Cosmas' ideas were too silly to condemn. He was just ignored. But Whewell dug him up along with Lactantius, and Draper ran with the corpses. Thus did a long-forgotten heretic and an oddball nobody become the standard-bearers for medieval Christian geography.

Draper was followed in 1896 by Cornell University president Andrew Dickson White, who published the two-volume set History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. A better historian than Draper, White realized that the case for the medieval flat earth was pitifully thin. His tactic was to stealthily misrepresent a few church fathers as flat-earthers (Basil, Chrysostom) and to argue that the non-flat-earthers were a few brave souls swimming against a colossal tide. Exactly how folks such as Origen, Ambrose, Augustine, Clement, and Aquinas could be swimming against a tide of their own creation was never explained. But no matter. Facts only confuse a good story. The narrative was bold, simple, and eagerly embraced by the nineteenth-century intelligentsia, who asserted that today, as always, religion subverts knowledge and progress. It was a classic fight of good vs. evil, progress vs. regress, ignorance vs. enlightenment -- just what the papers needed to sell copy.

There never was a flat earth dogma. When Columbus faced off with the Spanish cardinals, the issue was the size of the earth, not its shape. And the Cardinals were right: the earth was a heck of a lot bigger than Columbus believed. His mission was ill-conceived, and it failed. But it failed gloriously. Columbus went to his grave erroneously thinking he had bumped into some far corner of Asia.

Whewell, Draper, and White all made laudable contributions to science and society, but their involvement in the flat-earth error is a regrettable blot. They fabricated a false history highlighted by a non-existent dogma and used them to brand religion as unceasingly reactionary, dim-witted, and anti-science. In reality, science and religion have had a complex history, one defying simple labels. The same reactionary Pope of the Syllabus of Errors also established the Pontifical Academy of the New Lincei (later the Pontifical Academy of Sciences) dedicated to the promotion of science. Furthermore, clergy have often been important contributors to scientific progress: Mendel in genetics and Lemaître in big-bang cosmology. But there are infamous nadirs as well: the muzzling of Teilhard de Chardin and the Galileo affair. Claiming that science and religion have known only unrelenting warfare betrays one's ignorance of history and possibly one's social/political agenda.

The lesson in all of this is that both science and religion are human endeavors, and human nature imposes itself upon them. Whewell, Draper, and White let human nature intrude on good scholarship. Sadly, dividing up into opposing factions is deeply engrained in our primate heritage. Even more than friends, we humans need enemies. They define us, give us purpose; often, without them we are lost. Searching for points of agreement and constructing common ground are not sexy; they don't stir the senses or make the blood boil. It's so much more fun to wave a sword around and cry out, "Get the bad guys!" Usually it is too late when we realize that we are the bad guys.

Within both science and religion, however, there lies inspiration to resist destructive tribalism. At its best, religion teaches us to be humble, to be instruments of divine peace, to seek to understand rather than to be understood. Likewise, at its best, science teaches us to falsify our most cherished and comforting ideas, seek to prove them wrong. Science and religion are not enemies of one another. Small minds and dim imaginations are enemies of them both.