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The Late Birth of a Flat Earth- For atheists by an atheist

10 April 2013, 13:01

There was many a comment made by a group of people claim to have a higher intellect than the religious concerning the flat earth theory. They were corrected, but still the myth continues. This was the latest comment made on the subject

Franco - April 10, 2013 at 11:23

Dear Shayne. If you firmly believed that the earth is flat, or that cigarettes are harmless, or that diseases are caused by demons that need to be extracted by puncturing the body - would you be offended by an article that ridicules your belief, or would you be grateful that your faith was attacked?

I mentioned previously that if one ignores or dismisses important information or facts deliberately, one could be classed as being ignorant.

“Ignorance is a state of being uninformed (lack of knowledge).[1] The word ignorant is an adjective describing a person in the state of being unaware and is often used as an insult to describe individuals who deliberately ignore or disregard important information or facts. Ignoramus is commonly used in the US, the UK, and Ireland as a term for someone who is willfully ignorant.”

Well I had found this blog a few years ago and posted on my previous blog then, and thought it to quite nice to place it here, so that we can all learn from this…

Be sure to read the below link as listed here for easy access

The Late Birth of a Flat Earth

So, for my atheist friend, kindly note that Mr Cliff Walker is a fellow atheist, so be careful to judge him

Positive Atheism - Cliff Walker: The Flat Earth Falls Flat

God is “He who sits above the circle of the earth” (Isaiah 40:22)

Cliff Walker has presented us with various logical fallacies and faulty inferences drawn from lack of knowledge of, and misunderstandings of, the Bible. I have evidenced these and responded to them in two essays thus far:
Part 1: 
Weak Bible Week Poster
Part 2: Relative Ethics and Absolute Condemnations

This essay, which is part 3, will focus on a very small but significant statement made by Mr. Walker. Note that I am not writing very much of this essay but will mostly allow the research of the late Stephen Jay Gould to respond to Mr. Walker’s statements.

To read/Or not to read

Mr. Walker wrote:

“People have been working for years to undermine any human progress which contradicts cherished myths…Since the myth they want to enforce cannot stand on its own merit, the only method left for them is to try to discredit any human progress which contradicts the myth.
We must remember that in 600 B.C.E., philosophers (what scientists were called back then) knew that the earth is a globe (and is not flat, as it appears to a mind that is unaided by abstract thinking skills). In 400 B.C.E., philosophers had made a close calculation as to the size of the earth. By 200 B.C.E., they had realized that the earth is not a perfect sphere, and had made some concerted efforts to measure how far off from a perfect sphere this spheroid called Earth is…
Long after these accomplishments came the Dark Ages. Ancient science had become so completely forgotten, through the domination of the Christian religion and its flat-earth dogma, that we now speak of the Copernican Revolution -- as if Copernicus was the first to discover and publicize heliocentricity. Galileo was persecuted in 1633 -- fully 141 years after Christopher Columbus, in 1492, ‘discovered’ a land that had already been inhabited for tens of thousands of years. Galileo was persecuted fully 111 years after Magellan's crew, in 1522, completed the first known voyage around the globe…”

This portion of Mr. Walker’s statements interested me because they are so brief and yet, contain a tightly packaged concoction of historical myths. This succinct package was the reason I referred to his statements as “small,” their significance will be drawn out as we proceed. I rely heavily on Mr. Gould’s essay not because it is the only source of refutation of the above ideas (in fact Mr. Gould cites various authors) but because he well encapsulated a response to the historical myth. I will now quote from The Late Birth of a Flat Earth.[2]

Mr. Gould set the stage thusly:

“I also once learned that most other ecclesiastical scholars of the benighted Dark Ages had refuted Aristotle’s notion of a spherical earth, and had depicted our home as a flat, or at most a gently curved, plate. Didn’t we all hear the legend of Columbus at Salamanca, trying to convince the learned clerics that he would reach the Indies and not fall off the ultimate edge?”

This is basically what was described in Philip J. Sampson’s book 6 Modern Myths About Christianity and Western Civilization as “ideas everyone believes that really aren’t true.” Mr. Gould proceeds to explain how such historical myths came to be.

Mr. Gould continues:

“the supposed Dark and Medieval consensus for a flat earth—is entirely mythological…the invention of this fable [is traced to] the nineteenth century…the nineteenth-century invention of the flat earth…occurred to support another dubious and harmful separation wedded to another legend of historical progress—the supposed warfare between science and religion.

Classical scholars, of course, had no doubt about the earth’s sphericity. Our planet’s roundness was central to Aristotle’s cosmology and was assumed in Eratosthenes’ measurement of the earth’s circumference in the third century B.C. The flat-earth myth argues that this knowledge was then lost when ecclesiastical darkness settled over Europe. For a thousand years of middle time, almost all scholars held that the earth must be flat.”

Mr. Gould had already noted that The Venerable Bede (673-735) “clearly presented his classical conception of the earth as a sphere at the hub of the cosmos…Bede then explicitly stated that he meant a three-dimensional sphere, not a flat plate.”

“The inspirational, schoolchild version of the myth centers upon Columbus, who supposedly overcame the calumny of assembled clerics at Salamanca to win a chance from Ferdinand and Isabella. Consider this version of the legend, cited by Russell from a book for primary-school children written in 1887, soon after the myth’s invention (but little different from accounts that I read as a child in the 1950s):

‘But if the world is round,’ said Columbus, ‘it is not hell that lies beyond that stormy sea. Over there must lie the eastern strand of Asia, the Cathay of Marco Polo’ … In the hall of the convent there was assembled the imposing company-shaved monks in gowns … cardinals in scarlet robes. … ‘You think the earth is round … Are you not aware that the holy fathers of the church have condemned this belief …This theory of yours looks heretical.’ Columbus might well quake in his boots at the mention of heresy; for there was that new Inquisition just in fine running order, with its elaborate bone-breaking, flesh-pinching, thumb-screwing, hanging, burning, mangling system for heretics. [ellipsis points are here Mr. Gould’s]

Dramatic to be sure, but entirely fictitious. There never was a period of “flat earth darkness” among scholars (regardless of how many uneducated people may have conceptualized our planet both then and now). Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the earth’s roundness as an established fact of cosmology…This commission, composed of both clerical and lay advisers, did meet, at Salamanca among other places. They did pose some sharp intellectual objections to Columbus, but all assumed the earth’s roundness. As a major critique, they argued that Columbus could not reach the Indies in his own allotted time, because the earth’s circumference was too great…

Virtually all major medieval scholars affirmed the earth’s roundness…The twelfth-century translations into Latin of many Greek and Arabic works greatly expanded general appreciation of natural sciences, particularly astronomy, among scholars—and convictions about the earth’s sphericity both spread and strengthened. Roger Bacon (1220-1292) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) affirmed roundness via Aristotle and his Arabic commentators, as did the greatest scientists of later medieval times, including John Buriden (130(1-1358) and Nicholas Oresme (1320-1382)…

English philosopher of science William Whewell first identified major culprits in his History o f the Inductive Sciences, published in 1837—two minimally significant characters named Lactantius (245-325) and Cosmas Indicopleustes, who wrote his ‘Christian Topography’ in 547-549. Russell comments: ‘Whewell pointed to the culprits … as evidence of a medieval belief in a flat earth, and virtually every subsequent historian imitated him—they could find few other examples’…both men played minor roles in medieval scholarship. Only three reasonably complete medieval manuscripts of Cosmas are known (with five or six additional fragments), and all in Greek. The first Latin translation dates from 1706—so Cosmas remained invisible to medieval readers in their own lingua franca…

Where then, and why, did the myth of medieval belief in a flat earth arise?... None of the great eighteenth-century anticlerical rationalists—not Condillac, Condorcet, Diderot, Gibbon, Hume, or our own Benjamin Franklin—accused the scholastics of believing in a flat earth, though these men were all unsparing in their contempt for medieval versions of Christianity...

Russell [Jeffrey Burton Russell, 
Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians] did an interesting survey of nineteenth-century history texts for secondary schools, and found that very few mentioned the flat-earth myth before 1870, but that almost all texts after 1880 featured the legend. We can therefore pinpoint the invasion of general culture by the flat-earth myth to the period between 1860 and 1890. Those years also featured the spread of an intellectual movement based on the second error of taxonomic categories explored in this essay—the portrayal of Western history as a perpetual struggle, if not an outright ‘war,’ between science and religion, with progress linked to the victory of science and the consequent retreat of theology. Such move ments always need whipping boys and legends to advance their claims. Russell argues that the flat-earth myth achieved its canonical status as a primary homily for the triumph of science under this false dichotomization of Western history…

I was especially drawn to this topic because the myth of dichotomy and warfare between science and religion—an important nineteenthcentury theme with major and largely unfortunate repercussions extending to our times—received its greatest boost in two books that I own and treasure for their firm commitment to rationality (however wrong and ultimately harmful their dichotomizing model of history)… John W. Draper’sHistory o f the Conflict between Religion and Science, first published in 1874; and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, published in 1896 (a great expansion of a small book first written in 1876 and called The Warfare of Science)…

Draper states his thesis in the preface to his volume:

The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compressing arising from
traditionary faith and human interests on the other … Faith is in its nature unchangeable, stationary; Science is in its nature progressive; and eventually a divergence between them, impossible to conceal, must take place.

Draper extolled the flat-earth myth as a primary example of religion’s constraint and science’s progressive power:

The circular visible horizon and its dip at sea, the gradual appearance and disappearance of ships in the offing, cannot fail to incline intelligent sailors to a belief in the globular figure of the earth. The writings of the
Mohammedan astronomers and philosophers had given currency to that doctrine throughout Western Europe,
but, as might be expected, it was received with disfavor by theologians … Traditions and policy forbade [the Papal Government] to admit any other than the flat figure of the earth, as revealed in the Scriptures.

Russell comments on the success of Draper’s work:

The History of the Conflict is of immense importance, because it was the first instance that an influential figure had explicitly declared that science and religion were at war, and it succeeded as few books ever do. It fixed in the educated mind the idea that “science” stood for freedom and progress against the superstition and repression of “religion.” Its viewpoint became conventional wisdom.

Andrew Dickson White…wrote: ‘Much as I admired Draper’s treatment of the questions involved, his point
of view and mode of looking at history were different from mine. He regarded the struggle as one between Science
and Religion. I believed then, and am convinced now, that it was a struggle between Science and Dogmatic

Despite these stated disagreements, White’s and Draper’s accounts of the actual interaction between science and religion in Western history do not differ greatly. Both tell a tale of bright progress continually sparked by science.
And both develop and utilize the same myths to support their narrative, the flat-earth legend prominently among them. Of Cosmas Indicopleustes’s flat-earth theory, for example, White wrote, ‘Some of the foremost men in the
Church devoted themselves to buttressing it with new texts and throwing about it new outworks of theological reasoning; the great body of the faithful considered it a direct gift from the Almighty’…

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Darwinian revolution directly triggered this influential nineteenth-century conceptualization of Western history as a war between two taxonomic categories labeled science and religion…

This essay has discussed a double myth in the annals of our bad habits in false categorization: (1) the flat-earth legend as support for a biased ordering of Western history as a story in redemption from classical to Dark to Medieval to Renaissance; and (2) the invention of the flat-earth myth to support a false dichotomization of Western history as another story of progress, a war of victorious science over religion. I would not be agitated by these errors if they led only to an inadequate view of the past without practical consequence for our modern world. But the myth of a war between science and religion remains all too current, and continues to impede a proper bonding and conciliation between these two utterly different and powerfully important institutions of human life. How can a war exist between two vital subjects with such different appropriate turfs—science as an enterprise dedicated to discovering and explaining the factual basis of the empirical world, and religion as an examination of ethics and values?”

As to these definitions of the roles of science and religion, keep in mind that Mr. Gould espoused the concept of NOMA (Nonoverlapping Magesteria).

Mr. Gould continues:

“a simplistic picture of history as continual warfare between science and theology. Exposure of the flat-earth myth should teach us the fallacy of such a view and help us to recognize the complexity of interaction between these institutions. Irrationality and dogmatism are always the enemies of science, but they are no true friends of religion either. Scientific knowledge has always been helpful to more generous views of religion—as preservation, by ecclesiastical scholars, of classical knowledge about the earth’s shape aided religion’s need for accurate calendars, for example.”

Certainly, Mr. Walker is not to be faulted for lacking omniscience but it is perhaps as noteworthy as it is sad and unfortunate that Mr. Jeffrey Russell published Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians in 1991 AD, Mr. Gould wrote the text above in 1996 AD and Mr. Walker in 1999 AD. A mere three years had passed since Mr. Gould’s essay and the activist popularizes of the myth were still hard at work confusing the public (having had eight years prior to become familiar with the historical facts, and this is not even considering other works on this subject). In light of Mr. Walker’s historical myth and Mr. Gould’s refutation of it, it is interesting to quote Mr. Walker again:

“People have been working for years to undermine any human progress which contradicts cherished myths…Since the myth they want to enforce cannot stand on its own merit, the only method left for them is to try to discredit any human progress which contradicts the myth.”

Would that Mr. Walker may cease to undermine human progress in the understanding of history which contradicts his cherished myths. Since the myth he wants to enforce cannot stand on its own merit, the only method left for him is to try to discredit any historically accurate rendering which contradicts the myth.

God is “He who sits above the circle of the earth” (Isaiah 40:22)

[1]Self-Replicating Molecules and the Meaning of Life - Cliff Walker interviews Dr M Reza Ghadiri from “Positive Atheism” Magazine
[2] From Dinosaur in a Haystack (London: Jonathan Cape, 1996), p. 3-40 [Reprinted from “The persistently flat Earth,” Natural History, 103, March 1994, 12-19]

So my dear atheists, let us not us this myth again...

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