It’s taught in school textbooks, it’s a favorite citation of New Atheism, and it’s been referenced by no less than the President himself — Medieval Europe believed the Earth was Flat. And so it’s fact! – Except that they believed no such thing.
The popular view taught in schools is that scientists came along and rescued us all from the Medieval Church’s anti-scientific views that the World was Flat.
The only flaw in that story is that nobody ACTUALLY believed it was flat, and hadn’t believed it was flat in a very, very long time — as far back as Greek Antiquity. Even Pythagoras, Aristotle and Euclid called it spherical.
Textbooks from the middle ages described the world as round. So did Dante. And no less than the Catholic Church’s leading Medieval thinker, Thomas Aquinas wrote the following in his greatest work, Summa Theologica“:
“The physicist proves the earth to be round by one means, the astronomer by another: for the latter proves this by means of mathematics, e.g. by the shapes of eclipses, or something of the sort; while the former proves it by means of physics, e.g. by the movement of heavy bodies towards the center, and so forth.”
Where did the idea of “Flat Earthers” come from? The idea has been traced back to “a slanderous fabrication invented by opponents of Christianity in the 19th century and has been thoroughly debunked by contemporary historians of science.”
As it happens, Washington Irving wrote a fictional novel about Columbus, which was reported as history by John William Draper (History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science) and Andrew Dixon White’s similar tome. The “Conflict Thesis“ (idea of Religion and Science being incompatible) is attributed to Draper’s work.
“Contra Mundum: The Flat-Earth-Myth” is the article much of my piece has been summarizing. It goes into greater depth, and gives references. I highly recommend it.
This leaves us with two closing thoughts.
(1) If the authors and “historians” who gave rise to the Flat Earth Theory have been dismissed by serious historians as propagandists of their day, which are really behaving like “Flat Earthers” … people of faith, or those who blindly parrot debunked historians? (The latter includes, ironically, Richard Dawkins.)
(2) If the so-called historian to whom the “conflict thesis” has been attributed was caught in a lie, how much weight should we put on his characterization of the tension between faith and science? Is it not possible that a public duped by an untrue Flat Earth myth might also have fallen for his Conflict Theory? Maybe instead of “taking scientists word for it” we could decide for ourselves whether the two are in conflict.