Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Yes Virginia, there are flat-earthers

There are some good essays online on the flat earth myth -- the belief that people thought the earth was flat prior to Columbus. I recently linked to this post by M&M, here's another, and here's one James wrote. Humphrey wrote a couple of excellent blogposts on it here and here. The go-to book for all of this is Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians by Jeffrey Burton Russell (you can read a short essay by Russell here) who traces the myth to about 1830 when Washington Irving wrote his "history" of Columbus.

Rather than add to what they wrote, I'd like to address a parallel issue. Once non-Christians started ridiculing Christianity as promoting a flat earth, some Christians sought to defend their faith by ... accepting a flat earth. The most prominent defender, in the mid-19th century, was Samuel Rowbotham, who wrote the book Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe. Rowbotham compiled dozens of evidences supporting his claim that the earth was flat and stationary, such as lighthouses that could be seen from further away than they should if the surface is curved, cannonballs fired straight up from moving platforms (demonstrating that the earth is not moving), etc. To this day there is a flat-earth society which defends this kind of thing. Here is a list of flat-earth literature available to read online. A list of resources by and about flat-earthers is here.

I collect flat-earth literature. It seems to me to be an extreme example of Christians reacting to the conflict myth by letting secularists tell them what to believe, another example being contemporary defenses of geocentrism, something which has gained support among young-earth creationists.

That leads me to my main point: I think young-earth creationism is another example of Christians letting secularists define Christian belief. I don't think it's on the same level as belief in a flat-earth for the simple reason that, throughout history, many of the holiest Christians believed the earth and universe to be young. Nevertheless, the history of young-earth creationism in the last 50 years reveals it to be a reaction rather than a reasoned response, in a very similar fashion as belief in a flat earth was a reaction against the forces of secularism. I submit that this is not an appropriate way for a Christian to act. You can't love the Lord with all your mind if your theology is based on knee-jerk reactions. Moreover, it leads to two deplorable situations: first, as I've already mentioned, where the dictates of one's faith are actually made up by people trying to mock it. As I've mentioned before, I don't think it's wise to let those who deprecate our faith define it for us. Second, it creates a rather large stumbling block for belief in Christianity. If that's what you have to believe in order to be a Christian, then it just obviously fails the smell test.

There are plenty of parallels between young-earth and flat-earth literature. Both make their claim the linchpin to orthodoxy, so that disagreeing with them leads to the denial of central doctrines. Both locate the problems of contemporary society in the rejection of their claim. Both claim that the denial of their claim makes God into an incompetent Creator. Both claim that the denial of their claim is a purely recent phenomenon. Both explicate their claim via bluster and a feigned over-confidence. Etc.

To illustrate that last point, I have a flat-earth book entitled A Reparation: Universal Gravitation a Universal Fake by C. S. DeFord, originally published in 1931, that begins thus:

To me truth is precious. I love it. I embrace it at every opportunity. I do not stop to inquire, Is it popular? ere I embrace it. I inquire only, Is it truth? If my judgment is convinced my conscience approves and my will enforces my acceptance. I want truth for truth's sake, and not for the applaud or approval of men. I would not reject truth because it is unpopular, nor accept error because it is popular. I should rather be right and stand alone than to run with the multitude and be wrong.

Methinks he doth protest too much.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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4 comments:

Sabio Lantz said...

Even as an atheist, I think you are pointing out an important insight. Reactive belief, coming from a juvenile mind, can not be trusted to lead us to true deep understanding. Taming the mind is one of the first steps to real understanding.

Good points.

Vincent Waitzkin said...

Great post. I am a college sophomore with a dual major in Physics and Mathematics @ University of California, Santa Barbara. By the way, i came across these excellent physics flash cards. Its also a great initiative by the FunnelBrain team. Amazing!!

Matt said...

I've long suspected the online flat earth society of being a well-executed parody. A lot of their forum posts are random passers-by saying something like "how can you possibly explain x, y, and z with a flat Earth??", which are followed by fairly typical internet put-downs such as "go read the FAQ", or "learn to post your questions in the right forum and maybe people will answer you", or pedantic attacks which show that technically the questioner is getting it wrong.

Slightly more sensible questions will often get a vaguely plausible one-sentence answer, and if follow-up questions are asked, the "flat earthers" know enough of the relevant physics, along with some dirty debating tricks, to bamboozle the average internet punter with too much time on their hands, or at least to force a stalemate.

The flat earthers look like they have fun with the newcomers, who quickly get bored and make way for the next set of victims. It's maybe intended as a commentary on the low debating standard of most of the internet, or to make fun of know-it-alls who think they're smart because they believe the Right Things without understanding them.

Joseph said...

The comments comparing Christian young-earthers to flat-earthers are a bit uninformed. Have you visited www.creationresearch.org or similar Websites? These are groups of solid scientists who believe that the empirical evidence does not support the old-earth model--and have amassed some impressive data to support it. They also show where the old-earth model leads, and it's not pretty.