Debunking the Flat Earth Myth

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, found in 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 (1811–1882) — 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 religion.
  • 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.

Modern Nistakes

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.

Seth Glick is an editorial intern at Science & Theology News.