Ever heard that Christians used to think the world was flat? I have, in fact this historical error found it’s way into a number of teaching texts from the nineteenth century onwards so successfully that people still think that many Christians used to teach that the earth was flat. Children are still taught this is the case all over the world today. In fact nothing of the kind was ever the case, historians, primarily Jeffrey Russell have discovered that no educated person from the third century BC ever taught that the earth was flat. Russell’s research led him to discover that no-one prior to 1830 ever thought that medieval Christians believed the earth to be flat. So how and where to this myth arise?
The flat earth myth was first brought into popular thought through the American writer William Irving who had a habit of writing historical fiction as fact. It was Irving who popularized the idea that Christipher Columbus was surprised he didn’t fall off the edge of the earth because he believed it to resemble a plate! All of which is utter nonsense as every modern historian who has studied Columbus will tell you. Combined with the anti-religious work of the Parisian writer Antoine-Jean Letronne who intentionally misrepresented the work of the early church fathers to support belief in a flat earth, the flat earth myth was able to grow and find its way into educational textbooks from as early as the 1860’s. As I said, this falsehood was so successful we still hear about it to this very day and children all over the world are still taught the flat earth myth, so it doesn’t look like disappearing any-time soon. In the last seventy years a number of different historians of science (Edward Grant, David Lindberg and Daniel Woodward) have been trying to dispel the myth with in truth little success.
Like today, too many people are eager to try and find examples of Christian prejudice and ignorance of science, so quickly in fact they often fall victim to shoddy research and make claims that simply have no basis with reality, as is written in Ecclesiastes, ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’ But in reality this isn’t something unique to critics of Christianity, I’ve seen Christians claim a number of false and silly things about non-Christians, nevertheless, this myth really should die.
If you would like to know more about the flat earth myth and other alleged conflicts between science and Christianity check out these two books, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion and Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians.