Throughout our school years, most of us were taught Christopher Columbus wanted to sail around the earth in order to prove that it was round, and that for countless years before him, the establishment had maintained the earth was flat. However, this account is a gross misconception. The idea that most people in the 15th century thought the earth was flat was actually made up in the 1830s, yet this myth has since been used against Creationists ever since. Critics of Creationism continue to accuse us of bringing back a flat-earth
ideology. The irony is that they have it completely backwards.
The scholars of Columbus' day were not debating over the shape
of the earth. Rather, they were in disagreement over the actual size
of it. Columbus was of the persuasion that the distance from Spain to Cathay (China) was not very far. The best scholarship of his day, however, believed it was much farther. But they all believed the earth was round; they were just unaware of a large land mass (the Americas) between themselves and far away Cathay.
Eratosthenes (276-194 BC, the father of Geography) claimed that the circumference of the earth was 252,000 stadia (about 40,000 kilometers). Later, Cladius Ptolemy (c. 140 AD) said is was only 180,000 stadia (about 28,800 km). Columbus, not surprisingly, preferred the smaller distance since it would make his trip shorter. Interestingly, the true measurements of the earth's circumference are 40,070 km equatorial and 40,008 km polar. Eratosthenes wasn't too far off; twenty-two centuries ago, he was actually able to estimate the size of the earth to within a half percent of its correct value!
Even as far back as the 6th century BC, we can find Pythagoras stating emphatically that the earth was spherical—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, and Archimedes also. Very few dissenters existed in Classical Greece. Galileo and Copernicus also believed in a spherical earth. The belief in a spherical earth was practically universal prior to the 1830s!
Whether intentional or not, Washington Irving (author of Rip Van Wrinkle) is responsible for beginning the flat-earth myth. In 1828, Irving wrote his largely fictional biography of Columbus: The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus
. His book describes a lengthy debate Columbus undertook to persuade the Spanish doctors at the university of Salamanca that the earth was round. A few years later, a Frenchman named Letronne, a man with strong anti-religious prejudice, wrote another book misrepresenting religious leaders as believing in a flat-earth. More books were to follow by other authors. Historians who knew the truth, chose to spread disbelief in order to reduce Christianity to mythical status. The Enlightenment Movement of the 18th century was a large contributor to this. The Enlightenment made atheism and agnosticis respectable. People began to attack religion in general and Christianity in particular.
By the late 19th century, at the time of the rise of Darwinian Evolutionism, two men in particular were to play a significant role in the spreading of this flat-earth myth: scientist John William Draper and intellectualist Andrew Dickson White. Through a number of essays and special speeches which they gave, they proposed that an intrinsic conflict existed between religion and scientific advancement. This, in turn, gave rise to the whole idea of the Conflict Thesis
(also known as the Warfare Thesis). According to Conflict Thesis, religion has continually asserted itself and has held back progress in scientific development. Draper and White used as one of their major exhibits the false conception about Columbus, insinuating that Columbus had to fight against religious bigots, and describing that the sailors on-board the ships were at the point of mutiny because they thought they were going to reach the end of the world.
Ultimately, White and Draper, et. al.
, attempted to intimidate Christianity into accepting evolution by raising false or exaggerated issues about religion and its conflict with Science. Sadly, many churches have accepted this brow-beating and continue the flat-earth myth while accepting evolutionary ideas.
If anyone would like an in-depth study on this history, I suggest Jeffrey Burton Russell's book, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians.
As an example of the claim that evolutionists continue to accuse religion of teaching a flat-earth since 300 AD, check out this astronomy professor's lecture notes from The Ohio State University: http://www.astronomy.ohio-state.edu/~pogge/Ast161/Unit2/measearth.html
By about 300AD, the idea of a Flat Earth was revived:
* Early Christian rejection of the "pagan absurdity" of a spherical earth.
* This view was held sporadically until about 1300 AD.