When an Atheist Gets EVERYTHING Wrong

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by Neil Godfrey

An A for learning what your teacher said in history class???!!! Adapted from https://www.geeksaresexy.net/2011/02/12/bad-grades-1960-vs-2010-cartoon/

There is an atheist out there on the internet who should hang his head in shame and disgrace. In 26 minutes of presentation in a debate with an apologist the video record shows he took up 3 whole minutes (667 words) repeating what he had read in books at school and had heard from science writers not realizing he was repeating a popular misconception, a misconception he had almost certainly been taught in school as fact. He dared to say that people in the Middle Ages thought the world was flat. That’s as good as getting EVERYTHING about history wrong, we learn from the author of History for Atheists (“ARON RA” GETS EVERYTHING WRONG), earning nothing less than a blistering 6,280-word response which included the following excoriation of both mind and character:

his profound ignorance of history

burst of pseudo historical gibberish

smug self-assurance

virtually everything he said was wrong.

When he turns to history, however, the results are truly woeful,

I make no apologies for coming down hard on crappy pseudo history like this. Nelson may be a well-meaning fool, but he is a fool nonetheless.

no excuse for peddling the lazy nonsense he spouts about history

doing it with such blithe pomposity

is terrible at history and believes many stupid and erroneous things.

someone with little to no grasp of the relevant material

he swaggers and bloviates

boneheaded fanaticism

We all have our bad days when we get a bit cranky.

Oh yes, here are some choice criticisms of our atheist’s presumed sources:

relying on bungled online rehashing of nineteenth century myths and confused nonsense by fellow polemicists.

has read some stuff that he likes from fellow historically illiterate polemicists and decides to present it as fact.

One thing I learned in my educational psychology classes was that the best way to correct facts and gaps in knowledge is to do exactly what the chair of the debate said at the beginning:

And we just ask that you be respectful.

I like that approach.

Yes, Aaron Ra or Nelson, you were guilty of repeating a popular misconception, not only among atheists but even among many Christians. Gosh, I believed what you said for years when I was a God-fearing Protestant. And I am sure I was even taught the same erroneous information in school at some point.

So let’s take a step back and see what has gone wrong. How did this piece of fiction come to be so widely accepted as a fact of history? This will be a slice of History for Atheists and Theists.

Jeffrey Burton Russell (Wikipedia)

The rest of this post consists of notes from Russell’s book, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians. Russell does nothing to hide his view that faith and science are not really incompatible but we can live with that (up to a point).

You Are Not Alone

To begin, let’s try to reassure any of you who have believed this little datum that you are not alone. A 1991 book by Jeffrey Burton Russell contains the following

This Flat Error remains popular. It is still found in many textbooks and encyclopedias. . . .

By the 1980s, a large number of textbooks and encyclopedias had corrected the story, but the Flat Error was restated in a widely read book by the former Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin, The Discoverers (1983). Boorstin wrote :

A Europe-wide phenomenon of scholarly amnesia . . . afflicted the continent from A.D. 300 to at least 1300. During those centuries Christian faith and dogma suppressed the useful image of the world that had been so slowly, so painfully, and so scrupulously drawn by ancient geographers.

He called this alleged hiatus the “Great Interruption.” His fourteenth chapter, “A Flat Earth Returns,” derided the “legion of Christian geographers” who followed the geographical path marked out by a sixth-century eccentric. In fact the eccentric Cosmas Indicopleustes had no followers whatever: his works were ignored or dismissed with derision throughout the Middle Ages.

Daniel J. Boorstin (Wikipedia)

How could Boorstin disseminate the Flat Error and the public accept it uncritically?

Those damned librarians! (But he was also a historian.)

So what went wrong? Russell takes us on a journey through the literature that led us astray. It had much to do with the evolution debate of the nineteenth century inflaming passions over reason, and with the centuries-old Protestant distrust of Catholics.

An early culprit was Andrew Dickson White who wrote in 1896 . . .

Many a bold navigator, who was quite ready to brave pirates and tempests, trembled at the thought of tumbling with his ship into one of the openings into hell which a widespread belief placed in the Atlantic at some unknown distance from Europe. This terror among sailors was one of the main obstacles in the great voyage of Columbus.

But the voyage towards wholesale acceptance of error was not a smooth one:

The growth of the Error was not steady. In the mid-nineteenth century some specialists remained cautious and accurate. Joachim Lelewel, for example, explained that medieval mapmakers often represented the inhabitable world, not the entire earth, as rectangular. The schoolbooks of the nineteenth century are inconsistent, but show an increasing tendency over the century to the Flat Error, a tendency that becomes especially pronounced from the 1870s onward as textbook authors engaged in the evolutionary fray and became more subject to pragmatist influence.  Earlier in the century the dominant force behind the Error was middle-class Enlightenment anti clericalism in Europe and “Know-Nothing” anticatholicism in these United States. The origin of the Error resides in these milieus.

What does Russell mean by “progressives”, exactly?

Progressivists did not choose to understand other societies in those societies’ terms, but, rather, chose to hold them to the standards of the nineteenth-century scientific method. By making that method the criterion of all truth and goodness, the progressivists necessarily ruled out other worldviews as false and bad. By the nineteenth century their victory was so complete that other views now seemed merely irrational, superstitious, trivial. The progressivists succeeded, mainly in the half century between 1870 and 1920, in establishing the Flat Error firmly in the modern mind. As late as 1867 a rationalist historian such as W. E. H. Lecky could point to the church fathers’ objections against antipodeans and to the bizarre ideas of Cosmas lndicopleustes without claiming that the fathers believed in a flat earth. Such a polemical rationalist and anticlerical as Charles Kingsley could refrain from the Error. Lecky and Kingsley were intent on attacking medieval philosophy – scholasticism on the grounds that it dogmatically conformed to Aristotle, they knew very well that Aristotle’s earth was round, and they knew that it followed logically that they could not accuse the scholastics of being flat-earthers. (31)

Throughout the nineteenth century, middle-class liberal progressives projected their own ideals upon heroes of the past, among them “Columbus, [who] from that justness of mind and reasoning which mathematical knowledge gives, calculated very justly.” The image of Columbus as the clear-headed rationalist is at odds with both the original sources and the judgment of his most recent and definitive biographers. This Columbus existed only in the minds of amiable progressives whose disdain for the Catholic Revival and the Romantics of the early nineteenth century colored the way they viewed the Middle Ages. (29)

So those progressives did not fall for the flat earth error (see side-box), but Russell believes that the climate they introduced did prepare the ground for

William Whewell (Wikipedia)

the alleged “warfare between science and religion” suggested by William Whewell (1794-1866), Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University and priest of the Church of England. . . .

His History of the Inductive Sciences, first published in 1837, became the standard text in the history of science for half a century. A liberal progressive whose imperious character brooked no nonsense, Whewell spoke of “the Indistinctness of ldeas, the Commentatorial Spirit, the Dogmatism , and the mysticism of the Middle Ages.” In later editions Whewell pointed to the culprits Lactantius and Cosmas Indicopleustes as evidence of a medieval belief in a flat earth, and virtually every subsequent historian imitated him – they could find few other examples. (31f)

So there were two names from late antiquity guilty of the flat earth belief, but why were they singled out? According to Russell,

Why make Lactantius and Cosmas villains? They were convenient symbols to be used as weapons against the antiDarwinists. By the 1870s the relationship between science and theology was beginning to be described in military metaphors. The philosophes (the propagandists of the Enlightenment), particularly Hume, had planted a seed by implying that the scientific and Christian views were in conflict. (35)

The metaphors were of war. And they came from both sides.

But by 1870 the Catholic Church had, under Pius IX (1846-1878), declared itself hostile to modern liberalism; and theological conservatism was rising in many segments of Protestantism as well. Interpreting the contemporary situation as reflecting the longue duree (long run) of the relationship between science and religion , the progressivists declared it a war.

The military metaphor was an enormous success. . . . The military metaphor was striking, colorful , well-timed , and so effective a propaganda tool that today it is still common to think of science and religion as being in armed conflict. (36)

John W. Draper (Wikipedia)

The opening salvo came from John W. Draper (1811-1882) when he got embroiled in the evolution controversy. Draper, a professor of chemistry, was a progressive Methodist who lectured in favour of Darwinism and for his pains was savagely attacked by Wilberforce whose intention was to “smash Darwin”. Huxley entered the fray in support of Draper, and according to Russell,

The confrontation encouraged Draper [and no doubt many bystanders] to believe that religion and science were at war.

In his book History of the Intellectual Development of Europe (1862) Draper extolled the virtues and benign influence of Christianity in the world but, he insisted, Christianity could only maintain its health as it accommodated itself to scientific progress, and to acknowledge that scientific knowledge trumped biblical revelation. The great enemies of progress, Draper made clear in his book, were

the fathers and the scholastics for subordinating science to the Bible. (37)

But it was his second book, The History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1873) that had a global impact.

Protestantism was open to science, Draper claimed, but . . .

But science could never live with Catholicism, which under Pius IX condemned liberal progressivism in the “Syllabus of Errors,” opposed the union of Italy into a secular state, and declared the pope’s infallibility. The pope, as Draper saw it, was clinging to his eroding power by attempting to quash freedom of thought. Draper saw the secular national state as the protector and steward of liberal progress, and he admired Bismarck’s “Cultural War” (Kulturkampf) against the church in Germany. This was also the period when American Know-Nothing hatred of Catholicism was being stoked by waves of Irish and Italian immigrants who, American Protestants and secularists believed, threatened to divide the nation or even bring it under papal tyranny.

The “Black Legend of Spain” . . .  perceived Spanish Catholicism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to be the evil force behind Bloody Mary, the Armada, and the “Inquisition,” a force dedicated to the destruction of decent (especially Anglo) Protestantism. The Black Legend began in England under Elizabeth I (1558-1603), when parts of Bartolomé de las Casas were translated into English. Las Casas had favored lenient treatment of the Amerindians under Spanish rule and as a result had in his works condemned the Spanish exploiters. These passages were eagerly seized upon by the English (and the Dutch and other Protestant powers) to prove the evil of the Spanish Catholics. (p. 38)

It was also the heyday of the leyenda negra, or “Black Legend of Spain,” . . .

Draper wrote that the Catholic Church and science are “absolutely incompatible; they cannot exist together; one must yield to the other; mankind must make its choice – it cannot have both.  (38f)

Draper’s Conflict was wildly popular. It had 50 printings in 50 years in the U.S.A., 21 in 15 years in the UK, “and it was translated worldwide.”

Schoolbooks took their information from Draper’s book. P.V.N. Myers in his A General History for Colleges and High Schools (Boston and London, 1891) stated:

The sphericity of the earth was a doctrine held by many at that day [Columbus’s] ; but the theory was not in harmony with the religious ideas of the time, and so it was not prudent for one to publish openly one’s belief in the notion. (513)

The forays of Draper were catapulted into the ranks of academia by Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), who faced hostile opposition from religious quarters in his founding of the secular Cornell University. White’s opponents had been largely Protestant so it is not surprising to see him extend Draper’s attacks on Catholicism to both Protestants and Catholics.

White was also troubled by the virulence of American anticatholicism as symbolized by the Ku Klux Klan, and he understood that it was artificial historically to separate Catholicism from Christianity in general. (p. 42)

Andrew Dickson White (Wikipedia)

In 1869 the New York Daily published in full a “fiery sermon in defense of science against the anti-Darwinists” and the article was copied in many more publications and pamphlets in both the US and UK.

In the midst of this storm the belief that the Church had historically suppressed the view of the roundness of the earth became a major plank.

By the time White reinforced Draper and Whewell, the Flat Error had grown to a stature that entirely dwarfed the historical reality.

Scientific realists saw the Flat Error as a powerful weapon. If Christians had for centuries insisted that the earth was flat against clear and available evidence , they must be not only enemies of scientific truth, but contemptible and pitiful enemies. The Error, which had existed in seed from the time of Copernicus and had been planted by Irving and Letronne in the nineteenth century (see chapter 4 ), was now watered by the progressivists into lush and tangled undergrowth. The Error was thus subsumed in a much larger controversy – the alleged war between science and religion. (p. 43)

You are probably wondering why a university professor would contribute to the propagation of such an error. To be fair, White did know better, at least to some extent, but as Russell writes,

White attacked the fathers, although with greater restraint than his predecessors. A scholar where Draper had been a propagandist, White knew that the fathers as a whole approved of sphericity, but his thesis pushed him to minimize this fact: “A few of the larger-minded fathers of the Church . . . were willing to accept this view, but the majority of them took fright at once.” He went on to misrepresent St. Basil and St. John C hrysostom as flat-earthers, apparently because he did not read them. He cited as sources only secondary writers who shared his opinions . . . . (44)

See how White mythologized Columbus into being “at war” against the Church:

The warfare of Columbus the world knows well: how the Bishop of Ceuta worsted him in Portugal; how sundry wise men of Spain confronted him with the usual quotations from the Psalms, from St. Paul, and from St. Augustine; how, even after he was triumphant, and after his voyage had greatly strengthened the theory of the earth’s sphericity . . . the Church by its highest authority solemnly stumbled and persisted in going astray. . . . In 1519 science gains a crushing victory. Magellan makes his famous voyage . . . . Yet even this does not end the war. Many conscientious men oppose the doctrine for two hundred years longer. [See page 108 of History of the Warfare – online]

White’s thesis depicted a warfare “with battles fiercer, with sieges more persistent, with strategy more vigorous than in any of the comparatively petty warfares of Alexander, or Caesar, or Napoleon.” The rhetoric “captured the imagination of generations of readers, and his copious references, still impressive , have given his work the appearance of sound scholarship, bedazzling even twentieth-century historians who should know better.” Many authors great and small have followed the Draper-White line down to the present. The educated public, seeing so many eminent scientists, philosophers, and scholars in agreement, concluded that they must be right. (45f)

On and on the warfare raged.

The war continued into the twentieth century in Europe and especially in the United States, where Fundamentalism posed a real threat to the theory of evolution. In Germany, Sigmund Gunther on the eve of World War I was still denouncing medieval flat-earth biblical literalism. As late as 1974 J. H. Parry, with no sense of anachronism, transferred both the name and the attitude of American preachers into thirteenth-century philosophers, “the flat-earth fundamentalists.”  And in 1927 Shipley declared :

More than twenty-five millions of men and women, with ballot in hand, have declared war on modern science. . . . If the self-styled Fundamentalists can gain control over our state and national governments which is one of their avowed objectives – much of the best that has been gained in American culture will be suppressed or banned, and we shall be headed backwards to the pall of a new Dark Age.

Long after evolution ceased to be a central issue for society as a whole, the metaphor of warfare continued, with its implication that Christianity must have opposed the spherical earth. The Flat Error must be true, it appears, because it fits modern preconceptions about the Middle Ages. Thus, in 1986, William O’Neil wrote of the fathers :

Without differentiating amongst the details of their several views it may be said that they rejected the Hellenistic notion of the sphericity of the Earth and of the universe in favour of a layered, flat, square scheme as suggested in Genesis. Indeed to varying degrees they tended to support the view that the Mosaic Tabernacle represented the shape of the universe . . . . Compromise . . . went further and further as the medieval centuries passed. (p. 46f)

The Most Common Sin of the Human Race

The schoolbooks followed the scholars in shifting toward the Flat Error in the late nineteenth century. One reason was the mounting debate over evolution. Another was the prestige of the classics, which produced a number of books extolling the legacy of Greece and Rome, books that contrasted the broad, sunlit uplands of the ancient world with the stinking alleyways of the Middle Ages. Another – in the United States – was a chauvinism that wanted to believe that before the dawn of America broke the world had been in darkness. Columbus’s first voyage, for American patriots, was rather like a new day of creation in the freshness of Eden. (p. 51)

So we return to our historian-librarian, Daniel Boorstin, who was apparently responsible for reigniting the error in the 1980s. Boorstin was guilty of the most common sin of the human race: he never thought to question the standard, conventional wisdom he had learned. He took the error for granted.

By Boorstin’s time, the Error had been so firmly established that it was easier to lie back and believe it: easier not to check the sources; easier to fit the consensus; easier to fit the preconceived worldview; easier to avoid the discipline needed in order to dislodge a firmly held error. Religion and science had not been at war until the Draper-White thesis made them so; but the result of the “war” was that “religion” lost, because of

the process . . . (of which we know next to nothing) by which ideas cease to hold the attention owing to some contagion of discredit or tedium . . . a vague suspicion that science had got the better of it. . . . The logical outcome of the controversy might amount to very little alongside the fatigue of seeing it through to a conclusion.

Boorstin’s bibliography indicates that he obtained his ideas not in the sources, but in the works of early twentieth-century historians of geography who rallied to the Draper-White flag. (48)

Rip Van Winkle, Sleepy Hollow, and Medieval Belief in a Flat Earth

Washington Irving (Wikipedia)

One figure bypassed in the above historical outline was Washington Irving, hoaxer and author of romantic fiction and of history blended with fiction. 1828 saw the publication of his History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. Irving presented it as genuinely researched history, and it did indeed include elements of serious research. His portrayal of Columbus’s confrontation with the clergy at Salamanca was as dramatic as it was fictitious.

[Irving] set the dramatic stage with the comment that “the Inquisition had just been established in that kingdom, and every opinion that savored of heresy made its owner obnoxious to odium and persecution!’ Under such dread threat, Columbus appeared at the “convent” in Salamanca as “a simple mariner, standing forth in the midst of an imposing array of professors, friars and dignitaries of the church; maintaining his theory with natural eloquence, and, as it were , pleading the cause of the new world.” The University of Salamanca was less at fault, Irving generously allowed, but rather

the imperfect state of science at the time, and the manner in which knowledge, though rapidly extending, was still impeded in its progress by monastic bigotry. . . . Columbus was assailed with citations from the Bible and the Testament: the book of Genesis, the psalms of David, the orations of the Prophets, the epistles of the apostles, and the gospels of the Evangelists. To these were added expositions of various saints and reverend commentators: St. Chrysostom and St. Augustine, St. Jerome and St. Gregory, St. Basil and St. Ambrose, and Lactantius . . . . A mathematical demonstration was allowed no weight, if it ap­peared to clash with a text of scripture, or a commentary of one of the fathers . . . . Columbus, who was a devoutly religious man, found that he was in danger of being convicted not merely of error, but of heterodoxy. Others more versed [than the scripture-quoters] in science admitted the globular form of the earth . . . but . . . maintained that it would be impossible to arrive there . . . . Such are specimens of the errors and prejudices, the mingled ignorance and erudition, and the pedantic bigotry, with which Columbus had to contend.

The ironic tension of the account is hard to resist, but it is fabrication, and it is largely upon this fabric that the idea of a medieval flat earth was established. (52f)

Russell attempts to explain both the inspiration and ready acceptance of Irving’s Salamanca scenario:

Irving’s tale of the “Council of Salamanca” must be placed in its chronological context: the anti-catholicism and anti-Spanish bias of Irving’s native country, and the growth in the early nineteenth-century of strange hollow-earth and flat-earth theories by New England sectarians, may have linked with Irving’s observation of the backwardness of the church in Spain in his own day to create in his mind the sense that his tale of the dreadful council was somehow “morally right,” regardless of the historical facts. And Irving, who was well-traveled in Europe (he spent seventeen years abroad) and had wide historical and geographical interests, might also have heard of the Flat-Earth Errors emerging in the French academy at the same time. (57)

Antoine-Jean Letronne (Wikipedia)

What’s that about the story of medieval belief in a flat earth getting mixed up with the French Academy in that last sentence?

The man who established the Flat Error as an academic commonplace was Antoine-Jean Letronne (1787-1848). (58)

Letronne’s influence among scholars was deeper than Washington Irving’s. Letronne’s eulogists deemed him a secular saint: he supported his widowed mother and his younger brother, who never returned him sufficient gratitude; he married a wealthy woman with whom he had ten children and did secret acts of charity that remained unknown until after his death. He was a brilliant wit and formidable antagonist, yet always took pains to avoid hurting feelings. (59)

Letronne’s prestige was so great that Charles Raymond Beazley and the others accepted his views without checking his sources. His article “On the Cosmographical Opinions of the Church Fathers” (1834) became the basis of Beazley’s and later historians’ treatment of the fathers. The article’s attitude appears from the first sentence, which announced that until recently it was believed that all science had to be based on the Bible. Obliged to admit that the two most seminal Christian thinkers, Augustine and Origen, taught quite the opposite, Letronne evaded the corollary by assigning them to a minority and by claiming that the majority insisted on a “literal” interpretation. Later he accused Augustine, Basil, and Ambrose of holding the same errors as Lactantius and Severian.

Under such an alleged reign of folly, Letronne wrote, astronomers were “forced” to believe that the earth was a flat surface, suspended miraculously in space. A few theologians did know the earth was round; the majority, however, were flat-earthers who, despite the stupidity of their views, “had three irresistible arguments; persecution, prison, and the stake.” He admitted that Photius rejected Cosmas Indicopleustes but proceeded nevertheless with a six-page detailed exposition of Cosmas’s follies, implying that Cosmas’s theories were significant and influential. This undue attention to Cosmas influenced Beazley to make the same mistake. (60)

A brilliant and incisive scholar, Letronne immediately had many imitators . . . who drew upon Irving as well. 173

Letronne was, with Irving, the founding father of the Flat Error . . . . (61)

So if you are an atheist relying upon the wisdom you may well have read in books at school, then you are in some notable but also flawed company. Without accusing you of being a pompous, bloviating, boneheaded, profoundly ignorant fool, I think I can trust that you can see now the error of your ways and how it came about.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. 1991. Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus And Modern Historians. Revised edition. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “When an Atheist Gets EVERYTHING Wrong”

  1. Having been inspired by this post to read Russell’s book (available at the city’s central public library), I can aver that this post is an excellent summary of a rather short (77 pages and notes) and focused book. Russell seems to have written the book to answer the question, “How is it that Daniel Boorstin is repeating the Error, when he should know better?” In consequence, Russell does not ask if the Error is present in other countries, even the English-speaking ones.

  2. ‘I didn’t find anything particularly untoward about O’Neil’s presentation; it concurs both with my education at a Catholic grammar school in the seventies, and what I have learned of the Galileo Affair, Heliocentrism, and a Round Earth since. Aron Ra should have updated his priors a long time ago; it isn’t as if the knowledge hasn’t been freely available. I know from asking him a question myself he isn’t as bright as he thinks he is and sometimes misunderstands simple queries. I’m not surprised he couldn’t quite grasp Augustine and fell victim to personal prejudice. Other criticism of O’Neil is largely tone policing and doesn’t speak to substance. The article is considerably better than some of his other excursions apart from that. Richard Carrier is prone to the same “fault”; it doesn’t alter his substance either.

    1. I know next to nothing about Aron Ra. If he is going to debate in public obviously he “ought” to double-check everything he plans to say. My beef is with the less than entirely civil tone in which a correction is made. Tim O’Neill emulates the styles of too many biblical scholars. And yes, I have complained about Carrier for similar lapses on this blog.

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