The Myth of Columbus' Fight Against the Anti-Science Church

Popular lore has it that in the 1400s, the world was convinced by the teachings of the Christian church (which teachings were based on the Bible) that the earth was flat. Christopher Columbus, a man of vision, sought to establish that the world was round by sailing West to arrive in the Far East. The nations of the world, it is said, laughed at him because they knew that the world was flat and that one could not sail west without falling off the edge of the world!

This lore is portrayed in such places as the Carnaval website, where it says:

When Columbus set sail the common belief was that the earth was like platter floating in an Ocean of the Universe and that venturing to far would mean falling off the edge into darkness and perhaps boiling water or unknown monsters who would easily consume you.

It can also be found in the following from the Daily Pricetonian:

Christopher Columbus was a courageous visionary. In a time when most people thought the world was flat, he staked his reputation and his life on the proposition that the world was round. His determination carried him through storms, mutiny, and, above all, the stark fear of the unknown, and made one world out of two. To put it simply, Columbus was the greatest explorer who ever lived. Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong at least had some idea of what to expect in outer space. Columbus' contemporaries thought he risked falling off the edge of the Earth into the gaping maw of a sea serpent. If our society honors courage, vision, and a spirit of enterprising inquiry, Columbus is a better example than most.

Of course, my personal favorite (because of the source) is in a piece by a humanist named Joseph Sommer for the American Humanist Society entitled "Some Reasons Why Humanists Reject The Bible" which reads:

Even in the fifteenth century, when Christopher Columbus proposed to sail west from Spain to reach the East Indies, the biblical notion of a flat earth was a major source of opposition to him.[35]

His footnote references a work by Andrew Dickson White, the former President of Cornell University, entitled A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, Vol. I.

The only problem with the viewpoint expressed in these three examples is that it is dead wrong. Columbus wasn't some visionary fighting a church that believed that the earth was flat as the result of the Bible. Columbus was fighting for funding because he was wrong about how large the earth actually was, and if it hadn't been for the fortuitous fact that there was a couple of continents in the middle of the ocean Columbus intended to sail across, we wouldn't be talking about Columbus at all since he would have died in his efforts to reach the West Indies.

Start with the idea that the church taught that the earth was flat. While there were a couple of early church writers who argued for the flat earth based on a rather stilted reading of the Bible, most historians acknowledge that the idea that the earth was spherical was well accepted by virtually all educated people and by all sailors. As noted by Rodney Stark in "Catholicism and Science":

All educated persons of Columbus’ day, very much including the Roman Catholic prelates, knew the earth was round. The Venerable Bede (c. 673-735) taught that the world was round, as did Bishop Virgilius of Salzburg (c. 720-784), Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), and Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224-74). All four ended up saints. Sphere was the title of the most popular medieval textbook on astronomy, written by the English scholastic John of Sacrobosco (c. 1200-1256). It informed that not only the earth but all heavenly bodies are spherical.

Don't like a Catholic source? Try this essay entitled "The Myth of the Flat Earth" by Jeffrey Burton Russell for the American Scientific Affiliation Conference:

A round earth appears at least as early as the sixth century BC with Pythagoras, who was followed by Aristotle, Euclid, and Aristarchus, among others in observing that the earth was a sphere. Although there were a few dissenters--Leukippos and Demokritos for example--by the time of Eratosthenes (3 c. BC), followed by Crates(2 c. BC), Strabo (3 c. BC), and Ptolemy (first c. AD), the sphericity of the earth was accepted by all educated Greeks and Romans.

Nor did this situation change with the advent of Christianity. A few--at least two and at most five--early Christian fathers denied the sphericity of earth by mistakenly taking passages such as Ps. 104:2-3 as geographical rather than metaphorical statements. On the other side tens of thousands of Christian theologians, poets, artists, and scientists took the spherical view throughout the early, medieval, and modern church. The point is that no educated person believed otherwise.

If you really doubt this, look around the Internet. You will find that virtually everyone acknowledges that most people of Columbus's time, especially educated people and other sailors and navigators, knew that the earth was a sphere. So why did Columbus have difficulty getting funding? Because he thought the earth was actually much smaller than most people (and, in fact, smaller than it turned out to be). As noted in the article on Columbus in

The problem was that the experts did not agree with his estimates of the distance to the Indies. Most scholars accepted Ptolemy 's claim that the terrestrial landmass (for Europeans of the time, Eurasia and Africa) occupied 180 degrees of the terrestrial sphere, leaving 180 degrees of water. In fact, it occupies about 120 degrees, leaving 240 degrees unaccounted for at that time.

Columbus accepted the calculations of Pierre d'Ailly , that the land-mass occupied 225 degrees, leaving only 135 degrees of water. Moreover, Columbus believed that one degree actually covered less space on the earth's surface than commonly believed. Finally, Columbus read maps as if the distances were calculated in Roman miles (1524 meters or 5,000 feet) rather than nautical miles (1853.99 meters or 6,082.66 feet at the equator). The true circumference of the earth is about 40,000km (24,900 statute miles of 5,280 feet each), whereas the circumference of Columbus's earth was the equivalent of at most 19,000 modern statue miles (or 30,600km). Columbus calculated that the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan was 2,400 nautical miles (about 4,444km).

In fact, the distance is about 10,600 nautical miles (19,600km), and most European sailors and navigators concluded that the Indies were too far away to make his plan worth considering.

Again, the number of websites supporting this statement are too numerous to bother linking here. But then, why did Dr. White, former President of Cornell, make his assertion? Perhaps, the Eagle Forum has the answer:

The myth that people of the 15th century believed that the earth was flat was popularized by 19th century atheists in order to use science in their war against religion. What better way to discredit religion than to attribute an obviously false idea to religious people! This myth can be traced directly to two very influential 19th century books: History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science by John William Draper (a physician) published in 1874 and History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom by Andrew Dickson White (the first president of Cornell University) published in 1896. Both men used the flat-earth myth to help spread their arguments against religion. These books started the false and dangerous ideology that there is a war between science and religion, and that science is the only source of truth. The flat-earth myth did not appear in schoolbooks before 1870, but nearly all textbooks included it after 1880.

This idea is echoed by Mr. Russell, supra, who also believes that the myth is being advanced so that a mythical conflict is created between science and religion:

. . . the falsehood about the spherical earth became a colorful and unforgettable part of a larger falsehood: the falsehood of the eternal war between science (good) and religion (bad) throughout Western history. This vast web of falsehood was invented and propagated by the influential historian John Draper (1811-1882) and many prestigious followers, such as Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), the president of Cornell University, who made sure that the false account was perpetrated in texts, encyclopedias, and even allegedly serious scholarship, down to the present day. A lively current version of the lie can be found in Daniel Boorstin's The Discoverers, found in any bookshop or library.

The reason for promoting both the specific lie about the sphericity of the earth and the general lie that religion and science are in natural and eternal conflict in Western society, is to defend Darwinism. The answer is really only slightly more complicated than that bald statement. The flat-earth lie was ammunition against the creationists. The argument was simple and powerful, if not elegant: "Look how stupid these Christians are. They are always getting in the way of science and progress. These people who deny evolution today are exactly the same sort of people as those idiots who for at least a thousand years denied that the earth was round. How stupid can you get?"

But that is not the truth.


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