Many religious leaders have grown to think that the importance of religion lies mainly in the adherence to a collection of certain dogmas and the practice of rites and ceremonies! Those whose souls they profess to cure are taught to believe likewise, and these cling tenaciously to the outward forms, confusing them with the inward truth.

Now, these forms and rituals differ in the various churches and amongst the different sects, and even contradict one another; giving rise to discord, hatred, and disunion. The outcome of all this dissension is the belief of many cultured men that religion and science are contradictory terms, that religion needs no powers of reflection, and should in no wise be regulated by science, but must of necessity be opposed, the one to the other. The unfortunate effect of this is that science has drifted apart from religion, and religion has become a mere blind and more or less apathetic following of the precepts of certain religious teachers, who insist on their own favourite dogmas being accepted even when they are contrary to science. This is foolishness, for it is quite evident that science is the light, and, being so, religion truly so-called does not oppose knowledge. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 144-145.

Portrait of Christopher Columbus.

Portrait of Christopher Columbus.

In grade school, I learned that “everyone” believed the Earth was flat until the brave Christopher Columbus (aka Cristobal Colon) argued the point with Isabella and Ferdinand and sailed off to the west, proving the planet to be a globe. Hence, Columbus Day.

A whole host of reasons point out why we shouldn’t celebrate Columbus Day (some of which my eldest daughter outlined emphatically in a fifth grade essay). One of them: that whole flat Earth thing is a myth.

How do we know this? Because people during the Middle Ages wrote about such things and left us a record of their thoughts. Scholarship new and old tells us that, no, people living in the Middle Ages did not, as a rule, believe the world was flat. So, why do so many of us think they did?

You might be surprised to learn that the idea of Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas, and his insistence that the world was a globe ushered in the age of modernity, both came from storyteller Washington Irving (of Rip van Winkle fame) in his popular 1828 book The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. Some years later, polemicist John Draper expressed the myth this way:

. . . the question of the shape of the earth was finally settled by three sailors, Columbus, da Gama and, above all, Ferdinand Magellan. – History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, 1874

But Columbus and his colleagues did not prove the world was a sphere for the simple reason that most Europeans (and Arabs, for that matter) already knew it was. His argument with the crowned heads of Spain was about the size of the planet, not its shape. This comes directly from the reports of his son, Fernando Colon; and Bartolome de las Casas, a priest who wrote a history of the New World. Nor was Columbus a rogue thinker out to prove a point. He was a devout Catholic who thought he was doing God’s work by finding a passage to India and providing the Church and Crown with riches galore. This, according to his diaries and logs, some of which I’ve read (and included in my alternate history novelette “O, Pioneer”, which you can download for free, here).

Remember those universities I mentioned in the last installment in this series of essays? Those universities left records of what they taught, and they taught Aristotle—including his mathematical proof of the sphericity of the world. Moreover, the list of major natural philosophers whose work supports a spherical earth is both long and illustrious, including Ambrose (d. 420), Augustine (d. 430), Aquinus (d. 1274), Bacon (d. 1294), and Magnus (d. 1280). Two standouts of the 13th and 14th centuries were Jean de Sacrobosco and Pierre D’Ailly, archbishop of Cambrai (d. 1410). Sacrobosco’s book De Sphera, which demonstrated the sphericity of the Earth, was used as a textbook in the afore-mentioned universities throughout the Middle Ages. D’Ailly wrote a book, too, entitled Imago Mundi, which discussed the spherical shape of the planet

Only one or two renowned thinkers deviated from this opinion. One Lactantius (4th c.) opined that all pagan learning distracted from man’s rightful study, which was his salvation. Another, whose views were just ambiguous enough to fuel the science and religion “controversy,” was the 5th-6th century encyclopedist, Isadore of Seville. A statement in his De Natura Rerum, which draws criticism from writers like Draper, maintained that people all over the world experienced the size and heat of the sun in the same manner. Some modern critics have taken this to mean that Isadore believed the Earth was disc-shaped. Other scholars note that it might also be a reference to the fact that the Sun does not appear to change shape as it “moves” through the heavens. These same scholars point out that among Isadore’s works of physics and astronomy are concepts that are consistent with, and even dependent upon, a spherical world.

In any event, thinkers like Lactantius and Isadore form a tiny minority. Their presence suggests to modern scholars—such as Lesley B. Cormack, Dean of Social Sciences at Simon Fraser University—that the record of such views “merely indicates that the early-medieval scholarly climate was open to debates on the subject” (Galileo Goes to Jail, p. 33). According to Professor Cormack, only one medieval scholar is known “explicitly to deny the sphericity of the earth.” That was Cosmas Indicopleustes—a Byzantine monk who developed a scripturally based cosmological model that featured Earth as a table-land.

Now that’s the sort of Earth Chris Columbus’s sailors might be excused for fearing they’d fall off the edge of—except that they did not, in fact, express any such fear. According to Columbus’s logs, his men’s biggest complaints were that the trip was taking longer than the Admiral of the Seas had promised, and that because the wind seemed always to blow to the west, they might not be able to sail east on their return trip.  

Oh, yeah, and there was never enough grog.

Next: Islam and Science Redux

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

18 Comments

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  • Byron Cardozo
    Apr 27, 2017
    https://youtu.be/MYxIYUBqBco
  • Byron Cardozo
    Aug 31, 2016
    The experiment known as “Airy’s Failure” proved that the stars move relative to a stationary Earth and not the other way around. By first filling a telescope with water to slow down the speed of light inside, then calculating the tilt necessary to get the starlight directly down the tube, Airy failed to prove the heliocentric theory since the starlight was already coming in the correct angle with no change necessary, and instead proved the geocentric model correct.
  • Byron Cardozo
    Aug 31, 2016
    If we were living on a spinning globe airplane’s would constantly have to dip their noses down every few minutes to compensate for the curvature of the earth (with a circumference of 25,000 miles the earth would be constantly curving at the speed of an airplane). In reality however, they never do this! They learn how to fly based on a level flat plane. Also if the earth was spinning the airplane’s going west would get to their destination much faster since the earth is spinning in the opposite direction. If the atmosphere is spinning with the earth then airplanes ...flying west would have to fly faster than the earth’s spin to reach its destination. In reality, the earth is flat and airplanes just fly level and reach their destination easily because the earth is not moving.
    Read more...
  • Byron Cardozo
    Aug 31, 2016
    The sun is much closer than we have been told. It is, in fact, in our atmosphere. You can clearly see that it is not 93 million miles away. Many times you can see the sun’s rays shooting out of a cloud forming a triangle. If you follow the rays to their source it will always lead to a place above the clouds. If the sun was truly millions of miles away, all the rays would come in at a straight angle. Also the sun can be seen directly above clouds in some balloon photos, creating a hot spot on ...the clouds below it and in other photos you can clearly see the clouds dispersing directly underneath the close small sun.
    Read more...
  • Byron Cardozo
    Aug 31, 2016
    If Earth were a ball 25,000 miles in circumference as NASA and modern astronomy claim, spherical trigonometry dictates the surface of all standing water must curve downward an easily measurable 8 inches per mile multiplied by the square of the distance. This means along a 6 mile channel of standing water, the Earth would dip 6 feet on either end from the central peak. Every time such experiments have been conducted, however, standing water has proven to be perfectly level.
    Bedford Level Experiment: Proof of no curvature
    • Oct 20, 2016
      funnily enough, Byron, I learned about this when I was 10 or 11. The fact that if one stands on the sea-shore, the horizon is about 5 miles away. Now, if I hop into a little boat and row 5 miles off shore, the horizon is still about five miles away, five miles more rowing, still five miles to the horizon. Hence the sea is 'dropping away' due to the curvature of the earth. See, Mr McCoy, I did listen in class.
    • Oct 20, 2016
      funnily enough, Byron, I learned about this when I was 10 or 11. The fact that if one stands on the sea-shore, the horizon is about 5 miles away. Now, if I hop into a little boat and row 5 miles off shore, the horizon is still about five miles away, five miles more rowing, still five miles to the horizon. Hence the sea is 'dropping away' due to the curvature of the earth. See, Mr McCoy, I did listen in class.
  • Byron Cardozo
    Aug 31, 2016
    The natural physics of water is to find and maintain its level. If Earth were a giant spinning sphere tilting and hurling through space then truly flat, consistently level surfaces would not exist here. There would be a massive bulge of water in the oceans because of the curvature of the earth. If earth was curved and spinning the oceans of water would be flowing down to level and covering land. Some rivers would be impossibly flowing uphill. There would massive water chaos and flooding! What we would see and experience would be vastly different! But since Earth is in ...fact an extended flat plane, this fundamental physical property of fluids finding and remaining level is consistent with experience and common sense. The water remains flat because the earth is flat!
    Read more...
  • Byron Cardozo
    Aug 31, 2016
    The earth IS flat
    • Michael Spencer
      Oct 13, 2016
      Sure, it's flat on our small human scale, because the earth is huge compared to us, so huge we have trouble conceiving of it.
      So the surface looks flat, but is actually curved around the earth. The curvature is so small and gradual that we can't see it when looking at the water.
      However, you can see ships sailing over the horizon, that's been noticed for thousands of years (humans have noticed the Earth isn't flat for thousands of years). Where does the ship go if the water is flat? is it sinking? Or, is the surface of the water ...curved, and the ship is going along the curve until you can't see it anymore?
      Read more...
    • Michael Spencer
      Oct 13, 2016
      It's because the curve is VERY subtle - on the order of 8 inches per mile! Over a very short distance like a swimming pool, this can be ignored. Remember that gravity is pulling straight down everywhere on the Earth, and down is just another word for "straight toward the center of the Earth", so all the individual water molecules all over the Earth are being pulled toward the center of the Earth. Because the Earth is a sphere this means that all the water also forms a sphere.
    • Sep 28, 2016
      Byron, thanks for posting these. They beautifully illustrate that there are still those who believe the earth is flat and probably that the other stars and planets don't exist.
      Airy's Failure, by the way, was an experiment conducted by George Biddell Airy in 1871 using a water-filled telescope. He apparently theorized that such a device would prove the earth was spherical and rotating, but he did not get the results he expected. This led some to suppose that he had proved the earth was flat and stationary and that (I assume) that the other observable planets and the moon ...were spherical for some reason. And, as you point out, the Sun is in our atmosphere.
      Of course, this was in 1871, before we had more sophisticated instrumentation and well before we had put things and people in space. I think it's a great example of how expanding knowledge—in both the realms of science and religion—lead us to have to re-evaluate our assumptions about reality.
      Read more...
  • Jul 27, 2016
    These articles are interesting and fun. Eratosthenes accurately computed the size of the Earth around 230 BC. I speculate that Columbus chose a smaller size for the Earth in order to (fraudulently?) secure funding for his voyage.
  • Greg Billington
    Jul 26, 2016
    I have read with delight this series. Your writing easily slips thru the fissures and calcification of my agéd mind, as it you write so lucidly, with neither barnacles nor thorns to inhabit passage to understanding. Ty.
  • Hooshang S. Afshar
    Jul 26, 2016
    "GALILEO ON TRIAL:
    In 1616 the Catholic Church placed Nicholas Copernicus’ “De Revolutionibus,” the first modern scientific argument for a heliocentric (sun-centered) universe, on its index of banned books. Pope Paul V summoned Galileo to Rome and told him he could no longer support Copernicus publicly. In 1632 Galileo published his “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” which supposedly presented arguments for both sides of the heliocentrism debate. His attempt at balance fooled no one, and it especially didn’t help that his advocate for geocentrism was named “Simplicius.” Galileo was summoned before the Roman Inquisition in 1633. At first ...he denied that he had advocated heliocentrism, but later he said he had only done so unintentionally. Galileo was convicted of “vehement suspicion of heresy” and under threat of torture forced to express sorrow and curse his errors. Nearly 70 at the time of his trial, Galileo lived his last nine years under comfortable house arrest, writing a summary of his early motion experiments that became his final great scientific work."
    Read more...
    • Jul 26, 2016
      I think the essay on Galileo is a few more down the line, but thanks for posting this.