Christianity and the Round Planet

Many people, like me, grew up believing that when Columbus sailed to America in 1492, Christians at the time thought that he would fall off the edge of the world.  Not only were we taught this in school, but even serious historians like Daniel Boorstein, in his book, The Discoverers, states as historical fact that European Christians thought the world was flat.  This sure makes Christians sound ignorant, doesn't it?  There is only one problem:  there is not a lick of truth to it.

St. Thomas Aquinas, who was made a saint because of his genius, wrote that
the world was round almost 250 years before Columbus made his journey.  Medieval universities, which were Christian institutions, used a textbook entitled Sphere to teach astronomy.  Two hundred years before Columbus, Buridan, Rector of the University of Paris, wrote a long discussion proving that the rotation of the Earth on its axis produced night and day, assuming, as did all his fellow Christian scholars throughout Europe, that the Earth was round.  No serious Christian thinkers thought that the world was flat, as Edward Grant notes in his 1971 book, Physical Science in the Middle Ages (London: Cambridge University Press, 1971.)

Everyone agrees that the Catholic Church in 1492 accepted the Ptolemaic Theory -- Copernicus even published his famous book challenged the "Earth-centered" view of the universe in the Ptolemaic Theory in 1492, the year Columbus sailed -- but the Ptolemaic Theory itself requires that the Earth be round.  And it was not just Catholics who believed the world was round.  All Christians in Europe did.  Protestant scholars like George Rheticus and Johannes Kepler supported the "Sun-centered" view of the Catholic scholar Copernicus, which also said that the world was round:  The title of his book is even called Concerning the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.  

What did Christian scholars believe would happen if Columbus sailed west?  They thought he would never have enough supplies to reached India, because he was using the Moslem calculation of the size of the world.  They were right; Columbus was wrong.  The world was a lot bigger than anyone but Christians believed.  When Columbus landed in Hispaniola, he thought the he had gone all the way to Indian (which is why Native Americans are called "Indians.") 

Why were Christians right about the size and nature of the Earth and every other civilization wrong?  The answer to that question is simple: Christians, alone, believed in an orderly, discoverable universe.  The scientific method itself was created by Christian thinkers like Robert Grossetste in the 13th Century and refined by other Christians over the years.   The scientific revolution took place precisely once in history, Medieval Europe, and the scientists who produced it were all devout Christians.

Moslems believed that Allah could bend the laws of nature at a whim. The last great Islamic scientific discovery was in 1420, when astronomers in Samarkand produced a means to find the sacred directions to find Mecca from any place on Earth.  The Jewish attitude toward science was summed up in the world of the famous Talmudist scholar, Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel, who said "It is well that I know nothing of profane science."  Buddhism and Hinduism provide no inherent reason for studying science.  Christ enjoined us to understand the universe in a way that no other system of thought or belief ever had. 

Why, then, have we come to believe that Medieval Christians thought the world was flat?  Antoine-Jean Letronne, a French atheist, started this defamation with his 1834 book, On the Cosmological Ideas of the Church Fathers.  This deception was picked up by Dickson White, President of Cornell University.  White inserted this utterly manufactured history into textbooks, encyclopedias, and other serious research.  No one thought much about it at the time.  The very notion that Christianity somehow stopped science, when in 1834 nearly every great scientist of the last five centuries had been belonged to some branch of the Christian faith, would have struck any sincere student of science as silly. 

It was as silly as the idea that Darwin's Theory of Evolution was scientific fact, when even Darwin admitted that his theory was full of questions that he could not answer.  But if Christianity gave birth to science, then science could hardly be the new god to replace Christianity.  So the Christian idea of a round Earth was turned on its head:  Instead of being the only people in the Medieval world who got the shape and size of our planet exactly right, Christians, alone, came to be known as the people who got it all wrong.

Copernicus was a canon of the Catholic Church.  Newton devoted the last decades of his life to Bible study.  Galileo, also his whole life a devout Christian, spent the last part of his life as a guest in the home of a cardinal.  Kepler, who refined the theories of Copernicus, was a pious Lutheran his whole life.  The Scientific Method itself was created in the Christian universities of the Middle Ages.  How does that fit into the popular idea that Christians are opposed to science?  It does not, unless you believe that the Earth is flat - something Christians never thought.  Who, in olden time, thought the world was flat?  Everyone thought the world was flat but Christians.

Bruce Walker is the author of two books:  Sinisterism: Secular Religion of the Lie, and his recently published book, The Swastika against the Cross: The Nazi War on Christianity.