Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Yes Virginia, there are flat-earthers

There are some good essays online on the flat earth myth -- the belief that people thought the earth was flat prior to Columbus. I recently linked to this post by M&M, here's another, and here's one James wrote. Humphrey wrote a couple of excellent blogposts on it here and here. The go-to book for all of this is Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians by Jeffrey Burton Russell (you can read a short essay by Russell here) who traces the myth to about 1830 when Washington Irving wrote his "history" of Columbus.

Rather than add to what they wrote, I'd like to address a parallel issue. Once non-Christians started ridiculing Christianity as promoting a flat earth, some Christians sought to defend their faith by ... accepting a flat earth. The most prominent defender, in the mid-19th century, was Samuel Rowbotham, who wrote the book Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe. Rowbotham compiled dozens of evidences supporting his claim that the earth was flat and stationary, such as lighthouses that could be seen from further away than they should if the surface is curved, cannonballs fired straight up from moving platforms (demonstrating that the earth is not moving), etc. To this day there is a flat-earth society which defends this kind of thing. Here is a list of flat-earth literature available to read online. A list of resources by and about flat-earthers is here.

I collect flat-earth literature. It seems to me to be an extreme example of Christians reacting to the conflict myth by letting secularists tell them what to believe, another example being contemporary defenses of geocentrism, something which has gained support among young-earth creationists.

That leads me to my main point: I think young-earth creationism is another example of Christians letting secularists define Christian belief. I don't think it's on the same level as belief in a flat-earth for the simple reason that, throughout history, many of the holiest Christians believed the earth and universe to be young. Nevertheless, the history of young-earth creationism in the last 50 years reveals it to be a reaction rather than a reasoned response, in a very similar fashion as belief in a flat earth was a reaction against the forces of secularism. I submit that this is not an appropriate way for a Christian to act. You can't love the Lord with all your mind if your theology is based on knee-jerk reactions. Moreover, it leads to two deplorable situations: first, as I've already mentioned, where the dictates of one's faith are actually made up by people trying to mock it. As I've mentioned before, I don't think it's wise to let those who deprecate our faith define it for us. Second, it creates a rather large stumbling block for belief in Christianity. If that's what you have to believe in order to be a Christian, then it just obviously fails the smell test.

There are plenty of parallels between young-earth and flat-earth literature. Both make their claim the linchpin to orthodoxy, so that disagreeing with them leads to the denial of central doctrines. Both locate the problems of contemporary society in the rejection of their claim. Both claim that the denial of their claim makes God into an incompetent Creator. Both claim that the denial of their claim is a purely recent phenomenon. Both explicate their claim via bluster and a feigned over-confidence. Etc.

To illustrate that last point, I have a flat-earth book entitled A Reparation: Universal Gravitation a Universal Fake by C. S. DeFord, originally published in 1931, that begins thus:

To me truth is precious. I love it. I embrace it at every opportunity. I do not stop to inquire, Is it popular? ere I embrace it. I inquire only, Is it truth? If my judgment is convinced my conscience approves and my will enforces my acceptance. I want truth for truth's sake, and not for the applaud or approval of men. I would not reject truth because it is unpopular, nor accept error because it is popular. I should rather be right and stand alone than to run with the multitude and be wrong.

Methinks he doth protest too much.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)


Dave said...

"I think young-earth creationism is another example of Christians letting secularists define Christian belief."

Very insightful. I have been of the same opinion for a couple of years now, as I have become increasingly annoyed by YEC rhetoric about salvation and condemnation.

Nevertheless, I consider myself to be a non-dogmatic YEC, perhaps allowing for the "gap."

Anonymous said...

There are two ways in which your attack on Young Earth Creationists is misguided.

First, when you link to Russ Humphreys' article about quantized redshifts, you have missed the point of the article. He is not in the least way defending or supporting the idea that the earth is the center of the solar system. He is showing that there's a good possibility that our galaxy and therefore the earth (along with the sun) are very likely to be near the center of the universe. This is a simple distinction, but it results in a very big difference. This is not anti-Galileo geocentrism.

Second, you miss the point when you suggest that reacting is all young earth creationists have done over the last 50 years. Systematic Theologian Wayne Grudem (no young earth creationist himself) gives us the very reasoning behind defending the Bible's presentation of a young earth in our current culture:

"Studying systematic theology helps us to be able to make better decisions later on new questions of doctrine that may arise. We cannot know what new doctrinal controversies will arise in the churches in which we will live and minister ten, twenty, or thirty years from now, if the Lord does not return before then. These new doctrinal controversies will sometimes include questions that no one has faced very carefully before."

This is the very reason defending the Biblical view of the young earth is important. It was not all that important before, because nearly everyone believed that the earth was about 6000 years old. However, for the last two centuries, that doctrine has been under direct attack. Using Grudem's reasoning above, we need to reason out and defend the doctrines that are under new attacks in our culture (Grudem gives the example of inerrancy, among others).

So, to say Christians defending the young earth are reacting too much is to miss the point.

Jim S. said...

Thanks for your comment. In response to your first point, Humphrey's article concluded by saying that since we are important to God, we should expect to be at the physical center of the universe. It seemed to me to be the point he was building to. So I don't think it's a quick aside it seems to be the point he's making, with the science there to back it up.

To your second point, you seem to equate the young-earth position with the biblical view. Shouldn't it be obvious from this post (and others) that I deny this? Of course we should defend the biblical view. What I'm challenging is whether young-earth creationism is the biblical view. I think several positions are compatible with the text, some of them more plausible than others. This was recognized long before there was any scientific evidence for the age of the earth and universe. Those who sought to denigrate Christianity latched on to the one position that was contradicted by the new evidence, and pretended it refuted Christianity as a whole. The young-earth movement grew out of the results, in just the same way that the flat-earth movement grew out of the 19th century claims that everyone thought the earth was flat prior to Columbus. I'm not the one missing the point.