When I was young I was taught in school that Christians believed the Earth was flat. It was not until Christopher Columbus’s historic journey to the “New World” that the Church was forced to accept this as fact and do away with its false belief. The idea that Christians believed in a flat Earth has been taught in school textbooks, short films, and is believed by many even today.
This notion of history stuck with me through my years as an atheist. Often, I would refer to Christians as “Flat-Earthers.” Ironically, several non-Christians in Internet discussion forums have called me this.
Recently, there was an Internet meme being shared on Facebook supposedly quoting the famous Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan:
The Church says the Earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow of the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow than in the Church.
Of course, this quote often appears without any citation to its source. And for good reason: There isn’t any.
The quote can be traced back to an essay titled Individuality by famous American political leader and defender of agnosticism, Robert G. Ingersoll. In it he writes:
It is a blessed thing that in every age some one has had individuality enough and courage enough to stand by his own convictions — someone who had the grandeur to say his say. I believe it was Magellan who said,”The church says the earth is flat; but I have seen its shadow on the moon, and I have more confidence even in a shadow than in the church.” On the prow of his ship were disobedience, defiance, scorn, and success.
Ingersoll is not the only famous American political leader to appeal to this bogus belief. Speaking to a crowd in Washington in 2012, President Barack Obama charged Republicans with dismissing alternative energy sources by comparing them to those who thought Columbus should not set sail:
Here’s the sad thing. Lately we’ve heard a lot of professional politicians—a lot of the folks who are running for a certain office, who shall go unnamed—they’ve been talking down new sources of energy. They dismiss wind power. They dismiss solar power. They make jokes about biofuels. They were against raising fuel standards. I guess they like gas guzzlers. They think that’s good for our future.
We’ve heard this kind of thinking before. Some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail—they must have been founding members of the Flat-Earth Society. They would not have believed that the world was round.
In all fairness to President Obama, conservative television personality Glen Beck repeated the same historical blunder on his show just a year earlier. Beck managed to one-up the President in the myth department by inserting Galileo into the story.
The idea that Columbus sailed to the “New World” against the wisdom of his day is a complete myth. It’s a very persistent myth, too.
Greek astronomers were aware almost 300 years before the time of Christ that the Earth was round. What they were unsure of was the circumference of the planet.
There are only a handful of early Christian writers (mostly from the areas near Syria) that historians can point to as examples, but certainly belief in a flat Earth was never a test of Christian orthodoxy, and definitely not a doctrine of the Church at large. It was simply the opinion of a minority, and medieval and later Christians did not believe or teach this.
You may be curious to know where this myth comes from. The earliest source I have been able to pinpoint is Washington Irving (author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) in his four-volume series titled A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. This work is a mixture of fact and fiction. There is a scene depicted in the book where shadowy Catholic clergymen warn Columbus that he might sail off the end of the Earth. This, of course, is hogwash and not supported by any real historical data.