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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

flat earth mythology

Carolyn Moynihan interviews John Stenhouse in this commentary from Science & Theology News. Excerpts:
What does recent scholarship tell us about the history of the church and science?

The idea that Christopher Columbus had to defy Catholic flat-earthers to embark on his voyage of discovery has had wide currency. But as historian Jeffrey Burton Russell has shown in his book Inventing the Flat Earth, the real error “is not the alleged medieval belief that the earth was flat, but rather the modern error that such a belief ever prevailed.” Virtually all educated Christians during the high Middle Ages knew that the earth was round. The ignorant medieval flat-earth Catholic is a modern myth, a product largely of Protestant and secular prejudice.

As for Galileo, a leading historian of science, David C. Lindberg, has concluded that, though shocking by our standards, by the standards prevailing in seventeenth century Europe, the “central bureaucracy of the church and the people who staffed it lived up to widely held norms, followed accepted procedure, and even on a number of occasions treated Galileo with generosity.” The Galileo affair “was a product not of dogmatism or intolerance beyond the norm, but of a combination of more or less standard (for the seventeenth century) bureaucratic procedure, plausible (if ultimately flawed) political judgement, and a familiar array of human foibles and failings.”

Nor did that episode stop talented Catholic scientists such as Rene Descartes, Marin Mersenne, Pierre Gassendi, and Blaise Pascal from making important contributions to a range of disciplines. In a remarkable recent book, John Heilbron has shown that the Catholic church, cultivating astronomy in order to refine the church calendar, turned European cathedrals into gigantic solar observatories. According to Heilbron, the church “gave more financial and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment than any other, and, probably, all other, institutions.” This conclusion has won wide assent from historians of science.
This makes me dream of a Catholic Church space program! Perhaps the Church could develop the first Von Neumann probes to explore and colonize the galaxy. OK, that's a ways off yet. Anyway, read the whole commentary.


Blogger Ross said...

Oh, right, so Protestants are to blame for the myth? Why don't you just come out and say that it was invented at a Lutheran Black Mass!!!!

7:03 AM  

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