What does it mean to “throw the elephant”? A person responds to an argument by dumping loads of seemingly relevant information on it, calls it a “refutation,” and declares himself the winner, all the while hoping his opponent won’t notice how faulty much of the information is. The internet has made throwing the elephant a favorite tactic of anti-Christian bigots. It used to be that a response required careful study and some form of reliable source documentation. Of course, even before the advent of the internet out of context quotations and citations and downright lies were typical. Often times there were no references to track down. The immediacy of the internet and a cut-and-paste approach to scholarship so-called often prevails. Dorm-room debaters have become all the rage online. When I offer a careful response to some of these know-it-alls, I get another elephant thrown at me. My inbox is loaded with this kind of junk.
After receiving so much of this stuff, you learn quickly how to separate the wheat from the chaff. There are tell-tale signs of ignorance that are easy to spot. If someone mentions that medieval Christian scientists and scholars believed in a “flat earth,” they are trying to sell you a bushel of chaff. The following, supposedly spoken by Ferdinand Magellan (1480–1521), was sent to me in support of the claim that the church has always been anti-science:
“The church says the earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow than in the church.”
This elephant thrower saw it on a website trying to disprove the existence of God and the supposed folly of mixing religious beliefs and science and naturally thought it was the real deal, so he sent it to me. I had a good laugh. There’s even a T-shirt that perpetuates the myth, although many of the sites that sold them are no longer in operation. If you decide to wear one, you should also get a T-shirt that reads, “I’m with stupid.” The quotation is bogus.
It makes no sense historically since Magellan began his circumnavigation voyage nearly 20 years after Columbus’ first voyage. If churchmen had ever taught a flat earth theory (they never did), they certainly weren’t teaching it in 1519. “No contemporary document concerning Columbus, including his own Journal and his son’s History of the Admiral, nor any account of other early voyages included Magellan’s, makes any mention of the sphere of the earth. Everyone knew [the earth was round].”1 So what’s the source of the Magellan quotation? You might want to take a look at Robert G. Ingersoll’s 1873 lecture “Individuality.” He wrote: “It is a blessed thing that in every age someone 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.”2 He doesn’t identify a source.
This quote which [Robert] Ingersoll attributed to Magellan without citing his source or authority is all over the Web. Its constant repetition has acquired the patina of veracity but not one among those who quote the alleged Magellan words have bothered to trace its origin. You cannot trace it beyond Ingersoll. . . . The onus of proving the authenticity of the quote being Magellan’s is squarely on those who assert its truthfulness. This can be easily proven or disproven by going to primary sources published at the time Ingersoll surmised Magellan said those words. At the time Ingersoll wrote his essay “Individuality” the . . . primary sources were already published (see here).
Even the late evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould could say without equivocation that “there never was a period of ‘flat earth darkness’ among scholars (regardless of how the public at large may have conceptualized our planet both then and now). Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the earth’s roundness as an established fact of cosmology.”3 None of these seems to move the elephant throwers since there are a lot of uninformed and gullible targets.
You know when you’ve had the elephant thrown at you when an opponent uses John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1875) and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) as source documentation for the claim that Christians throughout the centuries opposed the study of science at every turn. A repeated elephant-throwing e-mailer thought he was trying to pull a fast one when he referenced White as one of his “authoritative sources.” He had no idea that only the ignorant cite it anymore. “White himself admitted that he wrote the book to get even with Christian critics of his plans for Cornell. . . . [M]any of White’s other accounts are as bogus as his report of the flat earth and Columbus.”4 I’m not the only recipient of this type of bogus historiography. Thomas E. Woods, Jr., author of the Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, relates a similar experience:
Yet it is safe to say that scarcely any serious historian of science today views White’s work as anything but quaintly risible. (That doesn’t stop hostile e-mail correspondents even now from dutifully quoting him to me, as if the past century’s revolution in our understanding of the history of science had never occurred.)5
David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers argue that “[a]lthough it is not difficult to find instances of conflict and controversy in the annals of Christianity and science, recent scholarship has shown that the warfare metaphor to be neither useful nor tenable in describing the relationship between science and religion.”6
Beware of incoming elephants. Force critics to reference original source documentation in context. Also, do not throw elephants unless you know the information is accurate. Secondary sources are starting points; they are never the final authority. We all make mistakes, admit it and move on, but be careful the next time.
- Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton University Press, 2003), 122. [↩]
- Robert Green Ingersoll, “Individuality,” The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, 7 vols. (New York: The Ingersoll League,  1900), 1:171). [↩]
- Stephen J. Gould, “The Late Birth of a Flat Earth,” Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History (New York: Crown, 1996), 38–52. [↩]
- Stark, For the Glory of God, 123. [↩]
- Thomas E. Woods, Jr., “The Flat Earth Myth.” For a readable but scholarly treatment of the subject, see Jeffrey Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (New York: Praeger, 1991). [↩]
- David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, “Beyond War and Peace: Reappraisal of the Encounter between Christianity and Science,” Church History, 55:3 (September 1986), 338–354. [↩]