What does it mean to “throw the elephant”? A person responds to an argument by dumping loads of seemingly relevant information on it, calls the dump a “refutation,” and declares himself to be 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 to an argument 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 there were no references to track down. The immediacy of the internet and a cut-and-paste approach to so-called scholarship often prevails. Dorm room debaters have become all the rage online. When I offer a careful response to some of these know-it-all elephant throwers, I get another elephant thrown at me.
Thinking Straight in a Crooked World
The nursery rhyme ‘There Was a Crooked Man’ is an appropriate description of how sin affects us and our world. We live in a crooked world of ideas evaluated by crooked people. Left to our crooked nature, we can never fully understand what God has planned for us and His world. God has not left us without a corrective solution. He has given us a reliable reference point in the Bible so we can identify the crookedness and straighten it.Buy Now
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 until the rigors of the scientific method (developed within the context of a Christian worldview) separated religion from 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 the above on a website trying to disprove the existence of God and the 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. “The myth that a flat earth was part of Christian doctrine in the Middle Ages appears to have originated with Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626), who wrongly claimed that geographers had been put on trial for impiety after asserting the contrary. There were a few authentic flat-earthers in late antiquity, but none among the scholars of the Middle Ages proper.”
The Magellan quotation is bogus, like so much of flat earth history. 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 including Magellan’s, makes any mention of the sphere of the earth. Everyone knew [the earth was round].” A more popular and easily accessible source for the falsely attributed Magellan quotation is found in the 1873 lecture “Individuality” by Robert G. Ingersoll. He doesn’t identify a source.
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.” None of these historical facts seem to move the elephant throwers since there are a lot of uninformed 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.” 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.)
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.”
Elephant throwing is a certified sport among many of today’s so-called journalists. They throw elephants with impunity. There was a day when the journalistic establishment would have called them on the embarrassing sport. Now they are willing participants in throwing elephants for distance.
The Impossibility of the Contrary
Those who deny God have no way to account for the uniformity of nature and its laws. Natural man does have knowledge, but it is borrowed knowledge, stolen from the Christian-theistic pasture or range, yet natural man has no knowledge, because in terms of his principle the ultimacy of his thinking, he can have none, and the knowledge he possesses is not truly his own… The natural man has valid knowledge only as a thief possesses goods.Buy Now
James Hannam, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2011), 28. John Grant’s book Discarded Science (2006) includes a chapter on the flat earth. Unfortunately, he does not supply a single reference that can be checked for any of his conclusions. He does not mention Jeffery B. Russell’s book Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (New York: Praeger, 1991).
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.
“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.” (Robert Green Ingersoll, “Individuality,” The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, 7 vols. [New York: The Ingersoll League, (1983) 1900], 1:171). Here’s what Wikiquote includes in its “Magellan” entry: “This quotation is often found on the internet attributed to Magellan, but never with a source, and no occurrence prior to its use by Robert Green Ingersoll in his essay ‘Individuality’ has been located. Thus, it is spurious and not to be attributed to Magellan.”
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. “The myth that Christians in the Middle Ages thought the world was flat was given a massive boost by Andrew Dickson White’s weighty tome The Warfare of Science with Theology. This book has become something of a running joke among historians of science and it is dutifully mentioned as a prime example of misinformation in the preface of most modern works on science and religion. The flat Earth is discussed in chapter 2 and one can almost sense White’s confusion that hardly any of the sources support his hypothesis that Christians widely believed in it. He finds himself grudgingly admitting that Clement, Origen, Ambrose, Augustine, Isodore, Albertus Magnus and Aquinas all accepted the Earth was a globe—in other words none of the great doctors of the church had considered the matter in doubt. Although an analysis of what White actually says suggests he was aware that the flat Earth was largely a myth, he certainly gives an impression of ignorant Christians suppressing rational knowledge of its real shape.” (James Hannam, “The Myth of the Flat Earth”: http://www.bede.org.uk/flatearth.htm)
Thomas E. Woods, Jr., “The Flat Earth Myth”: http://www.lewrockwell.com/woods/woods46.html. 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: http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1987/PSCF9-87Lindberg.html