Thursday, January 8, 2009

Intelligent Geography: The Flat Earth Society

Do Young Earth Creationists also believe in a Flat Earth? Or say the round Earth is just a theory? Or support academic freedom for flat Earthers? If not, why not?

I don't know why we don't talk more about this. We should beat this dead horse until it disintegrates. Flat Earth beliefs are an excellent parallel to modern creationism. Why is creationism any different? That is in no way a rhetorical question. The parallels are striking:

- The argument was made vigorously for centuries, often (or even usually) with Scriptural justification

- People were persececuted for espousing theories offensive to prevailing religious sensibilities (e.g. Copernicus, Galileo)

- Flat Earthers were prone to other top-down, ends-justify-the-reasoning, severe-confirmation-bias thinking. For example, Flat Earthers have also often been fake Moon landing conspiracy theorists.

- As the institutional persecution ended, there remained among flat Earthers an element of smugness; i.e. "It's obviously true; I [the Flat Earther] am so much more clever than these ivory tower idiots".

I should qualify this last bullet point. In the non-Abrahamic World and the West, the flat Earth theory is so attenuated that it's hard to figure out which Flat Earth Society is the real one, or indeed if any of the ones online are not just being ironic. But the theory is apparently still going strong in the world's showcase for theocratic government, the Middle East. As recently as 1975 a fatwa was issued that the Earth was indeed flat, by Sheikh Abdul Aziz Ben Baz, on Saudi Arabia's Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (a real government office, still in existence today!). Ben Baz was also the president of the Islamic University of Medina (a university!!) And as recently as 2008, an Iraqi "researcher" made the case for the flat Earth on Iraqi National TV. When challenged by the news anchor that objects do appear to sink below the horizon, his explanation is that we don't understand how the eye works (hey buddy: get an internet connection.)

It's easy to make Christian hard-liners squirm when you point out the incredible parallels between their own ways of thinking and that of devout Muslims. The similarities are often so close that if you change the names in a quotation, they themselves can't tell the difference. Take a Qu'ran to a Christian fiend's house sometime - I mean it - and ask them to take this Pepsi challenge. What do they have to be afraid of?

There are other theories which have vastly improved upon (or just plain overwritten) the previous religion-based beliefs that authorities were so anxious to protect. Another great example is the germ theory of disease. And there's one more question for creationists. How can the germ theory of disease be correct? To be "fair" to creationists, there are in fact Christian Americans who reject the germ theory of disease - Christian Scientists.

So next time a Christian wants to talk about creationism, don't get bogged down talking about Darwin. There are lots of new questions to ask. It's good to start off by finding what is likely to be common ground. Talk about Copernicus and Pasteur, and ask them why they think Copernicus and Pasteur were right (especially since your friend is preceded by centuries of Christians disagreeing with them). And point out that Muslim creationism is going strong and getting stronger. And if Saudi Arabia hasn't been dissuaded in its belief in a Flat Earth by secular science - why are Christians so easily tricked?

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