Created in Nothing Flat

Okay, I’ll bite: What is the difference? News from Denver brings us back to an old chestnut: What is the difference between young-earth creationists and other dissident-scientists such as flat earthers? Certainly, there are differences in political power—we have a young-earther in the White House these days—but is there anything more than that? Or is it all just an accident of history?

The story from Denver’s flat-earth community points out some of the obvious superficial differences. At least in Denver, flat-earthers tend to be far more about government conspiracies than biblical hermeneutics.

And prominent creationists have always insisted that their beliefs have nothing to do with a flat earth. Back in the 1920s, for example, fundamentalist leader William Bell Riley fumed and fussed that his anti-evolution activism had nothing to do with “‘a flat earth’ . . . ‘an immovable world’ . . . [or] ‘a canopy of roof overhead.’” Those outdated scientific ideas, Riley insisted, were only used to poke fun at people who rejected the false science of evolution.

These days, too, young-earth creationists at Answers In Genesis insist that their scientific ideas have nothing to do with a flat earth. AIG’s Danny Faulkner admits that there are some similarities between the two views, since both have been ridiculed by people who don’t understand them. In the end, though, Faulkner concludes that most flat-earthers are either kooks or insincere.

Officially, AIG contends that since the spherical nature of the earth can be observed directly, the question of the earth’s shape belongs in the realm of “observational science.” That is, we can trust the mainstream facts in this case, even if we can’t trust scientists who speak ignorantly about “historical science.”

For those who know the history, though, the idea of a flat earth has had a remarkably similar history to the notions of a literal worldwide flood and a six-day creation.

As creationist-history guru Glenn Branch has described, in the 1920s the two movements had enormous similarities. Back then, most anti-evolution activists did not believe in a literal six-day creation. They did not insist that the earth was only about 6,004 years old. But a vocal minority did. Spearheaded by the indefatigable activism of George McCready Price, the ideas of a young earth and “flood geology” grew until they became in the 1960s key litmus tests for fundamentalist faith. (For more on that story, check out Ron Numbers’s masterpiece, The Creationists.)

As Branch describes, back in the 1920s flat-earthers also represented a small minority of the anti-evolution crowd. Like the young-earthers, flat-earthers could claim an energetic and charismatic spokesperson, Glenn Voliva. Voliva crusaded against the notion of a spherical earth. Like George McCready Price, Voliva insisted that he had the Truth, a truth evolutionists and round-earthers were too prejudiced to admit.

At the time of the Scopes Trial, Voliva hustled to Dayton, Tennessee to help prosecute John Scopes. Voliva’s hope, according to author Christine Garwood, was to “eliminate the twin heresies of evolution and a spherical earth.”flat earth garwood

But that’s where the two ideas went their separate ways. Whereas the outlandish notion of a literally young earth came to be accepted as true by large minorities of Americans, the outlandish notion of a flat earth became an internet quirk adopted by basement-dwelling conspiracy theorists.

So I ask again: What is the difference? I have a few ideas that I’m including in my current book about American creationism. In short, I think the answer lies not in dissident science, but in the mainstream world. By the 1960s, fundamentalist Protestants faced a new choice: Embrace mainstream evolutionary thinking and find a way to reconcile it with evangelical belief, or reject mainstream evolutionary science utterly and create a new creationist science.

When it came to evolution, the choice seemed simple, to many fundamentalists at least. Either kowtow to secular science or remain steadfast to young-earth beliefs.

Flat-earthers, though, never offered such a stark and simple choice. Belief in a flat earth (or a geo-centric solar system, for that matter) had always been embraced by some Biblical conservatives, but it never became a litmus test of orthodoxy.

At least, that’s the argument I’m trying to make in my new book.

What do you think?

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6 Comments

  1. The difference is that Young Earth Creationists (or, at least some of them) try to force their beliefs into the science curriculum.

    Reply
    • I agree, but I think that is only a corollary of political power. Flat earthers don’t have the numbers or influence to try to force their beliefs into public schools, but I assume if they could they would.
      The anti-creationists at Americans United agree that flat-earthers won’t be able to push into public schools, but they worry that flat-earthers might set up private schools, then finagle public funding via vouchers.

      Reply
      • Agellius

         /  July 13, 2017

        But public voucher money is always going to have strings attached. They won’t be able to teach anything they want. If they did teach FEC I’m betting at the very least that it would have to be alongside regular science.

  2. Yes, belief in a flat earth or a geocentric cosmology has not been a test of orthodoxy. But as you note, sixty years ago the young Earth was not a test of orthodoxy. Given the contingency of history and the mandates of biblical literalism, who knows what the future holds!

    Reply
    • Dan

       /  July 14, 2017

      Maybe you are joking, but it is true: as long as you are in the game, you have a shot. Long shots do have a way of becoming possible, likely, and even inevitable when people stick with an idea or movement long enough. Christian Science had it’s day in the sun, not all that long ago. I would not bet on flat earthers and geocentrists, but if there’s a nuclear exchange, natural cataclysm, or the last professor is strangled with the guts of the last atheist, their stock is going way UP.

      Reply
  3. Dan

     /  July 13, 2017

    I think you’re right, but there is a deeper psychological dimension as well. The idea of a round earth never gave anyone a vertiginous experience of the void. Heliocentrism did a bit. An infinite universe with infinite worlds was even more disturbing. The mathematization of the physical world helped, and in the Newtonian frame it meant inventing “absolute space” because relativity was inconceivable. It took a long time to get to Einstein, because the metaphysical inheritance shaped habits of thought in a Cartesian direction — simple, deterministic grids mapping all space, mind-body dualism presuming we think outside it all, observing and analyzing from a god’s eye view. To have everything connected, relative, relational, contingent, and undetermined within an infinite manifold of multiple dimensions is difficult and terrifying, particularly for how it pegs TIME to space and stuff, to being. Modern religious reaction is deeply invested in rejection of evolution and critical historicism because they open up toward an existentialist and materialist paradigm, not an essentialist and revealed one, where things are fixed, certain, and deterministic. Western religions are very much tied up in the old metaphysics, unable to separate their morality or virtue ethics from them, so you get the “without god, everything falls apart” reactions which are ultimately political in nature. This is a core problem modern continental philosophy after Hegel, Nietzsche, and Husserl, right? The major conservative intellectuals like Voegelin and Strauss focused on it. The old Russian anti-Bolshevik religious traditionalists (now Putin’s prescribed reading list for intellectuals) had the same concerns. It all trickles down into pop Evangelical apologetics — evolution can’t be true or else materialism is true. God must exist or else there is no basis for morality.

    Reply

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