Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Flat Earth Society

A small extract from my book, The Joy Of Sects

Founded: 1892
Country of origin: UK
Gods and guiding voices: ‘God’
Membership: Last recorded in the US in 1990 at around 2,800
Texts: The Bible; Samuel Birley Rowbotham: Earth Not A Globe; Samuel Birley Rowbotham: Zetitic Astronomy
Basic beliefs: The Earth is flat. God says so.

Are you really sure that the Earth is a globe? Do you have real scientific knowledge to back that up? Or are you blindly believing in Scientific Truth and taking all that stuff about Foucault’s pendulum and measurements of curvature on trust?

Flat Earth theorists would say that if you are taking it on trust, you’ve been fooled. Nearly all ideas that support the Earth’s ‘globularity’ are, in fact, contrary to reason. People that say they know that the Earth is round because ships have sailed around it are just displaying ‘wretched logic’. After all, ships can sail around the Isle of Man and that doesn’t prove that it’s a globe. It’s ‘absurd’ to believe that there are people living in the so-called Antipodes. Wouldn’t they just fall off? And don’t say they’re hanging on because of gravity. What is gravity? Is it solid, liquid or gas? Have you ever seen it? Didn’t think so. Do you subscribe to the theory that the Earth is rushing through space at the awful rate of 63,000 miles an hour? If you do, why haven’t you been whirled off into space?

Flat Earth theory isn’t a recent phenomenon. It’s as old as, well, the Bible. That’s the source of phrases like ‘the four corners of the Earth’, and that’s why Christians suppressed Ancient Greek mathematical proofs for the roundness of the globe during the Dark Ages. However, from the ninth century onwards, the fiercest debates were not about the shape of the Earth, but its position in the universe. Galileo was imprisoned for saying the Earth went around the sun. Nobody really objected to the fact that he also thought it was round. It wasn’t until an English gentleman, Samuel Birley Rowbotham, published his book Earth Not A Globe in the mid-nineteenth century, full of logical arguments like those printed above, that the shape of the Earth once again turned into a burning issue.

A six-mile stretch of canal called the Bedford Level became the scene of fraught experimental showdowns between the ‘Flat Earthers’ and ‘globularists’. One convert to Rowbotham’s cause, John Hampden, offered £500 to anyone that could prove him wrong. When Alfred Wallace did indeed prove that the Earth was round in an experiment conducted on the canal in front of impartial judges, Hampden called him a ‘knave, liar, thief, swindler, imposter, rogue and felon’. He dedicated a large part of the rest of his life to writing poison-pen letters to Wallace and his wife.

In spite of Hampden’s lost bet, Flat Earth Theory continued to thrive. Christians all over the world began to form societies attracting thousands of members. The original British Flat Earth Society was founded in 1892 and kept on going strong until the early 1970s when its last active members, Samuel and Lillian Shelton, died. The pictures of the round Earth taken from space had proved to be something of a crushing blow – although the society did come up with the rather neat explanation that the entire space programme was a con, and the moon landings were scripted by none other than the mischievous Arthur C Clarke.

There are still plenty of Flat Earthers in the US. They claim (logically enough) that creationists and other Biblical literalists are hypocrites for insisting that the Bible disproves the theory of evolution, but failing to also maintain that the Earth is, ‘as God says’, flat.

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