This past November, there was an international Flat Earth Conference where people from around the globe gathered to talk about the fact that Earth is not a globe. The irony is hard to ignore. I have been hearing more from flat earthers in recent years. Ten years ago, it seemed that almost all flat earthers were trolls and that the only genuine flat earthers were obscure tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorists who only existed on shady internet discussion forums where topics such as Barack Obama being a Reptilian and the Holocaust being a hoax were also common subjects of discussion.
For the most part, that remains to be true. All flat earthers I have encountered are conspiracy theorists. One thing that is different is that they are much more vocal than they used to be. Certain flat earthers are now traveling to different churches giving talks about how the modern scientific cosmology is a deception to lead the world astray and pave the way for the rule of the anti-Christ. I wish I was joking about the last part.
This increase in the ubiquity of flat earthers may be related to the general distrust that people have of experts these days in the wake of the recent election. This is after all, the age of alternative facts. If you don’t want to believe experts about politics, Earth’s climate or whether vaccines cause autism, why believe experts about the shape of the earth?
At any rate, what I found striking about this flat earth phenomenon that relates to Christian apologetics is that these flat earth believers sounded exactly like new atheists. These flat earth believers, like new atheists, believe that modern science and the Bible are incompatible. The only difference is where they fall on the divide. For new atheists, since the Bible and science appear to contradict, the Bible must be wrong. For the flat earthers since their interpretation of the Bible and modern science contradict, modern science must be wrong.
Heliocentrism, the sphericity of the earth (it’s technically an oblate spheroid), and most of modern physics are seen by these flat earthers as being anti-Christian and an attempt to undermine Biblical authority and the Christian worldview. This is in spite of the fact that the scientists who championed heliocentrism originally were devout Christians. In fact most of the founders of modern science were Christians whether you look at astronomy, physics, biology, chemistry, or even geology. This is interestingly the exact same argument I would use if I was talking to an atheist who was telling me that Christianity was anti-science.
Both groups interestingly display the same simplistic binary thinking with respect to Christianity and science and both seem to have accepted the conflict thesis, that science and religion are always in conflict.
Although I am not worried that flat earthers are going to take over Christianity, what this odd little collection of conspiracy theorists reflects is more troubling. It reflects the larger reality of how many Christians have bought into the idea that modern science and the modern world in general are a threat to Christianity. Many see Christianity as outdated in an age of electricity, nuclear power, democracy, capitalism, and technology that can send us to other worlds. Christianity seems like outdated superstition to many. It is not just non-Christians who believe this but Christians as well.
Another, more serious version of this view of Christianity and the modern world being in conflict is the more recent Benedict Option in politics to withdraw as the culture becomes increasingly post-Christian and anti-Christian. Is it true? Do we have to now simply withdraw from the modern world and try to reconstruct the world of the Middle Ages when orthodox apostolic Christianity was synonymous with reality as far as the culture was concerned?
Simply going back to the Middle Ages, the Byzantine period, or any other time perceived as golden age for Christianity is not possible, and it is probably not desirable either. Although there were good things about the Middle Ages, there were other things about the Middle Ages which were not as good and the modern world is a legitimate improvement in those areas such as living standards. I also do not think it is necessary.
First of all, much of the modern world was brought into being partly because of Christianity. Modern western science, political thought, and economics were all influenced by Christianity in one way or another even if they have all gone astray recently. If they were once in line with Christian thought, they can be brought back into alignment. This of course will require Christians to think seriously about how their faith relates to the world and how they can show that Christianity has relevance in these areas and not simply deny reality and accuse everyone who disagrees with them of being a conspiracy theorist.
Another thing to consider is that just because the modern world is in some ways in conflict with Christianity does not mean it can never be reconciled.
Christianity grew up in the context of the pagan Greco-Roman world which was at first very hostile to Christianity. Over time however, the early church fathers and other theologians such as Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine were able to find ways to connect Christianity and the Hellenistic world to show that they had common ground. In a few centuries, Christian theology and classical thought had been so completely reconciled that it was hard to tell the difference between Catholic Christian thought and Aristotelian thought.
In Hellenistic times, there were also Christians who thought that the Hellenistic world and science were at odds with Christian thought. The monk Cosmas Indicopleustes, who was one of the very few early Christian writers to actually believe in a flat earth, believed that all Hellenistic thought should be rejected because it was pagan. That is in fact why he rejected Ptolemaic geocentrism, the mainstream science of the day, because it was a Greek idea, and thus, in his mind, a pagan one.
This struggle in the early Church over how to relate to the Hellenistic world sounds rather similar to the modern struggle in the church with adapting to the increasingly non-Christian modern world. If the early Christians were able to reconcile their faith and worldview with their world, why can’t we do the same with ours?
This is one of the purposes of apologetics, taking ideas that may be contrary to Christianity and molding them so that they can be reconciled with Christianity. We should not run from modern science or deny it, but engage it and show that Christianity is not in conflict with it but can be reconciled. We also need to do this with the rest of the modern world. In the same way that Medieval theologians created a grand synthesis of Christian and Classical thought, perhaps in our age, we need a synthesis of Christian and “modern” thought.