No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

Worlds of Their Own, by Robert Schadewald

Subtitled "A Brief History of Misguided Ideas: Creationism, Flat-Earthism, Energy Scams, and the Velikovsky Affair" the book is a collection of essays and chapters put together by Schadewald's sister after Bob passed away in 2000. There's some duplication due to the way the book was assembled, but it's all good stuff, and a fine encomium of the man, who was one of the nice guys of the skeptic world. Enough so, that the book includes some quite moving eulogies from some of the cranks, creationists, and crackpots he interacted with over the years. He wasn't universally nice... he had nothing good to say about the "liars for Jesus," with Duane Gish getting a fair share of the well-deserved lumps in that category. But in a way, I think Schadwald sort of collected crackpots, and got friendly with many of them. The people who aren't scamming anyone, but are just confused or, shall we say, really original thinkers. Most of the topics are fairly old hat to well-read skeptics, but Schadewald has a penchant for a nice turn of phrase that keeps things lively.

Anyway, allow me to riff off one of the stories he presents.
You may recognize Alfred Russel Wallace as the independent discoverer of the theory of natural selection to explain evolution. Darwin got all the fame, but Wallace was a very interesting dude.

At one point, a few years after the joint presentation of Darwin's and Wallace's ideas on evolution at the Linnean Society, Wallace got involved in a debate, and ultimately a challenge and gentleman's wager (of a cool £500) offered by someone contradicting the new scientific understanding.

The judgment was in Wallace's favor, but the usual kind of squabbling ensued, and Wallace never really enjoyed the victory or its fruits (in the UK, one was allowed to welsh on a bet, if the funds had not been disbursed.) Much worse, the losers quickly resorted to scurrilous pamphlets decrying the 'swindle' that had occurred. One title is very illustrative of the antiscience crowd: God's Truth or Man's Science: Which Shall Prevail?

It seems like nothing has changed. Here we are almost 150 years later, and people are still insisting on their literal interpretation of the Bible to dismiss science. Well, yes and no.

For dramatic effect, I may have omitted some details in order to lead you to imagine the dispute was about evolution, but in fact, the test that Wallace was involved in was to demonstrate the sphericity of the Earth.

Schadewald does a great job demonstrating that the Bible (like all of the ancient Near East documents) portrays a flat earth. And that the firmament of the Bible is literally firm: a dome over the flat earth, in which the stars are set.

Virtually no one believes in a flat earth nowadays. Indeed, Schadewald interviews Charles Johnson, the president of the Flat Earth Society. Johnson dies a year after Schadewald and the Society fell apart (though it has since been resurrected). But back in the day (and not that far back, really) flat earthism was popular. Nutmeister supreme Wilbur Glenn Voliva had an entire town in Illinois at least ostensibly devoted to flat earthism and his particular variety of religion.

Of course spaceflight has dealt something of a blow to flat earthism. Doubters and Apollo hoax enthusiasts still exist, but Buzz Aldrin could probably punch all of the remaining flat earthers in the US within a week.

Mainstream, and even crackpot, religion has largely moved on from the flat earth. No one holds to that literalist interpretation of the Bible.

Perhaps we can hope that creationism will go the same way. It's a tempting thought. Yet the relevant timeframe is daunting. Some of the early church fathers were hep to Greek geography and its round earth, while other ECF were adamantly flat earthy. That's about the current state of religion with respect to evolution. Some accept it, while others dismiss it as unbiblical. So if history is a guide, creationism will be as rare as flat earthism in another 1500 years or so, give or take a few centuries.
Tags: book, history, insanity, religion, science, skepticism

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