Weird Science: It's 2017, And Flat-Earth Ideas Are On A Bit Of A Roll

Lately, I’ve been seeing stories online about people who believe the Earth is flat. I figured this was just click bait, or perhaps efforts by sports figures and celebrities to keep themselves in the news by being outrageous.

But no, there does appear a small movement of people who really do reject the idea that the Earth is a sphere. The Denver Post profiled some of them recently.

Creationists are loath to admit it, but their anti-evolution beliefs share a common root with flat-Earthism. In the late 19th century, when flat-Earth beliefs were at their zenith, advocates often pointed to the Bible to buttress their position; some of them worked alongside anti-evolutionists.

Flat-Earth proponents believe this is fiction.

One U.S. community even adopted flat-Earthism as an official creed. In her fascinating 2007 book Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea, Christine Garwood tells the story of Zion, Ill., a town founded in 1900 by a Scottish evangelist and faith healer named John Alexander Dowie. Dowie’s Christian Catholic Apostolic Church ran the community as a virtual theocracy. In 1907, Dowie died, and the town fell under the sway of his disciple Wilbur Glenn Voliva.

Voliva’s study of the Bible convinced him that the Earth was not a globe.

“I believe this earth is a stationary plane; that it rests upon water; and that there is no such thing as the earth moving, no such thing as the earth’s axis or the earth’s orbit,” he sermonized in 1915. “It is a lot of silly rot, born in the egotistical brain of infidels. … Neither do I believe there is any such thing as the law of gravitation.”

In 1925, Voliva traveled to Dayton, Tenn., where, it was rumored, he would appear as an expert witness in the “Scopes Monkey Trial.” Teacher John Scopes was on trial for teaching evolution in a public school, which state law did not allow. Voliva was never called to the stand, but he reportedly approached William Jennings Bryan, who was defending the Tennessee law, and proposed that they run for president on a platform vowing to abolish the teaching of evolution and globular Earth theory nationwide. (Nothing came of it. Bryan, who was not known to be a flat-Earth proponent, died a few days after the trial ended.)

Skeptical of secular public education, Zion officials set up a system of private religious schools. Flat Earthism was taught in them until the 1930s. One teacher observed, “The students in Zion schools grasp the theory of the flat earth readily because their minds are not so full of globular earth teaching such as the older folks have had drilled into them.”

Surely such things couldn’t happen today, right? Don’t be so sure. While the number of Americans who believe in creationism has dropped in recent years, it’s still near 40 percent. A few years ago, “geocentrists” – people who believe that the Bible teaches that the Earth is the center of the universe and that it does not move (and thus, that the heliocentric theory championed by Galileo was wrong) – scraped up enough money to make a slick documentary. And our current president, you might have noticed, is hardly a champion of scientific inquiry.

Still, it’s unlikely flat-Earthism will find its way into our public schools – but what’s to stop today’s anti-globe faction from opening their own private schools and seeking tax aid through vouchers in states that have such plans? In existing voucher plans, there is usually little, if any, government oversight of curriculum, and some voucher-receiving private schools are already teaching creationism and some pretty unusual things.

Americans United opposes teaching creationism (in all its variants) in public schools because we believe sectarian instruction belongs at home and in houses of worship, not in taxpayer-funded schools that serve all children. But there’s a side benefit: a good science education opens doors (and minds) and prepares young people for the careers of tomorrow. Put simply, it is a disservice not to teach our children modern science.

Taxpayer-funded voucher schools that teach sub-standard science deny young people opportunities and denigrate the value of scientific literacy to our culture. That’s yet another reason to oppose vouchers, so get educated and join us in working against these plans. Kids all around the country – maybe even all over the globe – will thank you.