Christian thinking is like flat earth thinking

A flat-earth treatise fails in many ways. Surprisingly, the argument for Christianity fails in similar ways. Let’s compare.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Is the earth a flat disk? I hope we can agree that it’s not, that the earth is a sphere, and that flat earth thinking is bullshit. My last article was a dialogue with an imaginary flat earther, and while I tried to give as strong an account as possible, I hope it was obvious that my feet are firmly planted on a round earth.

With few exceptions, atheists and Christians are on the same page with respect to flat earth thinking. It’s a nice change to be starting with a point of agreement. Sadly, this beautiful concord is not to last, because I think Christianity is little more than flat earth thinking with centuries of patina.

There are surprisingly many parallels between flat earth thinking and Christianity. As you analyzed the argument from our mythical flat earth (FE) proponent, I hope you regularly got the sense of, “Hmm—that feels familiar.” That feeling probably pointed you to either Creationism or Christianity, and often both. Let’s look for those parallels.

1. Sufficient evidence

Who is the audience for the argument? Not a scientist, if the argument is coming from a flat earther or a Creationist*. If Creationists were trying to do real science, they’d be going to conferences and writing papers for secular journals, like the real scientists.

If you donate to a Creationist organization, will that fund scientific research? Of course not—it will be used to convince lay Christians that they’ve backed the right horse and to appeal for more donations.

The standard of evidence for the FE proponent, Creationist, or Christian is low. They want the available evidence to be sufficient, and they’re convinced before the argument begins.

2. Misdirection by focusing on minutia

The FE proponent had lots of odd arguments. While they might have been confusing, which could have been their purpose, they were trivial. For example, our FE proponent was all over the literal map with questions about long-distance flight routes in the southern hemisphere.

The same is true for Christians and their complicated claims like the Fine Tuning argument or Ontological argument. This is what you lead with? If there were an omniscient and omnipotent god who wanted to be known, he’d be known! The very need for apologetics proves that such a god doesn’t exist.

In Christian parlance, they focus on the gnat but ignore the camel.

3. Gish gallop

The Gish gallop is a technique named after Creationist debater Duane Gish. His style was to pile many quick attacks onto his debating opponent while ignoring attacks to his own position. Even if his opponent were familiar with each attack and had a rebuttal, to thoroughly respond would mean descending into long, tedious explanations that would bore the audience and wouldn’t fit into a formal debate.

We see this in the FE argument. It contained rapid-fire arguments about the amount of sun in Arctic, why the moon doesn’t rotate, flat map projections, gyroscopes, and so on. This focus on quantity over quality takes advantage of the typical person’s scientific ignorance.

You see this in the Christian domain when they talk about a cumulative case. That is, any one argument may not be sufficient, but look how many there are! But consider this when applied to pseudo-sciences like astrology or Bigfoot. Crappy arguments don’t turn to gold just because you have a pile of them.

And, as with Gish, a debate or article with a pile-up of one terse argument after another is still popular among Creationists.

4. Errors and lies

My goal in writing the FE position was a compelling argument, not a factual one. For a few points, I tossed out a claim that either I didn’t know was true or knew was false. I suspect this approach is common within FE arguments. If not that, then I can only conclude careless scholarship is the cause of the many errors.

I wonder how many times the typical FE proponent has been corrected. And I wonder how many corrections lead to that flawed argument never being used by that person again. In my case it takes just one such correction.

In the Creationist camp, Ray Comfort (to take one well-known example) has been schooled many times how evolution doesn’t predict a crocoduck. My guess is that he values the useful argument more than he is repelled by the broken one.

5. Always attack

The FE argument is a stringing together of arguments of the form, “Didya ever wonder about natural feature X? A round earth model is supposed to explain that? That’s crazy!”

It’s easier to attack a scientific model than to defend one when the audience is poorly educated in science. FE (and Creationist) arguments try to keep the opponent off balance, always on the defensive.

If they throw ten punches, only two of which land with any impact, that’s two more than they started with. A layperson poorly educated in the material and predisposed to root for the anti-science argument might give the decision to the attacker.

With an argument that intends to be scientific, the opposite is true, and a new theory is explained, supported with evidence, and defended. Not only should it explain what the old theory explains well (and a round earth and evolution explain a lot), it must explain additional puzzles that tripped up the old theory.

The Creationist hopes that no one notices their Achilles’ heel. An attack on evolution does nothing to build up any competing theory of their own.

6. Burden of proof

The FE proponent explicitly rejected the burden of proof, saying that they had common sense on their side. But no one would accept this. They ignored the Sagan standard, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and rejecting centuries of scientific consensus is the extraordinary position.

It’s also in vogue for Christians to insist that both parties in its debates—the Christian and the atheist—are making claims, and so both must defend their positions. But while the atheist has the option to defend “There is no God” or “There is no supernatural,” that’s not necessary. Either of these could be the default position, leaving the burden of proof solely on the Christian.

I find it amazing that Christians will, without embarrassment, insist on this concession—aren’t they eager to share the Good News without prerequisite?—but here again, they know it’s easier for them to attack than defend.

If there were an omniscient and omnipotent god who wanted to be known, he’d be known!

7. Circular reasoning

The proponent of any theory could show how, starting with a set of widely accepted initial assumptions, an unbiased observer can follow the evidence and conclude with their theory. For example, think of a university course in physics where the professor starts with basic facts that everyone shares and uses evidence to gradually build from there.

FE believers and Christians often follow that approach backwards. They assume their theory and then show how their worldview is consistent with the facts of the world. The best they can do is show that their worldview isn’t falsified by reality and insist that the burden of proof is actually shouldered by their opponent. This is circular reasoning.

8. Appeal to common sense

The FE argument want you to use your eyes and trust your senses. Look at the horizon—it’s flat! Climb a mountain or look over the ocean, and the horizon is still flat. “If flat earth theory is wrong, it’s got to be the rightest wrong theory ever.”

The Creationist equivalent is to say that humans and worms and even bacteria are so complicated that they certain look designed. A Christian example is the Kalam Cosmological Argument, where the first premise has a twist on the common sense idea that everything must have a cause.

No, common sense isn’t reliable at the frontier of science. If it were simply a matter of following one’s common sense, someone like Isaac Newton would’ve resolved all of science’s loose ends centuries ago. Or even Aristotle, millennia ago. “Life is complicated—it must be designed” is common sensical but wrong. The same is likely true for the insistence that everything in nature had a cause.

Conclude with 7 more similarities between flat earth thinking and Christianity.

I was a flat earther for 3 years.
Then I turned 4.
— Broski Toski, YouTube commenter

*I lump Intelligent Design proponents in with Creationists for this article.

CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...