God and Atheism in Astronomy (article)

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Let us see today’s question. Did Christians believe in flat earth? Is it true that atheists brought light to Christians in astronomy and mathematics? 

Excellent questions. I have to give you a long answer because there are many misconceptions we have to remove before making conclusions on these matters. 

If you listen to atheists, they say, during Christian Dark Ages, people believed that earth was flat. Then atheists brought Enlightenment and liberated Christians from their belief in flat earth. 

To answer this question properly, we have to start with ancient astronomy. Long before Christians came around, the ancient people made great advances in astronomy. 

Thales of Miletus (624 BC to 545 BC) was able to predict a total eclipse of the sun in 585 BC. He studied mathematics of different civilizations and concluded that mathematics is a universal language and controls all physical phenomena. That was 2000 years before Galileo who came to the similar conclusion. He realized the mathematical nature of the universe and the universality of mathematics. 

Anaximander (610 BC – 546 BC) was the first to study the physical universe as a unified whole. He was also the first individual known to have made a map of the world. Using a shadow-casting rod (gnomon) at Sparta, he demonstrated the equinoxes and solstices. He made the Sun and Moon into massive bodies far away from Earth. He described the shape of earth as a cylindrical disc. His earth is hanging in space without any support. Think about that. 500 years before Christ, Anaximander was talking about earth hanging in space. 

Pythagoras (570 BC – 490 BC):  He was the first to prove what is now called the Pythagorean theorem, which has been called the most significant theorem in all of mathematics. He saw mathematical harmony in nature and in music.  Pythagoras profoundly influenced many thinkers from Plato to Isaac Newton to our times. According to Plato, Pythagoras said, ‘At its deepest level, reality is mathematical in nature’. He gazed into the heavenly skies and saw a mathematical order even in the celestial bodies. He realized that earth is a sphere. Observing a lunar eclipse, he noticed that the shadow of earth cast onto the moon is curved. Sun, moon and planets sailed in circular paths around the spherical earth. So, Pythagoras who lived 500 years before Christ, knew that earth was a sphere. 

Anaxagoras (500 BC – 428 BC): According to Plato, Anaxagoras discovered the true causes of lunar eclipses, lunar phases and solar eclipses. He considered the Earth, Moon, and Sun to be spherical bodies and constructed a geometric model based on logic. 

Aristarchus of Samos (310 – 230 BC): Aristarchus came up with the basic size of the solar system. That was marvelous because he achieved it using geometry and naked eye observations. He claimed that the sun, rather than the earth, is at the center of the universe. Around 250 B.C., he calculated the sizes and distances for both the Sun and Moon. So, long before Copernicus, Aristarchus formulated the heliocentric theory. 

   Eratosthenes (276 BC – 194 BC) made the first measurement of the size of Earth. His circumference of the Earth was 250,000 stadia, which is very close to our modern estimate.

Hipparchus of Rhodes: According to Pliny the Elder, Hipparchus created a thousand-star catalog, which remained foundational till the times of Brahe and Kepler. His greatest achievement is the discovery of the motion of the stars that is called precession. 

   When I was in school, I was taught that during Medieval times, during those ‘Dark Ages’, Christians believed that earth was a flat disc floating on water; Columbus was warned not to go too far lest he fall off the edge of this flat disc. That is all nonsense. C.S.Lewis called it ‘Chronological snobbery’. 

       From 500 BC, all educated people knew that our earth was round. By 200 BC, the Greeks developed a geometric model of the entire solar system. As we have seen earlier, in the 6th century BC, Thales of Miletus predicted solar eclipses. Anaximander (610 BC – 546 BC), made a map of the whole world. He demonstrated equinoxes and solstices. Pythagoras realized that earth is a sphere and sun, moon and planets sailed in circular paths around the spherical earth. Aristarchus of Samos claimed that the sun, rather than the earth, is at the center of the universe.  Eratosthenes made the first measurement of the size of Earth.Hipparchus of Rhodes created a thousand-star catalog. 

So, from 500 BC, all educated people knew that our earth was round. There is no truth in the statement that Christians believed in the flat earth. In fact, the Bible clearly says that earth is round (Isaiah 40:22). Some atheists say that the Bible supports flat earth. But you should look at the context. For example, when I say, ‘look at the beautiful sunrise’. You might rebuke me, ‘Hey, sun does not rise, sun does not set, sun is stable at the center of the solar system. It is the planet earth revolving around the sun.’ But, when I say, ‘look at the beautiful sunrise’ I am not making a scientific statement. I am only appreciating the beauty of the sunrise. It is a truthful statement when you put it in its context. Another example. If I say, ‘it is getting dark. The sun is running away’. Its poetic hyperbole. I am not making a scientific statement when I say that the sun is running away. Using poetic hyperbole, I am conveying the truth that it is fast getting darker. The Bible has many such statements like that. For example in Psalm 104:5, the Psalmist says, ‘God set the earth on its foundations. It can never be moved’. Psalmist is praising how God made our earth a stable home for humanity. He is not saying that earth is a flat physical object. He is not saying that there are foundations below the planet earth.  That is why the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy that we should rightly divide the Word of God. 2 Timothy 2:15. What is literal? What is poetic? What is a figure of speech? What is a metaphor? What is a dream? We should look at the context. 

Then, we should also look at the influence of Aristotle on Christian institutions. In his book, Metaphysics, Aristotle placed the earth at the center of the universe with sun, planets and stars rotating around it in concentric spheres. This geocentric view was inherited by the Medieval institutions through the great Greek mathematician,  Claudius Ptolemy.  Ptolemy advocated the ‘geocentric model’ which says that earth is at the center of the universe, sun, moon, planets and stars revolve around the earth. Catholic Church espoused this Ptolemaic view and its geocentricity. But, it is not from the Bible. No where in the Bible do we find that earth is at the center of our universe or the sun revolves around the earth. 

    In the Middle Ages, thinkers dressed Christian theology using Aristotle-Ptolemaic systems as the skeletal framework. Aristotle was everywhere in Europe. 

    Aristotle was in the street clocks. In St.Mark’s Clock in St.Mark’s Square, Venice, we see the earth sitting at the center of the clock. It was built by Gian Paolo and his son between 1496 and 1499. Such astronomical clocks were omnipresent throughout Europe. People who looked at those clocks got daily doses of geocentrism. 

    Aristotle was in their worship. The doctrine of transubstantiation was based on Aristotle’s idea of substance and accidents. Substance is about the essence of something while accidents, the external appearance. The bread and wine: their accidents remain the same externally, but their substance changes to Lord’s flesh and blood internally. Catholic Church needed Aristotle even to make sense of the central act of Christian worship. Their view of physical reality and spiritual transformation was largely subsidized by Aristotle. 

     It was very hard for skeptics to make their doubts public about the validity of the geocentric system. But remember, it was also Christian astronomers who brought us out of the geocentric model.  Christian astronomers spent their lifetimes to advance human knowledge in astronomy.  Let us start with Regiomontanus. 

    Regiomontanus (1436 – 1476):  Johannes Regiomontanus was one of the  greatest mathematicians and astronomers of the 15th century. To be fair, Catholic Church also invested in scientific research. You can see that fact in the life of Regiomontanus. Cardinal Bessarion inspired Regiomontanus to work on astronomy.  Regiomontanus found inconsistencies in Ptolemy’s Almagest between predictions of planetary positions and predictions of planetary size. In a short life, he mastered all areas of mathematics of his time  and used it to study the orbits of Mercury and Venus. He proposed a mathematical model within epicycles. This work later inspired Copernicus towards a heliocentric view of the solar system. 

    Then Copernicus (1473 – 1543). Atheists love to portray Copernicus as against God. But Copernicus was a Catholic monk. He spent most of his life as a monk in the cathedral of Frauenburg or Frombork. Sitting in this cathedral, he made the most shocking discovery in the history of science: the Earth is not the center of the universe. We can still visit this cathedral in the town of Frombork in northern Poland. He wrote his famous De revolutionibus or On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres in Frombork. This epochal book was published in 1543, sadly, the same year his life came to an end. He was buried in the cathedral grounds. Copernicus believed that God created the universe. He was not convinced that God’s harmony is reflected in Ptolemy’s work. The retrograde motions looked out of place to his eyes. The Ptolemaic Scholastic system did not possess the mathematical beauty he anticipated. He defended Aristarchus’s idea that the earth travels around the Sun. 

   Sadly, atheists try to own Copernicus. During the heyday of the Soviet Union, churches were turned into museums of atheism with large exhibits of Copernicus shown as a martyr for science in hands of cardinals and popes. The truth is more complicated than such simple generalizations. Historical records show that many church officials responded generously to Copernican theory. In 1515 Pope Leo X invited Copernicus to oversee the reformation of the Julian Calendar. Assembled in the Vatican gardens,  Johann Widmanstetter, secretary of the pope, explained the Copernican system to Pope Clement VII and two cardinals in the summer of 1533. The Pope welcomed Copernican views wholeheartedly. He rewarded Windmanstetter with the gift of a rare Greek manuscriptAfter his death, Cardinal Nicholas Schonberg wrote a letter to Copernicus (dated November 1, 1536) complementing the astronomer for his new cosmology and respectfully asking him to present his theory to make copies and present his theory to contemporary scholars. Copernicus ignored the cardinal’s advice probably to allot himself time to refine this theory. Finally, in 1543, Copernicus published his book with a dedication to Pope Paul III. Some church officials were requesting Copernicus to publish his heliocentric theory. 

    Atheists also own Galileo. But the truth is Galileo was a sincere Christian. The Catholic Church of his day was deep into Aristotelian scholasticism and they did not appreciate heliocentrism. Because Galileo embraced Copernican cosmology, he was declared a heretic and condemned to life imprisonment. Justifiably, Galileo became a martyr of science for taking a stand against religious dogmatism. But it should be noted that he was not thrown in a dungeon or tortured for his views. He spent six months at the place of his friend, Archbishop of Siena, Ascanio Piccolomini and later moved into a villa in Florence. Last time I visited Italy, I went to see his home in Florence. I wish I could live in such a villa. So, no one was torturing Galileo for his beliefs. As a sincere Christian, his fight was never against the Bible. One of his daughters became a nun and took care of Galileo until her death. 

Tycho Brahe (1546 – 1601): Tycho Brahe was also a sincere Christian. He was a Danish nobleman. Beginning in 1576, With the assistance of the king of Denmark, Brahe built his observatory-castle Uraniborg on the island of Hveen. This would become the first great scientific research laboratory.  Here Brahe would make the most precise naked-eye astronomical observations. 

His most famous pupil was Johannes Kepler.  Johannes Kepler was a German mathematician, physicist and astronomer. He was a contemporary of Galileo. He was a genius in diverse fields. One author described the achievements of Kepler this way: Kepler was the first to investigate the formation of pictures with a pinhole camera, the first to explain the process of vision by refraction within the eye, the first to formulate eyeglass designs for nearsightedness and farsightedness, and the first to explain the use of both eyes for depth perception, first to describe real, virtual, upright, and inverted images and magnification, first to explain the principles of how a telescope works, first to discover and describe the properties of total internal reflection….Kepler was the first real astrophysicist. 

  Kepler gave us the three laws of planetary motion. He believed that these three laws of planetary motion disclosed God’s mathematical order in the universe. In fact, Kepler looked at his work in science as a project to glorify God and his wisdom revealed in nature. 

   Isaac Newton also contributed greatly to our knowledge in astronomy. He  was also a sincere Christian. He was a lifelong student of the Bible and believed that the harmony and lawfulness of our universe is due to the mathematical framework God encrypted into its workings. 

   In 1687, Newton wrote, ‘This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being…..This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont, to be called Lord God Pantocrator or Universal Ruler’  

    Newton believed that our beautiful universe reflects the wisdom of God. Recently, I read a book about Katherine Johnson.  Katherine Johnson (1918 – 2020) was an African-American mathematician, nicknamed ‘the human computer’ for calculating the flight paths of many spacecraft by NASA. 

   In 1961, she calculated the path for Alan Shepard, the first U.S. astronaut in space for Freedom 7. In 1962, she calculated the path for John Glenn, the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the earth. In 1969, she calculated the path for the first three men to the Moon for the Apollo 11 mission. 

   ‘Houston, we have a problem’ – those words scared me when I watched a movie on Apollo 13. What A frightening sight that must have been to astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise when they saw liquid oxygen leaking from an exploded tank! They had to abort their mission to the moon and return to planet Earth. Katherine Johnson was called to prepare a trajectory to save the astronauts. She calculated the trajectory they would use to approach the moon, go around it, harness its gravity and move towards the earth.    

      Carver Memorial Presbyterian Church in Newport News, Virginia. One Sunday morning, a thin, humble African American woman is singing in the choir and praising God. After a few days, she received a call from the White House: President Barack Obama would like to meet her and present her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the United States. 

   She said many times that she is doing all her astronomy for the glory of God and for the glory of Jesus Christ. 

So, hopefully I answered your questions. Christians did not believe in flat earth. The Bible does not teach flat earth. Read Isaiah 40:22. Atheists did not bring Christians out of ignorance. All great figures in astronomy were sincere Christians. From Regiomontanus, Nicholas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton all the way to Katherine Johnson…they were sincere Christians and they repeatedly said that they are doing astronomy for the glory of God and for the glory of Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible tells us that heavens declare the glory of God. They were all created by Lord Jesus Christ, our Savior and redeemer. 

So, that is my answer to your questions. God bless. 

Paul Kattupalli MD 

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