What’s really interesting about modern man, Walker Percy once said, is not his malevolence — what else is new? — but his looniness.
Case in point: headlines about a growing tidal wave of violence against Christians from around the globe (e.g., the destruction of Iraq’s oldest Christian monastery by ISIS last week) have scarcely raised an eyebrow, while a raging Twitter debate over the shape of the globe itself has captured America’s imagination.
It all started earlier this week when rapper B.o.B. (“Nothin’ on You,” “Airplanes”) took to Twitter to express his firmly held belief that horizons look flat because they are. “No matter how high in elevation you are,” he wrote, “the horizon is always eye level … sorry cadets … I didn’t wanna believe it either.”
B.o.B.’s flat-earth tweets seemed like a bad joke or expert trolling. But he wasn’t laughing. The rapper (who has also expressed concern about the secret cloning of celebrities) doubled down, posting a slew of maps, diagrams, comics and quotations purporting to show the “truth” about the earth’s shape, which he suspects NASA of bending over backward to cover up. Then astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson got involved, and the two agreed to settle their dispute like gentlemen: by exchanging diss tracks. (Yes, B.o.B. dissed Tyson in a song, and yes, Tyson responded by recording himself over a track titled “Flat to Fact”). “Duude — to be clear,” the astrophysicist says at the end of his song. “Being five centuries regressed in your reasoning doesn’t mean we all can’t still like your music.”
Percy is right: there has to be something a little crazy about our age for a debate like this to even be a thing, let alone a newsworthy thing.
Where did we go wrong?
Tyson implies (as he does in Cosmos) that five centuries ago, religious tyranny had our minds in caves watching shadows of vengeful gods and a flat earth, and that with the dawn of the scientific method and the Enlightenment, Galileo, Descartes and Newton delivered us out into the open air of science and reason.
But he’s wrong. These men and countless other trailblazers of modern science (the father of genetics Friar Gregor Mendel, the founder of the Big Bang Theory Fr. Georges Lemaître, etc.) were devoutly religious. Their predecessors of the “dark” ages were devoutly scientific. And our delivery into modernity has had more to do with a hodgepodge of historical contingencies than with the sudden “appearance” of science (much less a spherical earth), and with the violent divorce of faith and reason more than with the triumph of one over the other.
Leave it to Salon to get the story right. Ptolemaic cosmology, which conceived of the universe as a set of spheres, “dominated Western views for more than a millennium.” The Greeks offered empirical proof of a spherical earth, and towering Christian thinkers like Thomas Aquinas took it for granted. It wasn’t until the 1800s that the archaic bugaboo of flat earthers reemerged, and like young earth creationism (also conspicuously lacking in the Church Fathers and Scholastics), it was entirely as a function of biblical literalism. (The founder of flat earth theories, Samuel Rowbotham, titled one of his major manuscripts “The Inconsistency of Modern Astronomy and its Opposition to the Scriptures!”)
The Twitter flaming of flat earthers isn’t the reemergence of some 500-year-old medieval impulse. It’s as modern as it gets. Behind it is the rise of fideism — adherence to a “purified” belief ever ready to deny what logic and science can show us — which parallels the rise of scientism, which only accepts “purified” proofs of those disciplines. Each spawns the other, needs the other and even desires the other, spinning in small, enclosed wheels that never intersect and inevitably self-destruct. Blind faith, pushed by its own precepts, goes off the rails into superstition, and pure reason, deconstructed by its own precepts, collapses into skepticism. The end of faith and the death of reason walk hand in hand into looniness.
What’s left? We’d like to think Tyson is carrying the torch of reason for us, but a different ethos sweeps him up before he even fired off his 140 characters. As reason and faith, long cut off from each other’s sustenance, continue to collapse on themselves, the de facto guide to our Twitter wars, rap battles and even our presidential campaigns is emotion: a circus-like collection of competing preferences and attitudes, whatever they may be. This is, at bottom, what matters most to us, and what really informs our beliefs and dictates our ideas: we feel we are right, and we have a right to our opinion.
Sorry, cadets — I didn’t want to believe it either.
Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, amateur philosopher and cultural commentator at AleteiaandWord on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish and Real Clear Religion.