Why would God bother with a tiny planet like Earth?
Modern atheistic arguments refuted by medieval clergy-scientists
“The words of the Preacher, the son of David, … ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’” (Ecclesiastes 1:1, 9). We are reminded of this when atheists iterate and reiterate tired old discredited arguments that show gross ignorance of history.
A common atheopathic claim goes somewhat as follows:
‘The church for most of its history taught that the universe was quite small. However, modern science has shown that the universe is almost unimaginably vast. Therefore, it is no longer credible to believe in Christianity.’
For example, famous physicist Stephen Hawking (1942–2018) told the BBC:
“We are such insignificant creatures on a minor planet of a very average star in the outer suburb of one of a hundred billion galaxies. So it is difficult to believe in a God that would care about us or even notice our existence.”1
More recently, in the reboot of the famous Cosmos series, the atheistic presenter Neil deGrasse Tyson (1958– ) claimed, “A mere four centuries ago, our tiny world was oblivious to the rest of the cosmos. … Back in 1599, everyone knew that the Sun, planets and stars were just lights in the sky that revolved around the Earth, and that we were the center of a little universe, a universe made for us.”2
Vastness of space: very old news!
However, such claims can be made only with an ignorance of history (and the Bible). Not just four, but even fourteen centuries ago, the leading theologians were well aware that compared to the vastness of the heavens, the earth was but a point in space. They were familiar with the standard astronomy textbook of the Middle Ages (AD 5th–15th century), the Almagest by Claudius Ptolemy (c. AD 90–c. AD 168):
“The earth, in relation to the distance of the fixed stars, has no appreciable size and must be treated as a mathematical point.”3
This secular knowledge was well known in the church. The Roman Christian philosopher Boëthius (AD c. 480–524/525), in prison awaiting trial and execution for an unjust charge of treason, wrote The Consolation of Philosophy, an imaginary dialogue between himself and ‘Lady Philosophy’. She points out that just as the earth is only a point in space, how much more insignificant is any glory of any of its inhabitants:
“As you have heard from the demonstrations of the astronomers, in comparison to the vastness of the heavens, it is agreed that the whole extent of the earth has the value of a mere point; that is to say, were the earth to be compared to the vastness of the heavenly sphere, it would be judged to have no volume at all.”4
This was one of the most widely read and influential books in the West during most of the Middle Ages. So churchmen were well aware of how tiny the earth is, without considering it the slightest threat to faith.
Later in the middle ages, John Sacrobosco (c.1195–c.1256) wrote his Tractatus de Sphaera (Treatise on the Sphere):
And a mere point in the universe.
That same consideration is a sign that the earth is as a center and point with respect to the firmament, since, if the earth were of any size compared with the firmament, it would not be possible to see half the heavens.
Also, suppose a plane passed through the center of the earth, dividing it and the firmament into equal halves. An eye at the earth’s center would see half the sky, and one on the earth’s surface would see the same half. From which it is inferred that the magnitude of the earth from surface to center is inappreciable and, consequently, that the magnitude of the entire earth is inappreciable compared to the firmament.
Also Alfraganus says that the least of the fixed stars which we can see is larger than the whole earth. But that star, compared with the firmament, is a mere point. Much more so is the earth, which is smaller than it. (Tractatus 1:13)
Treatise on the Sphere was a hugely influential astronomy textbook that all medieval university students were required to study—including theological students!
But somehow, antitheists for the last century or so have claimed that the immensity of the universe is news, and is a profound disproof of God. Several generations ago, C.S. Lewis (1898–1963) liked to point out that the huge size of the universe often “…impresses people all the more because it is supposed to be a modern discovery—an excellent example of those things which our ancestors did not know and which, if they had known them, would have prevented the very beginnings of Christianity.
“Here there is a simple historical falsehood. Ptolemy knew just as well as Eddington5 that the earth was infinitesimal in comparison with the whole content of space. … The real question is why the spatial insignificance of the Earth, after being known for centuries, should suddenly in the last century have become an argument against Christianity.”6
Actually, Ptolemy wasn’t even the first; about 11 centuries before, King David seemed similarly aware of our tininess compared with the universe’s vastness. He wrote in Psalm 8:3–5:
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?
“Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour.”7
Did the medieval church persecute scientists?
Various atheistic websites often portray the Middle Ages as the ‘Dark Ages’, where a backward Church persecuted scientists. However, this was the period where spectacles, mechanical clocks, and the blast furnace were invented; universities were founded across the UK and Europe; Dante wrote the masterpiece Divine Comedy and Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales; Giotto di Bondone painted his masterpieces; Western music was invented; the great Gothic cathedrals were built; and the first carnivals were held involving whole towns.1
It’s notable that even some atheists oppose this dishonesty. For example, Australian skeptic Tim O’Neill is scathing about such arguments:
“It’s not hard to kick this nonsense to pieces, especially since the people presenting it know next to nothing about history and have simply picked up these strange ideas from websites and popular books. The assertions collapse as soon as you hit them with hard evidence. I love to totally stump these propagators by asking them to present me with the name of one—just one—scientist burned, persecuted, or oppressed for their science in the Middle Ages. They always fail to come up with any.”2
They often come up with Galileo—laughable, since he lived at the same time as the KJV was being translated, centuries after the Middle Ages, and his main opponents were the scientific establishment. So the only remaining excuse is that the evil Church had persecuted them so well that no one was brave enough to practise science. O’Neill responds:
“By the time I produce a laundry list of Medieval scientists—like Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Peckham, Duns Scotus, Thomas Bradwardine, Walter Burley, William Heytesbury, Richard Swineshead, John Dumbleton, Richard of Wallingford, Nicholas Oresme, Jean Buridan and Nicholas of Cusa—and ask why these men were happily pursuing science in the Middle Ages without molestation from the Church, my opponents usually scratch their heads in puzzlement at what just went wrong.”
Actually, for real persecution of scientists, try the fanatically anti-Christian French Revolution. The ruling National Convention guillotined the great founding father of chemistry, Antoine Lavoisier (1743–1794).3
References and Notes
- Esolen, A., Professor of English at Providence College, Were the Middle Ages Dark? Prager University videos, February 2014.
- O’Neill, T., The Dark Age Myth: An atheist reviews God’s Philosophers, strangenotions.com, 17 October 2009; bold in original.
- An apocryphal story has the condemning judge say, “The Republic has no need for scientists.”
So why is the universe so big?
The absurd historical revisionism of modern critics almost implies that God needed a small universe to exist. But if the universe were small, then these same critics would probably complain, “If God is so great, then why didn’t He create anything else?”8 Somehow modern antitheists like Tyson and Hawking think this is news, and regard it as a profound disproof of God. However, as the Psalmist declared, the heavens are big to “declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1).
Earth at the centre of the universe
Another supposed refutation of biblical Christianity is the discovery that the earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun. As above, Neil Tyson claimed that this was virtually unknown in 1599. This was an inexcusable blunder; the best known founder of geokinetic (earth-moving) ideas, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543),1 had published over half a century previously. Furthermore, the Gregorian calendar, adopted in 1582, was “based on computations that made use of Copernicus’ work”, as pointed out by leading philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996).2 Copernicus certainly didn’t see his ideas as anti-Christian, because he was a canon of the church.
Copernicus’s ideas were then popularized by Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) and Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), and they accepted them before 1599. As early as 1597, Galileo wrote to Kepler, “Like you, I accepted the Copernican position several years ago,” and Kepler replied suggesting collaboration and coming out publicly. However, the main problems were that their view contradicted the scientific establishment of the day, which taught the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic view that the earth was at the absolute centre of the universe.3 Galileo saw his geokinetic view as compatible with the Bible,4 and Kepler was a devout Lutheran who claimed to be “thinking God’s thoughts after Him,” and saw no conflict between his astronomy and the Bible. He also calculated a creation date of 3993 BC—he, like the others, would be called a ‘young-earth creationist’ today!5
Copernicus’s medieval predecessors
The above scientists should be well known, even to Tyson. Not so well known, although they should be, were their medieval predecessors.6 Long before Copernicus, in the late Middle Ages, several clergy-scientists had safely proposed geokinetic ideas. E.g. the French priest and scientist John Buridan (c. 1300– after 1358), also a notable logician who solved various versions of the ‘Liar Paradox’,7 seriously considered geokinetic ideas.
Ironically, a major reason was precisely the relative tininess of the earth that atheists have claimed was a modern discovery. That is, Buridan proposed that it would be more elegant if the tiny earth rotated rather than the vast cosmos revolved around it. Ph.D. historian of science James Hannam says:
“Like many medieval Christians, Buridan expected God to have arranged things in an elegant way, always allowing that he could do as he pleased. However, although there was a presumption towards elegance, you still had to check the empirical facts to see if God really operated this way.”8,9
Buridan also refuted scientific objections, such as Ptolemy’s claim that a moving earth would produce a massive wind. The answer lay in Buridan’s concept of impetus, essentially the same as the modern concept of momentum, and anticipating Galileo’s idea of inertia and Newton’s First Law of Motion by several centuries.10 That is, the earth would impart an impetus to the air, which would move along with it, so we would not notice it. Buridan compared it with being on a smoothly moving river boat: the boat shares its motion with everything on it, so passengers can forget they are moving. And if they looked outside at an anchored boat, they could easily think that the other boat was the one moving.
Buridan’s student Nicole Oresme (c. 1320–1382), a bishop, mathematician, and physicist, refined this further. He argued that the earth would impart an impetus to everything on it—air, water, and projectiles—so they would share the earth’s rotation as well. Oresme also realized that many of the biblical passages that were later hijacked to support dogmatic geocentrism were equivocal. That is, they used the earth as a convenient reference frame because it reflected everyday perception, that is, “by saying that this passage conforms to the normal use of popular speech just as it does in many other places … which are not to be taken literally.”11,12 Hannam says:
“What Oresme had done was prepare the groundwork. He refuted most of the objections to a moving earth two centuries before Copernicus had suggested that it might actually be in motion.”8
References and Notes
- Copernicus, N., De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), 1543.
- Kuhn, T., The Copernican Revolution, p. 125, Harvard University Press, 1957.
- See also Sarfati, J., Galileo Quadricentennial: Myth vs fact, Creation 31(3):49–51, 2009; creation.com/gal-400.
- Galileo, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, 1615.
- Batten, D., Which is the recent aberration? Old-Earth or Young-Earth Belief? Creation 24(1)24–27; creation.com/old-young.
- The emininent French physicist/thermodynamicist and historian/philosopher of science Pierre Duhem (1861–1916), documented this a century ago in his 10-volume Le système du monde: histoire des doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic (The System of the World: History of cosmological doctrines from Plato to Copernicus),1914.
- E.g. a one-person liar, “What I am saying is false”; a two-person liar where Socrates says, “What Plato is saying is true” and Plato says “What Socrates is saying is false”; and other even more elaborate ones. See Hughes, G.E., John Buridan on Self-Reference: Chapter Eight of Buridan’s Sophismata, Cambridge University Press, 1982.
- Hannam, J., God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, Icon Books, ch. 12, 2010.
- See also Statham, D., Helpful in places, confusing in others (review of Hannam, God’s Philosophers), J. Creation 24(2):31–34, 2010.
- Graney, C.M., Mass, speed, direction: John Buridan’s 14th-century concept of momentum, The Physics Teacher 51(7): 411–414, October 2013 | doi:10.1119/1.4820853.
- Oresme, N., Le Livre du Ciel et du Monde (The Book of Heaven/Sky and the World), 1377; Hannam, God’s Philosophers, ch. 12.
- Oresme was bothered by Psalm 93:1, “the world is established; it shall never be moved.” However, the same Hebrew word for ‘moved’ (טוֹמ môt) is used in Psalm 16:8, “I shall not be moved.” Since the Psalmist was not in a straightjacket, the word clearly refers to faltering rather than physical movement. Hannam also thinks that if there had been evidence for the earth moving, then Oresme would have addressed this verse as he had the other allegedly geocentric-only passages.
Re-posted on homepage: 2 November 2022
References and Notes
- See also Sarfati, J., Hawking atheopathy: Famous physicist goes beyond the evidence: review of The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, J. Creation 25(1):25–29, 2011; creation.com/hawking. Return to text
- Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Episode 1: Standing Up in the Milky Way, 2014. Tyson also declared that our universe is just “one tiny bubble in an infinite ocean of universes”, totally abandoning science for story-telling. See thorough review at creation.com/cosmos. Return to text
- Almagest, book 1, ch. 5. Return to text
- Boëthius, The Consolation of Philosophy (De consolatione philosophiae) 2(7)3–7, AD 524. Return to text
- Eminent English astrophysicist Arthur Stanley Eddington (1882–1944). Return to text
- Lewis, C.S., ‘Dogma and the Universe’, God in the Dock, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1970. Return to text
- Before this, there was the account of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1–9. The rebellious people tried to defy God’s command to fill the earth by building an extremely high tower. But to Yahweh, the attempt to build up to heaven was so tiny that the account twice describes Him as coming down to see what was going on. Of course God is all-knowing and present everywhere, so His descent is an anthropomorphism, attributing human actions to a non-human, in this case to demonstrate how puny man is by comparison. Return to text
- See Bates, G., Did God create life on other planets? Otherwise why is the universe so big?, Creation 29(2):12–15, 2007; creation.com/life-planets. Return to text