Why did Columbus sail?

The always controversial Columbus Day Parade in Denver will take place this Saturday. Organizers of the parade like to celebrate Columbus’ discovery of the New World. Protestors claim they are celebrating genocide of American Indians. I’m skeptical of that belief since I’ve not once seen anyone claiming Indians should be wiped out.

Beyond that, I’ve coincidently read a little about Columbus this week. American education teaches children that Columbus sailed to prove the Earth is round. Columbus had to overcome the objections of the Roman Catholic Church which taught that the bible proved the world was flat. He was able to overcome the Church’s ignorant assumption and convince the Queen of Spain to fund his expedition. Even after his voyage the church still taught the world was flat until Magellan circumnavigated the globe in 1512 give science a “crushing blow” against the teachings of the church.

The problem with that story is that it is entirely a lie. Every educated person during the time already knew the world was round. Learned men like the Venerable Bede (ca. 673-735) Bishop Virgilius of Salzburg (ca. 720-784), Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), and Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1224-1274) all taught the world was round hundreds of years before Columbus ever lived. Incidentally all four of those men are Catholic saints.

Learned men (who were catholics) did oppose Columbus voyage. Not because they thought the world was flat. Rather they thought Columbus calculations of the circumfrence of the world was too small and that he would starve before he got to Asia. Turns out they were right. Only (unknown to both Columbus and his critics) a couple of other continents were in the way. This doesn’t take away from Columbus’ bravery as an explorer. It does show that Medieval scholars were a lot brighter than we give them credit for.

So where did this lie that is even taught in today’s schools come from? The most influential person in spreading the myth of oppressive Christianity including the Roman Catholic Church fighting science was Andrew Dickson White, the founder and first president of Cornell University. It seems he didn’t like Christians and wrote his book A History of the Warfare of Science with Tehology in Christendom to get even with Christians who were critics of his plans for Cornell.

Rodney Stark documents how the story of Columbus was corrupted in his book For the Glory of God. Incidentally, Stark is a sociologist who denies being a catholic. His book details how science was only able to develop because of Christianity, not in spite of it.