Is the Earth Flat? The Bizarre Belief That Refuses to Die

Despite being disproven by science. the ancient idea that the earth is flat experienced a resurgence in the 19th century, and bizarrely, still holds sway in the 21st.

Mar 30, 2024By Scott Mclaughlan, PhD Sociology

is earth flat square stationary earth


From the cosmologies of the ancient world to the pre-Socratic philosophy of Anaximander and Thales, the idea of a flat earth has captivated the human imagination for millennia. Despite being refuted by advancements in mathematics, astronomy, and modern science, the idea experienced a curious resurgence in the nineteenth century. This revival quietly persisted throughout the twentieth century, in the form of the Flat Earth Society. Presently, so-called “flat earthers” exist as a fringe online community, albeit one that has gained significant traction within the realm of modern conspiracy theories.


Ancient Flat Earth Cosmologies

The World Tree of Norse mythology, at the center of a flat earth, surrounded by the ocean, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Several cultures of the ancient world saw the earth as a flat expanse. Ancient Mesopotamians imagined the earth as a disc adrift in a vast ocean. Similarly, ancient Chinese astronomers perceived the earth as flat, with the heavens assuming a spherical form, akin to an egg. In Northern Europe, Norse Mythology painted a vivid picture of the earth (Midgard), a flat realm centered around the World Tree, Yggdrasil. The earth was surrounded by the World Serpent (Jormungand), a gigantic sea serpent that dwells in the World Sea encircling the earth.


Greek mythology, as recounted by Homer, portrayed the Earth upon Achilles’ Shield, a reflection of divine and mortal realms amidst “the mighty stream of ocean.” Echoing these beliefs, pre-Socratic philosophers like Anaximander and Thales held beliefs that aligned with a flat earth cosmology. 


A Round Earth?

The Spherical Earth: NASA image of Earth’s Eastern Hemisphere, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

By the 6th century BC, Pythagoras had mathematically postulated a spherical earth. Plato discussed it, and Aristotle sought to prove it – primarily through astrological observations. Consequently, the idea of a spherical earth spread widely throughout the Hellenic world. 


Contrary to popular belief – largely manufactured in the 19th century –that the Middle Ages marked a period of superstition, ignorance, and flat earth dogma – there is very little evidence to say that people believed that the earth was flat. Early Christian scholars like Bishop Isidore of Seville (560-636) wrote about a spherical earth, while St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the most important theologian of the Middle Ages, believed the earth to be spherical, and took it for granted that his readers believed the same. 


The first circumnavigations of the world in the 15th century provided direct evidence of Earth’s sphericity. Issac Newton’s Principia (1687) subsequently introduced the (more accurate) concept of the earth as an ellipsoid. 


Flat Earth Revival: Zetetic Astronomy

Samuel Birley Rowbotham’s flat earth map, Source: Wikimedia Commons


As scientific advancements solidified the understanding of the Earth’s (roughly) spherical shape, curiously, the age-old idea of a flat Earth was revived in pseudoscientific opposition. Leading this resurgence was Samuel Birley Rowbotham, a former organizer of an Owenite community in the English Fens. In 1865, Rowbotham published Zetetic Astronomy: The Earth is Not a Globe and embarked on a vigorous public lecture tour of Great Britain, under the stage name “Parallax.”


Rowbotham’s fine oration and debating skills captivated large audiences, enabling him to disseminate his ideas with some success. According to the laws of Zetetic Astronomy, the Earth was a flat disk centered on the North Pole and bordered along its southern edge by Antarctica. The Sun and Moon were 4,000km above the Earth, with the “cosmos” residing at a distance of 5,000km. After his death, Lady Elizabeth Blount, a staunch supporter, established the Universal Zetetic Society in 1893, which remained active until the outbreak of the First World War


The Flat Earth Society

Logo of the Flat Earth Society, Source: Wikimedia Commons


From William Carpenter, Rowbotham’s co-pamphleteer, to Orlando Ferguson and his idea of the Flat and Stationary Earth, various advocates took up the mantle of Zetetic Astronomy and continued to propagate the idea of a flat earth with varying degrees of success. 


However, none gained as much prominence during their time as Samuel Shenton’s International Flat Earth Research Society, also known as the Flat Earth Society. Founded in 1956 in Dover England as the successor to the Universal Zetetic Society, Shenton’s tact was to reach children before they were brainwashed by the “scientific” consensus of a spherical earth. After Shenton died in 1971, the presidency of the society passed over to one of his former correspondents, Charles K. Johnson, a Texan evangelical and former airplane mechanic. Johnson placed flat earth beliefs on a new trajectory: he advanced the notion that there was an ongoing conspiracy against flat earthers and dismissed the Apollo moon landing as a hoax.


Rise of the Flat Earthers

Flat Earth Graffiti, 2018, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Charles K. Johnson’s call to “think freely, observe, and oppose theoretical dogmatic assumptions” resonates within the modern flat earth movement. Though considered a fringe community, modern “flat earthers” have gained significant traction across video-sharing websites, social media, and internet forums. 


Significantly, the beliefs of flat earthers often intertwine with a broader network of conspiracy theories. With the vast majority of modern flat earth advocacy occurring online, particularly on platforms like You Tue, it is evident that the site’s algorithm targets viewers of other conspiracy-related content. However, research into these online communities has shown that the majority of flat earthers appear sincere rather than mere “trolls.” Many describe their realization of the flatness of the earth in quasi-religious terms and akin to “waking up.”


Today’s flat earthers do not necessarily reject science outright, but subscribe to a conspiracy-theory mindset that prioritizes “trusting their eyes” over believing the “truth” propagated by government agencies such as NASA. 

Author Image

By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with a doctorate in sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.