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The "Evidence" for Atlantis:

Addressing New Age Apologetics

by Karla Poewe-Hexham and Irving Hexham

from the Christian Research Journal, Summer 1989, page 16. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.

Whenever we speak or write about New Age topics we are inevitably asked: But what about the evidence for Atlantis and other lost civilizations? It is commonly assumed that such "evidence" is extensive.

A case in point is the book Out on a Limb in which Shirley MacLaine recounts how her guru, David, told her: "According to Plato and Aristotle and other great minds, Atlantis really existed as an extremely advanced civilization...."[1] MacLaine then links this "fact" to the ruins of ancient Inca, Mayan, Egyptian, and other known civilizations to "prove" the existence of UFO's, extraterrestrials, and spirit messengers.

Without the so-called evidence of known civilizations and the accompanying claims that they possessed powers beyond those of modern science, MacLaine and others would not have been so easily convinced about the "truth" of the New Age. After reporting her conversations about Atlantis and other "lost" civilizations, MacLaine said:

Statements like these have convinced us that in order to successfully counter New Age propaganda, Christians must address the apologetic arguments New Age thinkers use to promote their views.

In saying this it is important to note that claims about Atlantis and other "lost" civilizations are quite unlike many other New Age historical claims which are based on out-of-body experiences, "channeled" messages from spirits, readings of the ethereal "Akashic Records," and so forth. Such "sources" are entirely subjective in nature -- beyond verification or falsification.

By contrast, the New Age usage of the Atlantis theme --- as well as related occult works about Lemuria, Mu, and a host of other lost civilizations -- serve a very different function. In contemporary occultism, legends of lost civilizations are linked with the ruins of various historic civilizations to make an apologetic point. Specific extraordinary claims are made about the technology, religion, and general social order of certain known civilizations of antiquity. These claims are then seen in terms of "mysteries" which are "solved" by reference to earlier civilizations which eventually lead back to places like Atlantis and Lemuria. Therefore, rather than being statements of faith, New Age claims about lost civilizations are presented as verifiable facts which justify other New Age beliefs.

There are three historical ways Christians may test these claims. The first is simply to check the sources of New Age writers, if they offer any. A second check, once it is certain that their sources are correctly cited, is to test the sources themselves. The third test is to examine whatever counterevidence may exist against New Age claims about Atlantis and other supposedly lost civilizations.


The Greek philosopher Plato (428-348 B.C.) was the apparent father of the Atlantis myth. In his dialogue Timaeus one of his characters, Critias, tells the following story:

From the manner of the telling and the use to which the story is put, it is clear that although Plato's character declares this is a "true" story, Plato expected his readers to understand that it was a literary device used to make a philosophical point. Similarly, while Plato gives further details about Atlantis in his dialogue Critias, it is to develop his political theories first outlined in The Republic. For although Plato gives details about both the island and city of Atlantis, they are of such a nature that they illustrate his philosophical arguments rather than recording actual history.

It is possible that Plato incorporated elements of earlier stories into his text. Like Shakespeare in the sixteenth century, Plato often made use of preexisting Greek tales and used the names of real characters in his dialogues. Further, the Greeks had various deluge stories about islands, like Rhodes, rising and sinking into the sea. Thus certain names or elements of the Atlantis story may have a remote basis in fact, allowing some writers to find "evidence" to use in developing their theories that Plato told a true story.

Whatever historical "truths" may be derived from Plato's story, it is very important to recognize that he used the story to glorify Athens and the Athenians while propagating his own political doctrines. The Atlanteans were ordinary men, even though their royal line, like that of all Greek cities, was said to have been founded by a god, Poseidon. After unjustly invading Europe and Asia the Atlanteans were defeated by the valor and military strength of the Athenians, who then liberated the peoples whom the Atlanteans had enslaved. Finally, when Plato describes the city of Atlantis, it is a well-ordered but otherwise unremarkable city -- similar to the cities of Greece.

Plato's story therefore provides no basis for wild speculations about space visitors, flying machines, magical powers, wonderful crops, healing arts, or any of the other myriad of wonders which modern writers so often attribute to Atlantis. Thus, even if Plato's story were true, it offers no evidence for the occult ideas propagated by writers like Shirley MacLaine.

That Plato's story about Atlantis was not true is further substantiated by two facts. First, there are no Greek or Egyptian references to Atlantis before Plato's time. Second, during the three hundred years that followed Plato, all Greek or Roman writers who discussed Plato's use of the Atlantis story took it for granted that it was a fiction. Only around 75 B.C. did the Roman writer Poseidonios (135-51? B.C.), a friend and tutor of Cicero (106-43 B.C.), suggest that Plato's story about Atlantis was possibly based on fact. In the following centuries, educated opinion was divided about the historicity of Atlantis. Some writers, like Proclus (410-85 A.D.) -- the last major Neoplatonic philosopher -- took the story at face value. Others, such as the church father Origen (115-253 A.D.), saw it as an allegory.


After the sixth century, Atlantis receives no further mention in Western literature until the publication of the medieval encyclopedia De Imagine Mundi in the twelfth century. Even then, however, it received only a brief mention. Interest in Atlantis revived following the European discovery of the Americas in the sixteenth century. A Spanish writer, Francisco Lopez de Gomara, suggested that the new continent was the site of Atlantis in his General History of the Indes. The English magician, John Dee (1552-1605), placed Atlantis on a map he drew of America. And Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) wrote a utopian tract called The New Atlantis (1624).

A large body of literature emerged locating Atlantis in America and several fortunes were lost in attempts to discover the "lost" city. As time went by, however, it became clear that Atlantis was not going to be discovered on the American continent and interest in searching for it died out around 1850.

Shortly after this quest for a literal, historic Atlantis ceased, the Atlantean story entered a new and important phase as an apologetic tool for modern occultism. To understand the development of the occult approach to Atlantis, it is vital to examine the theory of a nineteenth-century figure who himself was not an occultist.


Contemporary interest in Atlantis can be traced to a self-educated American politician named Ignatius T. T. Donnelly (1831-1901). After serving as the Lieutenant-Governor of Minnesota and later as a congressman, Donnelly retired from politics in 1870 after a defeat at the polls. He devoted the rest of his life to writing and "research." Among his many theories were the argument that the Pleistocene Ice Age was caused by the collision of the earth with a comet, and the suggestion that it was Sir Francis Bacon who really wrote Shakespeare's plays. Both of these ideas have become the subjects of popular cult followings and are alive and well today.

Far more important for our study was Donnelly's interest in Atlantis. More than any other writer, Donnelly converted Atlantism into a popular cult through the publication of his influential book, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882). In developing his ideas Donnelly drew upon a short article by L. M. Hosea in The Cincinnati Quarterly (July 1875), "Atlantis: A Statement of the 'Atlantic' Theory Respecting Aboriginal Civilization," where the author argued that Mayan and other early civilizations were derived from Atlantis.

We can summarize Donnelly's development of the Atlantis story as follows: Opposite the mouth of the Mediterranean, in the Atlantic Ocean, there once existed a large island -- Atlantis. This was the remnant of a former Atlantic continent. Plato's description of this island was not imaginary but factual. It was on the island of Atlantis that civilization first emerged. In time a great and mighty Atlantean nation developed which sent out colonists to the Gulf of Mexico, other parts of the Americas, the Mediterranean, Europe, Africa, and various other parts of the globe. Atlantis was the true Antediluvian (i.e., before the biblical Flood) world known in the Bible as the Garden of Eden, in Greek mythology as the Elysian Fields, and by a variety of other names in the legends of ancient peoples. The gods and goddesses of the ancient civilizations were simply folk memories of the mighty deeds of the kings, queens, and heroes of Atlantis.

Donnelly maintained that the mythology of the Egyptians and of ancient Peru represented the original religion of the Atlanteans, which was a form of sun worship. The oldest colony of Atlantis was probably Egypt, where Atlantean civilization was reproduced in an almost pure form. The Atlanteans were responsible for the "Bronze Age" in Europe as well as the original manufacture of iron. The Phoenician alphabet was derived from the Atlantean alphabet, as was the alphabet of the Mayans.

Both the Aryan and Semitic races originated in Atlantis, Donnelly said, spreading from there throughout the world. Finally, Atlantis perished in a terrible natural disaster which caused the whole island to sink to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Only a few Atlanteans escaped the sudden, tragic destruction of their city on ships and rafts. Those who escaped carried with them both fragments of Atlantean knowledge and the story of the catastrophe, which became the basis of the biblical Flood and other similar legends.

Essentially, all modern Atlantis stories used by occultists draw upon elements of Donnelly's scheme, updated and adapted for contemporary readers with "scientific" details and stories about flying machines, space travel, etc.


Since Atlantis as constructed by Donnelly has become the basis for endless twentieth-century occult speculations, it is worth examining his arguments in detail. Donnelly attempted to "prove" that Atlantis actually existed by making a series of complex and apparently convincing comparisons that he believed provided the skeptic with overwhelming evidence. The "evidence" presented by Donnelly involved the following arguments:

First, he argued that similarities between various plants in the Old and New World proved that at one time people travelled freely between America and the Mediterranean. He maintained that tobacco, cotton, and pineapples had existed in Assyria and Egypt long before Columbus "discovered" them in the Americas. Plants Donnelly identified as the same, however, actually belong to quite different species and prove nothing. His "Assyrian pineapples," for example, were nothing more than artistic representations of date-palms.

Second, Donnelly appealed to similarities between ancient legends. Here his argument rests on the assumption that one can easily prove connections between the stories of Genesis, Babylonian legends, and Greek and other ancient myths. But, in fact, the closest we come to being able to show a dependence between ancient mythologies is between the stories of Genesis and those of Babylon. And as the British Egyptologist K. A. Kitchen has shown,[4] similarities do not prove borrowing. Indeed, when examined in detail, there are as many differences as there are similarities between these closely related stories.

Third, Donnelly tried to prove that the alphabets of the Old and New Worlds were derived from a common Phoenician root which, he said, originated in Atlantis. Despite his efforts to show similarities between Mayan glyphs and Latin, however, he was unable to prove his point. In fact, the two do not even look remotely alike. Nevertheless an enthusiastic convert to this idea, Augustus le Plongeon (1826-1909), could later claim that "one third of [the Maya] tongue is Greek." Actually, one would be hard pressed to find two more dissimilar languages.

Finally, Donnelly tried to show that Otomi, a Mexican language, is related to Chinese. The words he chose to "prove" this, however, simply display his learned ignorance and systematic misunderstanding of Chinese, which in fact has phonetic tones like Otomi, but there the resemblance ends.


Apart from Donnelly's mistakes and the misuse of writers like Plato, numerous other problems remain for New Age Atlanteans. Essentially, these problems concern the question of cultural diffusion (i.e., the spreading of one culture's distinctive traditions to many) and the evidence of intercontinental contact. In themselves these problems need not invalidate occult claims about Atlantis and other "lost" civilizations. But because such theories are used as apologetic arguments in New Age literature, their refutation provides a strong argument against New Age claims.

Like many writers before him, Donnelly assumed that all civilization had spread across the globe from a common source. Thus he argued that Egyptian and Mayan civilizations had certain common characteristics. To explain these he posited prehistoric culture contact which he explained in terms of the lost continent of Atlantis midway between the Old and the New Worlds. Following Donnelly, many New Age writers have made similar claims and suggested that survivors from Atlantis or other lost continents escaped some long-forgotten, psychically-generated disaster to create the known civilizations of ancient history. A number of significant facts cast doubt on these and all similar diffusionist arguments.

First, the Mayans and ancient Egyptians are said to have descended from a common stock -- the Atlanteans. But the Mayans were clearly Mongoloid and thus related to the Koreans and Siberians while the Egyptians were Semites. Racially, the two groups are totally different.

Second, the Mayan language -- or, more correctly, family of languages -- belongs to the Amerind tongue and has only faint resemblance to the other languages of Middle America and none at all to other known languages. Certainly, it is not in the least related to Egyptian or any other Middle Eastern language.

Third, while archeologists speak of the Old Empire and the New Empire with regard to the Mayans, the Old Empire was a Neolithic culture with no trace of metals. Yet it existed from 400 to 100 B.C., long after a sophisticated metallurgy had been developed in Egypt. To compare this culture with that of Egypt shows an almost complete lack of respect for, and knowledge of, Egyptian achievements.

Fourth, both the Old Mayan Empire and Egyptian civilization grew slowly and observably over hundreds of years. Contrary to diffusionist claims, in neither case do we find the sudden appearances of civilizations and advanced technology. Yet Egyptian culture was already ancient when the Mayan Old Empire was just beginning. If both derived from a common source, why were the Mayans so backward? And if the Mayans borrowed from the Egyptians, why did they take so long to learn so little? Finally, for the Atlantean or any similar scheme to work, Mayan and Egyptian cultures need to have been in contact at least five to ten thousand years before we have any evidence whatsoever of Mayan culture.

Fifth, if an appeal is made to other American civilizations as the source of Mayan achievements, it needs to be recognized that the Andean culture is generally believed to be of about the same age as that of the Mayan. Certainly it is not significantly older. At the same time, the civilizations of the Mexican Toltecs and that of the Aztecs are much younger than Mayan civilization and therefore they cannot be its source. Given these hard facts, it is simply ridiculous to assert that any American civilization shows signs of Egyptian influence or any other influence from beyond the American continent.

Sixth, numerous technical developments belonging to the Old World were simply unknown to the Mayans. As indicated above, they did not have the plough or any metal tools. Copper knives were a late development and their spears were stone tipped, as were their clubs and swords. In addition, they totally lacked the wheel for transportation, even though it was known by at least 3,000 B.C. in the Old World. Further, the Mayans lacked bellows for metal manufacture, glazing for pottery, kiln-dried bricks, stringed musical instruments so popular in Egypt, the true arch in architecture, and even the simple agricultural rake. It is true that both the Egyptians and the Mayans had calendars. But the Mayan calendar was based upon a twenty-day cycle of eighteen months while all Old World calendars utilized a twenty-eight day cycle involving twelve months. The truth is that the two could hardly be more different.

Seventh, the Old and New World generally had no food plants in common. If the Atlanteans or a similar ancient race had colonized both Mexico and Egypt, it is simply incredible that they would have taken different plants to different continents. The only exceptions to this lack of common plants are such plants as the coconut-palm and the gourd, both of which bear buoyant seeds that easily drift across oceans. Where plants appear to be alike, as in the case of the strawberry, they belong to different species in the Old and New Worlds.

Eighth, upon the arrival of Europeans in the New World, the local peoples were devastated by numerous epidemic diseases such as smallpox, malaria, yellow fever, and measles. The indigenous people had no resistance because these diseases were totally unknown. Now, epidemic diseases flourish in densely populated urban cultures -- a fact which seems to prove that whenever the ancestors of the Mayans and other New World peoples arrived in the Americas, they did so while they were still nomadic hunter-gatherers who had not begun to live in dense urban cities. Yet, theories about Atlantis, and even tales like those found in the Book of Mormon, assume that city dwellers fled one urban civilization to found its replica in the New World. If this had really happened historically, the survival of epidemic diseases would have been inevitable.

Ninth, the Amerinds had no Old World domestic animals except the domestic dog, which had been tamed in the Old World in Neolithic times -- thousands of years before the birth of Egyptian civilization. If the Amerinds had derived from a common cultural stock with the Egyptians, one would expect to have found horses, pigs, or even chickens in the New World. Yet none of these were to be found until the arrival of Europeans in the sixteenth century.

Once both the positive and negative evidence for culture contact is taken into consideration and seen in its historical context, few people would seriously argue that the cultures of Egypt and the New World derive from a common source -- even less that they influenced each other. Diffusionist arguments can only be maintained when they are presented to people lacking any real knowledge about Old and New World cultures. Yet, in our ahistorical times (i.e., times of willful historical ignorance) this is surprisingly easy to do. Very few North Americans and even few Europeans really know anything about ancient Egypt or the Mayans. Therefore, superficial comparisons which totally disregard important facts and ignore the restrictions imposed by time can easily impress the unsuspecting individual who becomes easy prey for the seemingly convincing apologetics of New Age propagandists.

Debunking New Age propaganda is not easy. Yet because so much of it (as can be seen from a reading of Shirley MacLaine's Out on a Limb) depends on the acceptance of explicit historical claims which are open to falsification, it can be done. And here the story of Atlantis plays a key role because it is central to much New Age thought. If Christians proclaim the truth about myths such as Atlantis, and demand that anyone attracted to New Age thinking seriously examine the evidence, progress will have been made in demolishing the growing popularity of New Age thought.

Karla Poewe-Hexham is professor of anthropology at the University of Calgary. Included among her published works are four academic books on religion and society in Africa. Irving Hexham is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Calgary and author of two academic books on religion and society in Africa. In 1971 Irving Hexham wrote his M.A. thesis at Bristol University on the development of New Age religion in Britain. He subsequently published a booklet entitled The New Paganism: Yoga and UFO's (Potchefstroom, 1973), which discussed New Age beliefs. The Hexhams are joint authors of Understanding Cults and New Religions (Eerdmans, 1986).

NOTES 1 Shirley MacLaine, Out on a Limb (New York: Bantam, 1984), 243.
2 Ibid., 248-50.
3 See Plato, Plato: The Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cains (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), 1156-60.
4 K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1966), 90.

End of document, CRJ0054A.TXT (original CRI file name),
"The 'Evidence' For Atlantis: Addressing New Age Apologetics"
release A, April 15, 1994
R. Poll, CRI

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