New Religions and the Science of Archaeology : Mormons, the Goddess, and Atlantis
Handbook of Religion and the Authority of Science
The scientific discipline of archaeology was developed in the nineteenth century, a product of the same post-Enlightenment milieu that generated the academic study of religion and the beginnings of the modern proliferation of new religious movements (NRMs). Archaeology as a science is potentially hostile to religion, in that it seeks to concretise the evidence for religious phenomena that are frequently taken on faith. Yet religions frequently develop theologies that interact with archaeological material and offer interpretations of archaeological phenomena that are at variance with secular scholarly orthodoxies. This chapter explores three new religious movements and their relationship with the science of archaeology: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), contemporary Goddess spirituality, and New Age engagement with channelled beings and the lost continent of Atlantis. It is argued that a complex and ongoing dialogue between alternative religionists and academic archaeologists has developed since the mid-twentieth century. I demonstrate that alternative archaeologies of sacred sites engage with academic archaeology in a number of significant ways. These may include: the complete denial of scientific interpretations and the assertion of other, eclectic scenarios; the selective adoption of elements of scientific archaeology; the use of archaeological analysis to develop new mythologies and theologies; and the adoption of archaeology as a life-practice that confers identity (Holtorf 2005b). Further, Post-Processual and postmodern archaeologists, far from rejecting such creative uses of their discipline, avowedly welcome the contribution of alternative religionists. Two complicating factors should be noted: first, new religions may embrace a postmodern openness to interpretation when archaeological confirmation of their position fails to emerge, effectively mirroring the “multivocal” position of Post-Processualist archaeology; and second, scientific archaeology decries alternative archaeology with comparable ferocity to that observed in the repudiation of new religions by established religious traditions, thus creating a “feedback loop” in the interactions between archaeology and new religions.