Astrology and the Search for Meaning
Pop psychologist and business guru Adam Grant recently tweeted about a study that refuted some of the claims of Western astrology. The study was done by respected researchers and published in a top journal. The sample size was huge and the research methods were apparently rigorous. With the researchers’ clear results and Grant’s ability to popularize ideas, we might expect that this will be the nail in the coffin of astrology, which can finally be discredited as a pseudoscience.
Except, astrology’s coffin already has many nails in it, and it still seems to be as alive as ever. In a previous generation, Carl Sagan mocked astrology on national television, saying “The intellectual foundations of astrology were swept away 300 years ago.” Scientific denunciations of astrology go at least as far back as Maimonides, who impugned it in no uncertain terms in the twelfth century, writing that “Whoever believes in these and similar things [astrology, sorcery] and thinks in his heart that they are true…is nothing but a fool, deficient in understanding.”
Despite the repeated denunciations by prominent scientists and geniuses throughout the world and across many centuries, astrology remains strong in America, and there are many signs that it’s getting stronger. In 2018, Pew found that 29 percent of American adults professed belief in astrology. The Financial Times claimed that astrology is experiencing a “rebirth” caused by interest from stressed-out young people. The Atlantic called it a “resurgence,” citing 150 percent year-over-year traffic increases in horoscope posts on one popular site.
The continuing popularity of astrology, even after the Enlightenment and Carl Sagan and Adam Grant, could have many explanations. One study claimed that taking an astrology course has the effect of “verifying the self-concept” of students, or in other words strengthening their sense of self-worth and self-control. Besides its effect on self-esteem, astrology also gives great scope to the imagination, allowing people to dream of a universe full of magic and meaning and beneficent powers that influence our inner natures and the courses of our lives. Self-worth and imaginative capacity are great gifts, and the scientists who ridicule astrology are fighting against a venerable practice that offers these gifts freely to all.
Galileo was another great scientist with strong beliefs about astrology. In fact, the first investigation that the Inquisition conducted into Galileo’s alleged heresies specifically targeted his beliefs about astrology. If you know about Galileo’s popular reputation as a hard-nosed empiricist and a fighter against the evidence-free claims of the faithful, you might imagine that Galileo denied the truth of astrology like Maimonides before him and Carl Sagan after him. But in fact Galileo was an enthusiastic practitioner of astrology both for love and for money throughout his life. The Venetian Inquisitors were striving to stop him from practicing astrology, and thereby nudge him away from pseudoscience and closer to the scientific truth. (So much for the Inquisition’s reputation as anti-scientific villains.) Nor was Galileo the only astrological astronomer: Kepler, another of the greatest astronomers of all time, also practiced astrology.
If astrology were nothing more than fanciful, self-centered therapy based on nonsense, we wouldn’t expect it to attract devoted followers from the highest echelons of science, or to thrive for so many centuries in cultures all around the world. The great puzzle of astrology is how it can seem so self-evidently false to so many intelligent people, but inspire devotion from others who are just as intelligent and thoughtful and informed. Galileo was not easily duped in matters related to the stars, nor was he someone to waste intellectual effort on something he didn’t believe. Whatever Galileo and Kepler found compelling about astrology could be related to what so many millions find exciting about it today.
We can get a hint about what Galileo liked about astrology by looking at his own astrological writings. Galileo was especially interested in birth-charts: maps of planetary positions at the moment of a child’s birth, with detailed interpretations of what these positions meant for the character and destiny of the child. When he created a birth-chart for his daughter Virginia, he wrote the following commentary about the star positions he found:
Saturn… gives her a sad demeanour, but Jupiter is very well with Mercury, and well-aspected corrects this. She is patient and happy to work very hard. She likes to be alone, does not talk too much, eats little with a strong will…
Whatever your beliefs about the stars, it’s touching to read Galileo’s astrology. Here was a man who made history, stood at the top of the world of science, fought the pope, and earned lots of fame and gold. But he took time off from all of that to painstakingly construct detailed charts for his infant daughters whom he loved, for no other purpose than to try to understand who they were, what place they might have in the universe, and the meaning of how he and they and all things relate to each other.
The millions around the world who practice astrology today may not have the fame or education of Galileo. But they have the same hunger for explanations and meaning and maps of relationships in a puzzling universe. They have a hunger to believe, like Galileo and Kepler, that our world and our existence are not arbitrary and random, but rather pregnant with meaning and purpose, even in the smallest details. This hunger is why astrology has not died, and why it probably never will.
But the hunger for meaning can be satisfied in other ways. Religious believers regularly report that their beliefs and communities give them lives that are rich with meaning and understanding. Galileo may have thought about some Christian doctrines when he was creating astrological birth-charts for his daughters. Maybe he considered Jeremiah, chapter 1, verse 5:
Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.
Here, God himself claims that Jeremiah’s character and destiny were known at birth, just like Galileo thought his daughters’ characters and destinies could be known when they were born. Astrology and Christianity both contain some version of this doctrine that it’s possible to know about children’s hearts and purposes when they’re born.
This isn’t the only similarity between astrology and an organized religion. Though astrology and today’s organized religions differ in so many particulars, they share some bedrock non-materialist assumptions: above all the assumption that the universe has order and meaning beyond the random interactions of particles, and that our lives have a purpose or even a destiny that’s at least dimly discernible. As organized religions shed adherents, and astrology gains practitioners, the reliable constant is that most people around the world agree that there’s more to the universe than just its detectable particles. People shuffle between religion and astrology and other transcendent beliefs, but through it all majorities around the world continue to deny materialism.
How frustrating this must be for the scientific materialists of the world, the Carl Sagans, the Richard Dawkinses, the atheists and rationalists. For centuries, Europe and the West have secularized, materialist science has become popular and well-funded, and rebellious youths have constantly tried to upend the religious traditions of the past. Despite all of this, most people still believe that there are things in the universe that aren’t seen in our telescopes or measured by our instruments.
The continued strength of spirituality, if not religion, is remarkable, given the headwinds that oppose it. If John Calvin were alive today, he might say that it’s proof of what he called the sensus divinitatis—the inborn human instinct that God exists. Or it might just be proof that materialism is no fun. Another explanation could be that humans have a psychological need for transcendent myths, or a need to believe in and participate in something greater than themselves and their mundane daily concerns.
And this—a transcendent myth, something great to believe in—is something that our culture has mostly failed to provide to young people today. Organized religion has lost ground for a variety of reasons. But we’ve also managed to damage or destroy the other positive myths that used to animate people. The patriotic idea of America as a great nation has been undermined by many efforts for decades, the most notable recent example being the “1619 Project.” The local attachments that used to make people proud of their homes and communities and eager to dedicate their lives to improving and defending them have faded as we’ve become a nation of deracinated consumers who don’t know our neighbors or care about where we live, constantly on the move at the whim of our employers.
Some new myths have started to fill the partial vacuum left by the decline of organized religion and patriotism and tribal loyalty. If you spend time on LinkedIn, you can see quasi-religious posts about sacrifices for careers or employers that can make you feel like you’re at a tragically misguided religious revival. The myth of social justice seems to have absorbed much of the energy of 20th-century political myths like communism. The shortcomings of these myths are well known.
For a young adult today who’s looking for transcendent meaning, it’s easy to see how astrology could seem more attractive than organized religion or any other transcendent purposes that might give their lives meaning. Astrology has no centralized organizational structure, which appeals to today’s iconoclastic, anti-institutional young people. Besides that, it explicitly affirms many feminine traits and ideas, which appeal to today’s feminized culture and contrast with the patriarchal organizations of our main religions. Above all, astrology appeals to our culture’s penchant for rejection of traditional beliefs and values.
Those who fight against astrology are engaged in a negative project, aiming to destroy something. Their intention may be to destroy a senseless pseudoscience, but if they succeed, they’ll also destroy a source of meaning and purpose for millions. America today has too many of these negative projects, whether they’re aiming to destroy religion, destroy patriotism, destroy local attachments, destroy family devotion, destroy traditions, destroy old institutions, or destroy astrology. Sometimes, things need to be destroyed. But conservatives should fight harder for positive projects—building wondrous, noble things that can give young people something to work for and dedicate themselves to. The next generations will abandon astrology only if we can give them something better to believe in.
Bradford Tuckfield is a data scientist and writer. His personal website can be found here.