a religion for folks who don’t do religion.

Once upon a time, people believed all kinds of funny things about the physical world and the universe.  In the graveyard of discarded ideas rendered obsolete by modern science, you’ll find all kinds of terms that claim the honorable suffix -ology, and by extension the scientific credibility that comes with genuine disciplines of science like biology or geology.

One such idea that refuses to die the well-deserved death long suffered by outdated concepts based on primitive world views is that archaic cosmological theory called astrology.

The people who believe in astrology usually take offense to anyone calling it a “pseudo-science”, and they are absolutely correct.  Astrology is not a pseudo-science, or at least not any more so than phrenology or alchemy.  It’s simply a bunch of superstitious nonsense that propagates a neolithic understanding of the universe.  It does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the word “science”.  It’s a remnant of those times when people believed the stars to be the rulers of fates, and it deserves to be placed squarely in the drawer labeled “Mythology”, along with the theory that Athena sprang fully formed from the head of Zeus.

Astrologists believe that the position of the star constellations at the place and time of your birth determine key aspects of your character.  This theory, which may have made perfect sense to neolithic goatherds, and which in the absence of radio telescopes and space probes constituted an uncontradicted explanation of the universe, doesn’t have a shred of physical evidence to support it.  It’s not science for the same reasons that Intelligent Design is not science: the claim at its core is non-falsifiable. 

Now why is it that stuff like phrenology has long since gone the way of the dodo, but astrology is still wildly popular and accepted as tentative truth by so many people?

I’ve discussed the issue with astrology proponents on many occasion, and part of the answer might be the general scientific illiteracy among the population.  I’ve been called “arrogant” and “close-minded” for dismissing astrology, and people have tried to use what they considered scientific arguments in favor of their ersatz religion.

“We now know that gravity has an effect on everything,” they say.  “The oceans have the tides, and we’re made mostly out of water.”

“How do you know there’s nothing to it?  My sister is a <zodiac sign>, and when you read an astrology book about <zodiac sign>, it fits her perfectly.”

“It’s simply the study of planets and the cosmos.  How can any ‘scientifically-minded’ person reject that?”

Well, first of all, we already have a valid scientific discipline dealing with planets and the cosmos.  It’s called astronomy, and like any proper science, it concerns itself with the observable and measurable evidence, because that’s the only way to get a handle on the physical universe.  Proper “star science” concerns itself with what can be seen and recorded, not by whether your Auntie Mabel’s generosity is linked to her birth falling into the monthly segment allocated to the zodiac of Cancer.  Astronomy meshes with the other sciences, because it holds itself to the scientific method.  Astrology, on the other hand, does not.  Astrology at best simply doesn’t correlate with what we know about astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology, and physics, and at worst contradicts the mountains of reliable evidence we have piled up in those legitimate scientific fields.

The claim about the influence of gravity is laughably spurious.  Astronomy concerns itself with the constellation of the stars that are visible from the place of your birth at the time of your birth.  It represents Middle Age cosmology.  It doesn’t account for all the gravitational influences not visible to the naked eye, and unknown to Middle Ages astrologers.  What about black holes?  What about neutron stars?  Also, astrology makes conjectures using a purely  two-dimensional representation of the star constellations and planets, without accounting for their mass or distance fom each other.  Astrology reflects the knowledge of the cosmos circa 1400 A.D., and the claim about gravitational influence has absolutely no bearing when you consider that it doesn’t take into account all the things not visible to the eye of a Middle Ages star gazer armed with unsophisticated optics.  Then consider that objects in close proximity exerted a much bigger gravitational influence on you than far-away objects–the presence of the delivery nurse had far more of an effect on your body than far-off Jupiter, regardless of the mass disparity between the nurse and the celestial body.  LabRat and Stingray over at Atomic Nerds can probably dissect the claims of astrology in a more educated manner than I could (I can only claim the completion of undergraduate-level physics classes), so I won’t attempt to delve into the scientific angle any further.  Suffice it to say that anyone with even a spotty understanding of physics and modern cosmology cannot be a believer in astrology.

I’ll leave you with the opinion of a man much wiser and smarter than this scribe, and there’s not a word in his monologue that would have me disagree: here’s Carl Sagan on astrology.

(If you haven’t already done so, head over to LawDog, Matt G, Tam, Atomic Nerds, and Ambulance Driver for their takes on the subject.  We did not coordinate or collaborate, and I am posting this as a scheduled post ahead of time, so I have no idea what you’ll find over there, other than the suspicion that it’ll be entertaining.)

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28 thoughts on “a religion for folks who don’t do religion.

  1. pawnbroker says:

    lovely writing from you and tam on this; not much disparity though…but she did avoid the gratuitous link with religion that you couldn’t resist…

    nothing from the other conspirators yet…

    jtc

  2. Marko says:

    jtc,

    do you think the story of Athena and Zeus has any more validity than astrology, or vice versa? Or are you referring to the ID reference?

    ID is theology/mythology, not science, plain and simple.

  3. Don Gwinn says:

    Yeah, but astrologers aren’t religious. They’re “spiritual.”

  4. Tall Teacher says:

    Yeah, and I’m not homicidal I’m a challenged pacifist…

  5. theflatwhite says:

    Intelligent Design (ID) has a dirty name for two reasons:

    1) The Christian community hijacked a legitimate area of study, trying to make it say ID was scientific evidence for a Biblical creator. True ID says no such thing. There is obviously no way to falsify the assertion that a cosmic designer exists. This “version” of ID is NOT science but re-packaged creationism.

    2) Evolutionists and atheists jumped on the mis-characterization of ID and in the process threw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. They are so blinded by their fear of a “religious takeover” of science that I think they’ve missed something scientifically legitimate.

    Real ID theory (as opposed to creationist pseudo-science) is NOT the theory that all life was designed – you correctly point out that is not falsifiable. ID is the theory that designed systems have uniquely identifiable characteristics (falsifiable).

    Real ID is all about classifying characteristics of “designed” systems and ascribing probabilities. Nothing more. There’s a lot of neat math and theory behind this even with applications for Bayesian inferencing and pattern theory.

    Take a simple key ID marker of irreducible complexity. If it is shown that biological systems like bacterial flagellum could be formed by gradual Darwinian processes, then ID is proven false on the basis that perfectly natural, random causes will do. Invalidating these markers invalidates current ID theory.

    This field has some neat potential applications too. If it is possible to (uniquely or with a high probability) identify design characteristics, it should also be possible to mathematically identify characteristics of a particular designer, human or otherwise.

  6. Rusty P. Bucket says:

    I personally don’t know anyone that takes astrology seriously. I also find it ironic as Carl Sagan lectures of science being chained by religion and superstition – as I watch the antics or men like Al Gore.

    Hard science has been kicking mankind square in the nuts for the last several centuries. Often the people rolling around on the ground afterward are the self proclaimed intellectuals and elitists that claim to be scientists themselves.

  7. ChrisB says:

    Marko,

    I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you this but you are arrogant and close minded, my brother is a Leo and it fits him perfectly. I don’t know who this Carl Sagan amateur is but he has the nerve to despairingly talk about how astrologers think of Mars as being violent and a place of quarrels, it’s completely obvious he hasn’t seen Total Recall, if so he’d see that they’re absolutely right.

    I suggest you try rearranging your furniture, the lack of Feng Shui in your life is obvious;)

  8. My fourteen-year-old twin daughters are fascinated by astrology and horoscopes. I accept it the same way I accept their interest in wicca, witchcraft, and cryptozoology (another bogus -ology). I just sigh and go with the flow. It’s just a phase they’ll grow out of sooner or later (hopefully sooner!)

  9. Kristopher says:

    Hey! Phrenology works. Especially corrective phrenology.

    I use a baseball bat to apply it as needed.

  10. Assrot says:

    Well said Marko. I’ve always read my “Horrorscope” in the daily paper just for a laugh every morning. I am with you and pretty much everyone else that blogged about this that has any common sense. Astrology is pure hogshit. There is not a single scientific thing about it.

    I am a Ph.D. with excellent credentials and over 40 years experience researching and studying in various and sundry “Real” scientific fields. I truly wish I could reveal my true identity but it’s not feasible at this point in my career because I am surrounded by whiney Liberals that would demand my head if I spoke the truth about anything. I work for a company that is probably 95% Rainbow Warriors and Bliss Ninnies. They would gladly get rid of the 5% that are Conservative, Libertarian or Free Thinkers at any opportunity. So, I must remain in cognito for now.

    I have spent a lot of time working and researching in the pure science fields. I have an A.A. degree in Pre-Med, a B.S.E.E, a M.Sc.C.E. and a Ph.D. in EE. I have spent countless waking hours studying the finer points of Astronomy, Physics, Astro Physics, Quantum Physics and yes even Astrology.

    Astrology is an oxymoron and a fools game in my opinion. There is no science there at all. It’s just poppycock that someone spent a lot of time making up for financial gain.

    Good Day Sir,
    Joe

  11. Kristopher says:

    Hey! Phrenology works. Especially Corrective Phrenology.

    I tend to use a baseball bat to apply it as needed.

  12. Lucy Nom de Plume says:

    I think it’s for the same reason that people still have that medieval idea that going out with your hair wet can give you a cold.

  13. Bexa says:

    non-falsifiable. Nor justifiable.

  14. MarkHB says:

    ChristB, you had me going for a minute there! Well done, you got a chuckle.

    I’m always caught in a feedback loop with astrology. My mum loved astrology, and could never resist reading my my horoscope. Even, for example, when I was in the middle of titrating something. As you all know, levelling a burette acurrately at home is a tough job in the first place, as are making accurate calculations and measurements.

    But she always wittered on about it being “a bit of harmless fun” – well, bits of harmelss fun that you live by, and that’s fine if – like almost all religionists – you consider this life to be your test-run, your first-time-around, some kind of practise effort instead of being every moment of your existance that you will ever have.

    In which case, “harmless fun” becomes something that only and specifically you want to do. Funny that.

  15. MarkHB says:

    PS: Assrot, I feel for you. Kristopher, you’re referring to “Retrophrenology”, adding the lumps to the head that account for the character traits you want to instill ;)

  16. Sailorcurt says:

    Atomic Nerds is among the blogs that I can’t read.

    That light text on black background is like staring at a 100w light bulb. It hurts my eyes and then I can see shadows of the text in everything I look at for the next five minutes.

    Followed shortly by a screaming headache. Maybe someone could paste their post into a format a bit less sadistic so I can read it?

    Otherwise, I like your bog post conspiracy idea. I can’t wait to see what Lawdog and AD have to say about it. MattG and Tam’s posts are already up.

  17. Regolith says:

    When I was around 11 or so, I started to become interested in astronomy. At the time, I didn’t have enough knowledge to understand the difference between astronomy and astrology, so I became interested in astrology as well. This went on for a year or so, up until the point where I had gained enough knowledge through intermittent study to understand that astrology was complete bunk.

    I find it mildly amusing (and slightly frightening) that there are people out there that don’t understand what I understood at age 12. Have they no curiosity, no impulse to learn about the world around them? Or is it simply a lack of intelligence? I still do not know.

  18. shiva314 says:

    The (quote) “a religion for folks who don’t do religion” (end quote) is, actually Christianity.

    The planetary placements at the time of someone’s birth do not ‘determine’ a person’s character but, rather, reveal it. The astrological chart reveals the ‘wiring diagram’ of the individual’s psyche.

    So… using ‘Christianity’ as an example…. Its O.K. for Chrsitianity to have you relate to ‘something in the sky’ (God) but not astrology.

    One main purpose of the astrological cosmology is to assist one in erasing the pathos and suffering of the Christian paradigm.
    At least astrologers, UNLIKE the Pope, do not wear pointy hats!

  19. pawnbroker says:

    mw:

    sorry for the hit and run this a.m.; i spent the day picking up a tiny car in atlanta (smart passion designed by your mechanical genius germanic brethren at benz; it’s pretty cool for a motorized rollerskate, i’ll be flipping it on ebay to some hippie willing to pay a premium to avoid the year wait, but we might all be driving one of these things soon).

    as for my earlier comment, my point is that the topic seemed handpicked to allow parallels to be drawn between the provably absurd and that which is by definition exempt from proof, disproof, science, math, or anything else that we can understand.

    astrology shares with apologists for intelligent design the perceived need to justify its existence with the available tools of our education and understanding…this is a self-defeating strategy as any claimed scientific basis can be easily scientifically debunked.

    not so with the religion of faith whch requires only belief to be made real to the believer…and the ease with which the junk science of astrology can be disproved has no correlation with simple faith or non-faith as the basis of religion, and the gratuitous comparison trivializes.

    jtc.

  20. pawnbroker says:

    btw, i like this themeblogging (the me blogging?) idea…and rather “conspirators” or “collaborators”, i like matt g’s term for the participants; “confederates”…ya’ll keep it real…jtc

  21. Rogue Medic says:

    People sometimes defend things as “harmless fun” when they cannot come up with any intelligent defense for their belief and do not want to admit their gullibility.

    The sad thing is that we have doctors incapable of understanding the scientific method well enough to tell the difference between well done research and something that is designed to reflect the prejudices of the author.

  22. mr. bruce says:

    “The claim about the influence of gravity is laughably spurious. Astronomy concerns itself with the constellation of the stars that are visible from the place of your birth at the time of your birth. It represents Middle Age cosmology.”

    Um…astrology concerns itself et cetera, not astronomy.

    And Middle Ages cosmology

  23. @ Lucy NdP:

    OMG, my Oma (German Grandmother) used to tell me that ALL THE TIME. Also, according to her, walking around the house with no slippers on would make you sick, as well.

    I tried to explain about contagion, etc. but she would have nothing of it.

  24. I was about to indirectly post on this subject myself. I read that a reporter asked to interview John Lennon and he told the reporter to come back in two days as Yoko had worked up John’s chart and it wasn’t a good day for interviews. So on the day John Lennon was assassinated his chart must have told him it was a good day to go outside. It’s amazing that some intelligent people seek to explain their lives in such strange ways. Even though John Lennon’s chart didn’t alert him to the danger I bet Yoko still believes in charts, in the stars and a lot more horus shit.

    Thanks for the post. It was a great read.

  25. shiva314 says:

    The entire New Testament is a deeply veiled astrological/astronomical allegory.
    The New Testament is about “The Son (SUN) and the Twelve apostles (signs of the ancient zodiac).
    Christianity is ancient astrology transposed as metaphor and allegory.

    Check out (link)
    http://www.zeitgeistmovie.com/ and watch Part #1 which presents the astrological roots of the Christian religion.

  26. Don Gwinn says:

    Shiva, don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re posting like a nut. I read the Q&A section of the Zeitgeist website, and that was enough to convince me that I don’t have time to watch the movie.

  27. Drstrangegun says:

    Hrmm.

    Seems that both you and the astologers fall into the same logical fallacy of correlation making causation.

    I can make a decent case for astrology that doesn’t violate astronomy; in fact, I’ve done it before. They are simply unrelated.

    Taking a look at astrology, it can become obvious that what’s important isn’t the planet, it’s the timing. The planets and stars are simply placeholders; much easier to use than artifical constructs. If over time a statistical pattern emerges, it’s easier (particularly given the age and state of civilization during the “invention” of astrology) to say “Saturn returning” than it is to say “the self-awareness pattern that emerges every 28 to 30 years”.

    Most humans think and develop alike. If development is alike, then patterns can develop; when patterns develop, patterns and to a point results can be predicted.

    Therefore I consider astrology to be a statistical pattern prediction, rather than divination. Taken that way, it can have some merit. If we can accept the idea of the seven-year itch or the mid-life crisis, can’t we accept that maybe it’s statistically more probable to have some kind of group emergent pattern affecting personal communications every 2-3 months (Mercury Retrograde)?

  28. wheels says:

    I don’t currently know anyone who believes in astrology (that I’m aware of, anyway), but I’ve known them in the past. In high school, I dated a girl who never went swimming because the horoscope her mother had cast for her said she’d die by drowning. Pity – she’d have looked marvelous in a swimsuit. I was, of course, into astrology while dating her (the things we do for hormones).

    I also knew a professional astrologer some years ago, who was confident he could convince anyone of its validity. Probably could do fairly well at it – he was a member of the local Mensa chapter, which meant he was quick enough mentally to have a good chance of being at least superficially convincing.

    Me, I look on astrology as biorhythms using the constellations as a calendar, with a lot of mathematical mumbo-jumbo for obfuscation, and deliberate vagueness, wishful thinking, and confirmation bias as validation.

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