Opponents of Astrology

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Luther was an opponent of astrology - whereas his companion Melanchthon was its fervent proponent

Western horoscopic astrology developed at the royal court in ancient Babylon and in the beginning was closely associated with the fortunes of the Mesopotamian ruler. It was practised by priests of the highest order, with any kind of criticism being unthinkable because it could imply criticism of the king or even of the gods themselves.

The process of astrology loosening its close bonds to absolute power and becoming more accessible to the broader populace was therefore also accompanied by increasing criticism and opposition. This opposition can be roughly split into four groups: political authorities, theologians, the natural scientists, and philosophers.

Astrology and Imperial Politics

Astrology became extremely popular in Rome after it was introduced in the third century BC. Political operatives and rulers quickly realized that it could be used as a tool for or against claims to the throne. Some early emperors asked astrologers to predict which prospective heirs and contenders for the throne showed signatures of rulership in their future, or which courtiers appeared to be traitors, and promptly ordered them executed. The popularity of length-of life predictions quickly degenerated into political intrigue, with a market for astrologers' predictions of the emperor's death, thereby raising the potential for political instability. Consequently in Antiquity astrologers were banned from Rome multiple times.[1]

Astrology and Religion

Judaism expressed an ambivalent relationship with astrology. Over the centuries various interpreters linked the twelve signs of the zodiac to the Twelve Tribes of Israel and the twelve gems on the high priest's breastplate. The Roman-Jewish author Josephus claimed that the patriarch Abraham founded astrology amongst the Jewish people; a claim given some credence by Abraham's origins in Mesopotamia. During their Babylonian exile the Jews possibly came into contact with astrological teachings. The opening book of Genesis, indeed, says that God created the heavenly bodies "for signs and for seasons." Astrological motifs appear in sources as diverse as synagogue mosaics, rabbinical judgments, and and ancient parchments. However, the prophets clearly opposed prognostication of various sorts, as tending to lead people away from faith in God. Also, they believed that a God powerful enough to create the universe could easily overturn human predictions. Opposition specifically to astrology comes in the books of Isaiah and Daniel.[2]

Early Christianity also exhibited an ambivalent relationship to astrology. It is not mentioned in the New Testament, but belief in astrology appears in some extra-biblical books such as the Gospel of Judas that circulated during the formative centuries of early Christianity. The dominant theological conviction was that God was the ultimate power to which humans should willingly submit, and the belief that the stars indicated the future could turn the Christian away from faith in God. Church leaders and Popes tolerant towards astrology remained in the minority. However, during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, many astrological texts transfered to European clerics via communications with Arab astrologers.[3]

The Church accepted the strong link between medicine, health, and astrology; and astrology was an accepted subject in universities. Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas became influential mediators between theology and astrology. They both rejected prognostic astrology as incompatible with Free Will while at the same time accepting astrological influences in other areas such as the physical body and even a person's character. On this subject the current Catholic catechism states: "The hidden motive of many who turn to astrology is to gain access to hidden powers. This stands in conflict with the loving reverential esteem which we owe only to God."

The reformer Martin Luther was one of astrology's most outspoken critics despite having initially an open mind on the subject. There are several different versions of Luther's natal chart in circulation, to which supporters and opponents of Luther refer when arguing their case. Luther eventually rejected astrology and attacked it polemically after both the failure of one of his own prognoses concerning the downfall of the Papacy and of several prophesies made by his friend, astrologer Phillip Melanchthon.[4]

Philosophical Objections

In ancient Greece and Rome astrology was strongly associated with the stoic philosophers who were strong advocates of determinism. They believed that everything follows a natural course which human beings, according to their inherent nature, must follow. According to this worldview astrology is limited to recognising and adapting to the inevitable, and this led many intellectuals – including stoics – to reject it. Leading figures such as Cicero, Horace, Pliny the Elder, Seneca and Tacitus rejected standard astrological practice and questioned the connection between the heavenly bodies and events on Earth.

For centuries, however, astrological belief in what is variously called reasoning by analogy, the principle of correspondences, or sympathetic magic aligned astrologers with many western philosophers. Essentially, phenomena that are similar in some respects are assumed to be similar in other, if not all, respects. For example, if Mars is "the red planet" and named for the Roman god Mars, then it must rule various red-coloured phenomena as well as anything similar to mythological understandings of the god Mars. As philosophers began to realize the limits to knowledge gleaned through analogy, astrology seemed illogical.

With the emergence of modern science, modern philosophers measured astrology against the scientific method-- and since astrology appeared insufficiently scientific, they found it lacking in merit.[5]

One of the most important modern philosophers opposed to astrology was Theodor Adorno. He called astrology "metaphysics of the stupid guys" and wrote in a frequently cited article, that astrologers attempted to correlate the unrelated, disconnected spheres of social psychology and astronomy without establishing a rational basis for doing so.[6]

Science and Astrology

During the Enlightenment, astrology came increasingly under fire. Initially prominent scientists, among them Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe, were actively involved in astrology; and not only for financial reasons as is often claimed by present day scientists. These new opponents not only saw a conflict with the issue of free will, but they increasingly believed that science was capable of giving an adequate explanation of the world and ultimately the universe itself. The discoveries that the earth rotated around the sun, the outer planets, and new medical discoveries with no necessary role for astrology increasingly convinced many people that astrology was unscientific and unprovable. Western astrology's allegiance to the Tropical Zodiac in which the signs of the Zodiac were static and therefore unhinged to the constellations, were antithetical to the scientific concept of the universe as constantly evolving.

Today scientific arguments against astrology continue to deliver ammunition to the critics of astrology. In 1975, 186 scientists – among them 18 Nobel Prize winners – placed an advertisement in the American journal The Humanist condemning astrology.[7] The publication sparked interest among journalists, and BBC reporters wanted to interview some of the Nobel Prize winners concerning their own personal views regarding astrology. However, they refused to be interviewed, the reason being that they had not looked into the matter in any detail.

In 1996 astronomers at the "Council of German Planetaria" called for astrology to be banned in adult education centres. In their declaration they state that: "public educational establishments which are financed with tax payers money have an obligation to portray astrology as it really is, namely as superstition and a pseudo-religion". Such a degree of intolerance, which runs completely contrary to the spirit of the Enlightenment, is often typical of the opponents of astrology. Among the most common criticisms of astrology, based on ignorance concerning modern astrological practice, are the following:

  • Astrologers work with incorrect "constellations".
  • Apparently, astrologers remain completely unaware of the discovery that the Earth orbits the Sun and not the other way around as was previously widely believed.

Philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend took some of astrology's scientific critics to task, noting that their critiques seldom followed the scientific criteria for testing their truth claims. Moreover, he claimed that astrology, at least in the past, did have some of the earmarks of science.[8]

The Popular Press

Astrology has long faced the problem of predictions - some of them highly publicized - that were completely incorrect. The English satirist, Jonathan Swift, under the pseudonym of Isaac Bickerstaff, set out to expose one hapless astrologer who routinely published inaccurate death predictions in the newspaper.[9] Among the general public there are still many people who are only aware of astrology sun-sign columns in the press, or shocking predictions headlined in the tabloids, and who therefore reject it. Nevertheless, these columns are usually one of the most frequently read parts of newspapers and magazines.

Despite the criticisms leveled against it, astrology remains one of the oldest fields of study on the planet, with millions of followers. It seems unlikely to disappear any time soon, regardless of its opponents.

See also

17th-century fresco[10] depicting Jesus within the Zodiac circle

Weblinks

Bibliography

  • Paul Feyerabend: Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975), First edition in M. Radner & S. Winokur, eds., Analyses of Theories and Methods of Physics and Psychology, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1970

Notes and References

  1. Tamsyn Barton, 1994, Ancient Astrology, Routledge
  2. "Astrology", in Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, eds., 2007, Encyclopedia Judaica, 2nd ed.
  3. Kocku von Stuckrad, 2008, Interreligious Transfers in the Middle Ages: the Case of Astrology, in: Journal of Religion in Europe; Jim Tester, 1987, A History of Western Astrology, Ballantine Books
  4. Nicholas Campion, 2009, A History of Western Astrology, vol. 2: The Medieval and Modern Worlds, Continuum, pp. 113-115
  5. Patrick Curry, 1981, Astrology and the Philosophy of Science, Correlation 1(1): 4-10
  6. Theodor W. Adorno: Superstition secondhand. From: Collected Works, Volume 8, sociological writings I, Frankfurt aM 1972, pp. 174ff.
  7. Bart J. Bok et al., 1975, Objections to Astrology: A Statement by 186 Leading Scientists, The Humanist 35 (5): 4
  8. Paul Feyerabend, 1990, The Strange Case of Astrology, in Ptratrick Grim, ed., Philosophy of Science and the Occult, SUNY Press, 23-7
  9. Campion, op.cit., 170-172.
  10. Cathedral of Living Pillar in Georgia