Astrology as Religion
Astrology is a system of beliefs that is not normally considered a religion. But in truth astrology really is a religion, and if not that it makes no sense at all.
In ancient times astrology and astronomy were one. Both involved scanning the heavens to look for signs and portents. Ancient astronomy was necessary for several reasons, including time keeping and navigation. If you understand the attributes of the North Star you will know both your directions and your latitude.
Astronomical observations can also serve as a clock and calendar. The movement of the constellations helped to indicate the seasons. When ancient people saw Orion they knew that winter was upon them. The Sun marks the hours of the day and the moon marks the days of the month.
Four of the most crucial observations in astronomy are the dates of the two solstices and two equinoxes. These four days mark the beginning of each of our four seasons. If you can discern one of these dates then your calendar is set for the year.
Knowing the season and time of year was critical for ancient tribes. They needed to know the periods of hot and cold weather, rainy seasons and droughts. They needed to know the time for special events such as river flooding, the ripening of fruit, any animal migrations or fish spawns, and most importantly, they needed to know the time to plant their crops. To find these key dates the ancients needed only to discern the movement of the Sun and stars. The stories of these star cycles were woven into the tribes’ cultural heritage as sacred texts as a way of maintaining this knowledge through generations.
Stories enhance memory. As a young Boy Scout I was taught how to tie a bowline knot by the following mnemonic: The rabbit comes out of the hole, goes around the tree, and back in the hole. This is something that I have never forgotten. In this manner the ancients would learn that it was time to plant crops when the lion was visible in the sky.
In short there were many good and necessary reasons to watch the sky and to chart its movements. Now to explain how the science of astronomy diverges from the religion of astrology I need to take a side trip to discuss the notion of a superstition.
A superstition can be described as follows. Imagine a scientific experiment in which a pigeon must press a red button in order to obtain food. The pigeon tries a number of moves, and accidentally finds a workable solution. The pigeon first scratches its head and then presses the red button. When the pigeon does this the food appears. There are two discrete actions. The difference between these two actions is that scratching its head is not part of the chain of causality, while pressing the red button is part of the chain of causality. The head scratch can be thought of as a superstition. The pigeon believes that this action is required even though it is irrelevant and has no effect upon the outcome
Superstitions abound. We get a boost of confidence from the comfort of our superstitions. The gambler believes that his luck in poker is enhanced by wearing his favorite hat. The candidate for a job may wear his “lucky tie” to a job interview. All such actions are superstition because in truth they have no impact on the outcome. They are not part of the chain of causality.
Now back to the night sky. All sorts of things in the night sky can be observed that are not part of any causality. The motion of the planets seem important, but in reality it means nothing. The arrival of comets, eclipses, meteor showers, aurora borealis, and many other visible events actually mean nothing of consequence. The tribes do not know what celestial events are portents of things to come, so they watch everything.
Let us review the basic facts of astrology that all can agree with. The Sun, the Moon, and all of the planets move through one vast racetrack in the sky. In astrology this is called the zodiac, meaning a circle of animals. Astronomers call this same racetrack the ecliptic, because eclipses can occur when the moon crosses that race track.
The sun and all of its planets were formed out of the solar system’s accretion disk. They are all on the same plane and so follow the same racetrack across the sky. The Moon is slightly different. It was formed not from the accretion disk but from a later impact of a Mars sized object called Thea with the Earth. The Moon’s orbit could have been tipped in any direction, but just by coincidence, the orbit of the moon is a mere 5.5 degrees off of the ecliptic. So, for all practical purposes we say that the Moon shares the ecliptic with the Sun and planets.
Here is where astronomy parts company with astrology. The astrologers will tell us that the sun moves through the twelve houses, or constellations, spending approximately 30 days in each house. This makes the illusion feel very predictable and comforting. The problem is that symmetry is a total fabrication.
- In truth there are actually thirteen constellations on the ecliptic. Astrologers never talk about Ophiuchus, and do not even want to think about it. The addition of a thirteenth constellation would mess up their cherished symmetry of design.
- Some constellations are much larger than others. It takes the Sun only 7 days to cross Scorpio, but 45 days to cross Virgo. In case you are wondering it takes the Sun 17 days to cross Ophiuchus.
- The astrological calendar is seriously broken. It is based upon ancient positions of the stars that are no longer correct. The astrological calendar is off about 25 days. Imagine using a calendar for January 1 when it is really December 7. The star patterns shift over thousands of due to the precession of equinoxes.
- Even if items 1-3 could be corrected, what difference does the position of the planets make anyway? Thinking that the position of the planets at the date of your birth can somehow affect your personality or destiny is simply a superstition as defined above. The gravitational effects of the obstetrician during your birth would have millions of times more effect upon you than the position of Jupiter in the night sky.
I have always been vexed by intelligent people espousing nonsense about astrology. I have tried to argue with them, stating items 1-4 above without effect. Their response is that I simple do not “get it”. They seem content to ignore the facts and logic, and to believe in something that I hold to be appalling nonsense.
And then I understood! Astrology is a religion. Religions are full of beliefs in appalling nonsense. If a Catholic can believe that Jesus is contained in a cracker, If a Muslim can believe that women must wear burkas, if a Jew can believe that eating a lobster is forbidden, If a Mormon can believe in ancient Jewish colonies in South America, then perhaps it is no more fantastic to believe that the position of the planets at the time of your birth controls everything from your personality to your destiny.
Astrology gives many the means to feel connected to the Universe. It enables them to feel a part of the cosmos, and to experience the transcendence that is common to all religious motivation.
While President and Mrs. Reagan publicly proclaimed their faith in evangelical Christianity, the real religion of the Reagan household was astrology. When President Reagan was shot Nancy used her astrologers to schedule every key event. In later interviews she explained how important this was to her. With her world falling apart astrology gave her a sense of comfort and control.
Religion must be a deep seated human need. It gives people a sense of security, no matter how illusory. It connects tribes and people with the cosmos and their place and time in it. It is a set of believes that organizes and orders our lives and somehow makes them more manageable.
In 1961, Frank Drake formulated his famous equation to predict the likelihood of intelligent, technological life in the galaxy. Since that time we have made numerous scientific advances. In 1961 we had not found any extra-solar planets, and were not even sure if they existed. Today we have found hundreds of extra-solar planets and now believe that there are planets surrounding most stars.
Drake made his calculation and came up with the number 10. His answer was that there were ten civilizations in our galaxy with intelligent, technological societies with which we could communicate.
A technological civilization simply means a society capable of building radio telescopes to scan the heavens, for without such instruments any extraterrestrial contact is simply impossible. It should be noted that the first radio telescope on the earth was built in 1931. So, by this definition, we have been a technological society for less than one hundred years, a brief moment in the history of the cosmos.
The Drake equation states that:
N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;
R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fℓ = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space.
But now it would appear that Frank Drake was an optimist. Steven Hawking has predicted that we might be alone in the Universe as the only technological society.
The nearest star to us is a red dwarf star named Proxima Centauri at a distance of 4.24 light years. This is our nearest neighbor in interstellar space, but getting there would take us some 80,000 years traveling at space shuttle speed. Just beyond Proxima Centauri is the binary star system Alpha Centauri A and B at 4.37 light years from our sun. And, what if we went there and found nothing? What would be our next destination and how long would it take to get there?
We are learning how hard and slow the process is to evolve from primitive life forms to advanced, technological civilizations. On earth this process took some four billion years. This means that a planetary nursery must be maintained in a relatively steady state for billions of years in order for an intelligent, technological society to emerge.
Humanity went almost extinct 73,000 years ago from the great Toba super-volcano in Sumatra. Some sources say that only around 10,000 humans were left on the planet, while other sources say that the human population dwindled down to a few hundred or even a few dozen. After millions of years of evolution we almost died out, but a few survived and our species went on to build a radio telescope.
There are new factors, not found in the Drake Equation, that may set earth off as the sole technological society:
The earth is big enough to sustain its magnetic field and the shielding that it produces for billions of years. Because the earth’s core is still molten, we have a magnetic shield that protects us from harmful radiation, coronal mass ejections, and the solar wind that could strip our planet of its atmosphere and water. When Mars lost its magnetic shield that planet died of these effects.
The earth has plate tectonics that continuously recycle the continents and continuously bring new minerals to the surface.
The earth has a large moon that provides gyroscopic stability and prevents our axis from wobbling too much. This provided for climactic stability over millennium in order that civilization may develop and thrive in one place without disruption or dislocation. Imagine, for example, if the earth’s axis tilted so that Europe dropped down to the latitude of the Sahara Desert. Any such civilization at that latitude would be doomed.
The moon was originally much closer to the earth than it is now. In the early days the moons tidal pull upon the earth was much larger. The effect of this tidal pool was to stir the waters in the inter tidal zone. This tidal stirring, this mixing of nutrients, proteins, and amino acids may well have aided in the formation of life.
The earth has big brother Jupiter that protects us from asteroid bombardment by corralling many errant space rocks and ice balls before they hit the earth. This was recently demonstrated by the Jovian capture and destruction of the Shumaker-Levi 9 comet.
The earth orbits a single star. Any planets in multiple star systems would be at a distinct disadvantage. It would be very difficult for a planet in a multiple star system, such as Alpha Centauri, to find a stable orbit in the “Goldilocks” zone where it is neither too hot nor too cold. Also, it is likely that at some point in time the planet would be either torn apart by gravitational forces or slung out into the interstellar void.
Our sun will shine for another five billion years. Our technological civilization is flourishing as our sun is in the middle of its useful life. Scientists believe that the world will be habitable for at least the next billion years or so, unless we destroy ourselves earlier. After the next five billion years we know that the sun will swell up into its red giant phase, with its outer edged touching the earth’s orbit. Long before the sun reaches its full expansion the earth will become a scorched, lifeless cinder.
Other planets in our galaxy may not be so lucky.
Carl Sagan worried that we might have reached the required level of technological development (i.e. radio telescopes) just in time to destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons. For today’s generation our main worry might be global warming. It is sad, but it seems that achieving the technological pinnacle of a radio telescope gives us power over nature to destroy ourselves and our habitat.
Steven Hawking said that since we might be the only intelligent, technological society in the galaxy, we may want to survive and continue.