On May 22, 2011, a devastating tornado left the town of Joplin, Missouri in shambles. There were 162 dead and 1,150 people injured. St. Mary’s Catholic Church was in splinters. The Catholic priest was asked if God could have prevented the tornado. The priest’s response was that, “Of course he could. He is God and he could do anything.” He was then asked why God did not prevent it if he could. The priest said that God is a mystery, and that mere mortals often cannot understand his ways. He spoke about how God would use this tragedy somehow for good. As the priest struggled to explain this conundrum, his logic became more and more twisted and awkward. The priest had inadvertently stumbled into the God paradox.
The God paradox is simply this: If God is all powerful then he cannot be all good. If God is all good then he cannot be all powerful. Otherwise, there is no explanation of why bad things happen to good people. There is simply no simple exit from the God paradox. Like a Chinese finger puzzle, the harder we pull, the tighter the grip becomes. The result becomes some elaborate web built of prevarications. And the more we try to work the story the sillier it becomes. The priest’s whole congregation would need to wrestle with this. No doubt the priest would need to spin more yarns for the faithful in the process, thereby polishing the illusion that God the guarantor of our wellbeing.
The Holy Bible speaks of a God that intervenes in persons and communities. The Bible tells us that even the hairs of our heads are numbered, and that God is our ever present help in times of trouble. We want desperately to believe in a God who loves us and cares about our fate. This is the message that Christians hear most every most from clergy who seek to polish this illusion. This is not just a Catholic issue, but one that is carried out by clergy everywhere. It is just what clergy do, to try and soothe the faithful when bad times happen.
On days when the sun is shining and the birds are singing it is easy to live comfortable inside the illusion of a benevolent universe that will provide for our every need. We feel that we are being coddled by life, and embraced by a loving God. But other, darker days we are jolted back to reality by a tantrum of nature, a tragic accident, a life threatening illness or injury, a financial crisis, the loss of a loved one or other such disrupter of our comfortable existence. At times like those we rediscover how vulnerable we truly are. There are potholes in life that demolish our illusions and shatter our easy comfort.
The Joplin tornado had nothing to do with God. It is not that the good people of Joplin were being punished. There was no malevolence in the tornado, only indifference. To try to moralize about the destruction is pointless and totally wrongheaded. It just happened. Sometimes we think that bad things happen to us because we are doing something bad and we punish ourselves accordingly. We are somehow unworthy of God’s grace. This can drive some into fanaticism as they try to assuage their guilt. Others seek scapegoats to blame for the calamity. “If only we had gotten rid of THOSE people this would have never happened.”
The only graceful exit from the God paradox is to acknowledge that the situation at hand has nothing to do with God.
In truth the tornado is indifferent to our fate. The tornado does not either know or care whether we are just or unjust. It simply runs its course according to the immutable laws of weather systems.
Tornadoes are among the most capricious of disaster agents. A tornado can destroy all buildings on one side of the street while leaving the other side unscathed. The owners of destroyed homes might be thinking, “What did I do to deserve this?” while the people across the street might be thinking, “Thank you, God, for sparing us.” In truth both of these sentiments are but an illusion.
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.