Superstition ain’t the way

I received some interesting comments on my post on astrology, one of which was so critical of my post that I thought it’d be worth writing back.

Julie took issue with a couple of points in the post. First of all, she claimed that I was attacking astrology because it is beloved by people I don’t like, and can’t relate to. Second, she equated astrology with smoking marijuana, on the grounds that both were harmless, transient pleasures and victimless crimes. Finally, she argued that one couldn’t show respect for organized religion while attacking astrology, since both involve ordering one’s life according to irrational beliefs.

I’ll try to deal with these one at a time. Astrology is not something the plebians do, while I watch from my eyrie with alarm. Astrology is something that appeals to a large number of the people I know: graduate students, prep school teachers, young urban professionals. I wouldn’t be writing about astrology if it didn’t come up as an explanatory force in my life.

I don’t have any respect for organized religion, and agree that one faith is just about as good as another. People are not “reincarnated” according to their “karma.” Jesus did not rise from the dead. The Israelites are not the chosen people of God. There is no paradise for slain believers in Islam. The world was not created by Krishna. And so forth.

That said, I have a huge amount of respect for the philosophical worth of books like the Tanakh, the Bible, the Dhammapada, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Qu’ran, the Analects, the Tao Te Ching, and etc. I also admire secondary texts like the confessions of Augustine or the poems of Rumi. The eloquence and nobility of these texts does not have any counterpart in the sappy, predictable guidebooks of modern astrology. The ethical “wisdom” of astrology, such as it appears in texts, is pop psychology. Here’s a sketch of 90% of horoscopes:

Love
Love is the fruit of a long and sometimes difficult journey. It is maintained through open communication between equal partners, combined with attentiveness to the other’s needs. It is a synthesis of at least three things: magnetic forces of attraction, personal commitment, and sexual energies. Since all of these fluctuate, love waxes and wanes — but this is no reason for cynicism.

Money and Success
Fortune favors the bold: one should invest when the time is right, and not hesitate. New projects and new contacts are indispensable to the successful person. There are, however, fallow periods when nothing is in the offing, during which the smart man or woman will conserve resources and remain vigilant.

The psyche
Human beings are equipped with analytical reasoning, which they may use to increase their chances of survival and success, but their real energies come from the irrational: emotion and spirituality, which has to do with an imaginative inner sympathy with the guiding powers of the world. Therefore they should try to create productive channels for their emotions, and should seek out relationships and jobs suited to their unalterable deepest natures. They should make time for reverie and spiritual innervations (such as the “inspirations” that move the artist’s hand). People should maintain a slightly humorous, self-deprecating stance towards their emotions, as these always threaten to become maladaptive if they are not soothed and channeled. Understanding one’s own self, through a positive recognition of a personal destiny, is the key to transforming one’s reality.

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There’s a certain amount of valid thinking here; but, removed from the context of a weekly horoscope, can’t you feel objections surging at the gates? These sorts of philosophical and metaphysical claims require real investigation and real skepticism. The assumptions in a book of banal prophecy can’t stand up to questioning, because such books are made of advice, not argument. The same cannot be said of any major religious text.

Astrology is not just a pleasure. It is a version of truth: specifically, a version that seems to admit its own unreliability. Astrology is the kind of truth that by being acknowledged as false becomes mere entertainment. This makes it an ally of bad romantic comedies, of Horatio Alger stories, of all the lies that teach us to separate our hopes from the realities of life.

I should hope, were someone to use marijuana, that they would acknowledge its harmful effects: it causes carcinogenic tar build-up in the lungs, short-term memory loss, loss of motivation, and a temporary decline in reasoning skills. If they used it anyway, I would hope they could justify their decision with an eloquence equal to Jack Kerouac’s, or John Lennon’s, or Bob Marley’s: in other words, along the lines of those who thought it was truthful, and took pleasure in that.

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