Battle of the stars

If religion is, why isn't astrology a legitimate subject for study?

KEPLER COLLEGE of Astrological Arts and Sciences arrives at a time when astrology is experiencing a bit of a revival in the wider academic world. "There's been a real renaissance in astrology studies in the last five to 10 years," says Professor Laura A. Smoller, a Harvard Ph.D. and associate professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, who has written a book called History, Prophecy and the Stars.

Anthony Grafton, a professor of history at Princeton, says that scholars today are far more knowledgeable about the subject than they were a generation ago. "You can't understand intellectual history without knowing something about astrology," he says. "It was a major intellectual discipline in the world of the Roman Empire, in Mesopotamia before that, in the Islamic and Christian Middle Ages and Renaissance Europe."

As noted by Christopher McIntosh in his 1969 book, The Astrologers and Their Creed, myths, stories, and speculation about the celestial bodies have arisen wherever and whenever people have looked to the sky—which is to say everywhere and at all times. (Indeed, it even can be found in my own "tradition," as they say: The Yiddish word Shlimazel, meaning a person with dismal luck, is a compound of the words for "bad heaven" or "evil constellation.")

The 12 signs of the zodiac were first developed by the Babylonians, most scholars believe, hundreds of years before Jesus, and the earliest use of astrology was likely for predicting floods, famines, and so forth by tracking correspondences with the state of the heavens. Astrology later became a more elaborate mathematical tool for assessing psychological traits and forecasting individual and national destiny. "It was called the science of the stars," says Smoller. "A distinction between astronomy and astrology didn't exist. The science of motions [how the planets moved] and of judgments—what they caused—were not distinct."

Christianity was largely hostile to the practice, because it seemed to take away free will and because of its perceived pagan origins. As Professor Grafton notes, "Instead of explaining history as a result of divine providence or some other theological mechanism," astrology posited "a purely secular, purely worldly set of causes."

Astrology's popularity peaked during the Renaissance. "By the 15th and 16th century, there are a lot of rulers who don't make a move without consulting an astrologer," says Professor Smoller, "electing times for battles, to get married, to start a building." Astrological texts were also among the earliest printed books, according to Smoller. She adds: "Astrology had a huge place in medical practice—you had to bleed people at the right time."

The rise of science punched a few holes in astrology—particularly the realization that the sun and planets did not revolve around the earth. Later astronomical discoveries also chipped away at astrology's credibility. The stars turned out to be much farther away than astrological theorists had imagined, vastly distant from the earth and other planets with which they were supposed to interact. New planets, indeed new galaxies, were discovered that were not part of the astrological model.

Astrology was banned from French universities in 1666 and elsewhere in Europe soon after.

Students and faculty at Kepler contend that astrology stopped being taught not because it was disproved, but simply because it fell out of favor—a theory that Professor Smoller, for one, affirms. "The scientific revolution was tied up with legitimating power," she says; astrology was dropped as part of a general crackdown against popular "enthusiasms" and "superstitions."

That's not to say that astrology has somehow passed scientific scrutiny. In an exhaustively fair-minded book published in the early '80s called Astrology: Science or Superstition?, two scholars patiently, systematically examined all the studies, all the claims, all the experiments, and found that there was no scientifically valid evidence that the positions of the stars and planets have any predictive value, though they said further investigation might still be warranted. They said there was some reason to believe that the movement of celestial bodies can have biological effects here on earth.

Astrology has come to be seen as the pseudoscience par excellence, and attempts to eradicate it have been continual. As recently as the mid-'70s, a couple hundred prominent scientists, including 18 Nobel prize-winners, got together in a magazine article to "challenge directly and forcefully, the pretentious claims of astrological charlatans." Complaining that "acceptance of astrology pervades modern society," the scientists declared: "It is simply a mistake to imagine . . . that the positions of distant heavenly bodies make certain days or periods more favorable to particular kinds of action, or that the sign under which one was born determines one's compatibility or incompatibility with other people."

But nothing seems to snuff out the industry. Over the last 20 years, polls have generally found that about 30 percent of the U.S. population continues to believe that the movement of the planets and stars may affect people's lives—even if people maintain their interest in stealth. Kepler student Laurel Sanford, who works as a "personal coach," says, "If I'm talking to an individual client and say, 'Well, how about if I read your chart?' they'll say, 'You can do that?' But if they're in a group with other co-workers, no way."

Even scholars who have devoted a significant portion of their careers to astrology do so without the least belief in its validity. Professor Francesca Rochberg, a history teacher at the University of California-Riverside and former MacArthur Fellow who has written extensively on ancient astrology, says, "I take a pretty dim view of astrology as anything but a completely historical point of interest. She says awarding degrees in astrology "sounds crazy to me." Professor Smoller in Little Rock emphasizes that she considers astrology, both today and in the past, to be "total bunk."

Still, plenty of people are studying and getting degrees in spheres of inquiry that have not exactly stood up to strict scientific assessment. Of course, a vast academic apparatus is devoted to the study of religion. You can also, I believe, still write doctoral dissertations on Freudian psychology, for example. My own alma mater had an entire department dedicated to folklore and mythology. And is there any reason to assume that all the myriad forms of counseling out there are more likely to help people than one based on the vocabulary and symbolism of astrology?

mfefer@seattleweekly.com

 
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