Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Mystifying Astrology Culture of Young Liberals


A 30-something year old woman recently told me that she blames her divorce on the fact that her wedding date coincided with Mercury’s retrograde. She’s a successful musician with a seemingly airtight bullshit detector, but the simple truth that most relationships fail did not satisfy her as an explanation. Mercury’s orbit, apparently, did.  

A few weeks later a musician my age excitedly told me that he had just met two lovely young women with whom he had felt unusually comfortable. But rather than attribute the good vibes to chance, he attributed them to their shared identities as Aries.
In 2014 the National Science Foundation released a study showing that 45% of Americans believe in astrology. One might expect that this number has declined over the years as we have moved out of the age of superstition and into the age of information. Not so. According to the study, more people believe in astrology now than in 1980.

One might also expect that young liberals, who tend to be more scientifically informed than their parents, skew towards skepticism of astrology for exactly that reason. Again, not so. People aged 18-24 believe in astrology more fervently than their parents do, and liberals are twice as likely as conservatives to believe in it (Pew).

But after a year of running in artistically inclined social circles as an undergrad student at Columbia University, I am not at all surprised by these facts. The number of times I have been asked what my zodiac sign is––in an earnest and unironic tone of voice––would likely baffle the mind of a person living in, say, China, where only 8% of people believe in astrology, or in Japan, where they prefer to blame the diversity of human personality traits on blood types rather than birthdays.

I’ve discovered that many astrology enthusiasts find my response to their question rather annoying: “I’m a Pisces, but astrology is as debunked as flat-earth, so it doesn’t matter”. While I’ve never had the good fortune of meeting a flat-earther, I rarely go a full month without colliding with an astrologer. But imagine if the reverse were true. Imagine how you would react to someone confidently arguing for the flatness of our planet. Now imagine that a significant number of your Ivy League educated friends not only entertained this person’s belief, but even agreed with them. This would be unthinkable, and yet, it is analogous to the situation that I am in with astrologers.

How could it be that so many young, Ivy League educated students are confused about this? Students who are otherwise scientifically informed, who link arms with me in railing against pseudoscience-peddling climate change deniers, suddenly sound exactly like them when attempting to defend astrology.

Of course, there are different levels of commitment to astrological belief. There are many people for whom it is nothing more than a hobby. They don’t really believe it, but they often don’t like being told that it’s untrue. Then there are those who believe it just enough to waste $15 on a magical book that needs nothing but your birthday to inform you about intimate details of your personality, or those who check their horoscope app every morning the way the rest of us might check a weather app. But the most extreme circle are those who actually credit their past successes to planetary orbits, and blame their life tragedies on a failure to mind their horoscope charts.

It may not be a coincidence that astrology shows up most heavily in America’s most secular demographic. Perhaps young liberals––by the very fact of our generally secular worldviews––reach for astrology to fill a spiritual void that religion never entered. And it is easy to see how astrology might help fill such a void. On many levels it’s an appealing idea. It helps resolve the question of why we are hot one day and cold the next. It makes sense of our emotions when we are unable to. It assuages the fear most of us have that we are an insignificant part of an uncaring universe. It makes you feel like the stars and the planets have something to do with you––like you stand in relation to the cosmos as something more than a vanishingly small cluster of atoms.

But the truth is that our emotions are usually petty, constantly changing, often contradictory, and occasionally beautiful, and all of this has nothing to do with the large rocks and collections of gas that move around light years away from us. Not only is astrology refuted by a basic understanding of physics, but also by simple common sense. Think about it: dividing the year into 12 time-periods is a totally arbitrary human convention. There are no cosmic objects––stars, planets, moons, or otherwise––that move or revolve exactly 12 times a year, so there is nothing in the universe for the 12 zodiac signs to align with in the first place.

Moreover, there are ways to deal with negative emotions that don’t require belief in fairy tales––mindfulness meditation, psychotherapy, psychiatry, and cognitive behavioral therapy, to name a few. Using some combination of these, you can make real progress in dealing with negative emotions, rather than simply explaining them away with a theory invented before we discovered Pluto. I, for one, prefer facts to fiction, but maybe that’s just a Pisces thing.  

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