The Guardian recently published an article by Dr Rebekah Higgitt in which she questioned whether the routine dismissal of astrology as “rubbish” by popularising scientists such as Professor Brian Cox was really either helpful or even truly scientific. The article seems to have caused quite a stir. The comments thread is full of irate sceptics accusing Dr Higgitt of giving some kind of comfort to the purveyors of arrant nonsense from a past age. But that rather misses the point of her piece, in which she repeatedly makes it clear that she has no more truck with the claims of astrology than any sceptic, no matter how fervent. Her points are different: that those who would declare the beliefs of others “rubbish” should at least be careful to know what those beliefs are as expressed by the most serious adherents in question; should take the trouble to understand some of the history of those ideas; and should accept that the mere assertion that this, that, or the other is “rubbish” is hardly a fine example of the scientific method.
Judging by the roasting Dr Higgitt received despite her unequivocal rejection of the substance of astrological belief, I had better make it clear that I too have no axe to grind. I think astrology is not so much rubbish as utterly useless. And that is my yardstick in these matters. Regular readers will know that I have frequently argued here that the spheres of science and religion are entirely separate, or at least they should be. The question is not so much about whether or not astrology and its followers should be treated with respect, but whether or not they add any value.
Astrology is not a religion. It is not a faith. Faiths have value not to the extent that they try and compete with science as alternative ways of understanding how the universe works, but to the extent that they satisfy the existential need that most of us have (and I would argue we all have, albeit not always explicit or consciously articulated) to understand why we are here, how we should live given that we are here, and what our personal futures may hold. The latter is not about trying to find out what things might happen to us, what events we may be a part of, but rather what our ultimate destiny might be. And deciding that this last may be nothing more than being once more a random part of the carbon cycle is a perfectly legitimate, if inevitably slightly depressing, conclusion to come to. When faiths expand their area of concern to providing unevidenced alternatives to scientific discovery, then they become proper objects of ridicule and incomprehension. Intelligent design is a classic example. In my judgement the design might be intelligent, but the believers are not.
Astrology has no existential value to add. It does not describe a moral framework. It has no eschatology, nor any symbolic narrative of origins that might enable someone to establish meaning in their life. It is simply an alternative version of causation to that offered by science, but unfortunately without any of the data to support it. In that narrow sense it is indeed rubbish: it doesn’t do what it says on the tin, and doesn’t say on the tin anything that could be useful.
Sceptics will of course say that I’m simply trying to offer special pleading on behalf of my religious nonsense, whilst bashing astrology which is no more nonsensical than my faith. However, just as is argued by Dr Higgitt, it’s no argument merely to say, “It’s rubbish!” I’ve set out a clear distinction between astrology and faith, and my detractors should at least do me the favour of wrestling with the issues. And when astrologers argue for the same favour, I think they have a point, notwithstanding my own position that they are indeed very mistaken. Oh, and useless too. In a very respectful sense, obviously.