New York Times Essay Calls for More Respect for Astrology

Are astrology and other New Age beliefs a kind of religion for those without religion? Real or not, should that religious stature grant them greater respect and less scoffing? The stars say yes in a New York Times opinion piece this past week by writer Krista Burton. Does she make a good case?

Burton describes herself as someone who, five years ago, laughed off chakras and energy healing, but is now…

a person who pays attention to whether Mercury is in retrograde, someone who is excited about the summer solstice on June 21, a person who reads her Chani Nicholas horoscope each week with bated breath.

She points out she’s joined by a growing number of adherents to New Age beliefs, noting “a 40 percent increase in Google searches for ‘crystal healing’ over the past four years.” While Google searches aren’t necessarily scientific, there has been an anecdotal rise in young people who believe New Age nonsense. That’s been happening at the same time the Pew Research Center has found a decline in mainstream church membership along with a rise in Americans with no stated religious affiliation (“Nones”).

Giving a reasonable description of the current landscape, Burton asks:

Why is all of this so trendy now, though? Is astrology a religion for those of us with no religion? Are we, the hated millennials, obsessed with the idea of glimpsing our future because it feels terrifying and President Trump is going to get us all nuked anyway? Is it easier to just buy a heart-shaped rose quartz than deal with feelings or existential questions or to work on ourselves?

Nah.

The meteoric rise of New Age practices may be trendy, but it’s one way millennials are acknowledging that the current system isn’t working. We’re trying out new things that are actually old things; we’re seeing what else could make life a little more meaningful, a little more bearable.

She suggests that gays and lesbians are more likely than the general population to be New Agers; I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, the reasons she offers aren’t entirely unreasonable:

show me a larger group of people who’ve been more discarded by their childhood religions, or who’ve turned their backs on cultures, traditions and gods that don’t serve, love or want them as they are. Oh, look — it’s the queers waving back at you, plumes of smoke from smudge sticks wafting behind us like spiritual chemtrails as we sage away those negative vibes.

Burton urges greater acceptance of New Age beliefs as healthy, implying there should be less scoffing: “If something helps you during a time of stress in your life,” she argues, “it’s worth it.”

To restate this single most common defense of any religion: “Hey, if a belief makes people feel better, it’s wrong to question it.” If the logical fallacy isn’t obvious, ask any of your many friends, relatives, and acquaintances who have fallen victim to addiction, cults, obsessive or anti-social beliefs, or self-destructive behaviors in the search to feel better during stressful times.

If you want greater respect for illogical ideas, you have to make a better argument than this.

Burton then uses an argument more frequently offered by New Agers than mainstream religionists:

Now, I’m not stupid. I may be a woo-woo, crystal-worshiping homosexual, but I know that a polished red rock is not going to heal my tailbone. It’s not going to bring my mom back either. It may not do a thing. But none of us know anything about anything, really. So why not be open to the possibility of hope?

Asking a skeptic “why not be open to hope?” is like asking “when did you stop beating your wife?” It contains an unstated dark and unsupported allegation: that a naturalistic, rational belief system closes you from the possibility of hope. 

That is seriously narrow-minded.

Just as with Christians and other believers, New Agers often justify their beliefs by trying to limit any definition of existential hope to the supernatural. That is both false and risky. False, because hope for natural joys is no less meaningful — we hope for a rewarding life, a painless death, warm memories of us in our communities, a legacy of leaving the world a better place, a good life for surviving loved ones, etc. Risky, because such important earthly aspirations are devalued when religionists insist true fulfillment can’t come from these alone, and that there must be “something more.”

Take my hypothetical friends Leon and Lisa. Leon is a Christian and Lisa is a New Ager; both are going through a rough patch and need some hope in their lives. Adding to Leon’s troubles is a nagging suspicion that he’s losing his faith. Lisa is torn by growing wariness of woo and appreciation for science.

How is it helpful to tell them that they would close themselves off to hope if they give in to their rational minds? Must they be frightened by their skepticism? Should they try to pretend they believe something which they know in their hearts they do not, as so many do out of fear there’s no healthy alternative?

Why not instead teach them that a naturalistic philosophy can also be an uplifting path that doesn’t require smothering their inner healthy skeptic?

More troublesome is Burton’s casual line, said with confidence that we’ll all be nodding along: None of us know anything about anything, really.

Burton isn’t asking us to be “open to the possibility of hope,” so much as she’s asking us to reject the hope we can know anything about anything. Really.

Many of us know a lot about quite a bit. It’s not arrogant to say that, nor is it humble to celebrate ignorance.

There are good reasons to reject such postmodernist nihilism. How can the New Ager who doesn’t think we can really know anything logically argue the ethics of respecting climate change science? Or that children with gay parents are not worse off than straight ones? Or that gun safety laws result in fewer gun deaths? Or that there’s no reason to draw a distinction between gender or race in areas of intellect or morality?

Trumpian opinions are just as valid as yours if we don’t really know anything.

More to the point: How can Burton still make this argument when we’ve seen so vividly the horrifying consequences of a society utterly unable to agree on the most basic, provable facts? When a large segment of society doesn’t even consider truth especially important?

The history of other countries suggests the United States won’t break out of this pattern as long as its culture remains dominated by the strange belief that faith without evidence — any faith, really, as long as it’s unprovable and invisible — is a virtue. Those of us driven by an ethic of basing our beliefs on what, to the best of our determination, is objectively true are suspicious characters. It is truly bizarre that evidence-based belief is generally viewed by Americans as more morally relativistic than evidence-free belief.

The answer to Burton’s question is yes, astrology is religion for those with no religion. But trading scripture for a seance is much more of a superficial makeover than substantive progression. Young “Nones” deserve more exposure to other alternatives as well: healthy, hope-inspiring philosophies like naturalism and humanism.

The fundamental problem with astrology and New Age spirituality is shared with all religion: By promoting faith without evidence as a virtue, they devalue truth.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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