What’s Your Sign?

What’s Your Sign? September 16, 2014

I was reading today about some horoscope writer who is sick and about how her fans are very upset that she can’t write their horoscopes on time, and it made me remember some woo I briefly got into in the 90s that I wanted to talk about here.

Susan Miller writes horoscopes for a website called Astrology Zone. She sells books and stuff too, but the horoscopes are actually free. I noticed she also has a whole page devoted to the English toddler-prince’s astrological chart, so if you want to think of this as a popular-astrology site rather than one more esoteric, you’re probably spot-on. Apparently she is hugely popular with a lot of people who depend so much on her free services that they’re busy talking all kinds of trash about her for not getting their horoscopes up in time.

After I left Christianity, I ended up hanging out with a lot of people who were way into astrology in Kansas. There’s not a whole lot to do, so people make their own fun–and that can include making a hobby out of making astrological star charts and whatnot. I ended up learning a lot about it, and in the end, realized there wasn’t a whole lot different about it from my previous involvement in Christianity.

English: Horoscope drawn for the birth of Mart...
English: Horoscope drawn for the birth of Martin Luther appearing in Ebenezer Sibly’s Astrology. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

People like to feel like they control their lives, and astrology is one of the most pervasive ways of getting that feeling. I’ve never met someone who didn’t at least know his or her star sign. Astrology can make folks feel like they have more control than they really do over events that can feel terrifyingly random. Ever since humanity awakened, we’ve been convinced that the stars held answers for us on Earth. The Catholic Church might not have cared for it much, but even in universities in the early Middle Ages, astrology was on the curriculum. You may know the name Tycho Brahe, but you might not know he was into astrology as well as astronomy (and alchemy). Despite denunciations from the Church, the practice of fortune-telling and astrology persisted; even the very most Christian of rulers refused to take certain actions until the stars seemed favorable to the proposed venture, so they generally had official astrologers in their courts who were consulted about what the stars had to say about just about everything.

And there is something very compelling about the idea of faraway celestial bodies all having some influence in the lives of puny mortals on Earth, isn’t there? Not that I think even the most fanatical of astrology fans think those bodies care overmuch one way or the other, but it’s got to feel flattering to imagine that thousands of lightyears away, some faraway star whirling around in a vast Catherine wheel of beautiful plasma-fire is pushing a currently-unknown opportunity or soulmate closer and closer. Life feels like such a big crapshoot so often that it’s hard to resist the lure of someone claiming to see a great pattern in it all–and to be able to use that pattern to predict the largely-random events that buffet us all.

So in the same way that someone sends chain letters because “who knows, it might work,” even as the truest of all true-blue Pentecostals I still checked out my horoscope in the newspaper every day. I might have cringed a bit internally that I was doing it, or denied taking them all that seriously, but I still read them. They were right there on the comics page, for crying out loud–what was I supposed to do, just not read words sitting right next to stuff I was reading?

It didn’t feel like committing a mortal sin at the time–I was just reading, for goodness’ sake, surely reading was okay as long as I didn’t do anything sinful as a result of having read those horoscopes. That was how I justified a practice that pretty much every single source I could find condemns in the strongest possible terms. Seriously, I couldn’t even find a source that was even vaguely okay with just reading a newspaper horoscope. Considering astrology is bullshit, their firmness doesn’t make a lot of sense, but we’re talking about folks who believe in supernatural stuff anyway.

And I can’t say I didn’t know my church condemned astrology–I was a member during the very nadir of the Satanic Panic. Oh yes, I knew perfectly well that they condemned even the casual reading of a newspaper horoscope. But I, being a compulsive reader, couldn’t just skip it on the comics page even under threat of my immortal soul being condemned to eternal torture forever and ever and ever because of the cosmology my “loving” god had set up ages before my birth. It seemed like such a silly reason to be tortured forever to me. That’s probably one reason I later came to reject Christianity–that utter lack of proportion in punishment. So I guess it’s true that those little blurbs of astrology in newspapers are dangerous for Christians–just not in the way that Christian leaders imagine them to be.

Much later, years after leaving Christianity, I ran into a young woman in Kansas who had this huge workbook about Capricorns that she’d bought at her local college bookstore. I still don’t know what college class required students to have something like this. I suspect it was something like this book here. Since I happen to be a Capricorn as well, I thought it’d be a hoot to read it. It got extremely detailed, with ways to figure out where all my planets and moons and suns and everything were. My boyfriend at the time bought the book for his star sign and did his as well, leading to the very amusing revelation that I was a Capricorn with a Leo ascendant and he was a Leo with a Capricorn ascendant.

I was just shocked by how accurate it all seemed. Of course, I was the one writing all this stuff down and finding it, so that may contribute a little to why I was seeing stuff that seemed so spot-on. The effect I was experiencing was nothing more than a little cognitive bias humans suffer from called the Forer Effect. That means that people will assign a high accuracy rate to anything they think has been custom-tailored for themselves, when that thing might not have been so at all. And combined with other biases we suffer, we might not even remember the times when that custom-tailoring effect fails, remembering only its successes. Confirmation bias ensures that if someone goes looking for successes, chances are that successes shall indeed be discovered. That’s one reason why the scientific method is as powerful and as respected as it is by right-minded people: it does its best to eliminate that confirmation bias effect.

Horoscopes are the most famous example of the Forer Effect, but there are other things that fit the bill. If you’ve ever seen a televangelist trying to make a television audience send him tons of cash, you might have seen the Forer Effect in motion. Here’s one example courtesy of Ron White, a “Blue Collar” comedian:

I was sitting on a bean bag chair, naked, eating Cheetos the other day when Robert Tilton came on TV. He’s a televangelist out of Dallas.

He looked at me and said, “Are you lonely?”

“Yeah.”

“Have you spent half your life in bars pursuing sins of the flesh?”

“This guy’s good!”

“Are you sitting in a bean bag chair naked eating Cheetos?”

“… Yes, sir…”

“Do you have the urge to get up and send me a thousand dollars?”

Ha ha, close! I thought he was talking about me there for a second!

This story could have come out of any fundamentalist church I ever attended. To some extent this practice is just cold reading. It is done not to tell fortunes, though, but rather to convince targets that the speaker has some supernatural information about them that couldn’t have been obtained in any other way. It’s a way of establishing credibility and asserting authority. And when it gets trotted out, you can be sure it will be seen as a real live miracle. But the people who get duped by this guessing-game never understand what happened.

English: Horoscope for the Supernova of 1572 (...
English: Horoscope for the Supernova of 1572 (labeled: “Nova stella”) by Tycho Brahe “It was when deciding on the date of its first appearance that he had recourse to a horoscope: he simply adapted a method advocated for comets by ‘Alī ibn Ridwan, and decided that its first appearance was during the conjunction of Sun and Moon on 5 November 1572…” North, John David (1986). Horoscopes and history, 175-176, The Warburg Institute, University of London. ISBN:978-0854810680. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) I just thought this was neat.

I can remember people telling me all breathlessly about how some preacher or proselytizing Christian had told them about themselves things that they’d never told anybody–and years later, I’d hear the same wonderment in the voices of those who had gotten very detailed horoscopes drawn up by “experts.” But it’s not hard at all to learn how to do this type of cold reading. Here’s a funny blog post doing just that. When I was on a MUD once right after my deconversion was finished, I remember arguing with a guy about this exact situation. He didn’t believe people would fall for it that easily. So I picked a random player and within a few minutes had him convinced that I’d psychically seen into his soul by using the common “You’re like this… but sometimes you’re like that” formula. It was painfully easy, and not at all different from the evangelists I’d seen–and sometimes emulated, to my shame. You see, for a brief time I was one of those Christians who thoroughly believed that my god had given me some special supernatural powers of divination and prophecy. I didn’t even know what I was doing was cold reading. I thought it was supernatural in nature–divine, godly, sublime–but not my own doing. But it was me who realized I was doing nothing at all supernatural–not the people around me. I had them convinced. Then again, they wanted to be convinced.

People aren’t the unique special snowflakes they usually imagine they are, and this principle is as true in astrology as it is in religious evangelism. Flattering them is painfully easy. And it’s very flattering for us to see something as applying specially to us when we really want to see it that way. If something is presented as halfway authoritative and it’s even a little flattering, chances are we’ll fall for it.

Now it all seems so narcissistic, this idea that gods or stars have some cosmic concern in the affairs of regular people. It doesn’t matter how many studies debunk astrology or expose predatory preachers who are getting their information from purely earthly sources rather than a divine one. People still want it to be true. And life is still mysterious enough that we’ll probably always feel we need a little extra help controlling its ups and downs. I don’t read my horoscope anymore, largely because I don’t get the newspaper in printed form anymore, but I don’t have it in me to condemn people who still need that help. It may be the first-worldiest of all first-world problems that this famous astrologer is sick and can’t get horoscopes out in time, but you know, she is kinda part of the reason why so many people feel so dependent on her services in the first place.

Probably the only honest astrology buff I ever met was a tarot-card reader who told me once that the cards themselves don’t have any power at all, and there was nothing supernatural about anything she did. She saw value in tarot because she thought it was a chance for her to interact very closely with another human being and maybe bring out elements of a situation that her client maybe hadn’t seen yet. It wasn’t magic; it was just moving outside one’s normal frame of reference to perhaps see something in a different way. She felt the same way about horoscopes; she was good at making them, but didn’t think they were magical in any way. She also refused to take money for what she did, so maybe she had less to lose by being straightforward. Most of them would not have been so bold.

Me, I’m glad that humans are on our own. I’m glad that there’s a lot more under my control than I once thought there was, and that the random stuff is truly random so what’s the point of trying to guess at it or control it? I’d way rather it be this way than that there be some vast hidden network of cosmic or divine influences that must be ferreted out and guessed at–especially when there’s no real way to know if you guessed correctly.

But don’t you mess with me. It is apparently a grand tradition in astrology-debunking pieces to end by letting you all know something about my own astrological chart, so I’m required to tell y’all that my moon’s in Scorpio, and apparently that means that a Capricorn would sell her own grandmother to the Turks if it got her ahead.

Oh wait, that wasn’t true at all. Huh, what do we do now?

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