Star-gazing prophet sparks astrology row
Is astrology just harmless fun? Supporters think that it can comfort people who are afraid of the future, but sceptics fear that it encourages the gullible to choose fantasy over reality.
In the ancient Greek myth, the god Apollo placed an inventive curse on the princess Cassandra: she would have the gift of prophecy, but no-one would ever believe her predictions. When she warned Troy of its coming destruction by the Greeks, everyone ignored her – and the city was razed to the ground.
Jessica Adams must have felt much the same way last year, when she predicted that a deadly virus would disrupt the world in 2020. As a shocked planet sank into lockdown, she packed up her things and left for Tasmania, one of the few places on the face of the globe that are now Covid-free.
Adams practises astrology, the ancient art of interpreting the movements of the planets and the twelve Zodiac signs to predict the future.
Different systems of astrology have been developed all over the world, but Western astrology emerged in Mesopotamia almost 4,000 years ago. It spread to ancient Greece and Rome, and survived the collapse of the Roman Empire thanks to the work of Muslim and Christian scholars.
In this period it was understood as a science, practised by prominent astrologers such as Galileo. It was largely discredited in the 19th century, and is now considered a pseudoscience. Nonetheless, its popularity is growing.
Certainly, Adams has got a lot of her predictions right. She foresaw the Brexit result, a rift between Prince William and Prince Harry and Donald Trump’s Covid diagnosis.
She has more big forecasts for the years to come: in 2021, she claims, Joe Biden will be president, the United Kingdom will split into four separate countries and Italy will leave the European Union.
For those who feel that things just keep getting worse, she has some good news: the next few years look rosy. She predicts that we will adjust to Covid, that the climate crisis will be over by 2026 and, intriguingly, that the days of toxic masculinity are numbered.
Sceptics argue that there is no possible means by which celestial bodies could influence human behaviour.
But astrologers think that this misses the point. They claim that astrology is not about stars and planets at all but about cycles in human history that tend to repeat themselves. The night sky simply provides a helpful language for studying these patterns.
Journalist Alexandra Jones believes that the growing popularity of astrology is linked with worsening mental health. She suggests that when people are depressed or anxious, they easily convince themselves that nothing they do can change their own future.
However, some think that astrology does more harm than good. A study in 2013 found that people who believe that their fate is already determined are prone to making rash decisions. They are likely to abandon important commitments, safe in the knowledge that they cannot change their own futures.
So, is astrology just harmless fun?
Yes, say some. They think that astrology can, at the very least, act as an emotional support for people who are suffering from poor mental health. And they point to the successful predictions of astrologers like Jessica Adams to argue that there is some basis to astrology: even if planets are not actually dictating human behaviour, nonetheless there are repeating trends in human history.
Not at all, say others. They suggest that encouraging people to believe that bad days or events are inevitable can damage their mental health. If people start to believe in things that have no basis in evidence, then they might also be more vulnerable to dangerous conspiracy theories. People should confront their problems, not try to escape them through illusions.
- Would you like to know what happens in your future, or are you happier without this knowledge?
- Can something be true if it has no basis in evidence?
- According to astrologers, people born between 22 September and 22 October are Libras, meaning that they establish balance and harmony in their lives, and enjoy art and intellectual pursuits. Find the Libras in your class and see if they fit this description.
- Write a short story about a self-fulfilling prophecy: a prophecy that sets off the series of actions that cause it to come true.
Some People Say...
“We give credence to the marvellous and irrational when it flatters our self-esteem.”Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), German philosopher
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Most people agree that while astrology has no basis in scientific evidence, it exists, like science, to explain the inexplicable. Human behaviours are exceptionally diverse: it is very difficult to rationalise them scientifically. For this reason, disciplines like anthropology – which tries to analyse and explain human activity – are not strictly scientific. It can be helpful to categorise human behaviours, emotions and traits according to a universal standard, like the patterns of the night sky.
- What do we not know?
- There is some debate over why so many people believe in astrology. The sociologist Theodor Adorno suggested that astrologers tend to promote conformity to the demands of capitalism by advising people to see work and the purchase of consumer goods as an inescapable part of their fate. He also argued that astrology is a kind of mass irrationalism, in which subtle generalisations are used to persuade people that an astrology column produced for a mass market is actually personally addressed to them.
- The ancient Greek god of the sun, poetry, and archery. The oracle at Delphi, dedicated to him, was famous for its ambiguous prophecies.
- An ancient city in modern-day Turkey. It is the subject of Homer’s epic poem The Iliad. After a ten-year siege, the hero Odysseus finally took the city by hiding a group of Greek soldiers in a vast wooden horse, which the Trojans wheeled into their city. This is the origin of the expression “Trojan horse”.
- A large island off the south coast of Australia with a very low population density.
- Zodiac signs
- Twelve sectors into which astrologers divide the night sky. Each one is named after a constellation within it. In order, they run: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces.
- A historical region of the Middle East, mostly centred on modern-day Iraq, Kuwait and parts of Syria and Turkey. The name “Mesopotamia” in Greek means “between rivers” because of the Tigris and Euphrates that run through it.
- An Italian astronomer of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He clashed with the Catholic Church over his belief that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and was eventually forced to recant his views.
- Toxic masculinity
- A term in feminist theory to describe the social pressures that discourage men and boys from expressing emotions like affection, joy, sadness, and fear, and elevate aggressive and angry responses to emotional situations.