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Astrology between religion and science

An abridgement of Astrologie als Religion und "Erfahrungswissenschaft" (Astrology between religion and "experience-science") by Gustav-Adolf Schoener, REMID, Marburg 2002. Dr Schoener is at the Department of Religious Studies at Hannover University and is noted for his interest in astrology. It is based on the English translation by Shane Denson at, which has 19,200 words including a bibliography of 66 items (43 in German) and 80 footnotes.

Abstract -- Astrology assumes that all of nature including the planets has a spiritual essence linked by analogies and sympathies. It claims to provide a spiritual interpretation of the world based on scientific knowledge about planetary positions. That is, it wants to be religion and science at the same time. The absence of convincing scientific support for astrological claims makes it difficult to see astrology except in religious terms. Religious scholarship does not consider whether an idea is true or not. It considers only whether people hold such ideas, and the effect of those ideas on their experiences. Thus the mysterious ideas of astrology can be viewed in the same way as the ideas of life after death, purgatory, karma and reincarnation. The article also briefly describes the influence of Theosophist and Jungian ideas, and the importance of astrology in the history of religions. With 12 in-text references most of them in German.

Insofar as it views everything as involving powers from beyond, astrology is a religion. All events in the cosmos and on earth are linked by an invisible bond. But astrology is also very sober and science-like. It divides the heavens into exact geometries. So its religious understanding of the cosmos is based on exact scientific calculations -- a double nature well known to scholars of religion.

The classical philologist Franz Boll said it concisely: "Astrology wants to be religion and science at the same time; that marks its essence" (Sternglaube und Sterndeutung: Die Geschichte und das Wesen der Astrologie, Leipzig 1931, page 72).

Early astrology
Astrological ideas formed in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and ancient Greece, and then spread westward. During this early period astrology coagulated into a fixed world view that recognised gods in the planets and signs, whose existence was proven by comparing life on earth with the movements of the sky. Astrology saw man, nature and cosmos as one single accord that worked by the principle of analogy and sympathy.

In this way, an entire system of analogous relationships between the heavenly bodies and the things on earth was established, and makes up the world view of astrology today. It assumes that all of nature has a spiritual essence through which the analogies work. Those who today cannot believe in this essence are unable to take astrology seriously. Conversely, those who do believe in this essence have good prospects of accepting at least the world view of astrology.

Such thinking continued through the Middle Ages and beyond. Thus in the 17th century the ancient planet gods remained in the beliefs of most people and were seen as responsible for good and bad harvests, for war and peace, for sickness and recovery, and so on. When accepted by one-God religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, these planet gods were understood as instruments of the one God.

Modern esoteric astrology
First of all it must be said that, in the 18th and 19th centuries, astrology disappeared from recognised science and recognised Christian theology. Nevertheless in the late 19th century, in esoteric circles, principally the Theosophical Society founded in 1875, astrology experienced a revival. The TS was concerned to make known the esoteric doctrines contained in all religions and to speak against modern natural science, which was seen as incomplete because it disregarded the spiritual powers at work in nature. All of nature, stones, plants, animals, were once again, as in ancient times, filled with mysterious divine powers. The planets are not just dead, physical bodies, for in them lie living essences which work through them. Or so the TS held.

These views were promoted notably by Alice Bailey (1880-1949), whose book Esoteric Astrology explained a certain heavenly hierarchy and revived the astrological world view, and by Alan Leo (1860-1917), whose many works made possible the transition from esoteric astrology to practical horoscope interpretation. Astrology once again claimed to provide a spiritual interpretation of the world while at the same time using scientific knowledge for this purpose. Its ancient concern to be religion and science at the same time was once more achieved.

But the path was also paved for modern horoscope interpretation in the mass media, in which the TS background played hardly any role at all. Today everyone can look up their horoscope for the day or week in a newspaper and check how accurate it is. Except that the descriptions are always too general to allow such a check. Nor do they have any proper link with the calculations of serious astrology.

Modern psychological astrology
In addition to theosophy, the ideas of the psychologist Carl Jung (1875-1961) also paved the way for modern astrology. While trying to decode the symbolic world of our nightly dreams he came across images that also appear in the myths and fairy tales handed down to us. This led him to the idea that the gods of the heavenly bodies in astrology are actually pictures that lie unconsciously dormant in our mind. Thus myths about the war god Mars are actually events that humans have repeatedly experienced and have at some time ascribed to gods. In this way, according to Jung, astrology came about.

Jung, and others such as Fritz Riemann in his book Lebenshilfe Astrologie: Gedanken und Erfahrungen, believed that astrology could therefore inform us about the human mind and (very generally) future events. Not because the stars dictate human life, but because the horoscope hints at predispositions that can be followed up in ways unrelated to the stars. It becomes the basis for a psychological consultation. For example Hans Bender, in his foreword to Thomas Ring's Astrologische Menschenkunde (Freiburg 1990), notes that "a great number of rational people, among them many psychotherapists, use the birth constellation as a practical diagnostic tool."

However, if the horoscope hints at predispositions that can develop in quite diverse ways, the horoscope and eventual outcome do not necessarily correspond to one another. So how can this correspondence be tested? Most astrologers agree that testing is difficult and may not be possible, but feel that personal experience in consultation verifies the correctness of the horoscope. Due to these difficulties in testing, astrology enjoys hardly any scientific recognition.

But if astrology were to be confirmed by scientific tests, it would mean that human character would depend on the stars at birth, which is contrary to accepted scientific findings. It would require a return to religious explanations. The dependence would not be explained by physical effects such as light or gravitation, but through "living powers" at work in the whole cosmos. It would be a return to the ancient astrology, to an "anima mundi," a world soul, which could explain astrological and magical events.

In short, psychological astrology begins with human experiences and ends by drawing religious conclusions. So it is very close to esoteric astrology. No wonder that the two are often not distinguished at all in modern astrology.

Empirical astrology
Recall how Franz Boll held that astrology wants to be religion and science at the same time. Empirical astrology is thus the third path which astrology takes in the twentieth century.

For example in his book Astrologie als Erfahrungswissenschaft (Leipzig 1927), the German astrologer Herbert von Klockler investigated 5000 horoscopes for special astrological correspondences of accidents, crimes, and also particular talents of painters, poets, and lawyers. He found slight effects that did not definitely confirm astrology, so in scientific terms they were of hardly any value.

More comprehensive tests were carried out in the 1970s by the French psychologist Michel Gauquelin. In general, astrological claims could not be confirmed. He did find slight effects but again they did not definitely confirm astrology.

More recently an investigation into lunar effects by the biologists Klaus-Peter Endres and Wolfgang Schad in their book Biologie des Mondes: Mondperiodik und Lebensrhythmen (Leipzig 1997) found that some plants and animals showed no connection with moon phases, while others did show a small connection in their growth or reproductive behavior but not consistently -- for some it was only at full moon, others only at new moon, and still others only at waxing or waning quarter moon. So even this study hardly helps horoscope interpretation.

Astrology and Christianity
In early Christianity astrology was generally rejected because it was a heathen practice and the new religion (Christianity) no longer needed it. But there also existed a positive attitude, largely because many of astrology's symbols were already common in some currents of Judaism and flowed quite naturally into Christianity. In the Middle Ages the church allowed a "natural" astrology that gave information about weather or found application in medicine, but condemned as a heathen faith "judicial" (judgment-passing) astrology for individuals.

Today astrology still believes in many planet gods who are at work in the cosmos. So astrology has no problem in recognizing one Creator God (as in Christianity) who created this cosmos. But it is not so simple the other way around.

Today church views on astrology, whether Roman Catholic or Evangelical, could hardly be more diverse. They vary from mocking rejection and serious warning of its dangers, as in the Pope's 1993 Catechism, to serious occupation with it, as in theologian Christoph Schubert-Weller's book Sprecht Gott durch die Sterne? (does God speak through the stars?), which sees astrology as a medium for psychological insight.

Where does astrology stand today?
Religious scholarship does not consider whether a religious idea is true or not. It considers only whether there are people who hold such ideas, and the effect of those ideas on their experiences. Thus the mysterious ideas that astrology teaches can be viewed in the same way as the ideas of life after death, purgatory, karma and reincarnation.

Modern astrology has to date received little attention by religious scholars, but most see modern astrology in the context of western esoterica. Thus for Christoph Bochinger it gains currency in the expectation of a "New Age" ("New Age" und moderne Religion, Gutersloh 1994), while for Antoine Faivre (Access to Western esoterism, New York 1994, and Esoterik im Uberblick, Freiburg 2001), and Wouter Hanegraaff, (New Age religion and Western culture: esotericism in the mirror of secular thought, Leiden 1996), modern astrology is a part of western esoterica.

Currently, the most widespread form of astrology is the popular one which presents itself both in daily newspapers and in special esoteric periodicals. It often contradicts concrete experience so clearly that every serious foundation must be denied. It is obvious that this popular astrology is hardly interested in a serious explanation or investigation be it religious or empirical.

As for seriously practiced astrology, we can say that it strives collectively toward a synthesis between "science," "personal experience," and "religion," which makes it difficult to see it collectively as any one of these. But for individual astrologies the distinction is clearer. Moreover at some universities in South America, Asia, and Africa (for example, in Cairo) and also at the University of Riga in Latvia, astrology is being taught, if only because its importance in the history of religions is being rediscovered.

As Franz Boll says, "The most important thing about the history of astrology is that it shows the connection between peoples with better clarity and irrefutability than is achieved anywhere else. Perhaps in astrology alone have East and West, Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists understood one another without difficulty" (ibid page 58).

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