Contemporary Academic Study of Astrology

Contemporary Academic Study of Astrology

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Like the field of new religious movements (NRMs), mainstream academic studies of astrology are a comparatively recent development. While the scientific study of NRMs has developed for approximately 40 years, the university focus on astrology as a behavioral phenomenon developed only in the 1990s. The reflection of this novel innovation is that there are few published works that approach the subject from a detached and sophisticated perspective. The sponsorship efforts of the British-based Sophia Trust is one attempt to remedy this situation and encourage production from within a range of critical inquiries such as sociological studies of popular belief in astrology.

As a system of divination based on the positions of the sun, moon, planets, and stars, astrology finds its origins in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. During the days of imperial Rome, this astral method of divining flourished intermittently. Astrology died out in western Europe in the fifth century c.e. under the combined influence of the collapse of literacy and Christian hostility, but it survived in Syria, Persia, and India from where it was reintroduced into the Islamic world in the eighth to ninth centuries and from there to Europe in the twelfth century. Its popularity in the fourteenth century French court gave it a fashionable appeal that encouraged its acceptance in England. While Bede and Alcuin were both interested in the sky, in England, astrology was practiced by such notables as Adelard of Bath, Geoffrey Chaucer, John Dee and Elias Ashmole. In the 17 th century, William Lilly demarcated the ritual circle used in magical invocation for the confinement of conjured demons with astrological symbols, here being regarded in themselves as conveyors of supernatural power. In Germany, poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, building upon the Faustian legends, depicted his hero as an astrologer as well as a sorcerer.

The daily horoscope emerged as a journalistic feature in the 1930s. The early presentations quickly appealed to a receptive public sentiment, and the horoscope column has become a regular aspect of tabloids and syndicated newspapers ever since. Vernacular interest in astrology is a complex issue, and several scholars—with the Cultural Astronomy and Astrology (CAA) Programme funded by the Sophia Project and beyond—are currently involved with understanding the dynamics of “astrological belief’ and other sociological implications from the popular Western concern with astrological prediction and character assessment. One notable factor in the standardization of stellar divination and personality types classified according to the constellations of the zodiac has been the influence of the theosophist Alan Leo (William Frederick Allen, 1860–1917). It was Leo who, as a professional astrologer, laid the foundations for the present-day understanding of what he termed the “science of the stars.” Moreover, he founded the journal Modern Astrology and authored numerous books on the subject. In the course of the 20th century, through its links with theosophy, astrology became the lingua franca of the 1960s counterculture as well as many of the New Age movements that have descended from it. For New Age spirituality, use of the astronomical phenomenon of the precession of the equinoxes has become the seminal framework within which the New Age of Aquarius has been heralded. While this detection of the planet’s gyroscopic motion that makes the zodiac appear from the perspective of the earth to advance incrementally is an astronomical understanding, its cultural familiarity and historical interpretation have been fostered chiefly by the legacy of astrology rather than through the findings of empirical science.

It is in fact precisely through the advent of the empirical sciences that astrology has come to receive increased criticism and skeptical attack. As Michael R. Meyer (1974) sees it, “The study of astrology was held in the highest respect by most academic institutions throughout Europe, Asia, and North Africa right up until the dawn of the ‘Age of Reason’—the eighteenth century, when the ‘sciences’ to which astrology gave birth rationalized that it was invalid.” Much of the modern-day astrophysicist antagonism to astrology culminated with the Bok “Objections to Astrology” manifesto that physicists and astronomers were asked to sign in 1975. While a standard astrological defense is to maintain that the predictive propensities of the system have themselves been acquired through empirical observation, it could be argued instead that astrological interpretation derives from religio-culturally established understandings of archetypal personalities (e.g., mercurial, jovial, and saturnine characteristics) and numerological symbolism. Already in his third-century c.e. Enneads, Plotinus agued that the stars are signifiers or symbols of events rather than causes.

If science tends to condemn the a priori as superstition—especially when it appears unsupported by empirical observation, what becomes of interest to the sociologist is the very persistence of belief that appears to fly in the face of contemporary and demonstrable aspects of rationalism. In their turn, New Age spokespeople often reject the province of science as restricted and narrow and inapplicable to the mystical “wisdom traditions.” But regardless of alleged outmoded thought forms from the vantage of New Age culture, there is within the astrological community more broadly an effort to revalidate the use of nuance, metaphor and interpretation.

But if astrology must face antagonism from the preserve of canonical science, it must also deal with the antipathy engendered from traditional mainstream western religions. In particular, the socially accepted forms of established Christianity are not at all receptive to “astrological magic,” which even if valid or, rather, especially if valid, is judged to be nefarious work conducted only under the sovereignty of Satan. One question contemporary researchers must invariably consider is why do people continue to resort to a form of divination that is not sanctioned by the ecclesiastical authorities. Sociologically, this opens up to the wider question of dissent and change that occurs within religion and the shifting boundaries in establishing legitimacy and permissible determination.

Researchers of Astrology as a Social Phenomenon

In the United States, a major development has been the Seattle-based establishment of the Kepler College of Astrology and the Liberal Arts. In 2000, Kepler College was authorized by the state of Washington to offer B.A. and M.A. degrees in astrological studies. Although there are no formal methodological courses, Kepler students are nevertheless encouraged to undertake their own research. To date, several B.A. students have incorporated phenomenological investigations into their papers, and the college hopes that as its M.A. program matures, methodologically based work will become a standard part of the college’s activities. In the meantime, academically sponsored sociological research into cultural astrology occurs only on an ad hoc basis across the nation. For example, through the sociology department of the University of California at Santa Barbara, Shoshanah Feher has conducted postgraduate research into differences between, as she noted in an article she wrote in Perspectives on the New Age, “those practitioners of astrology who utilize their craft as an instrument for predicting future events and those who speak of it as one tool among many in a spiritual quest.” Feher collected data at the United Astrologers’ Congress in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1989, and she is particularly interested in the way gender manifests in the New Age movement.

In Spain, at the Universidad de Zaragoza, headed by Professor Jesús Navarro Artigas of the Departmento Ingeniería Electrónica y Comunicaciones, a research project has been launched in collaboration with the departments of philosophy and of history and art that concerns the interdisciplinary character of the history of astrology. This project was organized in 2001 into three main sections: astrology in antiquity: origins and gnoseology; astrology and historiography; and astrology and science. The first section is concerned with exploring such concepts as knowledge, myth, and divination. The second section is attempting to classify the various astrological schools and tendencies that have emerged in the West since the Age of Enlightenment. The third section endeavors to develop a sociology of knowledge in which scientific and astrological paradigms are compared and the study of their mutual interaction is undertaken. For the University of Zaragoza, this project represents the first step of an innovative venture.

In Great Britain, the Sophia Project, sponsored by the Sophia Trust, funds four principle initiatives in its effort “to advance the scholarly study of astrology and cultural astronomy in British institutions of higher education” ( These include short-term research fellowships (of one to three months) into any pre-1700 aspect of the history of astrology or cultural astronomy at the University of London’s Warburg Institute. A second initiative is the “cosmology and divination” modules at the University of Kent at Canterbury. These are part of the mysticism and religious experience program and are divided between undergraduate coursework and the postgraduate M.A. Both modules begin with astrology as a divinatory practice in ancient, classical, Renaissance, and modern times.

The Sophia Project’s other two initiatives are more sociologically oriented. These include sponsorships of the Research Group for the Critical Study of Astrology (RGCSA) at the University of Southampton and the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cultural Astronomy and Astrology (SCSCAA) at Bath Spa University College (BSUC). The former, under the auspices of the Social Work Studies Department, concentrates on social science research and is establishing a database on research into astrology (for example, the use of astrology in counseling). The latter, an outgrowth of BSUC’s Department for the Study of Religions, has its own premises at the college’s Newton Park campus to promote the academic study of astrology and its practice and pursue research, scholarship, and teaching on the relationship between cosmological, astronomical and astrological beliefs, myths and theories in past and contemporary society, politics, religion, and the arts. SCSCAA offers postgraduate programs (M.A. and Ph.D) and has plans to extend its curricula to the M.B.A. level as well.

The RGCSA program comprises seven chief foci. First is the study of history and the history of science—especially in considering the central role astrology has played in the history of culture and the development of scientific thought. Secondly, there is a concern with archeology or archeoastronomy and how understanding of planetary and stellar systems and their symbolisms has been integral in the construction of ancient ritualistic centers. Works that typify the efforts in this direction are Baity (1973) and Ruggles (1999). More contemporary orientation, however, appears in the RGCSA’s remaining concentrations. Its third focus is anthropological and involves the role of astrological belief in modern cultures and social systems. A fourth interest along the lines of Tyson’s pursuit (1982; 1984) is described as sociological and seeks, among other things, to understand the persistence of attention to horoscopes in a scientific age. Related here is psychological research such as that undertaken by Eysenck and discerning any possible link between personality and planetary indication—e.g., connections between alleged astrological influence and the complex of health psychology. Another interest is in understanding the astrological community itself from a sociological perspective. And lastly, the RGCSA seeks to investigate both rigorously and skeptically the astrological, astronomical and biological interconnections, if any, between season-of-birth, on the one hand, and personality, career, and personal problems, on the other.

One problem for all modern researchers into cultural astronomy and astrology in particular is that they are confronted with few predecessors and accredited works on which to develop their own projects. Most effort in the field of astrological research has been toward attempting to prove or disprove astrology as a science. This usually comes down to whether predictions of future events and/or personality development that are based on the configurations of the stars and planets can be verified. There has been correspondingly little in the way of cultural and social analysis of the phenomenon itself as it affects or is used by people themselves—whether individually or collectively. An example of the use of astrology affecting an entire group would be, among others, the postponing of the date for independence by the Republic of India for a more auspicious moment in which to launch the new nation.

At best, apart from the attempts to prove or disprove stellar-based divination, astrological studies to date are chiefly historical and follow the lead of the 1899 pioneering work of Richard Allen’s 1963 Star-Names and Their Meanings. Allen minutely investigated the folklore heritage associated with the heavenly bodies that have been recorded in the writings of the Chinese, Arabic, Mesopotamian, Biblical, Greek, and Roman civilizations. What he has produced is a pan-cultural decipherment of historical traditions and ancient astronomical understandings. A more contemporary contribution along similar lines is Bernadette Brady’s 1998 Book of Fixed Stars.

For a sociological rather than historical investigation of astrology, a leading contemporary effort is represented in the research being undertaken by Bath Spa University College’s Nicholas Campion under the auspices of its Department for the Study of Religions. In his investigation into prophecy, cosmology, and the New Age movement, Campion is implicitly questioning whether astrology is a belief or belief system. More specifically, he wishes to determine whether astrology is a New Age belief and as such whether it is incompatible with more orthodox religious belief—namely, with mainstream Christianity. The overall import of Campion’s exploration into conviction concerns the religious aspects of astrology. He is here less interested in the nature of astrology per se but rather in the external and internal perceptions of whether it is a religion.

Consequently, Campion identifies his central concern as belief. He considers faith itself to be the overarching problem that unites both the extent and nature of belief in astrology, and he argues that contemporary astrological belief is typically presented as a problematic historical issue: in historical terms, how could anyone believe in such superstition in an age of reason? Campion recognizes, accordingly, that trust in astrology threatens both scientific skeptics and religious evangelicals.

Part of Campion’s study is indeed historical. In developing an understanding of the nature of astrology, he must examine its historical relationship with religion—including the origins of Christianity and astrology’s conflict and accommodation with it. Campion traces contemporary astrology from the 1890s, and he is particularly concerned with the development of its esoteric and psychological schools of thought. His exploration further extends into examining the reasons given for astrological belief in religious, sociological, psychological, and scientific literature. However, his focus on New Age spirituality must address whether astrology is itself to be considered a New Age discipline. He traces the origin of the concept of the Age of Aquarius to the 19th century and argues that this construct motivated the spiritual and psychological approaches to the discipline held by such “astrological reformers” as Alan Leo, Alice Bailey, Marc Edmund Jones and Dane Rudhyar.

This historical perspective, however, extends as well into the development of newspaper and magazine astrological columns—including the development and history of popular astrology prior to 1930 in almanacs and birthday books. With the development of sun-sign astrology by Alan Leo—culminating in the horoscope column of popular post-1930 astrology—Campion is above all interested in the vernacular vocabulary that has developed as part of this process. In this light he must determine the extent of readership, the role of horoscope columns in the media, and astrologers’ attitudes toward these columns. In determining the structure and nature of the horoscope column, Campion confronts the sociological question of their function, precisely, “do they offer hope?”

Methodologically, Campion is following a two-pronged approach. He wants to determine the attitudes of astrologers to astrology as well as public attitudes to and “belief in astrology. His fieldwork requires in-depth interviews and indicative questionnaires with professional astrologers themselves—such as those he conducted during the Astrological Association gathering in Orlando, Florida, July 18–26, 2002. On the popular front, by contrast, Campion is relying on distributing questionnaires to sample groups to determine the extent of belief in astrology. Here again he is conducting in-depth interviews of people who read horoscope columns and those who are clients of professional astrologers.

In what may prove to be the most comprehensive study to date into the nature of astrological belief, Campion’s research is particularly significant. He wishes to determine what is astrology and whether there is one astrology or several different astrologies. Specifically, what does astrology offer and what does this offering tell about astrology itself? Further, does astrology conform to any definitions of religion, and could it be defined as a vernacular form of religion? Campion also wishes to explore and determine the broader significances for the study of contemporary religion: expressly, sociology’s secularization issue, namely, the role of belief in astrology as a possible factor in the decline of church attendance. Ultimately, the Campion study, by investigating the nature of “belief in society as a whole, aims to elucidate what the study of astrology and its belief might tell about humans and their psychological propensities at large. Campion describes his work as “the first consistent and competent attempt to evaluate this area, and quantitative and qualitative measures are being combined to establish not just how many people believe, but what exactly it is that they believe in.”

While Campion has joined the teaching staff of the SCSCAA, his colleague Patrick Curry at the Centre is involved with developing a coherent and rigorous understanding of the theory and practice of astrology from its beginnings to modern times. Curry advances to his subject from the perspective of the cultural history of ideas, but in keeping with his non-reductive approach he incorporates the subject’s social, political, and material dimensions as well. He is particularly concerned with the Weberian thesis concerning disenchantment and the dynamics of reenchantment in which astrology might be playing a role.

Most other research projects into astrology explore particular aspects that may be seen as attempts to validate the discipline. For instance, British-based Sean Lovatt is seeking independently to locate correlations of TRS (tropical revolving storms, i.e., hurricanes) with the lunation cycle and the declination of both sun and moon. All the same, these investigations often retain social science dimensions nonetheless—especially those that are currently underway in consultation with the RGCSA. Among these there is the work being conducted by Bernadette Brady in Australia. Brady’s current research project investigates the horoscope correlations between parents and their children. She has had informal discussions with RGCSA’s Chris Bagley concerning the investigation, her statistics, and the use of Jigsaw, a software application design for research into astrology that Brady coauthored in the mid-1990s with Esoteric Technologies in Adelaide, South Australia. Her work has been inspired by the hereditary work of Michel Gauquelin and the shortcomings she perceived in that work by not fully appreciating the traditional horoscopic associations that can link one chart to another—associations such as a planet’s “rulership” over a sign, its exaltation and angularity as additional ways that an astrological influence can be represented from one generation to another. Brady’s research paper published in Correlation (July 2002) explores these types of relationships, and her results indicate that the astrological concepts of old rulership seem to be more influential than new rulerships when establishing a correlation between the charts of parents and their children. She found that these correlations hold true over a range of different experiments. However, she claims that the most interesting result in the entire project is the ancient Greek disused technique called the Noddings of the Moon. This gives surprisingly strong results when the mother’s chart is considered. Nevertheless, the data can also be examined via sorting by the gender of the child, as well as order of birth. Brady has found that the emerging patterns reveal a greater frequency of correlations in the charts of the first-born child than those born later. Brady’s research is a rare attempt to investigate ancient astrological claims employing modern methods.

Another RGCSA project is that of Pat Harris who is exploring the success and failure of fertility treatments in connection with planetary transits (specifically Jupiter and Saturn) to significant positions in the recipients’ natal charts. In particular, using three study groups recruited through Internet fertility treatment websites, support groups, such UK publications as Childchat and Child as well as, for a phase 2 study, women’s magazines, newspaper coverage on the research and the website of Jonathan Cainer (, Harris is endeavoring to test the null hypothesis, namely, that astrological factors have no influence on the results of fertility treatment. She is exploring the possibility entertained by such psychologists as Hans Eysenck, Carl Jung, and Alan Smithers that astrological correlates can be used as predictors of personal functioning, and in particular Harris is continuing the research into statistically significant connections suggested by Jackson (1986) and Millard (1993). In psychological terms, Greene and Sasportas (1987) argue that Saturn is traditionally associated with states of anxiety, while Valentine (1991) identifies Jupiter more or less as Saturn’s positive counterpart representing optimism and confidence. The second phase is planned through the Fertility Unit of the Homerton NHS Hospital in London to test that such psychological factors as anxiety and depression (also using the Problems Relating to Infertility Questionnaire, the Spielberger Trait Anxiety Measure, the Beck Depression Inventory II, etc.) will not predict success or failure in IVF treatments. The Problems Relating to Infertility and the Pregnancy and Birth Experiences Questionnaires include sections on astrology, birth data, and the subjects’ knowledge of astrology. Consequently, Harris’s systematic research represents an important contribution not only to knowledge of the validity or invalidity of astrology as a diagnostic tool but also more widely to the psychological/cultural knowledge of astrology by the study participants.

Relationship between Astrology and Science

The relationship between astrology and science conforms in general to that between religion and science. In particular, there has appeared to be a sort of religio-cultural war between scientists and astrologers with unsophisticated passions clouding objective judgment on both sides. As Victor Mansfield put it, “Unfortunately, the discussion of astrology, both by scientists who criticize it and those who uphold it, is extraordinarily strident, passionate, and often filled with outrageous statements. There is little dispassionate discussion of the issues and much poor scholarship on both sides” (Mansfield, 1997). In such efforts as the Sophia Project, the Research Group for the Critical Study of Astrology and the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cultural Astronomy and Astrology, there are concerted attempts to remedy the lacunae of proper scholarship in research into astrological and related studies.

On the one hand, attempts to “explain” astrology in scientific terms exist. For instance, Seymour’s physical mechanism model for astrological influence is one such effort (Seymour 1992). In this case, however, the model is primarily speculative rather than a truly quantitative physical explanation. It is not supported by the acausal, nonlocal, and participatory character of the contemporary quantum mechanical view of nature. Instead, this last presupposes a unified view of the world as well as an acausal interconnectedness that is more supportive of astrology’s fundamental assumption of personal and collective relationship to the cosmos. Current chaos or complexity theory, in fact, suggests that the universe is more nonlinear than linear. This in turn implies the possibility of acausal and nonlocal connections or correlations between the various components of the macro-system (e.g., between planets and people) (Waldrop, 1992; Mansfield, 1995).

On the other hand, the SCSCAA, in particular, seeks to employ the phenomenological approach of the sociology of religion methodology that endeavors to suspend judgments concerning the “truth” or validity of religious assertion and to look instead at how such assertions develop, are used and affect those who hold them. A particular concern is the study of astrology as a lingua franca. A sociology of astrology becomes a study of both a subculture and society-at-large in how it accommodates or reacts to the subculture. Astrology possesses a long history both for the West and other cultures (e.g., those of India and China), and this history and perpetually changing social dynamic that it has been and continues to be is the focus of research efforts that use social science methodologies to its study.

—Michael York


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