Astrology, Past and Present
by Chris Mitchell

September 2014

"A priest, an imam and a rabbi are at an astrology conference..." No, it's not the start of a joke, and there's no punchline delivered by a chain-smoking 1970s comedian. The reason that it sounds like the start of a joke is that one thing that unites the religious views of priests, imams and rabbis is that most of them today would utterly condemn astrology on religious grounds.

To be sure, we've all met Christians, Muslims and Jews who do not attack astrology (sometimes even meeting them at astrology conferences), but they tend not to be taking the "official line" of their religions. The Catholic church specifically condemns "all forms of divination" including "consulting horoscopes" and "astrology" in its Catechism from 1992, and most evangelical Christians would concur, Billy Graham describing astrology as "offensive to God". Contemporary Islamic scholars condemn astrology as "sorcery and fortune-telling", views echoed by Jonathan Sacks, who was until recently the Chief Rabbi in the UK.

How things have changed! Turn the clock back a millennium, give or take a century or two, and we find Christians, Muslims and Jews using and promoting astrology on a day to day basis. When the Muslim caliph al-Mansur wished to found his new capital of Baghdad, he employed a team of astrologers, including the Persian Jew Masha'allah, to elect a suitable date (31 July 762 at 14:40 local Baghdad time if you want to check it out). Baghdad became a famous centre of learning, and what we now know as "Arabic astrology" blossomed for centuries, written about by generations of devout Muslims such as al-Biruni who wrote an astrology textbook in 1029, and rabbis such as Abraham ibn Ezra who wrote various astrological works in the twelfth century. These centuries of distilled astrological knowledge were imported into Islamic Spain, where they were discovered and eagerly translated by enthusiastic Christian scholars in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, who published and taught astrology in the wholly Christian universities of Europe as the art we call "medieval astrology" blossomed, every single one of its practitioners in Europe undeniably Christian. The rabbi Gersonides, in the fourteenth century, wrote widely about astrology and came up with a philosophical justification for its use, and wrote about a forthcoming Mars/Saturn/Jupiter conjunction in 1345 as an apparent "contract job" for the Pope. Indeed, even before this blossoming, one tenth century scholar and enthusiast of astrology, Gerbert d'Aurillac, went on to be elected Pope in the year 999. So in the space of just under a thousand years, we move from a Pope who studied and practiced astrology (and a later one who employed a rabbi to do horoscopes) to a Pope who condemned it in his Catechism of 1992.

So how did this change of heart come about? To be fair, it was never clear-cut that the three main monotheistic religions whole-heartedly embraced astrology. The art of astrology had been forged in the pagan fires of Babylonia and Greece, after all, and it inevitably had its early detractors suspicious of its pagan heritage. St. Augustine (354-430) described astrology as the work of demons, and disliked its apparent fatalism, which seemed to do away with the Christian requirement for free will. The Muslim imam ibn Taymiyah (1263-1328) claimed astrology was prohibited since all events happened as a result of the will of Allah, and were therefore not open to prediction by mere humans, and early Jewish sages promoted the idea that there is "no star for Israel", since the Jews' covenant with God gives them a measure of free will. There was thus always some tension between the practitioners of astrology, and their co-religionists who were wary of its pagan roots and implication that astrology somehow usurped God. At the same time, the practical uses of astrology couldn't be denied; knowing how to calculate dates of the New Moon in advance was essential to the lunar-based calendars of Islam and Judaism, and for calculating the lunar-derived date of Easter in Christianity. The reality of the influence of the Sun on the seasons and the Moon on tides couldn't be denied, and these were clearly regular and predictable and not simply a random whim of God, and it was taken for granted that since the Earth was seen as the centre of the cosmic model all the other planets' "spheres" would have influences too. As a result, astrology was widely used in medicine, where it was seen as an essential tool in the doctor's repertoire. Indeed, as the biblical story relates, Christianity itself could never have happened had God not decided to put a star in the sky in Bethlehem to announce Christ's birth - so telling one's followers that they shouldn't look at the sky for guidance was rather impractical.

Ironically, the change of view among the religious authorities may well have its roots in some of the less religious and more "scientific" objections to astrology. St. Augustine's objections to astrology certainly included theological ones, such as the lack of free will, but also included more pragmatic ones, such as the argument that identical twins have very similar horoscopes, but often have very different lives - the same argument that Cicero used five hundred years before Augustine. The Jewish sage Maimonides, whose tenets of Judaism are still used in Orthodox Judaism today, wrote a letter to the rabbis of Southern France condemning astrology. He distinguished between what we would now call "astronomy" (which he said was valid) and "astrology", for which he found no evidence as a rationalist, and therefore said it should not be used. He wrote this letter in 1194, and it echoes very closely what modern scientific sceptics have to say about astrology over 800 years later. These early "rational" objections to astrology still didn't question the very model of the cosmos itself - namely, that the Earth was the centre, with concentric planetary spheres surrounding it, all set in perfect motion by God. Even if astrology couldn't be proven to work to the satisfaction of a rationalist like Maimonides, that was surely a flaw in human understanding rather than a fundamental problem with the model.

That view, however, was shattered by the likes of Galileo and Copernicus, who demonstrated that the Sun was the centre of that cosmos, not the Earth, and then by Kepler who showed that the "perfect" circular orbits of the planets were actually elliptical. From that point, the whole concept of the Great Chain of Being, whereby the will of God was filtered via planetary influences all moving in perfect harmony and effecting events and the lives of humans on Earth, became a little less clear-cut. This was followed by the Enlightenment, and the rise of modern scientific thinking, with its own dogma of a godless mechanistic universe, whereby the only truths are those that can be measured using "scientific method", and which rejects astrology outright as not fitting into this model and therefore being invalid.

Modern religious leaders have bought into this scientific mindset; the Catechism condemns astrology for "falsely supposing" that it can unveil the future, the Islamic cleric Muhammad ibn al Uthaymeen, who died in 2001, says astrology is forbidden because it is "based on illusions, not on concrete facts", and the contemporary Orthodox rabbi Barry Freundel condemns it for being "unscientific". These are primarily scientific objections, not theological ones, and the supreme irony is that modern religious authorities have, on the topic of astrology, enthusiastically bought into the rationalist, scientific argument - the very same philosophy that condemns not only astrology, but their very own religions too.