In a world dominated by magical thinking, superstition and religion, give yourself the benefit of doubt. This is one skeptic's view of the Universe.
"Tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure."
“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed”.
“Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.”
The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted.
Whether religion is overrated or underrated is difficult to answer. But it’s intensely important to the personal lives of billions of people. I thought for a while about why this might be, and came up with three inherent weaknesses in human beings that religion exploits.
Probably the most basic emotion of all life on Earth. We’re no exceptions. If there is one thing that unites us all, it’s the fear of death – or more precisely, the state of ‘not living’. Religion gives us deliverance from that fear. Nothing to worry about, it says, your time here on Earth is nothing more than a prelude to eternal life in a different plane.
What evidence do we have of this? Absolutely none. But we believe, because for most of us, it’s unimaginable that our consciousness will one day cease to exist. Even though we only have to think of the vast stretch of time before our births to realize that it’s not only possible but is the norm.
2. Pattern and meaning seeking
Human beings are meaning-seeking animals. All external evidence suggests that the universe is essentially meaningless, and yet our minds tell us that there must be something to it after all. We think our lives follow a narrative, that everything happens for a reason, that there are such things as fate and destiny, that the future can be altered and controlled.
So we pray to our gods to keep us safe. We bribe them to make us richer or more successful. We thank them for the good things in our lives. We cajole, chide and blame. We worship.
To put it kindly, we’re natural classifiers. In this we’re no different to other primates, but thanks to our larger brains, we’ve taken it to a whole new level. Country. Skin colour. Gender. Appearance. Self versus the other. My kind of people versus your kind of people.
There are evolutionary reasons for this. In a hunting-gathering world where tribes often competed fiercely for resources, people had to be segregationist in nature. Brotherhood towards members of your tribe. Enmity towards members of the other tribe. We did it to survive. It’s built into our genes.
Religion stokes this trait by preaching universal love and unspeakable violence in the same sentence. The former is for within the group. The latter is reserved for the other groups.
A couple of quotes
I will leave you with two quotes. One by Epicurus:
‘Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?’
And another by Voltaire:
‘Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.’
Social Psychologist John Jost (and fellow scholars)
People who diligently follow their horoscopes may claim that it’s all just good fun. But on closer examination, this claim falls flat. Here’s why astrology is potentially damaging to our understanding of science, relationships — and even our place in the universe itself.
Astrology, though discredited for centuries, still remains wildly popular. Scarcely does a day go by when we’re not told of how our astrological sign is supposed to govern our behavior or predetermine the day’s events. Yet no explanation has ever been given — nor is one forthcoming — that can adequately explain the mechanism for which the alignment of the planets can influence our psychologies or the unfolding of the universe.
It didn’t help the astrological cause back in 2011 when an entirely new version of the zodiac was proposed, thus shifting everyone’s sign from its mythical original position. Indeed, the whole premise behind astrology is predicated on some rather flimsy parameters; what we call “months” are actually cultural — and not cosmological — constructs. Moreover, our expanding universe, and all that’s within it, is in a constant state of flux.
Anyways, I’m not going to waste your time by debunking astrology right now. For that I highly recommend Phil Plait’s comprehensive take-down, which you can read here. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to explain why astrology does you no good — and why putting any credence into your sign or horoscope is not just misguided, but potentially harmful.
Bad For Science, Bad For Women
A recent poll by the National Science Foundation showed that more than 40% of Americans think astrology is a science — a rather shocking result (and no, it wasn’t because respondents were conflating astrology with astronomy). Equally as frustrating is the news that it’s at its highest level since 1983. The NSF uses this survey as a kind of metric for “the public’s capacity to distinguish science from pseudoscience.”
Demographically speaking, and in the words of Chris Mooney, much of the blame belongs to “younger Americans, aged 18 to 24, where an actual majority considers astrology at least ‘sort of’ scientific, and those aged 35 to 44.”
Other surveys have shown that women are more drawn to astrology than men. A 2005 Gallup poll revealed that 28% of women believe in astrology, compared to 23% of men. In Canada it’s even worse, where 33% of women buy into it.
But as York University sociologist Julia Hemphill tells io9, there’s more to this statistic than meets the eye: women are specifically targeted by the popular media.
"Astrology is an unempirical epistemology that’s peddled to women as a way of understanding themselves and the world," she says. "All you have to do is open a ‘women’s magazine’, and you’ll inevitably see at least one or two pages devoted to astrology.
The same pattern, she says, is evident in television programming for women.
"While shows about ‘mediums’, and other supernatural phenomenon can be found on virtually any network whose mandate is to attract and keep the viewership of women, such shows are a rarity, if utterly nonexistent on the schedules of ‘men’s’ networks," she says. "These networks are more likely to air shows that tend to focus on actual science."
Hemphill says it’s reasonable to question the degree to which women are ultimately deterred from learning about and engaging in genuine science — particularly when they’re aggressively offered pseudoscience in its stead.
'A Dangerous Fatalism'
Astrology also gives rise to uncritical thinking. Astronomer Phil Plait puts it best when he says that
The more we teach people to simply accept anecdotal stories, hearsay, cherry-picked data (picking out what supports your claims but ignoring what doesn’t), and, frankly, out-and-out lies, the harder it gets for people to think clearly. If you cannot think clearly, you cannot function as a human being. I cannot stress this enough. Uncritical thinking is tearing this world to pieces, and while astrology may not be at the heart of that, it has its role.