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What’s your sign?

Peter Wicks | Thursday, February 10, 2005

There is something seriously wrong with America’s fortune cookies.

A bold claim to be sure, but one backed by solid investigative reporting. For the past week, with barely a thought for my own personal safety or the Pulitzer Prize, I have been eating nothing but Chinese food. The last three fortune cookies I received contained the following messages: “You are known for being quick in action and decisions,” “You love challenge” and “You are going on well with your business.” Even passing over the issue of their dubious accuracy, it should be apparent that none of these are fortunes.

Fortune cookies may have gotten out of the prediction business, but other forms of futurology are flourishing. According to a recent Harris poll, 31 percent of Americans believe in astrology.

I am generally inclined to treat such polls with a large measure of skepticism, and I certainly doubt that 31 percent of a sample group answering “Yes” to the question “Do you believe in astrology?” is indicative that the belief plays a major role in their lives.

But clearly, there are a lot of people who do take astrology seriously, with the best evidence for this being the commercial magnitude of the astrological enterprise.

I have no reason to doubt my friends’ sincerity when they say they read the horoscopes in The Observer purely for their entertainment value, but I do doubt anyone would pay $1.99 per minute to call an astrological hotline if their motives were solely ironic. There are many such hotlines.

The popularity of astrology is sometimes seen as part of the New Age movement. While this is true in a sense, astrology is the least new element of the New Age. The belief that the stars predict or even decide our fate is as old as civilization itself. To the best of our knowledge, astrology started in Babylonia, and the practice quickly spread around the ancient world. When Kepler called astrology the foolish daughter of astronomy, he was right about the “foolish” part, but his genealogy was upside down.

Some say astrology and other superstitions are a remnant of a pre-scientific age that will soon be discarded. The most famous expression of the view was provided by the great biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann, who said it is impossible to use electric light and at the same time believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.

The general public never got the memo. Most people find it’s not only possible to use electric light and believe in spirits and miracles, it’s easy.

One explanation may be provided by Clarke’s third law (named after Arthur C. Clarke), which states that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

So why should we be surprised if using microwaves doesn’t prevent us from believing in magic, when for most of us microwaves might as well be magic. Similarly, when Stephen Hawking writes for the general public about quarks and leptons, it would make very little difference if he called them pixies and elves. And as for the New Testament, most modern people find it easier to accept the spirits and miracles than the prohibition on adultery.

Another facet of the New Age is the widespread interest in the occult. A lot of parents find this sinister. Personally, I think the problem with the modern occult is that it’s not sinister enough.

As any classicist will tell you, the occult is meant to be hidden and secretive. Witches, for example, are supposed to gather at midnight to perform unspeakable rituals. But according to the typographically challenged newWitch magazine (a publication dedicated to “Witches, Wiccans, Neo-Pagans and other earth-based, ethnic, pre-Christian, shamanic and magical practitioners”) this is all a big misunderstanding.

The pages of newWitch do indeed contain spells and incantations, but none of them claim to involve powers any greater than those regularly attributed to perfumes in glossy advertisements.

The rest is numbered lists and astrological sex tips, which only goes to confirm my theory that given enough time, any magazine for a female readership will turn into Cosmopolitan (a parallel rule holds true with men’s magazines and Maxim).

Having said that, newWitch does have more interesting letters to the editor than you’ll find in Cosmo. My favorite began, “I am an Odinist, incarcerated in Michigan Department of Corrections.”

Other forms of neo-paganism are even more anemic. On the Internet, I came across a school of modern paganism called “Inclusionality,” which sounds like the sort of religion that a government committee might come up with.

Surveying these new spiritualities, they share a discernable thinness. For the most part they invoke the laudable but vague values of tolerance, respect and openness. Where they differ from traditional religions is that they rarely make any actual demands of their adherents.

David Brooks has said that in their spiritual lives, America’s social elite have typically been “trying to build a house of obligation on a foundation of choice.” Brooks is a gifted social observer, but here I think his aphorism has gotten the better of him. It would be more accurate to say modern spirituality is largely a question of building a house of choice on a foundation of choice.

Modern spirituality is not religion with the superstition removed, as some presumed. The superstition is still there. It’s everything else that is missing.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the philosophy department. Like Franz Kafka and Princess Diana, he was born under the sign of cancer. He can be contacted telepathically or at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Observer.