Distant spiral galaxy NGC4603 [Courtesy NASA]

Do those with non-theistic worldviews reject pseudoscience such as astrology?

David H. Bailey
Updated 2 January 2021 (c) 2021

Introduction

Many writers regard modern science and a non-theistic, secular worldview as bulwarks against both religion and pseudoscience, ranging from young-earth creationism and intelligent design to spurious health remedies and UFOs (see Creationism and Intelligent design). For example, the late astronomer Carl Sagan wrote that science was a "candle in the dark," protecting society from the onslaught of pseudoscience [Sagan1998a].

It is undeniably true that some (certainly not all) Judeo-Christian movements have historically promoted pseudoscience such as young-earth creationism, and many of these same movements now face the unpleasant task of extricating themselves from such scientifically untenable beliefs. It is further clear that many other claims of miracles and other supernatural intervention by present-day religious movements have more prosaic explanations. For full discussion, see Evolution, Creationism, Intelligent design, Miracles; Philosophy; Physics and Theology.

But does religion have a monopoly on pseudoscience? Do those with non-theistic worldviews always reject pseudoscience such as astrology?

The rise of astrology

Incredibly, just as modern society faces daunting challenges such as global pandemics and climate change, which, more than ever before, require a scientifically literate and scientifically involved public, millions of reasonably well-educated and otherwise intelligent people in highly industrialized nations are embracing astrology -- yes astrology, the absurd and utterly unscientific notion that one’s personality and future life are determined by the positions of a few stars and planets at the moment one is born, in an enclosed hospital room, months after one’s genome was biologically set in place at conception!

According to a 2018 Pew Research poll, 29% of U.S. adults believe in astrology, and 61% believe in at least one of the following: "spiritual energy can be located in physical things", "psychics", "reincarnation" and "astrology". Surprisingly, the percentages are substantially higher (47% and 78%, respectively) among those adults who list a religious preference "nothing in particular." The paradoxical conclusion is that millennial "nones," in current parlance, are turning away from traditional Judeo-Christian monotheism but are embracing astrology and other pseudoscientific worldviews [Gecewicz2018; Lipka2015; Swami2015; Routledge2017; Smallwood2019].

Other polls have found similar results. A 2018 poll published by the U.S. National Science Foundation found that 37% of Americans view astrology as "very scientific" or "sort of scientific," a percentage that has increased in recent years, up from only 31% in 2006. While these increase are seen for all age groups in the survey, they are particularly pronounced among the younger set. Among 18-24-year-olds and 25-34-year-olds, respectively, the figures were both 44%, up from 36% and 33%, respectively, in 2006 [NSB2018]. In short, there has been a significant increase, not decrease, in acceptance of astrology as "scientific" in U.S. society, with the increase particularly pronounced among the younger "Millennial" and "Gen X" age groups.

International studies have found similar trends in other nations [Nicholson2018]. A 2019 study by researchers in London, analyzing the beliefs of atheists and agnostics across six nations (Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, U.K. and U.S.A.), polled belief in ten items normally regarded as supernatural or paranormal: (a) life after death, (b) reincarnation, (c) astrology, (d) objects with mystical powers, (e) people with mystical powers, (f) significant events meant to be, (g) supernatural beings, (h) underlying forces of good or evil, (i) universal spirit or life force, and (j) karma. As a sample of the study's results, self-described atheists' beliefs in these items included 35% for astrology (China), 28% for significant events meant to be (U.K.), and 30% for underlying forces of good and evil (also U.K.). Self-described agnostics' beliefs were uniformly higher: 53% for astrology (China), 40% for significant events meant to be (U.K.), and 42% for for underlying forces of good and evil (also U.K.). In each case the percentage figures for atheists and agnostics were less than the corresponding figures for the general population, but not by a great margin: 60% for astrology (China), 62% for significant events meant to be (U.K.), and 58% for for underlying forces of good and evil (also U.K.) [Bullivant2019].

In a 2018 article in The Atlantic, Julie Beck describes this "New Age of Astrology" [Beck2018] as having been greatly facilitated by the rise of the internet. One can find astrology-related websites to fit almost any hobby, interest or lifestyle, including cat breeds, types of French fries and poetry. Beck quotes Lucie Greene, director of a cultural innovation tracking group, saying, "Over the past two years, we’ve really seen a reframing of New Age practices, very much geared toward a Millennial and young Gen X quotient." She quotes a senior editor at one of the more popular horoscope websites who says that traffic "has grown really exponentially." Another editor says that their site received 150% more traffic in 2017 than the year before.

Pseudomedicine

Along this line, there has been a significant increase in what might be termed "pseudomedicine" -- the promotion of pseudoscientific medicinal products promising to treat numerous ills and conditions. One movement here is "essential oils" -- the claims that certain fragrant essences have a broad range of medicinal powers. One catalogue used by essential oil devotees includes treatments for hundreds of conditions, covering hundreds of pages. Needless to say, such claims are utterly without peer-reviewed scientific basis. In 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning letter to the CEO of one of the major companies selling these products. The FDA letter cited numerous violations in marketing materials by this firm and its multi-level marketing agents, including claims that the Ebola virus cannot survive in the presence of certain oils; that regular use of a certain oil may help prevent conditions including cancer and heart disease, and can treat cognitive impairments; and that components of one particular essential oil have an anti-tumor effect on various cancer cells, including cancers of the prostate, colon, cervix, bladder and brain, as well as leukemia cells and fibrosarcoma cells [FDA2014].

Along this line, Hollywood actress Gwyneth Paltrow has been promoting numerous products via her lifestyle brand "Goop" as having medicinal effects. For example, Goop has promoted stickers to be attached to one's body, called "Body Vibes," which Goop claims can "rebalance the energy frequency in our bodies." At one point Goop even claimed that these stickers are constructed out of material used by NASA to line space suits, but NASA quickly denied this. Other products marketed by Goop include objects the size of a small egg that are to be inserted by women for medicinal value, again an utterly unscientific claim for which Goop was fined $145,000 [Garcia2018]. But Goop continues, even thrives. Its latest venture is the Netflix show "Goop Lab," which presents hours of pseudoscientific discussions and promotions.

Even more extreme forms of pseudosmedicine are also on the rise in our supposedly secular society. A recent essay in the New York Times attempted to defend practices such as tarot cards and "crystal power" (stones with claimed healing powers) [Burton2018].

A related phenomenon can be seen by examining instances of groups rejecting strongly other well-established items of scientific consensus. For instance, in 2019 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the nation has suffered its worst measles outbreak in more than 25 years [Stack2019]. These outbreaks have occurred in areas with relatively low vaccination rates, which, in most cases, are due to parents that are convinced that vaccination causes autism or other medical conditions, and that the government is covering up the fact. This is in spite of the fact that the one (and only) study claiming a link was later thoroughly debunked, and numerous other in-depth studies have found no link whatsoever [CDC2017].

Interestingly, these outbreaks have often occurred in relatively "liberal" areas, characterized by high levels of education and income, a mostly politically liberal orientation, and relatively lower levels of religiosity. For example, in a recent study of vaccination in Northern California, unvaccination rates were particularly high in some counties (e.g., Marin County, San Francisco County and Alameda County) well-known to be highly educated and highly secular [Millman2017]. Along these same lines, these same areas mentioned are well-known to be hotbeds of opposition to genetically modified foods, which opposition continues in spite of a 2016 comprehensive report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences that found "no differences that would implicate a higher risk to human health from eating GE foods than from eating their non-GE counterparts" [NAS2016]. The exact same three counties of Northern California mentioned above are also hotbeds of the anti-smart-meter movement, which again has not the scantest support in peer-reviewed scientific literature [Barringer2011].

In short, it seems many in today's society have merely substituted one religion (anti-science, anti-technology, New Age astrology) for another (traditional Judeo-Christian monotheism).

Conclusion

As Clay Routledge notes in his 2017 New York Times essay, these pseudoscientific belief systems are poor substitutes for modern enlightened religion, even from a strictly secular point of view [Routledge2017], in part because they completely miss out on the many benefits of religious practice:
  1. A 1999 study, which involved a nine-year follow-up analysis of 21,000 American adults, found that religious attendance of at least once per week resulted in seven additional years of life expectancy. What's more, this effect mostly remained in place even after adjusting for various social factors and health behaviors [Hummer1999].
  2. A 1997 study of 5286 weekly church attendees in Alameda County, California found that these persons were 25% less likely to die than infrequent church attendees. These results were attributed in part to better health practices, expanded social involvement, exercising more, and remaining married longer [Strawbridge1997].
  3. In a 1998 study of 1931 elderly adults (55 years and older), weekly church attendees experienced the lowest rates of mortality in the study group, while non-attendees experienced the highest rates. This study also showed that volunteer work in addition to church attendance contributed to even longer life expectancy [Oman1998].
  4. A 1999 study of 4000 seniors (64 years and older) found that the death hazard was 46% lower for frequent church attendees, compared with infrequent church attendees. As noted in other studies, frequent church attendees were physically healthier, had better social support, and displayed a set of healthier lifestyle behaviors [Koenig1999].
  5. A 2004 study comparing Utah residents who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) with those who are not LDS confirmed, not surprisingly, that the LDS members had much lower rates of tobacco, alcohol and drug usage than the non-LDS group, since these substances are strongly discouraged by the Church. The study found that life expectancy was 77.3 years for LDS males versus 70.0 years for non-LDS males, and 82.2 years for LDS females versus 76.4 for non-LDS females. Interestingly, however, the study noted that differences in rates of tobacco and alcohol use explains only about 1.5 years of the 7.3 year gap for males, and only 1.2 years of the 5.8 year gap for females. The author suggests that this additional gap may be due to better overall physical health, better social support and other lifestyle practices [Merrill2004].
  6. Two 2013 studies of Jewish communities in Israel and the U.S., conducted by researchers at Baylor University, found that adults who attend synagogue regularly, pray often, and otherwise consider themselves to be religious are significantly healthier, happier and report greater satisfaction with life, compared with other adults in the study [Levin2013].
  7. In a 2017 analysis of 7000 middle-aged persons in the U.S., even small increases in a "sense of purpose" were associated with large decreases in the risk of dying over a 14-year period. A separate study of 9000 British persons over 50 found that those who scored in the highest 25% in an assessment of "purpose" had a 30% lower risk of death over a ten-year period. Other studies have found that a higher sense of purpose cuts heart disease risk by 27%, stroke risk by 22% and Alzheimer's disease risk by 50% [Burrell2017].
There is no suggestion in any of these studies that these beneficial effects are due to anything other than solid natural effects, but it is clear that the solid natural effects of religious practice, including personal support groups and a sense of purpose and direction, are real enough! Along this line, Michael Shermer, a well-known skeptic who has criticized religion and claims of supernatural effects on numerous occasions, has noted that religion has its undeniable positive side [Shermer2000]:
However, for every one of these grand tragedies there are ten thousand acts of personal kindness and social good that go unreported. ... Religion, like all social institutions of such historical depth and cultural impact, cannot be reduced to an unambiguous good or evil.

For additional discussion, see Benefits, Creationism, Intelligent design and Scientific materialism.

References

[See Bibliography].