|Distant spiral galaxy NGC4603 [Courtesy NASA]|
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?
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.
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).
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
Intelligent design and