The Astrology Podcast
Transcript of Episode 49, titled:
Responses to Religious Criticisms of Astrology
With Chris Brennan and guest Samuel F. Reynolds
Episode originally released on October 12, 2015
Note: This is a transcript of a spoken word podcast. If possible, we encourage you to listen to the audio or video version, since they include inflections that may not translate well when written out. Our transcripts are created by human transcribers, and the text may contain errors and differences from the spoken audio. If you find any errors then please send them to us by email: email@example.com
Transcribed by Gulsen Altay and Andrea Johnson
Transcription released October 7, 2019
Copyright © 2019 TheAstrologyPodcast.com
CHRIS BRENNAN: Hi, my name is Chris Brennan, and you’re listening to The Astrology Podcast. Today is Thursday, October 8, 2015, just after 10:30 AM, here in Denver, Colorado, and this is the 49th episode of the show.
In this episode, I’m going to be talking with astrologer Samuel Reynolds about some common religious criticisms of astrology and how astrologers respond to those criticisms. You can find out more information about Sam through his website at unlockastrology.com
For more information about subscribing to the podcast, please visit theastrologypodcast.com/ subscribe. This podcast is made possible by listeners of the show who pledge their support through Patreon. If you enjoy the show and would like to support the production of future episodes then please consider donating a dollar or more through Patreon, and in return you’ll get access to some great subscriber benefits such as access to a private discussion forum, early access to new episodes, the opportunity to take part in one of our live monthly episode recordings and more. Let’s get started with today’s topic by welcoming my co-host.
Hi, Sam! Welcome back to the show.
SAMUEL F. REYNOLDS: Hey, Chris, thanks for having me back.
CB: All right, well, before we get into our topic, just a couple of announcements. First, you and I are both speaking at the ISAR conference which is taking place a year from now in California.
SFR: That’s correct.
CB: It’s going to be a symposium specifically on forecasting. And this is actually going to be a pretty big deal. There’s something like 40 or 50 speakers, right?
SFR: Yes, that’s correct.
CB: And you’re actually on the board of ISAR. I forgot to mention that you’re actually a big guy in the community in terms of you’re involved in actually organizing and putting together things like this.
SFR: Well, I’m a board member, so I serve on the board in helping to put this together; I don’t know about big. But yes, we’re going to have our symposium starting October 13th, next year, in the Hilton Orange County, Costa Mesa Hotel. Yeah, we hope that everyone comes out and checks us out.
CB: Excellent. Well, I think that’s going to be a great conference, and I’m looking forward to it. You’re actually taking part in an online conference that’s coming up pretty soon, right?
SFR: Yeah, it’s conference season. There’s a few conferences happening, but the one I wanted to talk about that anyone can participate in from the comfort of their PJs, from their phone or laptop is the Astro Summit 2.0. There are 24 astrologers who are participating from around the world, who are giving three lectures a day for eight days up until the 17th.
Starting from October 10th to October 17th, there are going to be these three lectures that you can listen to for free and then 24 hours after, so you definitely want to check it out. I’m going to be presenting on temperament on October 13th.
CB: Nice. Where can people find out more information about that?
SFR: I have a shortened url, they can check out.
CB: Maybe we can post it on the page.
SFR: Yeah, bit.ly/AstroSummit.
CB: Okay, awesome. And your personal website is unlockastrology.com, correct?
SFR: That’s correct.
CB: All right, well, people should definitely check out your website for more information about you and your work as well as your appearance at that conference. All right, well, let’s get into our topic. This is part two of our discussion from last time.
Originally, for some weird reason, we thought we could fit a discussion about science and a discussion about religion into one episode. Obviously, that didn’t work out very well since we talked about our first point I think for about 50 minutes last time before we realized that we might not be able to get to everything.
So this is part two of our discussion, and this time we’re going to focus primarily on religious criticisms of astrology and the relationship between astrology and religion. This episode sort of comes out of this interesting observation I think that most astrologers make which is that astrology’s in a unique and weird position where it’s often the subject of criticism both from the scientific as well as the religious communities. One of the things we want to do is just address some of the different criticisms, the common ones that come up from the perspective of a couple of astrologers that have been doing this for a while.
Yeah, where do you want to begin? Where do you think a good starting point is for this discussion?
SFR: Well, there’s a question that you have that I like from our notes: Is astrology a religion? I think that’s something that comes up even as a critique from those who are religious, so that might be a good place to start. Is astrology a religion?
CB: All right. Yeah, I think that’s an excellent question because you get that both from skeptics who say that there’s no way to prove astrology or that there is no proof for astrology. Therefore, if you ‘believe it’, if you think that it’s a legitimate phenomenon then you’re just basing that on faith or something that they would deem as irrational. Whereas from the religious community, sometimes you‘ll get the same thing in saying that maybe it’s occult or a belief system or something like that. Somehow there’s this perception that it doesn’t jive well with whatever the person’s religion is or other established religions…
CB: …and they view it as something else.
SFR: Yeah, that we worship the Devil.
CB: Right, that we worship the Devil, or that it involves sorcery or something occult, something dark or evil or what have you.
CB: What is your response to that? Do you think astrology is a religion?
SFR: No, I think its roots come from a parallel between how astro-religion or how one ascribed particular significance or divinity to beings in the heavens, which goes back to Chaldean, Babylonian times, but I don’t think that’s where astrology has landed. I think it has shorn much of its divinity locks in that particular way as being beholden to any one particular religion or religious ideal.
CB: Sure. It doesn’t seem to have the structure of what I would consider to be like a normal, established religion. I guess one of the questions though is you went back and you said that it doesn’t have or that it’s removed in modern times some of the things that you might associate with that. So does mean that at one point maybe it could have qualified as a religion?
SFR: But it wasn’t astrology; then it was something else. At the time that we’re talking about, the Chaldeans, we’re talking about the early formations of astrology. It wasn’t as we would recognize it now, right? I mean, it was auguries based on positional heliacal risings and movements of the planets and then it’s overall connection to particular asterisms, not even what we would say as full-fledged constellations or even the recognizable constellations that we use, or signs that we use now.
So I think at the point that many–especially those who are using biblical references–are talking about astrology as a religion, they’re talking about a whole different conception of what we know as astrology.
CB: Sure, both technically but also to the extent that Mesopotamian astrology and the Mesopotamians themselves and their belief systems viewed the planets as gods or as manifestations of the gods…
CB: …that became a major point of contention in some of the early monotheistic religions in the West in terms of issues of polytheism and worshipping multiple deities versus monotheism and worshipping a single god, and I think that became a point of contention.
I’ve seen this assumption from some people that astrology necessarily implies or requires a person to believe in polytheism or something as their belief system or to subscribe to that in order to be an astrologer. Do you think that’s the case?
SFR: No. It’s interesting that we talked about the monotheistic–to be honest, we’re mainly talking about the Abrahamic traditions.
SFR: But even the Greeks, before the full advent of Christianity as we know it, struggled with the idea of the one versus the many, even in their tradition. Whether we’re talking about what became Neoplatonic or Platonic ideals, it wasn’t necessarily the idea of focusing on just gods but a sense of unity. The people who were more beholden to astrology at one point were Stoics…
SFR: …including Claudius Ptolemy. So it wasn’t just the Christian who struggled with the idea of how do we you know honor the One, it was something that was even embedded in the early formation of astrology itself as we know it.
CB: Sure. One place I wanted to start as a point that some people were curious about is what is your background? You said that you started off as a pastor very early on in your life. What’s is your personal connection with this question?
SFR: In brief, about 35 years ago–literally at my Jupiter return, my first one–I became a minister, a Christian minister. I was licensed and on my track to being ordained as a Missionary Baptist minister. I had a crisis of faith around 19-years-old. It first started with me questioning the practices and ideas of my church–literally just my local church–then it moved to the idea of Christianity because I was learning about Christianity in college and critical ideas about it. I read Myth and Ritual in Christianity by Alan Watts and so that began to unravel, and by the time that I reached by my second Jupiter return, 23-24-years-old, I had become an atheist.
I spent the next 10 years, up until the point I was at my third Jupiter return, not really believing in God or not being able to name or list anything as ‘God’, not really knowing even what that fully meant. So I was very critical of religion, and I knew it intimately because I had been a minister and had studied very diligently even to the point of looking at some of the Greek and Latin related to especially the New Testament texts.
Then I discovered Kabbalah in 2001, just near the brink of what would become my third Jupiter return, and so I’ve been on this track of rebuilding this sense of faith since. And in 2011, October, around this time, I became a Muslim, and so now I am a practicing Muslim. I’m going to be speaking in South Africa next month, Inşallah, on Islam and astrology, in fact.
I became a Muslim more so not because I felt like I found the truth or I was looking for truth as much as a spiritual practice that grounded me and kept me in a certain connection with folks, a community. I also did that with some measure of allegiance to some political inclinations. When I say political, not anything like ISIS…
SFR: …but more political in a sense of what challenges some of the worst parts of the West. I’m not saying all the West is bad, I don’t believe that. I do believe in the ideas of liberty that the West believes in, but a liberty that also is responsible. So some measure of that critique has come historically in direct engagement from Islamic scholarship and Islamic thought.
Interestingly enough, Islamic thought was also very influential in the reestablishment of astrology. So another way by which I came to Islam was by deepening my studies into astrology. That’s pretty much my journey and what informs my thoughts both skeptical and faith-oriented with astrology.
CB: Yeah, and that’s a great point that you mention that astrology really was saved actually. That’s really a big deal for me in terms of Hellenistic astrology. Well, just to frame some of our discussion in terms of the Abrahamic religions and their relationship to Western astrology, it’s actually pretty key.
Basically, the type of Western astrology that most people practice that has the fourfold system of planets, signs, houses, and aspects originates about 2,000 years ago, in the 1st century BC. It emerges about the time that Christianity emerges, or the time of the birth of Jesus would be about the same time that Hellenistic astrology is emerging in the West, in the Mediterranean region, especially around Alexandria and Egypt.
They were writing in Greek because Greek was the educated language at that point. So even to this day, the best way to get into reading ancient Hellenistic texts is actually to pick up a book on Biblical Greek. If you learn the type of Greek that they used in the Bible–which is known as Koine, or the common Greek from the time–you’ll actually learn a lot of technical terms that the astrologers used back in that time period because they were speaking the same language.
So you have some interesting interconnections there between Hellenistic astrology and Christianity, but then later the Roman Empire falls and there’s this loss of learning that occurs in Europe. But at the same time, you have the advent of the Islamic Empire in the Middle East, in the Mediterranean, and they end up inheriting a lot of the scholarly traditions from the Hellenistic and Roman Empires. Then through translation efforts and everything else there’s this great flourishing of astrology that occurs in the 8th and 9th centuries in the Muslim Empire, in Baghdad, and the surrounding areas. So Islam actually plays this really interesting key role in terms of the history and the transmission of astrology at that point.
SFR: Absolutely, up until 1250, which is another thing; maybe we’ll get to that. Until 1250 AD, which is significant because it also frames the disconnect that now Islam experiences with astrology.
CB: Yeah, because essentially you have this very–I almost want to call it a liberal period. I’m not sure if liberal is the correct term–because that invokes all sorts of other things that may be mainly relevant to today and present-day society–but this period where there was this great openness to different philosophies and inheriting different traditions and reconciling those in different ways with the established belief systems. And then there was some sort of marked or notable change after the 10th century where it seems like astrology did not do as well with Islamic scholars after that point. Is that correct?
SFR: That’s correct.
CB: So what happened at that point? What were some of the changes that took place?
SFR: There was more of a codification of at least two things. So there was more of a codification or a better codification of what was happening with what’s called the Sunnah and what’s also called Fiqh–in terms of the legalistic and philosophical traditions based on the life of the Prophet–so that was coming into more of its established own. That actually had been in the process at the 9th century as we had the founding of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, but it still was in its formative stages.
The other thing that happened that is really deep is that–that caliphate that we’re talking about, the Abbasid Caliphate, was established in Baghdad–the literalist, rigid, I want to say for lack of a better term, faith-based tradition was actually frowned upon at the beginning. There were people who were actually persecuted if they answered the question if they believed that the Quran, for instance, the holy book of the Muslims, was as contemporaneously eternal as God. So that was perceived as a bad thing at that time in Baghdad, in that particular center of learning. You actually were persecuted and beaten, so you can almost see where this is going.
Some 300 years later, when that community is a little stronger that believes in the literalism and the co-eternal existence of the Quran, they actually come more to the fore. And because of the bad blood that existed between one school of thought that was less literal–which is where we have the foundation and flourishing of all the texts that come from the West–they went and swung the pendulum a completely different direction toward the literalism of the Quran and more so the idea of maintaining the sanctity and [?] enclosure of Islamic thought only as it relates to Arabic culture and the Quran, and that’s what we’re seeing now.
CB: Were there specific theological objections to astrology that were raised at that time that caused a shift away from astrology being acceptable to some extent in Islamic culture, or was it more of just a gradual, subtle type of thing?
SFR: It was both. The broader picture is that it became very suspicious of speculative reasoning and speculative thoughts on the Quran. I actually have come to the idea that when Baghdad was sacked in 1250, there’s actually this rumor–I don’t know if it is corroborated by actual historical fact–that there were scholars who were debating as Baghdad was being surrounded by the Mongols.
It was speculated that they were arguing about how many angels could fit on a pin. What happened is that this kind of speculative reasoning, which also does have connections to astrology and Greek philosophy, was seen as useless. So I do think it comes from an actual pain from the loss of something that happened at the seat of Islamic learning, when we lost Baghdad, so that’s one.
I think the other thing that happened that’s interesting is that astrology was singled out from time to time by Islamic scholars like Al-Ghazali. He was more open to, for instance, ideas related to alchemy but less to astrology because they saw it as magic. You even have people like Al-Kindi who writes a powerful treatise On the Stellar Rays and how astrology works; he’s attempting to demonstrate more its practical meaning and ability than what looks like magic. So we even see that somewhat early on, but going toward, definitely as you mentioned, the 10th century.
There’s a resistance that crops up in Islamic culture towards magic. The same thing seems to have happened periodically through the Middle Ages for Christian culture as well, and we see some of the same apologies erupting from even William Lilly who has to actually come up with a book titled Christian Astrology so he doesn’t get burned.
CB: Right, that raises a really important point. It’s interesting that that comes up in the Islamic Empire first, and then later in Europe this becomes a major debate by the 12th and 13th centuries. It’s like astrology is okay to the extent that it’s seen as a natural phenomena, like an extension of nature or something that’s affecting us through our environment naturally. But the point at which most religions have a problem with astrology is if it’s a supernatural or occult phenomena that’s happening through seemingly unnatural means. That seems to be the point of objection, especially in the Middle Ages.
SFR: Right. It’s interesting that that’s almost the exact parallel that religion has with science which is the essential question, “Wait. How does this work? Who’s doing this?” I think that’s the thing that irks scientific scholars and religious scholars alike.
CB: I think that’s an interesting point. Bringing it back, I want to go back to the historical thing but maybe addressing a present-day concern. One of the answers that I always have when people ask me, “Is astrology against my religion?” one of the easiest answers for me is that the planets and the stars and other celestial phenomena are natural phenomena that are in the natural world, or in the cosmos, or creation or whatever you want to refer to it as. Those are all naturally-occurring things that were put in motion at some point.
Whether you’re a scientific atheist and it’s just the Big Bang, whether you’re a creationist, whatever your belief system is there’s this objective point which is that astrology bases itself on the movement of natural phenomena in the sky. And to the extent that that’s true, I think you run into a hard argument in arguing that astrology itself is evil, or is the work of the Devil, or is the work of other unsavory phenomena or characters. You’re essentially referring to something that is natural, that is part of nature.
And to the extent that astrology is part of nature, it seems hard to object to that purely on religious grounds because then you’re essentially objecting to creation, or objecting to the natural world, or something like that which seems sort of counterintuitive in terms of arguing for it as something that’s bad.
SFR: Yes, that is fair. But what’s interesting from a theological point of view–and this is where I think religion, especially the Abrahamic religions, but I also think it can come from Eastern tradition, and more, let’s say, from Buddhism–the question is not just in terms of the natural law. That’s essentially what you’re talking, that we can observe natural phenomenon and then they operate by particular laws or principles by which we can recognize.
SFR: But one of the other stinging critiques is, okay, religions generally believe in the supernatural, whether that is the idea of God, or it has a telos that’s related to the idea of eschatology, the End Times, Judgment Day or whatever–and this is something even Bernadette Brady brought up in her excellent two-part series for The Mountain Astrologer on fate and free will–there’s this question about what’s this thing about the soul.
It’s interesting. The Prophet Muhammad, he never really exactly spoke out against astrology by name. He wasn’t fond of the idea of fortune-telling and that would kind of get lumped in with astrology. But one of the critiques he had about things like that was to say that these things are irrelevant. And what I believe he meant by that and what I’ve seen in terms of interpretations is that when you’re fixated on the idea of the soul and its destination, it’s hard to think of a Saturn transit, however long it might last as comparable.
CB: Sure, because it’s still just a fixed, sort of in-your-lifetime-type thing…
CB: …rather than referring to eternity.
SFR: Eternity, mm-hmm. If you’re going to be in paradise–in jannah, as we say in Islam–if you’re going to be in jannah, why are you going to be stressed about a Saturn transit? What does it is matter? The same thing from a Buddhist perspective, interestingly enough, is that if you’re always future-oriented and you’re concerned about what’s going to happen, how present are you?
CB: Right, that raises an interesting point that came up even for the Stoics in the Hellenistic period which was this uneasiness between, on the one hand, astrology perhaps making a person focus more on the details of their lives rather than achieving mental or philosophical clarity and comfort about their lives and accepting what is, or accepting whatever the master plan is for a person’s life versus focusing on the details too much.
CB: Maybe backing up a little bit, now we’re getting into issues of fate and free will. One of the things I thought that was interesting in my studies of the history of Western astrology and its interaction with religion was that initially in Christianity, it seemed like astrology was actually used in the New Testament or some of the writings that ended up in the New Testament. In the Gospel of Matthew, astrology was used as a sort of justification of the religion.
For example, with the story of the Star of Bethlehem and the Magi that’s actually a story where astrology is almost being used in some sense to justify the birth of the Messiah. The argument was that there was this striking alignment of planets or of some astronomical phenomena that literally signaled that somebody important had been born, and that’s very much an astrologically-themed story. I mean, it’s only in a universe in which astrology is true or relevant or works in some way that that story makes any sense, and in that way it’s almost being used as a justification in some sense.
Then later on in the history of Christianity things turned once Christianity gets more established in the 2nd and 3rd and 4th and 5th centuries. Christianity becomes increasingly uncomfortable with astrology because of the issue of fate and free will, and free will has an important role in the theological foundations of Christianity so that one can choose to accept salvation or choose not to.
Astrology, as I discussed in the previous episode with Mark Jones on fate and free will, has some implication perhaps that there might be some things about a person’s life that are built into it or perhaps even predetermined that became an uneasy relationship between astrology and Christianity, I think primarily over that issue.
How can we wrestle with that today? How can people of faith deal with that issue today?
SFR: Yeah, I was talking about this also with a co-founder of the International Society of Black Astrologers, Dayna Lynn. She also wanted to make sure I make the point to say that in the history of astrology, there’s always been a certain propriety in terms of how we talk about the stars, how we talk about that, whether that’s associated with the ‘gods’ or God, and so it’s interesting to bring up the Magi.
As people who articulated a faith in something that wasn’t necessarily endemic to their culture, I mean, it’s a curious story. The skeptic in me would definitely attack the Magi story, now that I think about it more. As an astrologer, I think it’s very useful in showing people, well, here’s some evidence of astrology being used in faith. But why would people from the East come to look for a Messianic figure, a concept that is not necessarily something that permeates the consciousness of the world? Not everyone’s looking for a Messiah, whether you want to frame that as the Christ from Greek thought, or you want to frame that as Messiah, the Yeshua HaMashiach from the Jewish tradition.
It’s a curious thing that faith has in there, and there’s been this modulation, up and down, in the history of the Abrahamic religions, particularly about that relationship. In fact, I think you were alluding to Saint Augustine. He was perhaps one of the more interesting early Christians to attack astrology after practicing it.
CB: Right, he was a practicing astrologer.
SFR: He was a practicing astrologer. What’s interesting, we read recently the part where he talks about it in Confessions. I know this is going to sound disrespectful–first off, forgive me in advance; I mean, I am a Saturn in Aries, I’m working on it–but his actual critique is kind of dumb. He goes with the twins; it’s not even just a mechanism issue. “Astrology really can’t work because you can look at the twins and see that they can be two different people. So that means by virtue of them being two different people and having the same stars, astrology doesn’t work.” Well, then I guess DNA doesn’t work, if we look at it scientifically.
So that kind of falls on its face, but that becomes a pattern of thought that becomes a template that comes up periodically, all the way through the resurgence of questions like that, around the time that we have Marsilio Ficino translating Greek texts and bringing astrology back into Western consciousness.
SFR: One of his students–I’m blanking on his name–was also harshly critical of astrology, and then I think a contemporary actually was dismissive of astrology and was cursed, or not even cursed. I think Geoffrey Cornelius framed it as he seems he was cursed, but do you remember?
CB: You’re talking about Pico della Mirandola.
SFR: Yeah, Mirandola. Yeah, that’s it, right.
CB: Yeah, he wrote one of the largest attacks on astrology ever penned. It has never been translated into any modern languages as far as I’m concerned but some people have read it in Latin.
Yeah, bringing up Augustine is really interesting just because he has, like you said, one of the most interesting critiques because he has some background in astrology. Whereas most skeptics back then and even today don’t have a ton of familiarity with the subject, but sometimes they’ll pick up a brief manual and skim it in order to come up with some attacks on astrology and that’s like the usual approach. It’s a very time-honored tradition for the past 2,000 years in terms of astrology criticism, which is to not look into the subject very closely.
SFR: Right. And to be completely fair to Saint Augustine, I think the better critique that he had and he works with is the one of faith. I think that’s been the question that many people of faith question in terms of astrology. In fact, I even have a funny story about a woman who called me up for a session.
Because I deal with many African-Americans, one thing to know is that even though statistically, according to Harris Polls and the like, we believe in astrology more–I’m talking about black Americans–on the whole though because of some ‘aspects of religious sanction’ against it, many people don’t actually get consultations or are very afraid.
So this woman called and was very nervous about getting a reading, and she seemed into it till she asked me, “How much do you charge?” and I told her the price. And she’s like, “Oh, well, for that much why don’t I just wait until what happens and see what God has in store for me, or have faith.”
I said, “You could do that.” I gave her the analogy, I said, “Well, you could do that. You also could just go out and wait for the bus whenever you wanted to wait for the bus, but it may not be coming at anytime or just whatever time, so it’s good to have a schedule. Astrology can give you a schedule. It doesn’t complicate faith, it can actually work with it.”
SFR: So she was like, “Well, I don’t care.” She didn’t get the session, but she did bring up at least a valid point like, “Well, why can’t I just have faith?’” which is the lingering issue that happens with astrology that comes up periodically from Saint Augustine on.
CB: Right. I mean, even in the Stoics this came up because the ideal Stoic would just be content with anything that happens at any point. They’re so confident in what they believe and confident in the providential nature of God’s plan or what have you that they will be fine no matter what happens.
One of the arguments that I’ve made is that that was great for the idealized Stoic sage who had reached enlightenment, but for the rest of us, you still get caught off guard when things happen. When an important or tragic or other type of event occurs in a person’s life, sometimes they struggle to understand and to see the meaning and the purpose in something like that, and in instances like that sometimes astrology does come in handy.
Although I could see where there might be a tension; usually that’s a role that religion plays. So if somebody’s turning to astrology, do you have this question, is that taking the place of religion? And I’m…
SFR: Yeah, I’m sorry, go on.
CB: No, go ahead. What do you think of that?
SFR: I was going to say actually the converse can happen even embedded in the holy texts. For instance, I like to read a few verses from Psalm 19. One translation has that “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day, they pour forth speech, night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words, no sound is heard from them, yet their voice goes out in all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”
And similarly, there’s an idea about how we behold the signs in order to learn God’s intentions in the Quran from Surah 4513. “We have for You, God, subjected all that is in the heavens and on earth, all from Him. Behold, in that are signs for people who reflect.” I love that because it’s almost as if the Quran is kind of hinting toward even the word ‘consider’ as I think we may have talked before. ‘Consider’ is actually one of those Latin words that relates to astrology, consīderāre, ‘to think with one’s stars’.
I think that gives some substantiation into how we understand faith and astrology. This is another surah and then I’ll just finish with that. “We will show you our signs and horizons and in their own selves until it will become quite clear to them that it is the truth.” (Surah 4153). We will show them our signs on the horizons and in their own selves, which is kind of the whole idea of astrology, as above so below.
CB: Sure. In modern times, if somebody was to come up to you and say, “I’m a deeply religious person, can I still practice (or use or believe in) astrology?” what would you say in order to win them over, or do you think they could be won over?
SFR: Yeah, I’ve done it. I’ve been doing it more on the regular, especially since becoming a Muslim because people who are Muslims ask me. I even had a woman just two weeks ago at the masjid, after service, ask me about it because she had heard that I was an astrologer, so she had some questions about it.
One of the first things I would say is that nothing can trump the will of Allah or God, if I’m just talking in general. And if you don’t want to talk about God, you can say the cosmos or the universe. There’s no one particular person, no one particular thing who can know all the things that are happening at any given point in terms of manifesting. Interestingly enough, that’s also something that Bernadette Brady talked about in her discussion about fate and free will.
So there’s no way to know everything. Astrology helps us only see what we can see, but the full-on manifestation, or the behind-the-scenes Unseen–what we call in Islam or Arabic al-ghayb–what is Unseen is not for us to see, so we only can talk about what we see.
The first thing I usually address whenever I talk to a person of faith is knowing that there are limits to astrology. So it’s not so much that I have the power to tell you, “Well, you’re going to die on March 25, 2025 in a car accident.” I might be able to speculate by a chart, especially if I’m a Vedic astrologer because I don’t know any Western astrologers who get that hardcore. I might speculate, but to know, no. I don’t believe any astrologer can know with that level of certainty.
Then the other thing that I always like to address is the question where we started of who are we talking about in terms of how this works. I usually say that I don’t believe Saturn makes things happen. Even though we fall into that as a pattern of language or a pattern of speech, I don’t know if the planets compel. I think we addressed this last week too, the mechanism issue of is it symbolizing or is it actual, full-on causal.
But going back to some Stoic and Platonic thought, I think there’s one prime cause and many manifestations, and what we are seeing by analogy and by the use of analogy is that by observing Saturn, we can observe some ideas of what might be manifesting in the Saturn principle or Saturn ideas in our life.
SFR: I always clarify the mechanics because that would be a concern for a person of faith, which is very different and very important. I think astrologers have to be honest about something that it is thorny because we kind of tow the line with that. So if you’re more into astrological magic, there is a point in which you might, like even Ficino, where you write a hymn or an ode to a planet.
So are you worshipping the planet? What is your real relationship to the planet then? That’s a question I can’t answer for everybody, but that’s something that came up for me as a person of faith.
CB: Yeah, there’s many different schools of astrology in the same way that there’s many different religions. That’s not a great analogy because it’s actually a little bit more…
SFR: You’re going to get in trouble, Chris.
CB: …it’s a little bit more codified than that. Maybe another thing would be like there’s many different schools of thought within a single field. There’s economics, for example, but then you have different schools of economics that have different ways of going about doing it, or different things that they think work better in terms of economic models and making predictions about future economic trends and things like that.
For the most part, generally speaking, I don’t think that planetary worship is a mainstream astrological thing and is something that’s done by most astrologers even historically. There are schools where people that are into magical practices overlap and have used astrology or tried to use astrology in various ways, and in some of those instances, you do get into things like that, but it’s not necessarily something that’s inherent to astrology necessarily, I don’t think.
SFR: That’s correct, but there is still that question. For instance, I look at the work of esoterist and hermeticist Franz Bardon who talks about the genie that’s involved with each sign and at each particular degree. And genie is interesting, especially for a Muslim, because it has the same etymological root as jinn, these intermediate beings between angels and humans who are neither, but who also have the power of being the vestige holders of particular ideas or practices. Iblis is the most well-known, and Iblis is Satan in Islamic thought, the most well-known jinn.
So the question becomes, okay, well, if you’re talking about genie, are you talking about the jinn? These are the questions that come up.
CB: Yeah, and that goes back to the Greek concept of the daemon…
CB: …which were intermediary spirits basically between the celestial world and the heavenly realm and the earthly, material realm. There were these ideas of these spirits that acted as intermediaries going back and forth, and then from that evolves the concept of demons in the negative version of that in Christian thought.
SFR: We get the guardian angels from that, too.
CB: Oh yeah, a really good point. So it can go both ways I guess even in Christian thought where sometimes those are positive intermediaries and other times they’re viewed as negative or evil ones.
To be honest, there are plenty of objections that one can make. Ultimately, for me, what everything boils down to when it comes to this question of astrology and religion and one of the things I said yesterday in my episode with Mark Jones about fate and free will is one of the weird implications of astrology is that it does have a sort of quasi-religious implication for the nature of the cosmos. It seems to imply that each person’s life within the context of natal astrology has more of a purpose, or a narrative, or a meaning, if you will, than you would think otherwise.
If you just had your normal senses and you were just going about living your life with nothing else–with no philosophy, or any religion or anything else–everything seems to happen pretty chaotically and pretty randomly and without any real meaning or purpose in life. But one of the things that astrology does is it seems to show these underlying patterns of meaning and purpose that are kind of built into our lives, and I think that does have some underlying philosophical and potentially spiritual or religious implications for our lives and for the nature of the cosmos.
To the extent that that’s true, I think that does make astrology ultimately reconcilable with religion in some way. Depending on if you want to reconcile it, it’s possible; if you don’t, then it’s very easy to pick out any number of hundreds of arguments–some of them are very good, some of them are very poor–that people have made historically in order to not include that as part of your belief system. But it’s not necessary per se that astrology has to be antagonistic or against somebody’s beliefs.
SFR: Absolutely. Yeah, that sentiment that there is a purpose is really what brought me back to the idea of faith. And when I say faith, I’m not just talking about a particular religion that I chose. I’m also talking about faith that whatever we define as the Unknown–whether you want to call that Allah, Allah Ar-Rabb, or you want to call it God, or you want to call it Yōd Hē, Vav Hē—however you want to describe it, the Unknown has consciousness that parallels our own.
And this is where it’s interesting to observe astrologers or those interested in astrology who are atheists. I don’t really know what they’re saying. I don’t know if they’re exactly atheists or agnostics. I get not wanting to deal with a personal God because I don’t know if I deal with a personal God. I embrace divine mystery, but is that a person? No, I don’t even care.
But when you get into the level of saying that there is no other organic consciousness, or purpose, or telos, or idea of going toward an end with the cosmos, but yet you are an astrologer, that’s an inherent contradiction for me: How are you embracing meaning in meaninglessness or a meaningless universe?
CB: Right. That’s interesting that you use that word telos–the Greek word which means an end or a purpose–because that’s a term that actually came up in the last episode. One of the points that I made is it’s interesting that term, that Greek term, which means the end or the purpose of something, it’s actually integrated into one of the core terms that was used for astrology back in Hellenistic..
CB: Apotelesma, actually, the idea of a telesma, or an outcome, or an end to something. They said that astrology studies the inception of an event, a katarche, the start or the beginning of an event–like the birth of a person–in order to study what the end is, the apotelesma, or the completion, or the purpose of it what the outcome is. So you’re determining outcomes of things based on the inception of things. If you figure out what the beginning is you can figure out what the end, the purpose is.
It’s interesting that that was built into part of the conceptual foundation of astrology back then, and I think that perhaps has the most relevance to the religious question today. I don’t want to say this on some level because I don’t want to alienate a lot of people, but I think that astrology may be more reconcilable with religion in the 21st century because it views the cosmos as perhaps meaningful or purposeful. There’s a certain aspect of modern-day, scientific materialism that almost enjoys asserting the purposelessness or the meaninglessness of the cosmos at this point and tries to do that as something that’s positive or reassuring in some way, even though it really doesn’t strike me that way at all.
And I think…
SFR: I’m sorry, go on.
CB: …just to the extent that astrology seems to prove or demonstrate something to the contrary, I think it puts it more in alignment with religion just to the extent that religions themselves are often sources of figuring out what the meaning or purpose of life is. Astrology is not an alternative to that necessarily in what religions provide, but I think it can go along with or is an alignment with that in some way that’s complementary.
SFR: Right, and that’s not to say that religion doesn’t have its own horror show in history, it does. But one of the things that’s interesting in contrast to what’s emerging as this emphasis on materialism is that if we say there is no purpose, there is no absolute meaning to anything that happens, it brings in the fundamental question, then what are we?
If we just say, “Well, you’re just collections of stardust that exists for a number of years that you have and then you return to stardust and dust,” then it doesn’t really satisfy the questions of the qualitative experiential aspect of it. And religion really is very concerned with the qualitative experience, so much so that I actually have come to believe that telos, the end, eschatology is probably a bigger issue for religion than God. I think it’s almost impossible for a ‘religion’ to have no sense of telos.
As proof of this, you can look at Hinduism and Buddhism, even though there’s more of a henotheism in Hinduism actually. A lot of people think it’s just polytheistic; that’s not exactly correct. It’s not monotheistic per se but there is a chief god, the atman, as the Unseen, and it happens in many other religions as well.
But even with this idea of the unseen, unmanifest God that takes sometimes tripartite and even many forms, one of the things that is still always there is that something’s going to happen to you at the end of your life. You’re either going to be reincarnated–you’re going to end up an ant–or you’re going to end up something else. The same thing happens in Buddhism which doesn’t even have on paper the idea of an actual God, but there is this telos, there is this idea of what happens to you after you die. So I think the question of what happens after we die, the question of how we extend meaning from this life into another life really highlights the importance and the sense of quality of one’s life.
But if everything equals everything or nothing equals nothing, it doesn’t matter. I think that’s why we see some measure of the denigration of the quality of people’s lives. They’re consumed with things that don’t necessarily have any actual inherent meaning or even have any meaning to them at all because people buy into the materialism. I think that’s one of the insipid dangers of scientific materialism and also capitalistic materialism.
CB: Does astrology provide–I don’t want to say an antidote to that–a counterbalance to that, and is it sufficient on its own?
SFR: Yeah. I understand the imperative that many astrologers have towards wanting to have scientific validation for astrology. I mean, I am not, at least on paper, one of those astrologers even though I’m curious about a lot of different things. So I’m open to the idea although I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen.
However, I think we are also missing a very important opportunity to challenge the empiricism of science to say, “Okay, yeah, you can send rockets into space. How are we talking about improving the quality of people’s lives as they’re living on Earth? How are we diligently talking about not just improving the medical/physical aspects of their lives but even dealing with their emotional?” This is what astrology does. It deals with the quality and the politics of meaning, the language of meaning.
And so, we are actually selling our birthright, to use a biblical metaphor. We’re selling our birthright in order to fit into a club that we don’t have to fit into. We bring a whole different message of meaning and substance into people’s lives, whether that comes through doing horoscopes or actually erecting horoscopes.
CB: Maybe it is a good time to circle back to that discussion that we had last time, since this is part two. One of the things you brought up that I was curious about that I wanted to discuss a little bit was you have this objection against what you’re calling empiricism and viewing astrology as empirical, but I wanted to understand a little bit better what you meant by that.
Usually when I think of empiricism, I think of, broadly speaking, making observations and recording them and making deductions based on observations, which seems to me very much like something astrologers do. But one of your points that you like to raise and have raised in the past is just that astrology is not entirely empirical, right?
SFR: Yeah, it’s more of a qualitative empiricism. If we’re going to use the word empiricism, think quantitative. There’s this quantitative hope that we can observe particular factors a particular way and delimit those factors and say, “Thus, it will be so,” and I don’t have that aspiration.
For instance, I’ll give you some very basic research that’s been done on serial killers. One of the things that at least two scholars–I won’t say scholars as much as astrologers–have found is that there’s a preponderance of mutability that’s found in the charts, in prominent places, of serial killers. So can we say then that someone we find with a preponderance of mutability in their chart, if we’re counseling them, should we have the ‘serial killer’ conversation? If they’re a Mars-Pluto conjunction or square is that the hope of the empiricism?
I guess what I’m questioning is what becomes the hope of it, that we can then delimit and say that this is the way it’s going to definitively work? The best we can say is that there’s a reasonable amount of certain qualities that may come together in this person along a certain track, but there’s no way to definitively say this is true. I think there’s a certain definitiveness, maybe that’s the better way to put it.
SFR: There’s a certain definitiveness that astrologers are looking for and hoping for within empiricism that I don’t think is going to happen.
CB: Yeah, I think that’s what you’re objecting to more than the process of…
SFR: You’re right.
CB: …observing things and then taking note about that with the assumption that that information might be useful again in the future. You’re almost objecting to the idea that you can draw fixed and permanent conclusions maybe just from single placements or clusters of placements because each chart is unique.
And perhaps there’s some other factor which is where the religion question comes in: Is there another factor which animates the chart and leads things to not be as replicable because of this wildcard element? Maybe that wildcard element is something like choice or free will or something like that.
SFR: I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off, but that’s interesting that you bring that up because this is something that Lilly wrestled with. I think Geoffrey Cornelius talks about this in one lecture; he calls it ‘the juice’. It’s an interesting question: Is it a moment of inspiration that the astrologer really comes into by looking at particular facts?
If I can just elucidate a quick story of how I came to astrology, I went to see an astrologer as I may have recounted last time or not, I’m not sure, but I went to see an astrologer. I have, and I think you would agree, a wide square even by some aspects; well, maybe by moiety it works. I have a wide square between Mercury at 11 degrees Scorpio and the Moon at 2 degrees Leo.
By modern standards, most would look at that as kind of wide, but he went on about it. He was like, “I see your brother is somehow involved in complicating your mom’s pregnancy with you.” And he went on about my brother and then he said, “Well, maybe your father’s involved, too.” Now that’s really, really specific and that’s really what drew me.
I was like, “What are you talking about?” and he couldn’t elucidate more than what he was saying in terms of my brother, but that was absolutely true. My brother, without going too much into it, told my mother something about my father that my father was doing that complicated her pregnancy with me, and I had just recently learned that. I had just learned that that summer and I went to see him in October. And I was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa,” but that was a moment of genuine inspiration. I don’t know if I would have said that.
Now knowing astrology, knowing that Mercury-Moon square, that was something else, and that’s what I think we have to acknowledge in astrology. Sometimes there is something or whatever that passes through us, and the Vedic astrologers are very clear on this. They even talk about the idea of the vidya, the spirit that passes as a lineage between different astrologers.
So you actually get some measure of a spiritual connection through your teacher in terms of how one interprets a chart. It’s not just the mechanics of it in terms of learning it, it’s also a way in which one reads and perceives that’s spiritual, and Lilly even eludes to this as well. So sorry, I don’t mean to cut you off at that point.
CB: No, that was a perfect transition. You bring up an important point when you mention Geoffrey Cornelius and some of the things where you’re headed with that. One of his primary arguments, this is an argument that he developed partially after the failures of some of the forays between astrology and science in the 1970s and ‘80s and the crisis of consciousness that some astrologers had in the ‘90s in wrestling with the implications of that. One of the arguments that arose during that time that a lot of astrologers have adopted or moved towards is Geoffrey Cornelius’ argument that astrology is divination.
He argued that astrology was originally divination, that it was reconceptualized as a purely natural phenomenon having to do with influences from the planets on the environment through the temperaments and things like that by Claudius Ptolemy. That led to a 1,500- year-long digression where astrology wasn’t viewed for what it actually was, and it tried to put itself forward as a purely natural phenomenon that was working through planetary influences. In fact, his argument was that astrology was originally and has always been divination.
That raises a really interesting issue and question. On the one hand, historically divination and fortune-telling–sometimes religions can get a little bit uncomfortable with that as an idea. But then at the same time, if divination exists and if it works, doesn’t divination imply the existence of the divine in some sense…
CB: …as a counterpoint to that, or as a point that’s more, let’s say, supportive of religion versus antagonistic against it?
SFR: That’s correct. I struggle as I straddle the fence between reason and revelation, and one of the things that religion really seems to be beholden to–I should be specific, the Abrahamic traditions–is its insistence on revelation. And one of the curious things about revelation, when I say revelation–I am talking about not the Book of Revelation or the Apocrypha–specifically I’m talking about the whole corpus, whether that’s from the Quran, or from the Bible, or from the Talmud, or the Torah, more so from the Torah, that’s the actual revelatory text.
When we talk about those books, they’re kind of self-contained in terms of the idea of God speaking to humankind, and so what flouts that idea and maybe is more unsettling to religion is where God continues to speak through divination. The only form of ‘divination’ that religions seem to tolerate are dreams. But what’s interesting about that is it really then depends on the quality of the dream.
You have the visions of Martin Luther and then how he has his deep readings of scripture and comes up with his own reading of it, that became ‘intolerable’ for the Church. They’re like, “No, no, that’s not true.” There’s this intolerance for anything that doesn’t fit in the corpus or the literature, the body of the religion, so I think that’s the other thing that’s unnerving about divination. It’s like, “Okay, what do you mean God is speaking to you? God spoke to the prophets and He’s not speaking anymore.”
CB: Right. I mean, that is perhaps a legitimate quandary depending on what your view is of the mechanism underlying astrology. Unfortunately, that’s an issue where, to be perfectly honest, virtually all astrologers are just using a system that produces results but there’s not unanimous agreement about why it produces those results or what the mechanism is underlying it.
CB: That’s part of what we were discussing in our previous episode on astrology and science which is that historically there’s been these two competing viewpoints, one, of the planets acting as causes of events through some celestial force that’s either known or unknown, and then the other viewpoint is astrology acting through signs, or symbols, or synchronicity rather than causing events, instead simply reflecting it.
CB: Yeah, I mean, that lack of certainty is kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you could use astrology as most astrologers do without it necessarily conflicting with your faith because you don’t necessarily know if it’s working through signs or causes. On the other hand, that could leave some people with a certain amount of uncertainty or somewhat uncomfortable with not fully knowing why it’s working or what the source of that is.
SFR: Right. One thing I just want to tie in with that, what I love about astrology, what compels me, it is a way by which everyone can have a sense of God speaking to him or her about his or her life. Again, you can supplement that for Divine Mystery which I just use God for convenience. That is not something that religion provides because you often can get lost into the bigger story becoming your story.
For instance, what was moving to me was someone telling me–I don’t know if this is always true but the thought is nice–that doing the recitations of the Quran, which is the obligation of every Muslim in prayer, is a way by which you have the words of God come alive in your mouth, in your mind. As it was revealed to Muhammad during his life, it now can come alive for you in your life. I think some sense of that is lost in terms of how one approaches the personal in relation to faith or religion. But that’s not lost in astrology, especially when we talk about the uniqueness of a chart.
CB: Yeah, definitely. All right, well, I think we’re getting towards the end of our show. What are some final points in terms of the compatibility of astrology with religion that you might want to make or that you would like to make for somebody that was coming into this and saying, “Is astrology compatible with my religious beliefs?”
Do you have any parting words for that person in terms of things that we would reassure them or things that they would need to consider that might be problematic in terms of their religion?
SFR: Yeah, I think a lot about, for instance, that surah. I mean, you could use the Bible, but that surah that says, “For you, God subjected all that is in the heavens and on earth, all from Him. Behold, in that are signs for people who reflect.”
Astrology becomes a way by which you can look at the signs. Obviously, it’s not literally talking about Aries through Pisces, but it is talking about the significations of things that happen in the heavens as things to contemplate and understand on Earth. Whether that be in your life, or it might be in terms of what’s happening in our country, it just becomes a way of syncing up, as we say in modern parlance.
As long as you’re focused on how those signs signify something in your life that signifies the meaning of your life which can be rooted in God. It can be rooted in the sense of the Stoic idea of civic duty and the oneness of the cosmos, or it could be rooted in terms of alleviating your karma. Whatever that is for you, make sure it’s directed toward the inner meaning.
But when you get too caught up on beholding the signs without thinking about their significance, “Oh, Saturn’s coming for me, He’s going to kill me,” then I think you are going into dangerous territory that is irksome for religion. You’re objectifying the planets as having more power than your own life, and you’re objectifying the planets as having more power, if you believe in God, than even God.
CB: And in terms of my closing statements, I would just say that historically astrology has been used by followers of just about every major religion around the world…
CB: …to the extent that it’s a system or a piece of technology that was developed at some point which can do certain things. And there have been many different users of that technology, just in the same way that there are both Muslims and Christians and Hindus that use microwaves, but microwaves are not inherently against any of those religions. I would say that the cosmological and philosophical and religious implications for astrology are slightly bigger than that of microwaves, but I think that’s something that’s a positive thing and that should be reassuring for most people that are religious.
This is something that instead of contradicting or going against their faith is instead something that perhaps bolsters it because it seems to be this external piece of confirmation that there’s something else going on in the cosmos and in the universe that makes things a little bit weirder, and a little bit more special, and a little bit more meaningful than you might otherwise think. So that should be reassuring and helpful and useful in some way rather than something that’s problematic or needs to be rejected or suppressed.
I think that’s my final statement on that. What do you think?
SFR: I agree.
CB: All right, well, I think that brings us to the end of this show. You’ve done some different talks and other stuff and written some articles on your website that address different topics broadly related to this question, right?
SFR: Yeah, I actually have. When I wrote for Ebony magazine, we did a Google Hangout where I asked very pointedly, “Is astrology against my religion?” So I have a talk on my site, if you look for it there. Right when you go on my page, there’s actually a carousel at the top and you can go through it, and it asks, “Is astrology against my religion?” if people are curious about my other thoughts on it.
And then of course if you happen to be in South Africa, in Cape Town, in early November, stop by the Astrology Restored conference. Rob Hand is going to be there. I’ll be talking on astrology in Islam and talking about are they oil and water, are they compatible, and what happened. I look forward to entertaining questions there.
CB: Sounds good. All right, well, thanks a lot for joining me, Sam.
SFR: Thank you for having me, Chris.
CB: All right, thanks everyone for listening, and we’ll see you next time.