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A Short History of Astronomy and Astrology - Part 2

  • Jay Ryan Contributing Writer
  • 2007 14 Nov
A Short History of Astronomy and Astrology - Part 2

Christianity and Astrology

The early church was opposed to astrology and all other related forms of mystical divination. Many Christian writers such as Augustine of Hippo wrote scathing condemnations that attacked the illogic behind astrology. During the so-called "dark ages," the study of Aristotle other Greek philosophers was forgotten, and so was astrology. However, during the 12th century, the writings of Aristotle were rediscovered in a sincere enough quest for logic and understanding. Unfortunately, the elements of astrology eventually began to find their way into medieval culture.
In the later medieval period, the notion of contrary qualities and influences from the stars became closely bound up with Aristotle's science and influenced the study of nature. Though certain principles were applied, medieval astronomers took great care to forbid the practice of "judicial astrology," seeking to find human destinies from the stars, what we usually think of today as astrology. However, the practices of astrology, alchemy, and other forms of magic and divination became full-blown during the Renaissance with a revival of pagan religion and mysticism. It is these superstitions that still persist to this day among "spiritualists," "theosophists," "palm readers" and various "New Age" types. While such people are certainly persistent in following these superstitions, in my own experience, I've found them typically to be quite naïve and gullible, and usually very uninformed about history or science, not even understanding the history of astrology itself. 
The great Protestant Reformers understood the distinctions between classical astronomy and astrology:

Astronomy is the most ancient of all sciences, and has been the introducer of vast knowledge; it was familiarly known to the Hebrews, for they diligently noted the course of the heavens, as God said to Abraham: "Behold the heavens; canst thou number the stars?" etc....I like astronomy and mathematics, which rely upon demonstrations and sure proofs. As to astrology, 'tis nothing....Astrology is no art; it has no principle, no demonstration, whereupon we may take sure footing; 'tis all haphazard work....Great wrong is done to God's creatures by the star-expounders. God has created and placed the stars in the firmament, to the end they might give light to the kingdoms of the earth, make people glad and joyful in the Lord, and be good signs of years and seasons. But the star-peepers feign that those creatures, of God created, darken and trouble the earth, and are hurtful; whereas all creatures of God are good, and by God created only for good, though mankind makes them evil, by abusing them.
- Martin Luther, from Table Talk

An "Astrological" Basis for Early Science?

The colonial almanack tradition in America was begun by the Puritans of Massachusetts with the publication of the first Cambridge Almanack at Harvard in 1639. These Puritan almanacks were purely devoted to astronomical data for calendar keeping, e.g. the risings, settings and southings of the Sun, Moon, planets, and brighter stars. Puritan astronomy was free of astrology. The Puritan standard was held for 60 years. Though "judicial astrology" had always been condemned by Christians down through history, notions of "cosmic sympathy" were still intertwined with natural science in this period, and thus, astrology kept finding it's way back in.
By the 1690s, other almanacks were published in New England that included weather forecasting, a topic of great interest to farmers. However, weather forecasting at that time was still based on the notion of cosmic sympathy, and so astrology found its way into the colonial almanacks in this manner. Since it was believed that the Moon increased moisture, most astrological weather forecasting entailed finding the location of the Moon in various constellations, and took into account the "influence" of the various planets. Such astrological weather practices still survive today in "gardening by the Moon" which is still believed by many people, even though there is no longer any scientific basis.
It's hard for our generation to fully appreciate the extent with which astrological notions permeated the scientific culture for so many centuries. Generally, the pseudoscience of Aristotle was dismantled piece by piece from the 1600s through the 1800s. In astronomy, the fall of Aristotle began in 1687 with the mechanical physics of Isaac Newton, who built upon the work of Galileo and Johannes Kepler. A meteorological understanding of the weather came about slowly throughout the first half of the 19th century. However, a scientific medical understanding of disease as caused by bacteria was only discovered by Pasteur in the second half of the 19th century. The practice of "bleeding" was still performed in the early American republic. For example, George Washington died from an infection, probably pneumonia, but his death may well have been hastened by the fact that his doctors bled him in an attempt to restore his "distemper." So we see that astrology was so closely intertwined with the common understanding of natural science for so many centuries, and was only finally debunked following many more centuries of extensive study of the natural world by scientific researchers in all fields.
The ancient "science" of astrology has been utterly discredited by the work of modern physics. Modern science has extensively studied and tested the claims of astrology and found them to be without any natural or rational basis. Science has demonstrated that the only "influences" that emanate from the Sun, Moon, and stars are light, heat, and gravity. Although the Sun and Moon shine brightly and the Sun heats the Earth, the influence of gravity is small, at most merely raising the tide. If there are any other influences emanating from the stars and planets, they cannot be detected or measured. Even if there were such influences, they surely would not derive from the antiquated notion of "contrary qualities" or the other discredited aspects of the ancient armchair science of Aristotle.
Christians today have nothing to fear from astrology, since it lies on the ash heap of discarded ancient nonsense. The only power astrology or mysticism can hope to have is the power to deceive and oppress. This oppression can only come by giving place to the devil and allowing oneself to believe in this baseless pagan artifact. Instead, we should laugh at this ancient silliness and praise the LORD that we truly are free indeed from the tyranny of the stars. And we should look at the celestial creation as ones who are free and give glory to the Creator who placed such wonders over our heads.

*This article published November 14, 2007.

This article is from the Classical Astronomy Update, a free email newsletter for Christian homeschoolers. Jay Ryan is also the author of "Signs & Seasons," an astronomy homeschool curriculum. For more information, visit his web site www.ClassicalAstronomy.com.