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Astrology and Popular Religion in the Modern West:  Prophecy, Cosmology and the New Age Movement, by Nicholas Campion

Book Review

Astrology and Popular Religion in the Modern West: Prophecy, Cosmology and the New Age Movement

by Nicholas Campion

Ashgate publications, (Aug 2012)
ISBN: 9781409435143
264 pages.; hardback. RRP: £55.00
Reviewed by Kirk Little

Forty years ago, Theodora Kroeber, the recently widowed wife of the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, published Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America, and it was a literary sensation. In 1911, after years of alternately avoiding and fighting the encroaching white settlers of California, the exhausted, emaciated wild man was cornered by some barking dogs in the corral of a slaughter house and brought to the local jail. When newspaper accounts were read by Professor Kroeber in his San Francisco office, he wasted no time and dispatched the following telegram: "Sheriff Butte County. Newspapers report capture of wild Indian speaking language other tribes totally unable to understand. Please confirm or deny by collect telegram and if story correct hold Indian till arrival Professor State University who will take charge and be responsible for him. Matter important account aboriginal history." Before long, Ishi was taking automobile rides through Golden Gate Park and demonstrating his skills with hemp deer snares, as well as making and shooting arrows for amazed crowds at the University museum. Unknown to his curious onlookers, Ishi possessed knowledge of magic and the spirit worlds, which held no interest for his early 20th century California public, who were more impressed by his formality, friendliness and quiet dignity. He died of tuberculosis in 1916, a willing captive of a foreign civilization, uncomplaining to the end.

Ishi's plight has a familiar feel to astrologers. If we still speak a language other modern tribes don't understand, at least now, with the publication of Astrology and Popular Religion in the Modern West: Prophecy, Cosmology and the New Age Movement (Ashgate, 2012), we have Professor Campion to thank for introducing our 'aboriginal history', or more accurately our often misunderstood state to academics and other serious thinkers of various persuasions. That is no mean feat and oddly, has not been tried before, at least for such an erudite audience. Of course, there have been scads of popular (and not so popular) books about astrology which have attempted to instruct others about the mysterious world we astrologers are said to inhabit. But none have been written with the breadth and depth of knowledge possessed by Campion. He seems to have read everything and to have experienced the full scope of modern astrology, from mass publication sun sign columns, written by celebrity stargazers, to serious practitioners who are consulted by people of knowledge and substance; from astrology-hating sceptics to full-bore believers and everything in between. The mirror he holds up for astrological insiders and outsiders invites close inspection, and if it reveals a less attractive image than we would like to see, it's not the ugly face our critics would have us imagine. Taken as a whole, the image Campion reflects is seldom less than engrossing.

The book's long title, extensive bibliography and hefty price alert us that this is not a book for the astrological rabble. Too bad, because it deserves to be widely read by astrologers, not just the academics, who are his intended audience. By taking astrology and astrologers seriously, Campion succeeds in placing us in cultural context. It is more a landscape painting than a group portrait; his canvas is large and he is intent on capturing the broad terrain of Anglo-American astrology. With a few exceptions, such as Alan Leo and Dane Rudhyar, individual astrologers are used primarily to illustrate broader sociological themes, rather than for their unique contributions to theory or practice. Hidden amidst the academic paraphernalia, is a text filled with fascinating tidbits and insights into the small world of professional astrology and the much larger world of popular astrology.

Campion's gifts are primarily historical and sociological, and they are on full display here. For his academic colleagues, he is intent on demonstrating how little they truly know about a set of people and beliefs they so roundly condemn. By turning the tables on them, he neatly explains how their attempt to show "astrology is a form of historical error-pseudoscience in some sceptical language—is actually pseudohistory—history pursued in the absence of evidence". (p. 97) This is strong stuff, and not language which will endear him to fellow scholars, but he backs up his claim by amassing his own evidence from historical data, a series of thoughtful surveys and through his multiple interviews of living, breathing astrologers. If this latter approach sounds familiar to readers of Garry Phillipson's Astrology in the Year Zero, it should. (Yes, Zero is in the bibliography and yes, Campion duly notes it is but one of only three books in the twentieth century to actually take the time to ask astrologers what they believe.) But unlike Phillipson, who is especially good at ferreting out the philosophical assumptions of his interviewees, Campion is primarily concerned with their beliefs, true or not, and how those beliefs fit into other belief systems in popular culture. In other words, he is more sociological; indeed, this book builds on other work he has done with the interface of astrology and religion. Naturally, his book includes multiple tables compiling astrologer's beliefs, and for those few souls willing to study them, they illustrate many of the complexities and contradictions we astrologers embrace in our pursuit of the millennium.

If the nature of belief is a central concern of Campion's, he makes sure to show us what a range of beliefs are held by astrologers. Along the way, he demolishes some myths held by astrology's critics, such as a growing popular belief in astrology: his review of historical data showed that "public polling figures remain fairly constant" over the decades (p. 135); or that astrologers make good incomes: in his surveys, Campion found only a tiny percentage of practitioners are able to support themselves from their astrological work (pp. 139-41). Another sceptical canard concerning the low educational attainments of astrologers is also challenged by these surveys. In general, astrologers possess higher levels of education than the public at large. Furthermore, he points out that the "supposed negative correlation between belief in science and either the paranormal in general or astrology in particular has been challenged or reversed by a series of studies." (p. 102) A popular notion among our critics that the primary purpose of astrology is to predict the future also doesn't hold up to closer scrutiny. At the 2002 UAC gathering, "the world's biggest gathering of astrologers" Campion's survey showed over half the delegates rejected that conception and "almost a third, rejected any possibility that astrology can make accurate predictions." (pp. 183-4) In other words, Campion's book paints a much more nuanced picture of astrologers than the caricature erected by our critics.

The essence of that picture, Campion seems to think, may be summed up by answering two interrelated questions: Is astrology New Age? And is the New Age the same thing as the Age of Aquarius? Astrology's relation to the New Age/Age of Aquarius is a major theme of his book and may seem puzzling to most astrologers, who most likely don't spend that much time thinking about it in their daily practice. Apparently, many sociologists do, though not very fruitfully, if Campion is to be believed. His concern with astrology's millenarian aspects dates at least to 1984, in his chapter in Mundane Astrology, where he provocatively described "the Age of Aquarius and the myths surrounding it".[1] He expanded on that theme in a 1990 article "The Age of Aquarius: A Modern Myth", (strangely absent from his extensive bibliography) in which he characterized that always imminent, never arriving era as "one of the great clichés of modern astrology."[2] That trenchant essay, which adumbrates the major themes of this book, first set out Campion's contention that "New Age beliefs are irrelevant to any supposed effect arising from precession (of the equinoxes)" and added "criticism of the New Age movement must be based on historical and sociological arguments, which in respect to the material presented here represents but a précis of a much larger work."[3]Astrology and Popular Religion is that larger work. In the intervening twenty plus years between the publications of these two works, Campion earned a PhD in sociology and has written a comprehensive two volume history of western astrology and authored a number of other books. Seen in this light, his 2004 doctoral thesis: Prophecy, Cosmology and the New Age Movement: The Extent and Nature of Belief in Astrology is simply an important milestone on a thirty year journey. Despite his typical academic caveats about the tentative nature of his conclusions, this book is most likely the best sociological study of western astrology we will have for some time.

Campion knows that few academics have bothered to understand the appeal of astrology; mostly, its adherents are dismissed as poorly educated yahoos steeped in outdated theories of the cosmos. For that reason, its appeal requires no explaining; much like trying to understand why many people watch trash TV. The actual tradition remains invisible to sociologists, except in its most sensational aspects, such as overstated claims about its popularity or ludicrous assertions that it has brought about a decline in mainstream religion. Campion has read most of this literature and seems genuinely frustrated by the gross ignorance on display. His tone is never combative, mostly he sounds exasperated, like a professor with a dull witted student. He brushes away sociologist Peter Underwood's statement about astrology's popularity as "typical, but clearly exaggerated" (p. 128) and casually dismisses the views of Paul Heelas, as someone "whose knowledge of the astrological milieu is slight" (p. 41). No one gets off easily. He accuses most sociologists of "naivety" as well as a "substantial failure to investigate astrology's claims, talk to astrologers or consider astrological literature." (p. 87) Astrologers and New Age writers don't fare any better in their handling of these matters, and he does not spare them. Naturally, Campion's critical stance towards the New Age puts him at odds with many, if not most of his astrological brethren, who have embraced, or at least uncritically accepted the platitudes of the Aquarian Age. If you are a believer that the Age of Aquarius has arrived (and most astrologers are, according to his surveys—see his table on p. 183), you may find not find those chapters of this book to your taste, since they provide a strong emetic for those of us who naïvely swallow the historical myths handed down by Madame Blavatsky, Alice Bailey and the rest of the Theosophical chain gang. Indeed, one of this book's chief virtues is its clear headed thinking on these matters; Campion knows the historical literature on this subject and he uses his surveys and interviews with astrologers to buttress his argument about their fuzzy thinking. This book is a wakeup call to both academics and astrologers to become more familiar with the primary sources of the modern tradition.

Campion sees our belief in a set of millenarian assumptions as a defining aspect of modern astrology, which he lays squarely at the feet of Alan Leo and Dane Rudhyar. He characterizes them as "two influential theosophists" and "devout New Agers" (p. 55 & 64) whose legacy is with us still. If Leo, a follower of Madame Blavatsky's Theosophy, was "the pivotal figure in the incorporation of New Age ideology into astrology" (p. 55), Rudhyar's reformulation represents "the first comprehensive application of Jungian principles and depth psychology to astrology in the English speaking world." (p. 63) Certainly Leo created the template for modern spiritual astrology, a marriage of western astrology with eastern religion. His reliance on the philosophical trappings of Hinduism, however, insured its limited appeal: in Edwardian England, he was preaching to a largely Christian readership. By contrast, Rudhyar, writing for mass market publications during the Great Depression in the United States in the 1930's, knew he had some convincing to do. His landmark book The Astrology of Personality (1936), was based on series of articles he wrote for the monthly American Astrology magazine, the nation's first mass market publication for this subject. His book opens with a chapter entitled 'Astrology Faces Modern Thought'; in it, he referenced numerous thinkers, including the philosophers Henri Bergson and Bertrand Russell, the cosmologist James Jeans, and of course, Jung. He modernized the product by importing the language of symbols and cycles, by emphasizing psychology over religion, and by invoking holism and physics over unseen beings and past lives. In short, Rudhyar replaced Blavatsky's soul with Jung's psyche as the central focus of self development.

Understanding that psyche didn't require a lot of complicated astrological techniques either. Campion notes that both Leo and Rudhyar were preoccupied with simplifying astrology's technical apparatus, which they saw as a holdover of medieval practices, and more importantly as a serious barrier to astrology's wider acceptance by the public. Equally important, Campion sees their joint legacy as the transformation of classical astrology's traditional dogma and practice into its most familiar modern guise as a form of stellar self-help. His chapter on the development of sun sign astrology actually improves on the version he provides in the second volume of his History of Western Astrology. In his new book, he gives much credit to Leo for emphasizing 'solar astrology' and to Rudhyar for devising a sun sign format suitable for magazines and newspaper columns. While both men acknowledged astrology's ancient roots, they replaced the actual tradition with something sleeker and less cumbersome. Soul transformation didn't need to require a lot of hard work. Perhaps a penny horoscope or a daily reading of one's sun sign forecast in the newspaper was just the nudge a soul needed to get on the right path. In that regard, Leo and Rudhyar's version of astrology as a transformative tool is very New Age. Their sleight of hand, according to Campion, making their version of astrology seem both ancient and modern is what sociologists of religion refer to as an invented tradition. In other words, many of the beliefs we modern astrologers accept as based in ancient tradition were actually devised in the past century. This is sobering stuff for those of us who cut our teeth on these and similar (Stephen Arroyo, Alan Oken) writers.

Beliefs come in many forms, some masquerading as scientific knowledge. Thus, Campion is equally intent on demolishing some of the specious arguments proposed by leading scientific critics of astrology. He roundly condemns historical attacks, such as that by the Marxist social theorist Theodore Adorno, whose 1953 article "Stars Down to Earth" equated belief in astrology with "a warning sign of possible fascist tendencies" (p. 101). Then too, there are psychiatrists who liken belief in astrology to a form of mental disease. While some of these criticisms hail from an era in which rock 'n roll was said to cause mind rot, others, equally inane, persist. Campion reserves special ire for those scientific critics of astrology, such as Richard Dawkins, who employ sneering rhetorical strategies to demean those who don't share their views on science as the arbiter of all things. Some scientific sceptics have devised different strategies for undermining non scientific beliefs. What if belief in anything is the problem? Steven Pinker, the cognitive psychologist has one answer; he defines belief as an inferior cognitive state. Robert Park, a professor of physics has another: he uses pseudo scientific models of brains as "belief engines" to explain the credulity of astrologers. Campion acknowledges such views as "idiosyncratic" and "untested and lacking in evidence" (pp. 92-3), however, he understands the purveyors of such opinions hold the upper hand by virtue of their professional positions in society, as well as the dominance of the scientific world view.

The answers of the astrological community aren't much better. According to Campion, for most astrologers, "belief was an inappropriate concept to apply to a practice validated by daily experience" (p. 206). If true, this essentially acknowledges that we agree with Pinker, that belief is inferior to empirical proof. He quotes one astrologer with what for many of us is a familiar refrain: "No, I don't believe in astrology. I know from more than ten years of almost daily hands on experience that astrology is a valid and useful tool for understanding our world and our relationship to it" (p. 87). By reporting such views, Campion raises difficult epistemological questions which he has no intention of answering. He knows that such appeals to personal empiricism, not unlike a physicist's embrace of say gravity pervade contemporary astrological thought and practice. While many of us have endorsed some variant on this naïve appeal, it creates a slippery epistemological slope. Moreover, it won't cut it with scientific sceptics, since appealing to personal experience implies the possibility that such findings can be measured and replicated by others. While Campion tepidly supports a scientific astrology with his assertion "There is positive scientific evidence for those who need it" (p. 206) he doesn't muster much support for this contention. To be fair, establishing the truth or falsity of astrological claims is not his stated intention; still, this assertion does undercut what is otherwise an agnostic stance on astrology's empirical standing. Nowhere does he acknowledge the fact that there are astrologers who understand the weak scientific claims for astrology and who are not troubled by it. Notably, Geoffrey Cornelius' Moment of Astrology: Its Origin in Divination has cogently argued that the vast bulk of our tradition does not stand up to scientific scrutiny; however, that does not rule out the possibility for making useful and accurate judgments from horoscopes. It does mean that we need to relinquish our fading hopes that the new physics or some other yet to be developed science will somehow vindicate our practices. Failure to do so creates one of the major stumbling blocks to having our work taken more seriously.

For all its sociological precision, Campion's book is much hazier on the actual practices of modern astrologers. Nowhere does he describe what most astrologers actually do in their work with clients: sit in offices and make judgments —that is perform readings—on the basis of horoscopes. Thus, if he were writing about psychoanalysis, one would never know that the client lies on a couch free associating about their past experiences to Freudian questions put by a person sitting behind them. Other than his discussion of psychological astrology, Campion is not concerned with recording trends in the field over the past century, such as the use of sidereal and heliocentric perspectives, the increasing proliferation of techniques, such as harmonics and midpoints, oddball practices such as Uranian astrology with its invisible Trans Neptunian planets, or the rise of Vedic astrology. A significant development such as the increasing popularity of traditional astrology gets barely a mention, while the translation (and retranslation) by astrologer/academics of many ancient texts goes unnoticed. Lifting the curtain on such things would certainly reveal modern astrologers for the heterodox group we are, but would also further raise bemused eyebrows on the sceptical faces of his academic readers.

Naturally, there is no discussion of actual horoscopes—heaven forbid in an academic tome—or the fact that most astrologers use computers to cast and construct them. Indeed, other than discussing how web based astrology has changed the way millions of people can access information about astrology, Campion never acknowledges how the rise of microcomputers in the late 1970s fundamentally altered the way most astrologers practice. Calculating and erecting a horoscope used to be a time consuming process which required the use of ephemerides, tables of houses and cumbersome, frequently inaccurate books of time changes for various locales. Prior to computers, acquiring these tools represented a substantial investment for young practitioners. Even then, the decision to cast a horoscope was not made lightly, given the time investment required.

The introduction of dedicated astrology software able to cast a horoscope in seconds removed what for many people had been a stumbling block to astrology. This development simultaneously democratized and debased the craft of astrology by ensuring that nearly anyone could produce reams of charts for family and friends, while at the same time, employ advanced techniques, of which they had no understanding. For experienced astrologers, computers were seemingly a godsend, since programmers made available a vast array of techniques and birth data sets unavailable to earlier generations. Mathematically forbidding techniques—primary directions comes to mind— could be had with the click of a mouse for practitioners too lazy to actually acquire them. The downside of such instant access was data overload: the tendency to use too many techniques, simply because one could. This proliferation of techniques has paradoxically contributed to a weakening of judgment by overwhelming practitioners with choice. It also works against the mastery of specific astrological skills, which require sustained thought and practice. No doubt, easier access to good horoscope data in software packages and online would seem to be an unalloyed good for the study of astrology. Many older practitioners may recall having only Alan Leo's 1001 Notable Nativities and the Marc Edmund Jones' Sabian Symbols collection as their primary and largest source of historical and contemporary horoscopes. Still, such ease of access may lull us into uncritical acceptance of whatever horoscope we come across. Certainly the sea change in practice brought about by computers is a point is worthy of noting in a sociological investigation of modern astrology.

Such caveats, important to astrologers but not to Campion's academic readers, do not detract from the overall significance of his achievement, which is to demonstrate the importance of taking astrologers, our work and our literature more seriously. No, this book will not improve your practice, hone your horoscopic skills or give you greater social cachet. But it may do for us, what Theodora Kroeber did for Ishi: provide those who care with a sense of our recent history, our beliefs and ideas and perhaps our continuing significance for a world which seems to have moved past such things. We know it has not, but reading it may provide us a perspective which allows others to see this as well.

Kirk Little
Published online August, 2013

Notes and References :
  1 ] Michael Baigent, Nicholas Campion and Charles Harvey, Mundane Astrology: An Introduction to the Astrology of Nations and Groups (Aquarian Press, Wellingborough, 1984)p. 130 (Back to text)
  2 ] Published in The Astrology of the Macrocosm: New Directions in Mundane Astrology, edited by Joan McEvers, (Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, 1990) pp. 194-231; quote from p. 195 (Back to text)
  3 ] Ibid. p. 196(Back to text)