Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The study of the impact that celestial bodies—the moon, the sun, the planets, and the stars—are presumed to have upon events on the earth. There are three broadly distinct branches of study. One form of astrology is concerned with relating the situation of the heavens at the moment of an individual's birth to all aspects of his or her life. A second relates the situation in the heavens at particularly significant moments, such as eclipses or equinoxes, to events affecting whole classes of people or indeed the world in general, while a third tries to determine the most auspicious time for the commencement of a particular act.

Astrology appears to have been an important ingredient in most early civilizations, being especially prominent in Egypt, India, and China. It was principally through the teachings of the Babylonians, however, that astrological knowledge entered the Greco-Roman world and hence the culture of the West.

Astrology remained a significant element in the civilization of western Europe, even intermingling successfully with Christian teaching and practice (Thomas 1971) throughout the Middle Ages. It is only in modern times that astrology has become separated from the science of astronomy and labeled deviant or occult knowledge. Until the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, there was nothing esoteric about astrology, and its doctrines were part of the educated person's picture of the universe and its workings.

Today astrology occupies a somewhat ambiguous position in contemporary culture. Although excluded from the sciences on the grounds that it lacks any empirical support or theoretical credibility (despite efforts to demonstrate its validity; see Gauquelin 1983), it has nevertheless gained widespread popular, although often skeptical, acceptance. A general, if superficial, acquaintance with astrology is almost universal in contemporary society; for example, surveys show that virtually everyone knows what a horoscope is and also knows his or her own birth sign. On the other hand, only a minority of people admit to taking astrology seriously—that is, using astrology to help them make decisions—although major world leaders such as Adolf Hitler and Ronald Reagan (or his wife) would come into this category. Astrology grew considerably in popularity as a consequence of the counterculture movement of the 1960s (the "Age of Aquarius") and can be seen as part of the broader growth in interest in unconventional forms of religion such as mysticism, the occult, and some new religious movements. Robert Wuthnow (1978) found that astrology is most likely to appeal to the less privileged sections of society, for whom it may offer a basically fatalistic theodicy.

Colin Campbell


M. Gauquelin, Birth-Times (New York: Hill & Wang, 1983)

K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1971)

R. Wuthnow, Experimentation in American Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).

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