Promoting the Fictions of God and Astrology

August 24, 2007 at 1:46 am 21 comments

The Roman Catholic Primate of Ireland, Archbishop Sean Brady, had a bit of swipe at some of his rival superstitions yesterday. He slammed horoscopes, astrology, palm-reading, clairvoyance and mediums, pointing out that:

One of the most subtle but disturbing signs of this underlying fear in Irish life is the increasing reliance of people on practices which claim to ‘unveil’ the future… Those who put their trust in them or take them seriously are colluding with an illusion, promoting a fiction.

He’s correct, of course. But he would be just as correct if he had said the exact same thing about Christianity. It too appeals to underlying fears, it too claims to ‘unveil’ the future, and those who take it seriously are also promoting a fiction.

However, he is wrong when he describes horoscopes, etc, as ‘the new Irish superstition’. And here is why. >>>

The New Irish Superstition?

Archbishop Brady believes that these rival superstitions are thriving today because:

(The Irish people have) become distracted from their faith. People are seeking to control their future rather than entrust their future to God’s promise and plan.

So presumably the rival superstitions weren’t thriving in the days before most Irish people became ‘distracted from their faith’? Well, let’s have a quick look.

In Ireland in the 1950s:

  • National newspapers regularly published horoscopes.
  • There was a successful Irish horse called Horoscope, another called Clairvoyant, and a Ford car called Zodiac.
  • Arnotts sold linen table mats embroidered with Zodiac signs, for customers who ‘feel like studying your horoscope while you dine’.
  • There was a popular cartoon character called ‘Jet Scott, the Clairvoyant Clerk’ (‘I just can’t shake off that queer feeling that something horrible is about to happen – in Joe’s apartment!’)
  • The Grand National Sweepstake advertised itself as an alternative to horoscopes, with the tempting slogan: ‘Today you need not depend upon the stars, for, whatever your birthday, a £1 ticket in the Sweep may make you independent for life.’
  • The Carlton cinema showed ‘Athena’, a musical about seven sisters who used numerology and astrology to choose their husbands.
  • A Queens University Vice Chancellor who had founded a Department for the study of Astronomy was asked by a magazine researcher, who was doing a personality piece on him, whether it was true that he had founded a Department of Astrology.
  • You could send birthday greeting telegrams in which the signs of the Zodiac formed the motif.

Biblical Astrology

Also back in the 1950s, in the days before most Irish people ‘became distracted from their faith’, many Irish homes would have had a Christian Bible. These Bibles included, at Genesis 1:14:

And God said, let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs…

Also, at Luke 21:25:

And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars.

Also, a fairly familiar tale about wise men following a star to find the new-born King of the Jews. After Paul turned the Judaism of Jesus into a new religion, it took Christianity several centuries before it started to take on astrology.

Ironically, that was largely because the fatalism of astrology clashed with the Christian doctrine of free will, which Archbishop Brady now seems to be downplaying by suggesting that people today:

are trying to control a future that is ultimately in God’s hands.

‘The truth is’ (to borrow a sweeping phrase repeatedly used by Archbishop Brady), that Christianity and these other superstitions will always co-exist, because they are all trying to capture the same target market – people who are susceptible to believing cleverly-packaged irrationality.

Brady Slams Tarot Cards

PS I was going to write a more humorous piece about this, but Paige Harrison beat me to it with this puntastic headline interpretation that I could not hope to surpass.

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Entry filed under: Ireland, Most Discussed, Most Viewed, News, Religion.

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21 Comments Add your own

  • 1. blankpaige  |  August 24, 2007 at 9:41 pm

    You see this post demonstrates what separates good bloggers from charlatans like me. It’s informative, opinionated and respectful. A bit like my mum. I couldn’t possibly write such original stuff so I’m glad I can at least spot a good pun.

  • 2. evanescent  |  August 24, 2007 at 10:15 pm

    This is a great post, very well written! A pleasure to read.


  • 3. Shaz  |  August 24, 2007 at 11:33 pm

    Anyway, wrote my own account of the Archbishops missive on my own blog
    Why does the IT insist on publishing the moronic scribbles of these idiots?

    I was always curious why they were called “primates”. Is it an evolutionary thing?

  • 4. Brian M.  |  August 25, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    I’m sure it’s extremely reassuring for M.N. to be so confident that he is right about Christianity and all believers are wrong – or, as one of MN’s supporters calls them, “idiots”. Obviously, one is totally entitled to one’s opinion, but it would be nice if you all allowed others to hold their own opinions without your infantile mocking of them. At the end of the day (literally), one side or the other is in for one hell (and/or heaven?) of a shock! Maybe you should stop and consider for a moment: what if the Christians are the ones who have it right?

  • 5. Michael Nugent  |  August 29, 2007 at 12:26 pm

    Brian M., your comment got caught in my spam filter so I’m only seeing it now. Here’s a brief reply, and I’ll respond in more detail later.

    I live my life on the basis that the rules of nature, as tested by repeatable and measurable scientific experiments, are correct until they are proven not to be. Of course everyone is entitled to their opinion on this, and I wouldn’t deny anybody the right to believe in Christianity, astrology, clairvoyance or tarot cards.

    In this particular incident, it was Archbishop Brady – and not me – who was mocking the beliefs of other superstitions, by telling their believers that they are colluding with an illusion and promoting a fiction. I was merely pointing out that these other superstitions have the same amount of evidence in their favour as does his own.

  • 6. Brian M  |  August 30, 2007 at 5:59 pm

    Thank you for a nice and reasonable response, Michael – albeit spoiled a little by your facetious “Christianity, astrology, clairvoyance or tarot cards” comment. You couldn’t help yourself, could you? It’s just your mischievous mind! For myself, I believe in a God: however, my main reason for defending Christianity is the repeated threat of Islamists to rule the planet by caliphate.

    I consider that any reasonable person would agree that Christianity/ Judaism/ Buddhism/ Sikhism etc., is a far nicer vision for the world than trying to exist under a regime such as a worldwide Iran. However, if we continue in our self loathing, blame the West and Christianity for everything frame of mind, I really do fear that we are heading for that disaster.

    May I suggest, seriously and politely, that with your intellectual and media savvy gifts, Michael, you might consider studying what Islamism is doing at this moment, what its aims are and how it considers it will achieve them, and then you might help to publicise the situation with a view to helping to save Western civilization from tyranny? All The Best!

  • 7. shazgood  |  August 31, 2007 at 1:45 am

    May I suggest Michael, “with your intellectual and media savvy gifts” that you solve world hunger, cure cancer, build Ireland’s first space rocket, and write a Eurovision song while you’re at it. Then you can save Western civilisation!

  • 8. Michael Nugent  |  August 31, 2007 at 2:01 am

    Shazgood, I have already delegated the first four tasks to Bono, Niall Quinn, Eddie Hobbs and John Waters respectively, to free myself up for the saving of Western civilisation. I have also added you to my blogroll so that we can share this final task together.

  • 9. Michael Nugent  |  August 31, 2007 at 2:06 am

    Brian M., I do agree with you about Islam, but I don’t see Christianity as the answer. What I would prefer to see is a pluralist society, where people are free to believe what they want as long as they don’t harm other people by infringing on their rights, and a secular state that governs the civic life of all of the people impartially. I’m going to write about this in more detail later, when I get time to do it properly.

  • 10. Brian M  |  August 31, 2007 at 6:56 am

    Michael! You appear to have Christianity on the brain. If you re-read my comment, you will see that I also suggested a pluralist society. BTW, I wouldn’t spend much time reading yer man shazgood – I think he has some sort of religious fetish. Best Wishes.

  • 11. blankpaige  |  August 31, 2007 at 3:22 pm

    Blankpaiganism : New religion – Basic Principles.

    1. Live and let live.
    2. If you have the time, love also.
    3. Try to make more time in your life.
    4. Don’t take yourself or your religion so seriously that you become odious to all who interact with you.
    5. Don’t project your prejudices onto others and then condemn them for this apparent behaviour.
    6. Learn to spell and to delegate.
    7. Don’t facetiously call others facetious.
    8. If you don’t know someone else’s religion, then you are in no place to pass judgement.
    9. Believe that you are right but hold the caution that you may be wrong, but that’s alright.
    10. Don’t write really long blog comments as people might take you too seriously or highlight that you can’t spell.


  • 12. Michael Nugent  |  September 6, 2007 at 2:20 am

    That’s a pretty good belief system, Paige.

    The problem with pretty good belief systems is that they tend to get left behind when people build religions around them.

    In a few generations time the followers of Blankpaiganism will be faithfully reciting those principles, while the elders of Blankpaiganism are taking their money and doing whatever they feel like.

    And you will be looking down from Blankpaiganist Heaven shouting ‘Hey, come on, people, that’s not what I said…’

  • 13. Nor  |  October 1, 2007 at 6:12 pm

    Love your blog … gotta disagree with you on this entry!

    While Archbishop Brady might not have covered himself in glory with that homily … but the notion that Christianity was into divination at one stage, and then changed its mind, is pretty much a whitewash. Some Jews/Christians are/were, but the mainstream churches have, from the start, taught that we are to trust in God, not to try to figure out the future by ourselves. Which is exactly what the archbishop says, according to your quote.

    From Deuteronomy (the book which laid down the rules for the covenant – how people should live etc): “There shall not be found among you anyone that…useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer” (Deut 18:10-11). If you’re bored you might also like to look at Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 19:26-26; 19:31; 20:6; Isaiah 8:19 and Malachai 3:5. !!! 😉

    The only thing i’d agree with you on is that the biblical injunction was against messing with dead spirits or sorcery. I don’t think its about newspaper horoscopes.

    PS – i would be very surprised if most homes in Ireland has Bibles in the 1950’s …. i think that bible reading was considered a very ‘Protestant’ thing in Catholic Ireland, and too dangerous for ignorant lay people to be going on with!!!

  • 14. Michael Nugent  |  October 3, 2007 at 10:56 am

    You’re right about those quotes, Nor, but the Bible has contradictory quotes on many subjects. The Genesis and Luke quotes attributing signs as purposes of the stars, and the wise men linking the celestial journey of a star to the birth of Jesus, all seem like astrology to me.

    Also, in practical terms, the date of Jesus birth was later set as December 25, which was the feast of the Sun-god. And the halo is a clear visual lift from the Sun-god imagery.

    You’re also right that early Christian leaders did oppose astrology, but that was as part of a power struggle between rival superstitions. They did not want their followers to excuse their behaviour by blaming the stars.

    Yet some Popes have been linked with belief in astrology. And what’s the real difference between an astrologer predicting the future by interpreting the stars and, say, Daniel predicting the future by interpreting a King’s dream?

    Unless you are filtering them through an existing belief in either, Christianity and astrology are variations on the same theme: superstitious belief, without evidence, in ideas that help to make people feel more comfortable.

    Also, you’re right about the Bibles in the 1950s.

  • 15. Nor  |  October 3, 2007 at 5:59 pm

    thanks for a constructive response!! Don’t want to get into a debate, but can i throw out two points.

    RE: contradictory quotes. Why is it that we think contradictions in religion are a proof that we’ve been fooled? The equivalent is to say that the Irish Republic is a sham because some of its members/leaders can clearly be shown to have contradictory levels of respect for democracy, morality and/or republicanism. But surely the State is bigger than some of its members?? And the Jewish/Christian story is much bigger than Catholicism, let alone Popes!! Contradictions in a current position are one thing, but contradictions in a history are normal and a sign of development.

    Question: i get the impression that you think that religions or superstitions are the only filter that people use to make sense of the world. As if others see clearly and without filters. Surely we are all constantly working from filters – e.g.a consumer culture or a scientific filter? In general, i think we all make our decisions on the basis of our learned filters, or our cultural assumptions.
    For example: Many people in Ireland are working very hard to build a financially sound future for their family. However, I sometimes wonder if its a superstition to think that if you have a lot of money in the bank, then you’re safe and can’t be harmed. Maybe, accumulation of wealth without care for a healthy society is “an idea that helps to make people feel more comfortable”. But anyone who lived through Germany in the 30’s would tell you that a piece of gold, or a family contact in Switzerland, was worth far more than millions in the bank.

  • 16. Michael Nugent  |  October 4, 2007 at 1:07 am

    No problem, Nor – debate is good.

    The reason that I give religions more flak for being contradictory is that they claim to be preaching the word of a God, and therefore they set the bar higher for themselves with regard to consistency. This is particularly so in the case of books like the Bible, which they claim to actually be the word of this God, as opposed to just be based on it.

    With regard to the filters, of course you are right. Here are my main two filters:

    Firstly, we can never know for certain whether anything is true. This is not just because we might not have all the facts, but because (a) to know something is true is to know that our beliefs correspond with reality (b) our beliefs happen in our minds (c) if we want to test the accuracy of our beliefs, we do this testing using our minds (d) so we are trying to test something’s reliability using itself.

    Secondly, because we can never know for certain whether anything is true, I choose to believe what is most consistent with the evidence of my senses, based on reason. Or, as I put in an early comment above, I live my life on the basis that the rules of nature, as tested by repeatable and measurable scientific experiments, are correct until they are proven not to be.

    So I differentiate between my filters – which allow for my beliefs to change if I get new evidence – and the filters of religious belief, which do not do this. I am talking about the process of my filters here, not the outcomes they produce.

    On your final point, you are correct in more ways than the Germany example. There are numerous studies that show that, once you are above the poverty line, the amount of money that you have does not determine how happy you are. Yet people continue to pursue money in the mistaken belief that it will make them happier, or less unhappy.

  • 17. Nor  |  October 4, 2007 at 3:19 pm

    I’m really interested in that statement:’we can never know for certain whether anything is true’. I never studied philosophy – but it seems to me that a culture or society that holds nothing to be certainly true, is a culture in denial.

    I mean, to keep with the topic, Archbishop Brady was preaching a homily to Catholic faithful about Catholic truths. And it was percieved as false, as hypocritical or intolerable or just plain funny that he thought he had a right to do that.

    To speak to ‘his’ own people, about their own faith system???

    Surely people thinking that they can comment so freely on an internal teaching, is a statement that people think they are wiser-than, better-than, more-in-touch-with-truth than … the Bishop or those listening? Surely people sneering at his homily were making themselves out to be more certain of the reality … the truth !?!?

    why would they do that if no one can be certain of the truth ?…. why bother correcting someome who is speaking to his own group on the matter?

    Unless, a person wants to convince someone of their wisdom or their truth?

  • 18. Michael Nugent  |  October 4, 2007 at 4:28 pm

    Nor, when I say I can never know for certain that something is true, I don’t mean that I am neutral about whether something is true, or that there is a 50-50 chance that anything might be true or untrue. What I mean is that, despite being as certain as I can be, I still leave open the possibility that I may be mistaken. But, until new evidence or a change in thinking demonstrates to me that I am mistaken, then I will act in accordance with my beliefs, and with the values that flow from those beliefs.

    Religion generally doesn’t do that. It doesn’t leave open the possibility that its teachings might be wrong, because it claims that they are the word of a God. By doing this, it disempowers people from exploring what their life might come to mean to them, by closing down avenues of exploration with fear of an eternity of damnation. Because of this, and because of some of the behaviour of organised religions throughout history, I believe that religious belief is a harmful delusion.

    With regard to the astrology issue, Archbishop Brady was not simply speaking to ‘his’ people about ‘their’ beliefs. I don’t even like the idea of calling them ‘his’ people, though I do know what you mean by it. He was speaking to them about another rival belief system (astrology) and he was trying to turn them away from that rival belief system. In other words, he was doing what you suggest that his critics are doing, but in a more structured way and with a more structured motivation.

    This would be all very well, if it were two rival tennis clubs vying for members, or two rival soft drink manufacturers marketing their products. But religion often does more than that. Religion often seeks to control the lives of others outside of its own membership, by influencing the laws of the State. Even ignoring the hypocrisy of some of the behaviour of the institutional Catholic Church in Ireland on many of these issues, it is unhealthy for democracy to have ‘the word of God’ going unchallenged in the public arena.

  • 19. shazgood  |  October 4, 2007 at 7:46 pm

    Great debate, good to see intelligent discussion on this issue. I wrote a long blog posting about Bishop Brady’s speech several weeks ago. My overriding objection to Bishop Brady’s comments were related to the fatalism at the core of them, the belief that God holds your destiny in his hands. This is so negative and potentially destructive of the human spirit that I felt compelled to write my own homily on my own blog.

    Looking back now, I wouldn’t change anything I wrote there. But I wonder where my ire came from? I think it came from being brought up in a society with very little good alternatives to Catholicism – in terms of counteracting consumerism. I – like many thinking atheists – hate the false dichotomy of religion vs crass materialism, as if that is all there is. I believe there is a good, solid middle ground, where values and deep respect for nature and our society is coupled with critical thinking and scepticism of received truths.

    Core to that belief (which is essentially Rationalism) is that religion fundamentally is wrong to assert its beliefs as absolute truths above all question. I am particularly not fond of people quoting me the bible. I don’t care what the bible says on anything (aside from it being of historical interest). I accept that many people hold it to be their inspiration. Fine. As long as they don’t then go on to believe it to be the Word of God! For that is where the madness starts.

    Sorry for going on…

  • 20. Nor  |  October 5, 2007 at 5:27 pm

    re: Archbishop Brady. Michael – he was speaking to Catholics about their faith and saying, as Catholics, we shouldn’t follow certain practises. ISTM that by your logic a Rabbi couldn’t say that pork is unclean, cause he’d be putting pig farmers out of business???? Can practising Catholics make decisions about their personal faith without approval from those who are not Catholics?

    re: God holding your destiny in his hands
    Maybe we take that statement too literally. For Catholics (and that includes Archbishop Brady!!)it does not imply that your destiny is pre-determined, out of your control or uncontrollable. It simply implies that Gods arms/hands/love is around your future … Gods committment is not to decide your future – it is to walk with you on the journey. Astrology implies otherwise, and so is forbidden for Christians. If you find out the future, you are controlled by this information, and no longer live in the moment. (Gods name being ‘I am’)

    I agree, Shazgood and Michael, with much of what you say in terms of a persons basic need to take responsibility for their own life and choices. … and yet i am quite happy to be a practising Catholic. In Ireland, i’m not sure if people can get their heads around that (In fact I generally avoid the subject cause people either want to give me holy medals or tell me my boss is a Nazi!!! 😉 )

    I think that theres a real danger that reasoned sensible discussion about philosophy, agnosticism, atheism (which i respect though i disagree with!) and religion is difficult to have in a country still not coming to terms with its own ownership of its own story?? Do we have a way to go before people are still thinking of all discussions on religion in terms of their guilt at ‘not going to Mass’???

    Anyway, have a good weekend!

  • 21. Michael Nugent  |  October 10, 2007 at 6:01 am

    Hi there. Those are some interesting points, Shazgood and Nor. I’ve been pretty busy over the past few days, but I’m going to try to respond to this today or tomorrow. Michael.

    Update – still pretty busy, but I do intend to come back to this, hopefully at the weekend.


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A blog by Michael Nugent

Welcome to my blog about living in the maddest country on earth. Please feel free to leave a comment.

I also write Bionic Bohs, a blog about following Bohemians football club in the 1970s.


Bionic Bohs

As mentioned above, if you like Irish football and/or cultural nostalgia, I also write Bionic Bohs, a blog about following Bohs in the 1970s.

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