Anti-Sci: Bitchcraft & Jizzardry


Elliot Leavy

TLDR: We're probably going to start doing horoscopes

A study from Pew Research Center has found that the majority of Americans now believe it is not necessary to believe in God in order to have good morals. This is good news, but is sadly overshadowed by another, less blessed finding that more than half of young adults in the U.S. today believe that astrology is a science. How in the year 2018 we are seeing a resurgence in such nonsense is worrying, and this is clearly bad news.

Even so, it is still widely advertised across many publications: Vice Magazine’s Broadly has run horoscopes since its launch in 2015 – with one of its senior editors stating that traffic for the site’s horoscopes “has grown really exponentially” over the past three years. Another, Autostraddle, the popular blog for young queer women, has an in-house Tarot columnist. New Zealand’s The Cut has also seen its horoscope posts gain 150% percent more traffic in 2017 than the year before.

So why the retrograde regression? Is there a logical explanation? Or is my generation simply hungry for a piece of Potter’s hocus pocus penis? Have we become so infantilised that we are beginning to revert to wish-upon-a-star nonsense, Pinnochio style? The stars most certainly don’t know or care, but maybe we should.

As with the existence of God, astrology has no scientific grounding, and its methodology has been widely debunked time and time again by an array of academic authorities. Worryingly still, in 2008, some 342,000 people identified themselves as Wiccan, up from 134,000 in 2001 and up significantly from 8,000 in 1990 according to the American Religious Identification Survey, one of the largest surveys on religion in the U.S.

This is not people whacking it on the census just for the hell of it – many it turns out are putting their money where their mouth is. The psychic services industry for example — which includes astrology, aura reading, mediumship, tarot-card reading and palmistry, among other metaphysical services — grew 2% between 2011 and 2016, and is now worth $2 billion annually. Danielle Ayoka, the founder of spiritual subscription service Mystic Lipstick, said her customer base is growing exponentially. “When I started my journey in 2010, I was the weirdo,” she said. I wholeheartedly agree, but this is where the communion of our ideas ends.

The success of tarot reading is astonishing, but at least explainable. In 1949, the psychologist Bertram Forer explained the complicity of participants in tarot reading by asking his students to fill out what he had led them to believe was a personality test. He then told his students that the results were based on the said tests, they were not. In fact, Forer had cobbled together 13 sweeping statements from published horoscopes: ‘You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.’ reads one, ‘At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.’ reads another.

Christopher French, who researches paranormal beliefs at Goldsmiths, University of London, noted when speaking to the author James McConnachie that most of the 13 personality descriptions in Forer’s original test are ‘two-headed statements that describe the human condition – and that’s why they resonate so much’. If they don’t describe you, French delightedly tells his own students, ‘you’re probably a psychopath’. Well at least there’s that.

Every student was asked to assess the test’s accuracy on a scale of 0 to 5, where 5 indicated perfection. Their average score was 4.26. This means that although these broad, baseless and obtuse statements were exactly that, they were being taken as highly personalised, astute and individualised ones. Confirmation bias is also at work, as we always prefer to have our existing beliefs confirmed – the arrogant creatures we are – and selectively pay attention to statements that remind us that we are right. When a reading is inaccurate, we ignore or forget it. When it is bang on the money, we cash it in as a success.

Onto other occurrences of the occult: Witchcraft is at an all time high. Witchcraft makes a bit more sense as a phenomenon as it has its roots in the reclaiming of the word ‘witch' as a word of empowerment rather than a word synonymous with being burnt alive. “To reclaim the word witch is to reclaim our right, as women, to be powerful,” wrote Starhawk, the feminist neopaganist writer in her seminal 1979 book The Spiral Dance.

But that was almost 40 years ago, is this still happening? Kristin J Sollee seems to think so, and argues in her book; Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive, that the treatment of women in the past reflects that of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential Campaign. “Witches, sluts, and feminists are the trifecta of terror for the patriarchy” she writes. I don't know anyone who is scared of witches myself, over the age of 5 anyway, which is what makes this spike in the occult all the more worrying – it is fantastical and not grounded in anything, even a child could tell you that. Sollee also fails to address the fact that by all accounts, Hillary Clinton lampooned herself in that election – no amount of monthly curse gatherings for Trump will undo that. We shouldn't be dragging ourselves back into the dark ages – not much progress happened then.

It is undoubtedly true that many of the world’s faiths have had a problem with women from the get-go, and that over the years many have gotten better only for their own selfish sake and survival. Others still, have yet to progress, and you only need to glance at the lives of women in the most religious countries to see that this is the case. But replacing patriarchal belief systems with matriarchal ones seems to me just more of the same. To quote that old pervert Gandhi, an eye for an eye makes the world blind. The founding Wiccan tenant of 'An it harm none, do what ye will.’ doesn’t really cut it either. Jesus preached peace and we had the crusades, Muhammad was a feminist, apparently, and – well I’ll don't think I have to add any more to that. Burn them all I say.

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
—  Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125

When Nietzsche claimed that God is dead he spoke of the loss of an absolute basis for morality, the nursing of nihilism and its eventual reign. In the century that followed, we saw cults of all shapes and sizes fill such a void, many with a side of Kool-Aid. Is the rise of witchcraft and astrology just a lust for meaning in today’s world? It is usually those who are down on their luck who are vulnerable enough to become possessed by religiosity – perhaps this is just another symptom of that. Others suggest it is a reaction against the norm and failing systems, ‘breaking the mould’ so to speak. This fails to account for the fact that many of the practices of these beliefs are integral aspects of other religions. Hinduism, the world’s third largest religion for example, is steeped in wishy-washy astrology and crystal-reading bull. 

At a time that is seeing a rise of accusations of witchcraft all across the developing world, in places where education is happenstance at best, it might be a good idea if we sat out the next seance and found a better way to feel good about ourselves. Tarot cards may be beautiful little pieces of art which tap into our nostalgia of the Pokemon card days of old, but they can’t tell us anything. We can look up to the stars all we want to try and escape the meaningless of existence, but they won’t tell us anything either. Whatever we get from these backward practices comes from within, we shouldn't insult ourselves by believing anything different.