Boxerman: Please, don’t ask for my horoscope

Aaron Boxerman, Op-Ed Contributor

We live in a nation awash in moral panics. In general, I’m no fan. But since we’re going to have them in any case, I’d like to humbly place my nomination for our next one: horoscopes.

Astrology is making a resurgence among our young, ostensibly secular generation — and it’s hurting us. Now, before you protest “but that’s exactly what a Capricorn would say,” allow me to illustrate the problem:

“You don’t believe in it?” My well-educated Northwestern friend looked at me with something between incredulity and bemusement. With a missionary’s fervor, she opened her laptop and got me to fill out my date of birth. The generator spat out some information — I was good at languages, it said (true), with a talent for numbers (nope) and emotionally distant (no comment).

Cool, I told my friend, but you don’t actually believe this, right? People, after all, love their stamp-collecting, their bird-watching, their Netflix-and-chill. Everybody needs a hobby, and looking at Twitter accounts that claim the stars control your life isn’t the worst way to spend your time.

“Well,” she hesitated, “I don’t know why it works, but I believe it’s true. Like, some of it is definitely crap, but you can’t tell me this website doesn’t know their stuff.”


I don’t think anyone really needs to be told that astrology is irrational nonsense. But as long as we’re here: The claim that the movement of the stars determines our lives is enormous. A belief that counter-intuitive requires fantastic evidence — but there isn’t any. Most people’s satisfaction with astrology is due to confirmation bias: they needed to hear that Orion is giving them that push to get through the week.

But once I got to college, it seemed that everyone I knew had converted to planet-worshipping. There was that couple who refused to admit they could date because their Zodiac signs were incompatible, or the parliament of theater majors ponderously debating the meaning of Mercury in retrograde.

As a reminder, these are people who laugh contemptuously at Evangelical Christians for being superstitious rednecks.

It’s not just me: according to a 2011 survey of nearly 10,000 undergraduates at the University of Arizona on astronomical knowledge, around 78 percent of college students surveyed believe astrology to be “somewhat” or “very” scientific. The National Science Foundation — which does polling on scientific literacy — showed that 18-24 year olds were by far the most likely to believe that astrology was scientific, pulling ahead of other age groups by dozens of points; millennials oscillated between 50 and 65 percent in astrology belief.

“Fine,” I hear you say as you draw your star chart, “but people have all kinds of flawed beliefs which help them to deal with life. You, for example, believe that you’re persuasive. Why should astrology be particularly bad?”

First of all, I’ve never really understood why the idea that the stars are projecting my life down to planet Earth would be comforting. I’m a free person — a gathering of gaseous balls millions of miles away has nothing to do with my life. If they did, that would be a terrifying nightmare. I wouldn’t be sure where I ended and star mind-control began.

The real problem with horoscopes, however, is more serious. It goes to the heart of the way we live today.

Our generation spurns organized religion. We don’t go to church, to synagogue, to temple. Congregations everywhere have witnessed declining enrollment and have struggled to return millenials to their dwindling flocks. Like not a few young generations before us, we’re skeptical of received authority. But our generation is not irreligious — rather, we’ve abandoned religion without accepting rationalism, rejected scripture while clinging to superstition.

I’m an atheist, but I think there’s a lot to like about religion. It forces us to think about big questions and hard moral dilemmas. Religious communities, uniting and pursuing their vision of a just world, have a lot of power.

The collapse of traditional religion could be a great thing if it heralded the construction of equally strong, progressive, secular communities centered around making the world a better place. But it’s not. Millennials are more lonely and alienated than any generation before them. We’re far less likely to join social clubs, to have close friends, to feel fulfilled at work. Isolation is now the greatest threat to health in the United States.

In the absence of the deep communities and spiritual life that developed around temples of all kinds, people struggle to find replacements. Thus — at least partially — horoscopes. But while we may have abandoned organized religion in name, our substitutes for it look downright shabby and shallow.

Looking at the world right now is scary. Self-examination, without labels or barriers, might freak you out. It’s easier to opt for the empty calories of diet self-reflection. You get a role to play, easy answers, an identity. The world, once blurry, pulls into focus. If this sounds like religion, but without anything hard or real or communal — well, it should.

For some people, looking to the stars is part of a living indigenous story through which they connect to their heritage. I’m not talking about that.

Astrology, as practiced by most millennials, doesn’t force you to join a community or to grapple with any big questions. Instead, it provides a show of flattering answers. Rarely will your horoscope enjoin you to go out and campaign for justice, to feed the hungry, or protect the widow and the orphan. It will, however, happily inform you that it might be time to tell “that extremely juicy secret you’ve been holding onto.”

I don’t have any faith in God — but I do believe in communities. Our generation’s challenge is to build communities which seek truth and justice in the face of a thousand digital gewgaws and distractions, a thousand reasons to look down and check our phones.

Horoscopes — detached from community, social justice and tradition — are the spiritual equivalent of Snapchats. Sparkly, self-centered, easily consumed, disposed of and forgotten. They won’t help.

Then again, maybe that’s just what a Capricorn would say.

Aaron Boxerman is a Weinberg senior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.