Superstitions, Magic(k), and Liberal Secularism

Why is it okay for hip, secular liberals to believe in weird, unscientific things like “Mercury in Retrograde” and “Saturn Returns” and “Astrology” but not in weird, unscientific religious things like “god making a donkey speak” or “angels killing all the firstborn kids in egypt”?

I guess this is more of a general question than asking for advice, but it’s puzzling to me.

What a great question. You came to the right person too, because I am a raging atheist who does kind of believe in astrology and such. Or, you know, it’s not so much “believing in” as “thinking there could be something to.” A giant man in the sky telling people what to do just seems unlikely to me, whereas the influence of planetary bodies on our lives seems very reasonable. The moon makes TIDES HAPPEN, and that’s just the dinky li’l moon–what could be the effects of massive things like Jupiter, pushing and pulling cosmically as we are being formed in utero? It still is likely to be largely bullshit but frankly I don’t see how anyone could find THAT more “kooky” than the notion that an actual man-like entity is impregnating people and crucifying his child and killing every firstborn creature in Egypt and stuff. I think, for me, it’s the human-like consciousness imputed to “God” that makes it seem so totally hilarious and implausible. Nobody’s saying Jupiter is jealous that you made a golden calf or whatever–Jupiter’s just doing its thing. Its cosmic, inscrutable, non-human, yet empirically demonstrably real, thing, out there in the sky.

I think Mercury in Retrograde and Saturn Returns and all that oftentimes stand in for the unknown. Even a hip secular liberal is fully cognizant that there are vast tracts of experience, life, the earth, and their own unconscious, that are unknowable, and thus interesting/scary/humbling. Indeed, a secular liberal perhaps is even more cognizant of this than a dogmatically religious person, who has decided to hang all that unknowability on a hook labeled “Magical Man In The Sky” or whatever. Which is fine. However you want to negotiate the unknowability of experience is fine.

But so, being a secular liberal is hard, because then how do you explain or make sense of crazy shit that happens? A lot of people think this is the foundation of Romanticism for example, because after the French Revolution killed god nobody knew how to make sense of terror and hardship anymore (dramatic simplification). If these boils on my body aren’t god punishing me for sinful thoughts, then WTF ARE THEY, and why me? These are tough questions!

So you kind of turn halfway toward some dimly comprehended astrological platitudes about Saturn that really just help to create commonalities betwixt people of basically the same age and lifestyle (Saturn Returns! We’re all in this together, etc), and help you all kind of vaguely accept and deal with the unknowability of life. Which frankly is all that religion itself really is, when you get down to it. If turning 28 is tumultuous and scary because you feel like you need to finally become a Grownup, it can help to read up on Saturn Returns and be like, oh right, this is just a life phase. I’m not, like, uniquely fucked up. These are things people go through. It creates a sense of normalcy and kinship I think.

I also think it strange that people who believe in God often totally dismiss these other mystical possibilities. I would point out that astrology has been in use way longer than the bible.

I don’t think not-believing in a specifically Judeo-Christian concept of the metaphysical beyond has to mean you don’t believe in a metaphysical beyond.

I think everyone is different, but for me this stuff is not, like, stuff I fervently believe in/ascribe to. I kind of am agnostic when it comes to astrology. Like I said, the planets influencing life on earth seems way more likely to me than an omnipotent man-figure destroying a whole city because people are gay in it. I like the planets stuff BECAUSE it’s not Man. It’s just nature, the universe. I find the unknowability of the universe to be profound and unsettling, the modern encounter with the Sublime, a natural phenomenon that terrifies you and that you have to come to grips with intellectually in order to become self actualized. Black holes and shit? Dark Matter? I don’t even know WHAT’S going on out there. If the moon regulates menstrual periods and the tides, then what else might be going on with all that stuff floating around out there? And this is documentable stuff–the moon really does make the tides, and the cycle of the moon really does have something to do with periods, if you live in nature (did you know if you are having trouble ovulating you should sleep in pitch darkness for a week and then sleep with a nightlight on, to mimic full moonlight? And then you’ll ovulate?), the planets really are out there, moving around in their strange cosmic dance. A mild agnosticism regarding astrology–a kind of “well, who knows, maybe”–attitude about it, to me, seems perfectly reasonable. I mean I guess you can say that about Judeo-Christian God too, but the whole God thing is just so blatantly human-created and not founded in the real world. Just stories told to make sense of things. Stories some random 3,000 year old roving tribal people told around the fire, that got passed down randomly, amongst all the other roving tribal religions that could have been passed down, and that got canonized similarly randomly, just based on whatever the dudes at the Council of Nicea personally thought a religion should be like, and now it’s 2,000 years after THAT, and I’m supposed to be like “I don’t know, maybe!” when I think about God and Jesus? That just doesn’t resonate with me. It’s just as likely that 2,000 years from now they’ll think Harry Potter is “real.” What does that even mean. Shit in a book written down forever ago, who cares. I don’t know how historians can believe in God–you become too forcefully aware of how human hands have shaped the stuff we know/remember/write down, and how we process information in the first place.

The planets, though, are out there. And the moon really does make tides. And every single Leo I’ve ever met really is just like me in certain key respects. So then there’s this shrugging sense of, sure, maybe. I mean, at least it’s shit you can SEE and POINT TO, which your average secularized post-Enlightenment empirical westerner is supposed to find super meaningful. And it helps you kind of ponder the mystical shrieking void of unknowability that comprises almost the entirety of our experience. Just because you’re a liberal secularist doesn’t mean you don’t struggle with wonderment, with fear of death, with questions about how stuff works and why stuff is the way it is. And it doesn’t mean you don’t find comfort in some sort of explanation–your life is fucked up because Saturn’s in some weird position in the sky or whatever. It just means that the more dogmatic, human-hands-passed-down narrative version of that explanation doesn’t resonate with you, for any number of reasons. I mean, when you are a liberal secularist and you turn on the news, the window into “Christianity” you’re given certainly is not conducive to you thinking “hey maybe I’ll give that a try.” So that’s part of it too. Gross politics and identity politics.

I’m really into tarot cards. I don’t believe they are magic or mystical. I think they are a tool for figuring stuff out, working through stuff. Like therapy, or writing in your journal. You do a spread and you talk yourself through it. “The three of pentacles, hmm, does that mean I need an editor or does it mean I need to keep working on my article before submitting it?” You work through explanations for the cards until you find the ones that feel right, that resonate with you. Then it’s like you’ve just sat there and thought about whatever issue in your life, but you’ve just used the aid of these cards. That’s how I see it.

But to conclude, I find people who sincerely, literally believe in astrology and other magickal stuff to be pretty much just as annoying/creepy as the sincere religious amongst us. Because the bottom line for me is I try to be like Socrates–he said that the wisest man is he who knows he knows nothing. I guess I find CERTAINTY within any human-constructed method of making sense of stuff that can’t be made sense of to be tedious and kind of embarrassing. This idea that you KNOW. Oh yeah, there’s definitely God and Jesus. Saturn definitely influences our lives. There can be no “definitely”s when we get down to brass tacks in this area and so I guess I prefer a semi-serious shrugging agnosticism, in both areas, to certitude.

And just to get back to your question, I guess I just think everybody struggles with the unknown and with trying to cover it up or explain it a little bit whenever possible. And that there are very good reasons that a Christian worldview would not appeal to someone, but that this person might nonetheless struggle just as much with the unknown as any Christian does/should. And so that maybe there’s something expressed in this groping toward other ways of making sense of things that just means people aren’t satisfied with the handed-down ready-made answer and they want some other answer. But then being hip and liberal, they also aren’t that stressed out by it, so they don’t ferociously pour themselves into that other answer, they just kind of go “yeah whatever man. ‘Groovy.'”

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One Response to Superstitions, Magic(k), and Liberal Secularism

  1. Maria says:

    You are a genius. I have just somehow come across your bloggage, and am thoroughly enjoying your articulate, brilliant, down to earth intellectual – ness. Thank you! I wish I had some advice to ask for, but my current problems are too nebulous. When I can think of a specific question, I know where I will bring it.

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