Science or religion?
For more than fifteen centuries, horoscopic astrology played an immensely influential part in the intellectual life of both European and Asian civilizations. Originally formulated in Hellenistic Egypt around the 2nd century BCE, drawing on older Mesopotamian traditions, horoscopy migrated eastwards as far as India, first in the early centuries CE along routes opened up by the conquests of Alexander the Great and then again after the 9th century with the spread of Islam. The westward transmission into Latin Europe likewise occurred in two major waves: via al-Andalus from the 12th century and then from the Greek East following the fall of Constantinople, with subsequent European developments continuing up to the 17th century followed by a revival in the 19th.
In every culture where it took root, astrology extended into domains of thought that today are variously designated as religious, philosophical, or proto-scientific (including physics and medicine). It has often been called a science – mathēma, scientia, śāstra, ʿilm – in the various languages of those cultures; however, it was a religious science. From its beginnings in the astral divination of ancient Mesopotamia, where the will of the gods was expressed in the ‘heavenly writing’, through mystical Hermetic teachings, Manichaean conceptions of destiny, and Hindu worship of planetary deities, astrology has always retained a religious dimension.
In my opinion, astrology still belongs in our modern category of religion – the boundaries of which are more easily intuited than defined – first and foremost because of its preoccupation with themes long since abandoned by science, and to some extent even by philosophy: life as a meaningful narrative, fate and free will, man’s place in the cosmos. In this sense, astrology is inherently a religious phenomenon. Its history is thus an integral part of the history of religion; and if our preconceived notions of religion are challenged by a religious practice that centres more around calculation than supplication, then I believe we should welcome that challenge, allowing it to inform and refine our understanding of the breadth of human religious activity and experience.