A few nights ago I went with a female friend of mine to an art-discussion salon that was being held in Troy, New York. The speakers were as follows:
* a landscape designer who talked about the conflict between using "native" and "exotic" plants (the exotic plants often escape and start taking over the countryside from the natives), and the ways in which mythology sometimes influences the "nativist" plant movement (since some of our native plants began life as exotics themselves).
*a dancer who stood in the middle of the room and fell over. Then she dragged a chair over, stood on it, and fell to the floor again. She then bent over with the chair on her back (like she was sitting at a 90-degree angle) and walked around, saying, "I want you all to close your eyes, then open them and notice what you're seeing." She fell over, then she climbed up on the nearest table, facing the wall. She spread out her arms. "Because there's a difference between seeing and perceiving. Do you know what I mean? Are there any questions?" It went on like that for several minutes.
* a guy who refurbishes old houses and who talked about the difference between commerce and art and the way that his own artistic muse has grown in size (he used to just make furniture; now he redoes entire floors).
On the way home--it was an hour drive--my friend said, "Well, I got a little
bit out of it," and I said, "Yeah, except for that dancer. What self-indulgent bullshit! She had no idea what the fuck she was doing." And my friend said, "Really? That's the only part of the whole evening that made sense to me."
I realized then that I was in the presence of a non-thinker. I mean that in as nonpejorative a sense as I can manage. Because if I learned anything while writing my sample chapters for How to Love God Without Being a Jerk
, it's that there's definitely such a thing as thinking too much. And to a certain extent, the contempt that some more activist atheists have for religion in general--not just bad religion and bad religious people, but for all religion of any sort--stems, I think, from the same sort of cultural bafflement that makes evangelicals hostile to homosexuals: "How can those people even think
that way? I can't make any sense of it."
I'm obviously an extremely thinky person myself. So while I'm aware that there's a limit to what pure rationality can do for us, I'm still trying to work out the exact shape of those limits; where they fall and why they're important; what's so damned great about intuition and myth, etc.
The example I keep coming back to is astrology. By any sensible measure--that is, if you tested astrology the way you'd test the statements of a person running for President--astrology is utterly worthless on every conceivable level. To assassinate the concept in a single sentence: Astrology posits that our personality is shaped by the constellations we're born under, even though those constellations aren't even in the sky when we're born anymore (the earth has slowed since the Middle Ages), and the constellations--which of course aren't a group of stars near each other but just stars that appear
to be together from our angle
--allegedly produce character traits based, not on the stars, but on what someone once thought the stars looked like
(so Taurus means you're "bull-headed," Libra means you're into balance, etc.), which means that a different culture with different myths and different names for those same constellations would technically have a completely different read on people; and what about the Chinese Zodiac, anyway?
It is, in short, all so completely made up and bogus that you'd be better off just saying, "Sheila is anal and a compulsive talker" than saying, "Sheila is anal and chatty; that's just so Virgo
of her!" Because it really really really really isn't Virgo of her, and never has been, and has never made a single lick of sense. I don't even mean it's not scientific. I mean that not even common sense applies here; astrology is held to a lower standard than we ask of advertisements.
And yet, broadly speaking, women are drawn to astrology. That's sociological fact: Women make up 80% of the consumers of astrology magazines, and that's why you find astrology columns in Glamour
but not in Popular Mechanics
or (if memory serves) Boys' Life
. Women may not take it very seriously (I know few who plan their days around it, Nancy-Reagan-style), but a helluva lot seem to find it at least fun to think about, and it does inform the way many women talk of, and interpret, the world and the people in it.
As a fair-minded but very thinky person, this puts me in a dangerous situation: if rationalism really is the best way to go, then women, demographically speaking, are idiots. That's obviously very uncharitable, and flies in the face of another fact: I really love women. I have always preferred their company over men, and their wisdom and care have added immeasurably to my life. If I dismissed people out of hand for believing in astrology, my life would be quite impoverished.
So that leaves the question: what the hell makes people--including many people I love--think astrology is worth a second's thought? And after talking to my dance-loving friend the other night, I have reached this theory: astrology is a shared cultural myth--something like a religion with no theology and no demands--and by invoking astrology ("Steve is such a Taurus!"), its adherents are sharing in a community and giving their beliefs about someone's psychology a more profound anchor. Steve isn't just aggressive out of nowhere; it's a mythical aggressiveness that we believers have all seen before. So we can pool our wisdom to talk about it, even if you don't know Steve personally.
The proof of this, I think, is that although people use astrology to make general pronouncements ("Pisces are very peaceful people"), only rarely do they say things that are actually counter-intuitive. They wouldn't say, for example, "Although Julian is an abusive wife-beater, he's really a peaceful person because he's a Pisces." Instead they say something more like, "Although he's a Pisces, he must have been born with Jupiter in retrograde to be such a violent jerk as well." I haven't read the latest astrology magazines about the Presidential candidates, but I can hazard a guess: the stars tell us that Hillary is aggressive and ambitious, that McCain is experienced but has a temper, and that Obama is idealistic and open to possibilities. Call me psychic. Astrology never trumps common sense; it serves to explain it.
In other words, astrology is layered over everyday observations--observations that aren't even particularly interesting--in order to imbue them with greater meaning, even if that greater meaning isn't that
much greater or taken that
much more seriously. So the fact that half the population is inclined to this way of thinking suggests that there's value in it. It suggests a whole series of things that I'm trying to take to heart as well: that in many cases it may be more important to create community than to be exhaustively factual (something all storytellers know); that the impact of a belief may need to be weighed more than its provable accuracy (which we see all the time in discussions of life after death, where materialists have a particularly hard sell to make); and that a happy life may be the one that doesn't worry the details to death.
It still doesn't make sense to me, but of course that may be much of the point; we can survive the loss of more sense than hyperrational people (like me) think we can. I'm still learning.
Of course it may also be the case that we need all types of people, from the extremely impractical energy-invoking dancer types to the hard-edged, taxonomy-wielding lexicographers, and maybe even advising people to do something about it is the wrong approach. But at present I'm convinced that the extremes are not entirely healthy, and that it's better, if possible, to aim yourself toward the middle. Even if you can't get all the way there, some balance, and more of it, is better than none.