Cards stacked against tarot

January 12, 1996

In a country where people queue up to pay the "tax on stupidity", formally called the National Lottery, the education system has a special duty to think hard about how it copes with irrational beliefs and illogical behaviour patterns. To enthusiasts for pure logic, such as Richard Dawkins in his recent tirade against astrology, perverse notions ranging from Christianity to tea-leaf reading are all of a piece. They are bizarre, self-perpetuating systems disconnected from reality, characterised by a single feature - the way they deny people their full humanity in the course of imposing a restrictive pattern of beliefs on their lives.

In practice, there is more to it than that. Why is the irrational so attractive? What is somebody who spends Pounds 1 on the lottery actually buying? The odds of winning millions are slight. For punters the real reward of the lottery may be the hours of imagining riches that precede the draw and the adrenalin buzz on Saturday night. Why do people want that? And why should they not before they return to work on Monday?

The popularity of superstition in a scientific era means that Swansea College's decision (page 3) to formalise the study of the tarot and astrology within its Postgraduate Certificate in Education training, as part of an introduction to alternative cultures, is a valuable one. It is also controversial and needs careful handling.

Even more contentiously, these subjects are to be studied alongside Islam, whose adherents are unlikely to appreciate the association. Why not add Christianity to the curriculum in the interests of balance? For while the Church of England seems to be in long-term decline, other forms of Christianity are flourishing. Not everyone will accept Richard Swinburne's argument (page 16) that science supports the idea of the existence of God, but many people find Christian beliefs comforting and valuable. At one level, all belief is simply an aspect of human behaviour. If people want to believe in redemption from sin via the death of God's son, or the effect of Jupiter's position in the sky on their chances of finding a new lover, both are matters of faith that cannot be eliminated by proving their irrationality. The study of why and what people believe has to be of interest.

So does the question of whether some kinds of belief damage people's chances of happiness and fulfilment more than others, and if so why. Organised religion has a mixed record in this respect: its adherents have over the centuries displayed everything from altruism and self-sacrifice to bigotry and prejudice.

But is there a difference between believing something to be true - as Professor Swinburne does - and believing that the future is discoverable in the stars or the cards? All our knowledge of statistics and of the universe, plus a wealth of empirical studies, say that these soothsaying methods are false and their predictions valueless. People who think that occult forces guide their lives may be less functional and less complete than those who do not. Educators are in the business of clarifying what is provable and what is not; where the differences lie between faith and credulity; that untruth is untruth even if its persistence is a fascinating aspect of human culture and behaviour.

The study of belief is a promising field for teaching and research. There are rich historical and cultural ramifications: in the 19th century, the era of exploration, people saw sea monsters. Now that we have space travel they see UFOs. There are psychological and anthropological strands: does the appeal of astrology or the tarot lie in part in their having apparently persisted unchanged since the Middle Ages: if Henry V or Shakespeare took them seriously, why not us? Are we genetically pre-programmed to believe more readily than to reason? Why do some forms of superstition, such as spiritualism, seem to come and go in popularity, popping back into fashion as each systematic debunking wears off? Are we witnessing now one such periodic application of reason to the field of astrology?

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