Mormons and Authority/Changing Zodiac Signs

By: Bored in Vernal
January 16, 2011

If you are my friend on Facebook, you may have noticed how appalled I was about the change in zodiac signs. This past week, a news article which originated at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that there has been a change in the equatorial alignment of the Earth since 3000 years ago when the study of astrology began. Back then, 12 zodiac signs were assigned to 12 different periods of the year. But because of the Earth’s wobble on its axis, the sign you thought you were born under was reported to have changed to the following:

Since I have never studied or put any stock in astrology, I was very much surprised by my feelings of disappointment over the idea that I was now a Libra. I realize that part of my identity had indeed been formed around the idea of my astrological sign! I saw that I wasn’t alone, as many others were protesting the change, as well as the addition of a little-known constellation, Ophiuchus, to the zodiac.

“When and where does someone get the authority to change zodiac signs?” people were asking.

The appeal to authority struck me as interesting. We Latter-day Saints have a lot of feelings surrounding the principle of authority. Priesthood authority in our Church comes from the very greatest source — it is the authority to act in the name of God. Arranged hierarchically, and organized by stewardship, authority is taken very seriously. It can be considered a great comfort, that we have authority figures to make decisions in the name of Deity. In a changing world, one with such authority can make unequivocal decisions about things. Let’s say society decides that gay marriage is now politically acceptable. Authoritative Mormon leaders can tell us whether or not this has the sanction of God.

Only…

The problem comes in when the low men on the totem pole have different ideas of what is right and what is wrong. Revelation from God is tricky, you see. Were those whisperings of the Spirit simply an emotional response? Did the ecclesiastical leader really receive direction from on High, or is his decision based on his own feelings informed by his experiences and upbringing? Do we trust our authority figure, or our own understanding of scripture and answers to prayer? And if we don’t listen to our leaders’ counsel, what is the use of even having authority?

I think most Mormons find having authority figures comforting. For these members it feels safe to have leaders with a direct line of communication to God, who can settle controversy and lead the way. But Mormonism has a tradition which provides tension with hierarchical leadership. Our foundational story about the Prophet Joseph going into the grove as a young boy for revelation puts the onus on the individual to discover the will of God. Beneath our strains of “Follow the Prophet” are undercurrents of “find out for yourself.” That’s why parsing Mormon’s relationship to authority isn’t as simple as it looks.

A few days after the astrology debacle, I read that Western astrologists agreed we didn’t have to change our zodiac signs. It turns out that the first point of Aries is determined by the vernal equinox, the first day of spring, and not by the position of the constellation Aries. The divisions of the map of the “celestial sphere” – the space around Earth – proceed from there, 30 degrees for each sector or sign. So — who to believe, Parke Kunkle, astronomer, or Shelly Ackerman of the American Federation of Astrologers? But the news story went on:

“…if you don’t want to take her [Ackerman's] word for it, take it from NASA. By understanding just one definition in the star-gazer glossary at NASA.gov, you will understand that the news of a supposed “new zodiac” featuring 13 signs – and the claim that people’s sun signs have changed – were bogus “news” from the start.”

NASA? Finally, someone with authority has spoken.

I remain a Scorpio.

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22 Responses to Mormons and Authority/Changing Zodiac Signs

  1. Andrew S on January 16, 2011 at 9:01 AM

    Beneath our strains of “Follow the Prophet” are undercurrents of “find out for yourself.”

    I think the Zodiac controversy really pointed out (to me) how many people simply don’t “find out for themselves.”

    I think news popularizers do things like this all the time. A popular news article will come out, either sensationalizing something or getting some details very botched…but people will trust it because the news article reads nicely, the conclusion seems reasonable, and it might be difficult to find out for oneself.

    This last part is important. We often don’t know how difficult it will be to find out for ourselves and verify information. With science, it’s often somewhat difficult — going to source documents and the data is tough because science journals are often too technical and jargonized to read.

    …but the astrology issue wasn’t all that scientific. Verification didn’t have such prohibitive barriers to entry. And yet, most people didn’t do basic follow-up. I think this says something a bit disconcerting. Misinformation or incomplete information — whether in an article, a facebook status, or a tweet — can get halfway across the world before the truth can get its boots on, as the maxim goes.

    I think authority claims become problematic here. The problem is most people are content to trust news popularizers as authorities — probably because we trust that news reporters are objectively and clearly reporting the news.

    But even if we go back a step or too and trust “NASA” or the “American Federation of Astrologers,” we risk falling prey to their biases.

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  2. Mark D. on January 16, 2011 at 9:36 AM

    If people can agree on the rules for what makes a Zodiacal period (such as position in the sky, roughly so many degrees between them, etc) then there shouldn’t be a problem. The merits of astrology aside, if most of the Zodiacal constellations are 360/13 degrees apart rather than 360/12, and there is a big gap between two of the traditional twelve, then I would think that “natural astrology” would have to concede that there are thirteen rather than twelve.

    On the other hand, if you are a revealed astrologist, then perhaps tradition trumps all, and some sort of inspiration on the part of ancient astrologers reveals that one of those thirteen has no power to affect human destiny at all, and we should just mess with the numbers to make everyone fit in the traditional twelve.

    Either way, as someone who thinks that astrology is bunk, I would much rather have them stick with twelve. Either that or come up with a much better name than “Ophiucus”, which sounds more like a medical disorder than a prominent constellation.

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  3. Mark D. on January 16, 2011 at 9:43 AM

    Re: a better name than “Ophiuchus”…(sigh) I guess there is not much chance of that.

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  4. Bored in Vernal on January 16, 2011 at 9:53 AM

    Serpentarius sounds kind of cool…

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  5. Stephen Marsh on January 16, 2011 at 10:38 AM

    I’m sure if you had given in to the changes in the signs, we would be ahead in the broadie voting:

    http://latterdaymainstreet.com/2011/01/08/2010-brodies-vote-here/

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  6. Val on January 16, 2011 at 10:53 AM

    Some astrologist insists that NASA’s glossary vindicates herself and you interpret that as “NASA has spoken”?

    I found her article and she basically accepts the contention that the constellations have moved, but instead argues that the zodiac isn’t really about constellations at all.

    If you read her article carefully, you’ll see that what she quotes from NASA has nothing to do with constellations at all. She even concedes TWICE in her article that the constellations have in fact moved.

    She’s trying to win the argument by changing the terms. (What? Constellations? It was never about constellations, silly! Sagittarius isn’t a constellation it’s just whatever the sky looks like on the days we designate as Sagittarius!)

    And as indicated above, clearly, people are perfectly willing to accommodate her.

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  7. Val on January 16, 2011 at 11:13 AM

    NASA confirms Ophiuchus as the 13th sign:

    http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2004/17dec_heliumstream/

    So they have spoken.

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  8. diane on January 16, 2011 at 2:20 PM

    I have a hard time with this one. First, anyone who is close to me in my everyday life and knows my personality will definitely tell you that I am all Taurus.

    I am slow to anger, but once I am stand back and clear a room, because I am a bull in a china shop

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  9. Kevin Barney on January 16, 2011 at 2:22 PM

    What a stupid kerfuffle. I first learned of this when the talking heads on the Today Show were talking about how many of us now have different signs. But it didn’t take much searching to figure out that the astronomer whose little article started this whole thing wasn’t trying to change your astrological signs; he was simply making an astronomical point about the phenomenon of precession. He obviously doesn’t even believe in astrology. The media came off looking particularly stupid as a result of this.

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  10. Andrew S on January 16, 2011 at 4:46 PM

    re 2:

    Mark,

    But that’s exactly the point. People do “agree” on the rules for making a zodiacal position. It’s just that there are several different sets of rules: 12-sign sidereal (and variations thereof like this 13-sign one), and tropical.

    One is based on “constellations in the sky” and one is seasonal — based on the earth’s seasonal relationship to the sun. The former (sidereal) gets messed up with precession. The latter (tropical) doesn’t.

    Interestingly, this doesn’t make astrology any less bunk. it’s just interesting to see how people will defend their bunk and come up with post-rationalizations for that bunk. Did the tropical zodiac originate as a sidereal zodiac and quickly switch to a tropical one when people realized the impact of precession? Or was it always based on the equinox?

    re 5:

    Stephen, I knew there was something we forgot to put in the Notes from All Over…

    re 6:

    Val, she’s not trying to win the argument by changing terms. She’s trying to win the argument by educating people on what the terms originally meant but which most people utterly failed to do basic research on. She’s not saying “Sagittarius isn’t a constellation;” she’s saying “Sagittarius (the constellation) doesn’t match our solsticial points, and it hasn’t for thousands of years, but it doesn’t matter, because the tropical zodiac wasn’t about that.”

    re 9:

    Kevin,

    I think the reaction of the everyday person to the media says something about them as well.

    And I mean, this isn’t just about astrology. Any time there is a popular news article about anything (say, a scientific discovery), we can tell about how people do not corroborate date by realizing that if a popular article or book gets a scientific discovery incorrect, that incorrect report will be believed far more than the actual scientific conclusion from the data.

    This is not something I’m immune to, as I’ve mentioned before. But it’s just interesting to see in this context how widespread this sort of thing is.

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  11. Stephen Marsh on January 16, 2011 at 4:51 PM

    phenomenon of precession the progression of the equinoxes … what, it did not stop two thousand years ago?

    I should have had a secondary post on why sun worshipers worshiped on Saturday. That might have been fun (Mithra = Saturn, Saturn, the first gate on the way to the sun, the gate of lead, is the entry into the afterlife and the reason why, of course, one should worship and atune on Saturday).

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  12. Bored in Vernal on January 16, 2011 at 5:41 PM

    Andrew #10: Thank you, that is my understanding as well, and now I know more about what the zodiac signs are based on than I ever thought I’d know!

    But you are right, this isn’t about astrology, and neither was the OP. I think it’s fascinating to observe how people immediately give authority to the news media, rarely looking at issues more in depth. And then, as in this case when there is a controversy, who do we appeal to in order to solve the issue? (Hint: my nod to NASA was tongue-in-cheek!)

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  13. Andrew S on January 16, 2011 at 7:57 PM

    That’s a clever way to remind me to stop hijacking other people’s posts :D

    But yeah, more on topic…there was an article with Patheos about postmodernism and Mormonism…and the author there argued strongly toward the personal revelation side of things. To the extent that at one point, he said that prophets (e.g., ‘authority’ figures in Mormonism) are for people who do not have the gift to communicate with God. But for people who do, they should follow personal revelation whenever possible.

    This idea struck me as quite outside the Mormon mainstream. I just don’t think most Mormons privilege personal revelation so highly.

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  14. dmac on January 16, 2011 at 10:26 PM

    Whew! I thought I was suddenly a Virgo when I was perfectly happy as a Libran! Glad that got sorted.

    I have trouble with authority. Not with obedience to laws, not with revering leaders but with putting more stock in the decision making of others on my behalf than I do in making my own choices. I find it hard to accept what leaders tell me when I feel that their perspective or perception is…….I was going to say flawed. But perhaps simply contrary to mine. I don’t do blind obedience well.

    I’ve found it always pays to ask ‘why’. And once ‘why’ is explained, ask ‘who said so’. Maybe I’m just a sceptic. But being sceptical and asking why has often led me to think more deeply about many things and study more widely than I otherwise would if I just accepted the course direction blindly and followed.

    And I certainly rarely take news stories as fact. It all depends on what sells or captures people’s interest, not how factual a story is.

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  15. Mark D. on January 16, 2011 at 10:37 PM

    There are three reasons to submit to authority:

    (1) They are right
    (2) They more powerful than you
    (3) It is the only way to get anything done

    Printed in a prominent newspaper probably doesn’t figure among them.

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  16. Val on January 17, 2011 at 8:11 AM

    Andrew S.,

    I understand her argument. I understand it very clearly. It serves her needs. It also ignores the truth.

    First, let’s be absolutely clear, she is not educating anybody on the original state of anything. Basic research reveals that the original zodiac was Sidereal, or based on the positions of constellations. The tropical zodiac was later adapted to accommodate the moving heavens, but not universally accepted. In fact, it is really only in western Europe and the U.S. that the tropical zodiac is even used today.

    She’s implying that there is only one way of looking at the zodiac (there is not), that hers is the universally accepted way (it is not), and that it is also the way the zodiac’s inventors saw it (which it isn’t.)

    Anybody who says there is a “right” or “wrong” zodiac hasn’t done enough basic research. It is more accurate to say there is an “old” zodiac and a “new” zodiac and neither validates or invalidates the other.

    But to pretend that there is only one zodiac and that it has always been tropical is a self-serving lie that one would expect an astrologist to make.

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  17. SilverRain on January 18, 2011 at 10:04 AM

    My first reaction was “what difference does it make” followed by “haha” followed by amused playing along.

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  18. mcarp on January 18, 2011 at 4:06 PM

    Skepchick’s take on the Astrology news:

    http://skepchick.org/blog/2011/01/breaking-astrology-news-you-guys-plus-cotw/

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  19. Andrew S on January 18, 2011 at 4:50 PM

    re 16:

    Basic research reveals that the original zodiac was Sidereal, or based on the positions of constellations. The tropical zodiac was later adapted to accommodate the moving heavens, but not universally accepted. In fact, it is really only in western Europe and the U.S. that the tropical zodiac is even used today.

    Firstly, it was a great apologetic move for the tropical zodiackers.

    But secondly, coincidentally, the only people who are the only people getting freaked out by the “new Zodiac” are the people (Americans) for whom it doesn’t matter. that’s worth pointing out.

    But to pretend that there is only one zodiac and that it has always been tropical is a self-serving lie that one would expect an astrologist to make.

    I agree. Then again, change the specific case and change “astrologist” to “apologist” and I still completely agree.

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  20. Childe Jake on January 18, 2011 at 6:16 PM

    I confess I’ve been turning my nose up at this issue ever since several of my friends went ballistic. But then I looked at the above table, noticed my sign had purportedly changed also, and felt myself reacting adversely–even though I don’t believe astrologers have any genuine prophetic authority.

    Perhaps I value my original sign in the same way I value a favorite team mascot, my school colors, or other identifying icons I was assigned rather than chose. Once embraced, they may have some subjective currency. Still, time spent chasing astrological pie in the sky is time taken away from seeking empirical knowledge and practical skills. Ask any losing sports team if the key to future victory is a stronger mascot.

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  21. Kullervo on January 19, 2011 at 12:30 PM

    Good. I didn’t want to have to trade in my Caprican passport for a dirty Saj one.

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  22. Charmion on April 12, 2012 at 1:54 PM

    As a Mormon-this entire article is just blasphemous. Shame dude, shame.

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