Great inventions come at a cost. New ways of doing things force us to give up the old ways.
My mother and her generation grew up in a world without tea bags. Tea was all loose leaf and when you drank a cup, interesting patterns of tea leaves were left at the bottom of the cup. Some people were credited with the gift of ‘reading the leaves’.
They would look closely at the dregs in the cup and pronounce gravely on future romance, visitors, money and health. Tea bags ruined those prophecies – unless we were all receiving a visit from a squat, steamy person wearing a perforated sack!
Another form of divination is astrology. In ancient times, people were amazed and intrigued by the apparent movement of the stars and planets. Since they had no TV to fill their leisure hours, they invented fanciful myths of constellations, conjunctions of planets, influences and predictions.
By the time of the Romans, authors like Cicero, Lucian and Juvenal were writing serious arguments against astrology or ridiculing it as foolish superstition. The arguments and ridicule have not stopped, but horoscopes are still found in magazines and newspapers today.
The authors of some newspaper horoscopes have admitted that writing them was merely a bit of fun. ‘You will meet someone you have not seen for a while. Try not to dredge up memories that are best forgotten.’
In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer has some fun with another form of divination: dreams. He takes the debatable notion that dreams can foretell the future and sets it in a farmyard. Chauntecleer, the cock, tells his wife, Pertelote, the hen, about a dream he had in which a fierce animal seized him. So he says he will stay indoors all day. Pertelote calls him a coward and a fool because dreams are merely the result of indigestion. Chauntecleer then parades his learning and tells her about prophetic dreams as recorded in the Bible and in historical legends from Greece and Rome.
Chaucer was writing in the 14th century when there was theological debate about whether the future is blank and unknowable, or whether in some way it is all mapped out and knowable in advance. Those who favoured the latter view had to accept the implication that our lives are beyond our control and that we are either among the elect or among the damned from the moment of birth.
That kind of fatalism is not part of the Humanist outlook. Humanists believe that we have responsibility for our actions and the capacity to choose right from wrong. Over the centuries, humanity has made great progress and the right choices will enable us to make more. The future has not happened yet and every one of us can help to make it a better world rather than a worse one.
Les Reid teaches a course on Humanism as part of City of Edinburgh Council adult education programme. He is a member of the Edinburgh branch of Humanist Society Scotland (www.humanism.scot)