Boston — Winston Churchill's official biographer says the British prime minister used an astrologer in a political ploy to get the United States to enter World War II by predicting the Nazis would lose the war. A newspaper columnist in India discloses that about 90 percent of the politicians there consult astrologers. And according to Richard Berendzen, a prominent US astronomer and president of The American University, belief in astrology is ``substantial'' in Southeast Asia.
``In France, there are more astrologers than priests. And worldwide, there are more astrologers than scientists,'' Dr. Berendzen reports.
The disclosure that Nancy Reagan, the First Lady, consulted an astrologer to help shape the President's schedule raises the question of how broadly Americans in general believe that their fates are determined by the stars.
There seems to be a consensus that a far greater number consult their horoscopes daily than actually rely on astrology. But there is concern among scientists and theologians that even this is a dangerous trend.
Everett Ladd, director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut, says astrology is ``all very light and superficial for most of the population.'' He says that ``only a small slice of the population is genuinely, deeply superstitious.''
Public opinion polls by the Roper Organization and others since the mid-1970s indicate mixed interest in horoscopes and astrology. A Gallup survey in 1975 found that only 23 percent of respondents said they read newspaper astrology columns regularly - but 77 percent knew which astrological sign they were born under. And a Roper poll indicated that 20 percent checked their horoscopes daily in 1978, but that number fell to 14 percent in 1986.
However, a broadly based Temple University study in the late 1970s indicated that 42 percent of those surveyed said that horoscopes were ``very scientific'' or ``sort of scientific.''
Professor Berendzen is an unabashed debunker of astrology. He calls it ``mystical superstition which goes back to the pre-Middle Ages.''
``Astrology has no empirical basis,'' adds the astronomer/university president. But he insists that fascination with or belief in astrology must be taken seriously and viewed with alarm.
Astrology ``is quasi-religious,'' he adds. ``There's a yearning to understand the universe. And one event [that appears to have been predicted by the stars] tends to be persuasive.''
Berendzen stresses, however, that the religious community is generally disturbed by fascination with astrology. ``The Judeo-Christian community is against it. The Pope has come down on it. And some of Ronald Reagan's evangelical supporters [must be] upset.''
Theologian Richard Neuhaus, editor of the Religion & Society Report, says that ``in terms of Christian orthodoxy, anybody who puts trust in the stars is engaging in idolatry.''
The Lutheran minister adds that he is as concerned about those who follow astrology ``frivolously'' as those who seriously believe in it. ``It's like playing around with black magic.''
Mr. Neuhaus says the hundreds of newspapers that carry daily horoscope columns are ``pandering to a commercial market.'' And Berendzen notes that only three major national papers - the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and The Christian Science Monitor - refuse such ``star'' coverage.
The Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enterprise runs this disclaimer over its astrology column: ``The horoscope is intended for entertainment only. The predictions have no reliable scientific basis.'' Executive editor Jack Swift says he was prompted to this move by studies that show an increase in belief in astrology among teenagers and reports that many don't know the difference between astronomy and astrology.