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Zoroastrianism

 Introduction; membership, future survival


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Introduction:

The religion was founded by Zarathushtra (Zoroaster in Greek; Zarthosht in India and Persia). Conservative Zoroastrians assign a date of 6000 BCE to the founding of the religion; other followers estimate 600 BCE. Historians and religious scholars generally date his life sometime between 1500 and 1000 BCE on the basis of his style of writing.

He lived in Persia, modern day Iran. Legends say that his birth was predicted and that attempts were made by the forces of evil to kill him as a child. This is a common theme found in many religions of the world. He preached a monotheism in a land which followed an aboriginal polytheistic religion. He was attacked for his teaching, but finally won the support of the king. Zoroastrianism became the state religion of various Persian empires, until the 7th Century CE.

When Muslim Arabs invaded Persia in 650 CE, a small number of Zoroastrians fled to India. Today, the group in India is the largest concentration of Zoroastrians in the world. There, they are called Parsees (a.k.a. Parsis). Those who remained behind in what is now Iran have survived centuries of persecution, systematic slaughter, forced conversion, heavy taxes, etc. They now number only about 18,000 and reside chiefly in Yazd, Kernan and Tehran.


Membership:

The Canadian 1991 census counted 3,190 Zoroastrians in that country. The actual number is believed to be much higher. According to the Fezana Journal survey, published quarterly by the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America, there are about 11,000 Zoroastrians in the United States, 6,000 in Canada, 5,000 in England, 2,700 in Australia and 2,200 in the Persian Gulf nations.

There are fewer than 200,000 Zoroastrians in the world today. In spite of its relatively few members, its importance to humanity is much greater than its current numbers might suggest, because:

  • Their theology has had a massive impact on Judaism, Christianity and other later religions, in the beliefs surrounding God and Satan, the soul, heaven and hell, virgin birth of the savior, resurrection, final judgment, etc.

  • It is one of the oldest religions still in existence,

  • It may have been the first monotheistic religion.

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Future survival of the religion:

According to Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times:

"While Zoroastrians once dominated an area stretching from what is now Rome and Greece to India and Russia, their global population has dwindled to 190,000 at most, and perhaps as few as 124,000, according to a survey in 2004 by the Fezana Journal The number is imprecise because of wildly diverging counts in Iran, once known as Persia -- the incubator of the faith."

'' 'Survival has become a community obsession,' said Dina McIntyre, an Indian-American lawyer in Chesapeake, Va., who has written and lectured widely on her religion."

"The Zoroastrians' mobility and adaptability has contributed to their demographic crisis. They assimilate and intermarry, virtually disappearing into their adopted cultures. And since the faith encourages opportunities for women, many Zoroastrian women are working professionals who, like many other professional women, have few children or none." 1

Among the Parsees in India -- the heartland of Zoroastrianism --  their numbers are declining about 10% each decade.

In addition to their mobility, adaptability, and low birth rate, there are at least two other factors that are contributing to the decline in the numbers of Zoroastrians"

  • Conversions: They do not generally accept converts nor do they proselytize. A person has to be born into the religion. This practice is criticized by some members. Jehan Bagli, a retired chemist in Toronto who is a mobed (priest), and served as president of the North American Mobed Council from 2002 to 2008. He said:

''They feel that the religion is not universal and is ethnic in nature, and that it should be kept within the tribe This is a tendency that to me sometimes appears suicidal. And they are prepared to make that sacrifice.'' 1

Ramiyar P. Karanjia, principal of Dadar Athornan Madressa in Mumbai, India commented:

"Conversion is not part of our religion,” said “We have always been small but steady in numbers and there’s no need to allow conversion.” 2

Inter-faith marriages: The traditional wing of Zoroastrianism discourages and does not recognize inter-faith marriages.

Still another contributing factor may be that Zoroastrians around the world often live as a small minorities within their country. Youths are having difficulty finding fellow believers to date and marry. The Indian Express published an article about Jasmine Bhathena whose parents expected her to meet, date and marry a Zoroastrian. The Indian Express comments:

"Bhathena is one of the thousands of Zoroastrian young adults who feel a deep obligation to preserve their dying faith but are torn by their community’s demand that they marry within a small, rapidly dwindling number of adherents."
She said: "For over twenty years, my parents told me that Zoroastrian boys are best." However, at university, she fell in love with a Christian of Bolivian and Mexican heritage.

In the United States, there is a conflict within the religion between liberals and conservatives concerning conversion, and inter-faith marriages. In many Zoroastrian communities, only the children of two practicing Zoroastrians are allowed to visit their temples.
  • In New York City there are about 250 Zoroastrian families who form the Zoroastrian Association of Greater New York, some of which are inter-faith. The Association has a support group for 25 of its inter-faith couples.

  • Jal Birdy, a priest in Corona, CA said: "We have survived as a very close community only because we refused to assimilate in the ethnic sense." He does not not perform weddings for inter-faith couples because of his belief that one's religion and ethnicity are interlinked and nontransferable.

  • An anonymous priest in Houston, TX believes that conversion is strictly forbidden in his religion. He said: "Who am I to go against what God gave me at birth? If I am to convert from one side to another, I am forgetting that God gave me my religion for a reason." 1

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today. 

  1. Deena Guzder, Persian Zoroastrians: Youth Struggle with Questions of the Heart and Soul," The Indian Express, 2007-JUN-19, at: http://newsinitiative.org/
  2. Laurie Goodstein, "Zoroastrians Keep the Faith, and Keep Dwindling," New York Times, 2006-SEP-06, at: http://select.nytimes.com/

Copyright © 1996 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update and review: 2011-AUG-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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