On blind spots

zarathustraLaurie Goodstein has a fascinating article in The New York Times about Zoroastrians. Their ancient and formerly sizable religion is facing a crisis of dwindling numbers. These followers of the prophet Zarathustra — and devotees of the divine being Ahura Mazda — are worried about the survival of their Persian religion.

It’s remarkable to note even the decline in their numbers and importance from the first Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893, when it was considered one of the top ten religions. Now, other than the late Freddie Mercury (a.k.a. Farrokh Bulsara), how many Zoroastrians do you know of? The article says the numbers are down to fewer than 200,000 globally.

Goodstein spends time in the community to get a feel for the internal struggles they face. Zoroastrians tend against evangelization. They also suffer losses from intermarriage. I was struck by how well Goodstein revealed the feelings about intermarriage. I get the feeling that most opponents of intermarriage are characterized as intolerant bigots or backward relics. By contrast, look at how Goodstein treats the conflict:

Despite, or because of, the high intermarriage rate, some Zoroastrian priests refuse to accept converts or to perform initiation ceremonies for adopted children or the children of intermarried couples, especially when the father is not Zoroastrian. The ban on these practices is far stronger in India and Iran than in North America.

“As soon as you do it, you start diluting your ethnicity, and one generation has an intermarriage, and the next generation has more dilution and the customs become all fuzzy and they eventually disappear,” said Jal N. Birdy, a priest in Corona, Calif., who will not perform weddings of mixed couples. “That would destroy my community, which is why I won’t do it.”

. . . The peril and the hope for Zoroastrianism are embodied in a child of the diaspora, Rohena Elavia Ullal, 27, a physical therapist in suburban Chicago.

. . . Ms. Ullal’s college boyfriend is also the child of Indian immigrants to the United States, but he is Hindu. [They married on Saturday and had two ceremonies -- one Hindu, one Zoroastrian.] But Ms. Ullal says that before they even became engaged, they talked about her desire to raise their children as Zoroastrians.

“It’s scary; we’re dipping down in numbers,” she said. “I don’t want to hurt his parents, but he doesn’t have the kind of responsibility, whereas I do.”

It’s a great story, with notable attention to doctrine and history. It’s also, as always with Goodstein, very well written. One of the things that bothers me about generic refrains of bias at The New York Times is the failure to give credit to those reporters who do a fantastic job on their beats. Cries of bias also frequently fail to take into account other things that are important in reporting, such as writing quality. It’s harder to write well than to write without bias, in my opinion. And reporters who spend time and energy constructing complex religion stories well — such as Goodstein — don’t get enough credit for it.

Ed Laskey at the American Thinker criticizes Goodstein as follows:

But the article completely omits one of the notable reasons behind its decline: severe persecution in Iran, where the religion was founded. If there is any nation in the world where one of the central principles of the Zoroastrians (the sharp distinction between good and evil) might be usefully applied it is Iran — which has mercilessly oppressed its native Zoroastrians (as well as Bahais, Jews, Christians, Sunnis, and Kurds). Will the New York Times ever find any acts by Iran objectionable?

It’s not true that Goodstein completely omitted this, although it is true she doesn’t focus on modern persecution. Here’s what she says:

In Iran, after Muslims rose to power in the seventh century A.D., historians say the Zoroastrian population was decimated by massacres, persecution and conversions to Islam.

It was the centuries-old oppression by Muslims more than the ongoing Muslim treatment that is most responsible for Zoroastrianism’s decline. As such, I don’t think it’s fair to say Goodstein had a blind spot here.

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  • http://www.chasclifton.com/blogger.html Chas S. Clifton

    Are all Zoroastrians so likely to link religion with ethnicity? If so, they are probably doomed by their demographics.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Goodstein addresses that in the article. Some are likely to link their religion with ethnicity and culture and some are likely to see their religion more in terms of doctrinal precepts than culture or ethnicity.

  • http://revjph.blogspot.com/index.html MadPriest (Jonathan)

    Personally, I think both Jews and Christians should feel very guilty at the way (with the help of Islam) they have sidelined the Zoroastrian religion and how they have failed to admit their debt to this ancient religion or teach their people of the role it has played in their own religions. I suppose neither Jew or Christian like the fact that somebody came up with the idea of “one God” before they did.

    Of course, all things are relative, but Zoroastrians were the good guys of the first millenium B.C. There would have been no Palestine or the Temple Jesus knew without them. At least, the writers of the Hebrew Bible had the grace to acknowledge this fact.

    It is true that the evil heresy of gnosticism, that still dilutes the teachings of Christ today and still causes divisions in the Church, such as those happening in the Anglican Communion at the present, is in part influenced by Zoroastrian doctrines, but there is one huge difference between the two systems. Gnostic dualism calls for a retreat from the world into the spirtual whilst Zoroastrian dualism calls its adherents to engage with the world as soldiers of the good God against evil in the world.

    I think we should make the first step towards a full apology for the way we have behaved by immediately adopting their traditional funeral practices. The fact that this would please many native Americans and Tibetans (among others) would be an added bonus.

  • http://www.chasclifton.com/blogger.html Chas S. Clifton


    I see, but this does not sound too encouraging:

    “The North American Mobed Council is so divided on the issue of accepting intermarried spouses and children that it has been unable to take a position, said Mr. Bagli, the council’s president. He supports accepting converts because he said he can find no ban in Zoroastrian texts, but he estimated that as many as 40 percent of the priests in his group were opposed.”

  • Cyrus Bulsara

    Letter to the NY Times

    Dear Editor:

    In your above article of 9/6 by Laurie Goodstein, most of the comments she has incorporated are from founder members or followers of an ideologically deviant California cult, called the “Zarthushtrian Assembly”. It is led by a born-Shiyaa Muslim Ali Akbar Jafarey, of Pakistani-Iranian origins. He has falsely initiated many Shiyaa Muslims from current Iran, who were ostensibly seeking asylum in the USA. Muslim fanatics were the very ones who centuries ago, drove away Zoroastrians from Persia at the point of the Islamic sword, to places like India where they migrated centuries ago just to practice their faith.

    Zoroastrians, are born into the faith and properly intiated, in a Bar Mitzvah-like ceremony, by a properly ordained Zoroastrian priest at around puberty. They cannot be initated, especially by Muslims or Christians with deviant ideologies about our sacred, ancient religion. Zoroastrianism is a non-proselytizing religion.

    This Ali Jafarey Cult also has two ex-Christians as it’s leaders, one of whom was ex-communicated in Chicago for conducting gay-lesbian marriages. He has now moved to Brazil and runs a Comunidad Asha which has a high ratio of gays, prostitutes, transsexuals and such, who are all recuited under the false premise, that such acts are allowed by the Zoroastrian religion. The Zoroastrian religion expressly bans all such acts.

    Also, contrary to the information provided to your reporter, a World Body does exist, and it is called WAPIZ-World Alliance of Parsi & Irani Zarthostis. It represents the true adherents of the faith and is supported by a majority of Zoroastrians and clergy.

    We true Zoroastrians, wish your reporter had done more research to find out the majority view, instead of allowing this ideologically deviant cult’s publicity stunt, while trying to hijack our religion and bending it to suit their deviancy.

    Cyrus Bulsara
    Plano, Texas.

  • FrMichael

    MadPriest– you’re living up to your moniker.

    What evidence do you have that the Judaism is dependent on Zoroastrianism? Or that Jesus quoted from it during His public ministry?

    And how are the Jews and Christians historically responsible for their decline?

  • Larry Rasczak

    “One of the things that bothers me about generic refrains of bias at The New York Times is ….Cries of bias also frequently fail to take into account other things that are important in reporting, such as writing quality. It’s harder to write well than to write without bias, in my opinion.”

    Mollie, as great as you are I really have to hit you on this one.

    Biased reporting is another kind of FALSE reporting, (though the NYT has enough of that as well, but that is another issue…). When you slant a story you are adding an element of untruth to your story… falsehood, lies. Over time this can have a big impact. (Just ask Herr Gobbles about that). Even in the short term biased and bad reporting has serious consequences (just ask Richard Jewell about that). Even if you think it is true, even if you really really really want it to be true… biased reporting is still a LIE. (Just ask Mary Mapes about that.)

    This goes to the fundamental purpose of a newspaper. Lets face it, there are three reasons for a newspaper to exist. The economic one, (print something in between the advertisiments that will attract readers), the old style journalistic one (if what you print between the ads is accurate and dependable over the long run you will attract more readers and you can charge more for the ads ), and the public service one ( our republican form of government depends on a well informed electorate making well informed decisions in the voting booth).

    So when I purchase a newspaper, the primary thing that I am looking for is ACCURATE news. I want to know what is going on in D.C. and Fubaristan; and I don’t need William Faulkner or Henry James to do that.

    I am told (though I find it hard to belive) that some people still use the NYT for things other than bird cage liner and 4th grade paper machae projects. These niaf souls are relying on the NYT for accurate information, and making decisions based upon that information. They may be small decisions (….”gee that Ben Afleck movie doesn’t look very good…. think I’ll stay home and watch TV instead…”) or they may be big decisions (… “My brothers, the Americans and their Zionist allies are spinless and won’t stand up to us … continute the uranium enrichment program!”).

    Either way the first, last, and only job of the NEWSmedia is to GET IT RIGHT.

    The place for ACCURATE writing is a newspaper. The place for well written (but not terribly accurate) stories is the fiction section Barnes and Noble. Someone who is unclear on this concept should turn in their press pass and put their full energy behind their goal of becoming the next John Grisham.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Most of what you write here I agree with.

    But there’s no conflict between writing well and writing fairly. It’s just really hard to write well.

    A reporter can write a very bland and balanced story or a very detailed and interesting and well-constructed story — that is also fair.

    I prefer the latter and I wish media critics would not sacrifice everything on the altar of accuracy.

    Further, not writing well makes stories confusing or boring or worse. And writing poorly also can inject bias.

    Finally, just because a reporter is with a liberally-biased paper such as the New York Times does not mean that everything he or she writes is biased. We shouldn’t confuse the overarching, self-admitted bias of the Times with a judgment on individual stories or reporters.

  • BluesDaddy

    Mollie, I’m curious, if, as you write “It was the centuries-old oppression by Muslims more than the ongoing Muslim treatment that is most responsible for Zoroastrianism’s decline.” then where’s the story here? What’s the news? Isn’t this just a history lesson and while, perhaps, a well written “religious” story, one with absolutely no relevance to the modern world? Or, could it be, that you were a tad overzealous in your defense of the story’s lack of criticism of Iran?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Some people criticized the article for not including that numbers had dwindled from recent oppression in Iran. Others criticized the article for not telling of the uptick in the religion in Iran — as a response to the oppression.

    I think both criticisms are interesting, if contradictory.

    But this story was about the demise of a once-populous religion. And it was a feature about its practice in the United States and the threats it faces from intermarriage — and I think it accomplished what it set out to do.

    I will say that I have found the criticisms of the piece — most of which I read after I posted my support of the piece — to be fascinating.

    Particularly the one above from Cyrus Bulsara.

    I think this is the first substantive article I’ve read about Zoroastrians. Everything else I’ve read has been in books — and old books at that. So considering that, I think we can’t expect one reporter to hit every point perfectly given time and space constraints.

    But, again, I’m sympathetic to the criticisms about how she portrayed (or didn’t portray) current struggles in Iran.

  • Larry Rasczak

    “I prefer the latter and I wish media critics would not sacrifice everything on the altar of accuracy. ”

    Well there I think we will have to disagree.

    Writing is a wonderful art… or is it a craft? Either way it’s not easily well done. (My wife just got her first professional short story sale… I know.) Heck I can’t even SPELL well, much less write well.

    But the news business isn’t writing… it is data transmission. 5W’s. News is like heavy artillery, accuracy is EVERYTHING.

    Several million years ago when I was in the Army I was trained as an intelligence officer, so I am perfectly happy getting my data in SALUTE (Size, Activity, Location, Unit, Time, Equipment) report format, as long as it is ACCURATE.

    I’ll take that any day over a well written and artfully crafted story about red cross ambulances that were blown up (only they wern’t), child addicts (that were fictional), photoshopped “faux-tos”, regurgitated press releases, and fact checkers that apparently don’t check facts.

  • http://revjph.blogspot.com/ MadPriest


    I didn’t say Judaism was dependent on Zoroastrianism, and I did not mention Jesus saying anything.

  • tk

    Micahel Leeden on NRO stated that this article ignores the INCREASE in Zoroastrianism that is occuring in Iran, due to disgust with the ruling Islamic class.

    Don’t know if its true or not, but worth looking at. Leeden was quite pissed.

  • Zohra

    Goodstein wrote sensitively, but did not make it clear that the North American Zoroastrian community consists of people of Parsi, and of Iranian background, who have very different social histories.

    She also stated as fact that Zoroastrians are all extremely educated and well off. This is not wholly true, of either Parsis or Iranian Zoroastrians, many who live at poverty levels in their countries of origin. But those who have “made it” like to promote that image of their people.

    For a wonderful visual book on India’s Parsi Zoroastrians — and a great introduction to Zoroastrian history — I strongly recommend PARSIS: THE ZOROASTRIANS OF INDIA – A PHOTOGRAPHIC JOURNEY.

    Its a beautiful coffee table photography book, with excellent yet easy to read essays and interviews. Its authored by a well known screenwriter, Sooni Taraporevala, who wrote MISSISSIPPI MASALA (starring Denzel Washington), and the Oscar-nominated SALAAM BOMBAY, both directed by Mira Nair. Taraporevala, who apparently was a professional photographer before going into screenwriting, is Parsi herself.