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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy