In This Issue
- Featured Story: Bitter divorce unfolding between religious and fiscal conservatives
- From the religious right to the ‘Benedict option’?
- Catholic men’s ministries expanding, taking ‘militant’ turn
- Current Research: June 2015
- Canterbury’s charismatic and managerial turn
- Clergy couples and the new clericalism in the Church of England?
- Religious scholars drafted in Egypt’s counter extremist drive
- Iraq’s Zoroastrian revival as a reaction against Islamic extremism?
- New denominations for post-denominational Christianity in China?
- Findings & Footnotes: June 2015
The religious right is losing much of its political capital as its old fiscal conservative allies in the Republican Party have made a sharp turn to the left on cultural issues, reports The New Republic magazine (May 14). Writer Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig writes that Mike Huckabee’s recent entry into the Republican presidential race has already shown how religious and social conservative issues have been marginalized by business-friendly Republicans. Huckabee’s opposition to overhauling social security and other criticisms of big business has turned many conservative leaders and media against his campaign. She adds that “What the conservative media machine’s destruction of Huckabee demonstrates is that the free market, anti-egalitarian wing of the GOP establishment has less patience for the Christian wing than it used to…” This is nowhere clearer than on the issue of gay marriage. To sway the impending gay marriage decision by the Supreme Court, 379 businesses signed an amicus brief urging the court to legalize the practice, including such major corporations as Coca-Cola, Amazon, Goldman Sachs, Google, Apple, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, and a large number of banks.
In the conservative magazine First Things (June/July), Patrick Deneen of the University of Notre Dame writes that the recent controversy over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act is another unmistakable sign of the religious-economic conservative breakup. He writes that “Having concluded that the culture war was lost, conservative Christians retreated to the castle keep of American political order: the right to the free exercise of religion.” But the widespread opposition to Indiana’s RFRA from corporate leaders as they joined with gay activists in calling for boycotts against the state, not to mention the public vilification of the Christian family-owned Memories Pizza restaurant in rural Indiana for one of its employees saying that they would not cater a gay wedding, served as a shocking wake-up call for conservative Christians far beyond the precincts of the religious right. Deneen adds that “What this means is that today’s cultural power elite is entirely aligned with the economic power elite, and they’re ready to steamroll anyone in their way. In the case of Indiana’s RFRA, corporate and gay activists combined to bring to heel conservative Christians in a rural, Rust Belt state that struggles at the margins of America’s global economy…With the imprimatur of American elites, which was clearly given in the furor over Indiana’s RFRA, religiously based opposition to gay marriage is now more than ever likely to be treated as a hate crime.”
In writing about the Indiana episode on his blog Religion and Other Curiosities (May 20), sociologist Peter Berger agrees that a “new configuration is coming into shape: The cultural elite and the business elite are in process of merging. It is probably misleading to think of this in terms of ‘co-optation’—if anything, the two cultures are co-opting each other. Looked at from the viewpoints of progressive and conservative ideologues, one or the other co-optation can be viewed as ‘corruption’: The cultural elite (a.k.a. intelligentsia) has been ‘corrupted’ by giving up its socialist ideals, thinking of itself as a hereditary aristocracy entitled to rule (like all aristocrats they seek to pass their privileges on to their children), and accepting greed and snobbery as acceptable personal values. Conversely, the business elite has been ‘corrupted’ by opening itself up to previously excluded ethnic and racial groups, combining its old Protestant work ethic with a very un-Protestant liberality in all matters south of the navel.” Berger concludes that “evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics and Orthodox Jews generally come out on the side of ‘traditional family values,’ but these issues have lost their traction with the penetration of the business world by progressive values (it seems that the Republican party in Indiana has very quickly drawn this lesson from what one might call “pizza-gate.” Mainline Protestants have lined up behind the progressive ideology long ago).”
(First Things, 35 E. 21st St., 6th Fl., New York, NY 10010)
After expecting that their values would finally triumph through an alliance among conservative believers in different faith traditions, the spread of what are perceived as secular norms [see the above article on the conflict between religious and fiscal conservatives] is making some conservative Christians reconsider the political ambitions of the past four decades and rather give priority to the cultivation and preservation of “a robustly Christian subculture within an increasingly hostile common culture,” writes Damon Linker in The Week (May 19). This is called “the Benedict option,” from the concluding paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book “After Virtue” (1981), hoping for a new St. Benedict who, like his predecessor at the end of the Western Roman Empire, would help to construct “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages.”
According to Linker, such views have been gaining ground in circles around The American Conservative and First Things magazines. It would not mean political quietism; conservatives would still contribute to various public causes, but the time of national political crusades or attempts to play a decisive role in presidential politics would be over, with conservative Christians acknowledging the fact that they are now a minority in a majority secular nation. One of the advocates of the Benedict Option for years is conservative blogger Rod Dreher. In an article published in First Things (February), Dreher describes the Benedict Option as “a radical shift in perspective among Christians, one in which we see ourselves as living in ruins (though very comfortable ones!) of Christian civilization,” with the coming task of keeping “orthodox Christianity alive in the hearts and minds of believers living as exiles in an ever more hostile culture”—but neither utopian nor strictly separatist. This would involve an emphasis on education and culture. It does not require a withdrawal from political life, but “is primarily a theological and cultural project” based on radically rethinking “our place within this order” (The American Conservative, May 19).
Commenting on the recent massive Irish vote for instituting same-sex marriages, Dreher remarks that it is futile to hope to win by fighting “the forces of liberalism on their own terms.” The practice of politics as usual is a distraction from the essence of the challenge of living in generations to come amid the ruins of modernity (The American Conservative, May 23). There now seem to be groups of conservative Christians discussing the Benedict Option (The American Conservative, May 29). Linker thinks that this pessimistic cultural project is currently starting to capture the imaginations of social conservatives.
Men’s ministries in American Catholicism are multiplying and inspiring fervent devotion and even activism, writes Dwight Longnecker on the Catholic news website Crux (May 27). At the turn of the millennium there were 16 Catholic men’s conferences; today there are more than 100 nationwide. The renewal of Catholic men’s ministries is also taking place at the parish and national level. Pastors and laymen are starting their own groups with larger organizations such as the National Fellowship of Catholic Men, That Man is You!, and the King’s Men, which offer content and guidance for the local expressions. Longnecker adds that, “much of the talk within the Catholic men’s ministry is militant. Speakers enthuse about spiritual warfare and call men to be soldiers of Christ and his cross.”
For example, Catholic catechist and body builder Jared Zimmerer delivers a “Catholic version of muscular Christianity, while football coaches Joe Hyland and Joe Lombardi headline as conference speakers linking the battle on the gridiron with the Catholic faith.” There is also a “Warrior’s Rosary” used in such gatherings that feature medals of five saints for battling the devil. Other programs, such as the King’s Men, hold wilderness retreats and seminars promoting chastity and anti-pornography messages. The men from these programs often are motivated to work through their parishes in evangelism, charity, prolife, social justice and other family issues, Longnecker concludes.
01: The recent Pew Religious Landscape Survey has received wide publicity for its findings on the decline of Christians and the growth of the unaffiliated, but the study’s figures on the growth of non-Christian religions are also noteworthy if more complex. According to Pew, Hinduism is now tied with Buddhism as the country’s fourth-largest religion, with approximately 2.23 million adherents. This suggests that the population of Hindus in the United States increased by more than 1 million since the 2008 Pew survey. Murali Balaji reports in the Huffington Post (May 19) that the research center did acknowledge a potential undercount last time. But even taking an undercount into consideration, the Pew figures are much larger than previous studies. “Even if, as Pew suggests, the growth of Hindus is fueled by immigration, the statistics of immigration from countries with high Hindu populations (India, Nepal, Guyana, Fiji, Bangladesh, Suriname, Trinidad, Sri Lanka, and Mauritius) would not be able to match the jump in numbers between surveys,” Balaji writes.
In 2008, Hinduism Today magazine, using U.S. Census Data, found that the number of Hindus in the U.S. was roughly 2.3 million. Why the disparity between the Hinduism Today and Pew findings? She writes that part of the answer may be due to the “respondent and population size and composition, as well as statistical assumptions about just who Hindus are. Hinduism Today, published by the Kauai Hindu Monastery and read widely by the Hindu-American community, likely had a larger and more responsive sample size, while Pew might have relied more on ‘traditional’ barometers of Hindu community growth, such as concentrations of Indian Americans.” Even then, the count on Hindus may face the same obstacles, as is the case with Muslims; both populations tend to largely include immigrants who are often reluctant to participate in surveys. Hinduism’s decentralization and diverse interpretations of what it actually means to be Hindu may be another reason for the disparity. It is also likely that second and third generation Hindus may not be part of the samples because fewer of them are part of the temple-attending community.
02: While there was never a distinct “Bible Belt” in the U.S., but rather a combination of “belts, buckles and notches,” those areas with high concentrations of evangelical churches and other identifiers have remained relatively stable since the early 2000s, according to a study in the new anthology The Changing World Religion Map (Springer, 2015). Authors Gerald R. Webster, Robert H. Watrel, J. Clark Archer and Stanley D. Brunn compared the spatial distribution of Bible Belt counties from 2000 to 2010, and the patterns remained very similar. In 2000, the greatest concentration of Bible Belt counties was in northern Texas and southern Oklahoma. But, the number of counties with over 40 percent adherence to Bible Belt denominations had decreased. The authors also found that “minor belts” within the South remain similar to the 2000 patterns, though they have become somewhat diluted. Most of the increases in the number of adherents were found in Bible Belt denominations in metropolitan counties—especially in the South—rather than rural counties.
03: The trend away from religious affiliation in the U.S. that has been documented in several recent surveys appears to be starting earlier—before the college years—than in previous generations, according to a study in the online interdisciplinary journal Plos One (May 11). Researchers Jean Twenge, Julie Exline, Joshua Grubbs, Ramya Sastry, and W. Keith Campbell analyze four large nationally representative surveys, finding that adolescents are disaffiliating to a greater extent than those in the 1960s and 1970s. They find that although the majority of adolescents and emerging adults are still religiously involved, twice as many 12th graders and college students, and 20-40 percent more 8th and 10th graders, never attend religious services (compared to the 60s and 70s). As for religious affiliation, the researchers found that twice as many 12th graders and entering college students in the 2010s (compared to the 1960s and 70s) give their religious affiliation as “none,” as do 40-50 percent more 8th and 10th graders. The authors conclude that while these results do not suggest a growth of atheism they do suggest, “religious organizations are rapidly losing the youngest generation of Americans, known as Millennials.”
(Plos One, http://www.plosone.org/)
04: While those supporting the far right in European countries may claim they are defending the Christian heritage of their respective societies against Islam and immigration, such radical populist parties do not draw many actual Christians who tend to vote for larger, mainstream parties, according to a study in the journal Politics and Religion (online May, 2015). The failure of the far right to draw believing Christians has puzzled some researchers, but authors Kathleen Montgomery and Ryan Winter argue that demographic factors may drive this tendency. Montgomery and Winter examine survey data from 13 European and East European countries, and confirm that far right supporters are relatively non-religious and that as religiosity increases, the odds of voting for a populist radical right party instead of a mainstream party decline. It may be the case, as in Poland and other Eastern European countries, that those who may have supported a secular far right party, as in Western Europe, are supporting other nationalist and religious parties that do not define themselves as being on the right. Montgomery and Winter conclude that the reluctance of believers to support the far right may not be strictly due to their beliefs; older voters and women, who happen to be more religious, tend to gravitate to larger, more mainstream conservative parties.
(Politics and Religion, http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayJournal?jid=RAP)
05: There has been a growth of Catholics from 7.83 million in 1980 to 1.2 billion, although there has also been a decrease in participation in the sacraments, according to a study by the Center for Research on the Apostolate (CARA). Europeans are still dropping their Catholic identity while the Global South, particularly Africa and Asia, continue to expand, according to a Religion News Service report (June 1). Europe saw only a 6 percent increase, while growth in Africa was 238 percent. But that growth is primarily due to a higher birth rate, “not to conversion or evangelization,” according to Father Thomas Reese. Worldwide, there has only been a 7 percent growth in parishes, but the overall rate per 1,000 Catholics receiving the sacraments “is in uninterrupted decline worldwide. It’s not keeping up with population growth,” said Mark Gray, senior research associate for CARA and a co-author of the report. While marriages are increasing in rough numbers, measured by the rate per 1,000 Catholics, marriage in the church “is one of the hardest hit sacraments around the globe.”
06: The claims of a religious revival in Italy in the last few decades are not supported by the data, according to a study in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (54:1). Using six different studies, the article, by Cristiano Vezzoni and Ferrucio Biolcati-Rinaldi, looks at the secularization trend by studying church attendance rates. In looking at the period of 1968-2010, the authors find a pattern of sharp decline during the 1970s, but in the 1980s and early 1990s there was a period of stability, followed by a slower but steady pace of decline from the second half of the 90s onward. Vezzoni and Biolcati-Rinaldi write that these results “counter the thesis of an Italian religious revival,” either in terms of “Catholic exceptionalism” or renewed vitality based on internal competition within the Catholic Church. While they maintain that surveys on church attendance are the most numerous and provide the broadest window of religious change, the researchers acknowledge that individual religiosity may not have decreased as compared to rates of institutional involvement.
(Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/%28ISSN%291468-5906)
07: A “religious sea change is clearly under way in El Salvador,” as Catholic membership has significantly declined while “non-practicing Catholics seem to be heading to the altars of evangelical conversion,” according to a study in the Latin American Research Review (Vol. 50, No 1). Co-authors Patricia Christian, Michael Gent, and Timothy Wadkins analyze data from three surveys of religion from 1988 to 2009 and find that aside from the continued Protestant growth in this Central American country, the numbers of evangelicals who enter the movement by birth rather than by conversion has risen dramatically. Yet the researchers do not foresee a strict parting of the ways between Protestants and Catholics, much less a “Protestant takeover.” Rather, El Salvadoran society has become a religious marketplace, with Catholicism competing for souls alongside other churches. It is also the case that Protestants have all but caught up with Catholics in important social indicators such as wealth, education, and occupation. There are not strong political differences between El Salvador’s Protestants and Catholics, with the rate of Protestants believing that the church should show a preference for the poor having “skyrocketed from less than 45 percent to more than 75 percent.”
(Latin American Research Review, https://lasa.international.pitt.edu/eng/larr/current-issue.asp)
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is leading the world Anglican communion through a combination of charismatic-personal authority and managerial culture that departs from the more traditional leadership styles of his predecessors, writes Oxford University theologian Martyn Percy in the Journal of Anglican Studies (online May). Percy credits Welby as managing to avoid the gridlock and divisions of his predecessor Rowan Williams over such matters as sexuality, as he draws on his extensive business background that stresses action and avoids red tape. Some observers have compared Welby’s leadership style to former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s personal and charismatic approach. Welby’s personal style has led him to make such time-consuming commitments as promising to visit each of the world’s 38 head bishops in their own provinces. But Percy argues that Welby’s stress on personal ministry risks disintegrating into “a set of warm reciprocal relations” divorced from institutional realities and conflicts that might be aired in meetings and gatherings. Along with Welby’s stress on charismatic and personal ministry is his adoption of leadership and managerial techniques and practices in the Church of England that downplays traditional church structures.
Percy points to a recent task force on theological education that was dominated by lay people from the financial world while excluding current theological educators, as it “simply recommended ‘deregulation’ as the way forward for theological formation and training.” Like Tony Blair’s informal “kitchen cabinet,” Welby has cultivated an “inner circle” that can develop into a “very small, tight-knit group of loyalists and…a larger devoted cadre.” While this kind of leadership can be effective in the short term, over time “it disenchants and alienates, while the cadres and elite become both increasingly powerful and paranoid,” Percy writes. The use of both charismatic leadership and managerial tactics also characterizes English archbishops who are now “functioning much-like corporate chief executives within their respective provinces, and nationally.” This has the effect of bishops serving as “area managers,” controlled through a tightly regulated training process, with targets and objectives set by executive managers and endorsed by “visionary” archbishops. In such a scenario, parish clergy are reduced to the status of local branch managers, “thinly stretched in resourcing, but made to chase the (unreachable) targets set by the area managers.”
(Journal of Anglican Studies, http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayJournal?jid=AST)
Clergy couples have become increasingly common in the Church of England, with one result being the loss of the role of vicar wives, especially in rural parishes, reports Tablet magazine (April 4). Although uncounted in the Church of England, clergy couples are estimated to be in the hundreds, with the most prominent being all three of the first women bishops recently appointed in the church. Abigail Frymann Rouch writes that “Increasingly in recent decades, wives of male clergy have wished to pursue their own careers…Gone, largely, is the vicar’s wife offering tea to her husband’s visitors, doing a share of his role unacknowledged and smoothing over minor parish disputes—a loss perhaps more keenly felt in rural areas than in towns. Instead it is the recently invented role of vicar’s husband that has demanded soul searching from men who watch the dynamics of their marriages alter as they pass from the lay to the clerical state.”
There is also the emergence of what Rouch calls the “clergy super couple, a partnership between two rising stars, each already in an influential role and tipped for yet greater things.” Sociologist Linda Woodhead says that it may be more than a coincidence that the three new women bishops are married to priests. She cautions that the “‘patronage’ system of appointments have always favored people who are well connected within the clerical network.” She is concerned that bishop couples may do little to counter a “growing clericalization” of the church, leading to the possibility of clergy becoming “separate caste, increasingly cut off from the rest of society.” Woodhead also notes that it is unusual in the business world for married couples to occupy senior positions in the same firm unless a clear protocol is in place. The fact that all three women bishops come from the evangelical wing of the C of E may not reflect the breadth of the church.
(The Tablet, http://www.thetablet.co.uk/)
Egypt is not the first Muslim-majority country to consider using its religious scholars in the fight against radicalized Islam, but the presence of Al-Azhar in such an effort, one of the most prestigious centers of Islamic learning, gives it particular significance. In a report in Reuters (May 31), Mahmoud Mourad and Yara Bayoumy write that although Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi cracked down very hard on the Muslim Brotherhood, it seems that he now wants supplement security measures with a spread of “moderate Islam.” First steps have already been taken, such as an online monitoring center for tracking militant statements in social media in order to refute them better. Since 2013, there have also been attempts to modernize Al-Azhar curriculum and to review books written by professors in order to make sure they they do not promote extremism.
But not all students are supportive as some feel that the reforms are detrimental to the full teachings of Islam. And it is easy to find radical texts in bookshops around Al-Azhar. Moreover, the backing of an authoritarian regime—even with a devout leader—does not reinforce Al-Azhar’s credibility, because even some of its own students distrust it as mouthpiece for the state. Sources in security agencies have confirmed that Al-Azhar students are seen with suspicion as potentially prone to extremism, and that they are often monitored. But harsh security measures breed hatred for police among them. The article quotes Abdul Ghani Hendi, a religious affairs adviser in the Egyptian parliament, who thinks that Al-Azhar should be entirely restructured to allow for self-criticism and adds, “All the thought which dominates society is extremists’ thoughts. We should confess that frankly.”
In the current turbulence in the Middle East comes intriguing reports that locals in a rural part of Sulaymaniyah province, as well as in other parts of Iraqi Kurdistan, have started to revive the Zoroastrian religion, a faith that had more or less disappeared from those areas for centuries, writes Alaa Latif in Niqash: Briefings from Inside and Across Iraq (http://www.niqash.org, May 28). This phenomenon is understood by the people involved as a return to an ancient religion they see as associated with the culture of the Kurdish people. According to the article, the new Zoroastrian believers are not connected to still existing Zoroastrian communities such as those found in Iran—that do not proselytize anyway. They are rather said to represent a spontaneous movement in reaction to religious instability in the area as well as to radical Islamism. They intend to build temples in the region as well as to get Zoroastrianism recognized. However, some local observers, such as MP Haji Karwan, claim that those propagating Zoroastrianism “are few and far between.”
In the absence of statistical data regarding that new trend, the editor of the Middle East Journal, Michael Collins Dunn, writes on his blog (http://mideasti.blogspot.com, June 1) that the supposed trend seems to be regionally localized. It should be placed into the context of areas where elements of Zoroastrianism have been incorporated into the beliefs of a variety of small, syncretistic religious groups. He points that, while there is no consensus about where Zoroaster was born, he represents a religious figure and culture hero not only to Persians, but also to Kurds. [In its November 2013 issue, RW published an article on ethnic Kurds in the Caucasus starting to emphasize a Yezidi identity instead of a Kurdish one. There have also been attempts to revive the Zoroastrian legacy in Azerbaijan or Tajikistan, as observed twenty years ago by Shahin Bekhradnia (“The Tajik Case for a Zoroastrian Identity”, Religion, State and Society, 22/1, 1994). All cases illustrate striking attempts to reconfigure and redefine identities in those different areas, and how an old religion can become a resource for such purposes.]
Churches in China are non-denominational, or “post-denominational,” according to official law which prohibits autonomous churches beyond the local congregation, but in reality there are new networks and emerging movements that are bringing back denominational differences, even if they are increasingly indigenous. Those are some of the findings of a chapter on Chinese post-denominationalism by Chloe Starr in the new book The Changing World Religion Map (Springer), edited by Stan Brunn. While the official church, known as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, and even the mainstream unregistered churches have become unified and de-emphasize denominational differences to the point of their disappearance, new independent, often home-based groups, such as the Word of Life, the Fangcheng Fellowship, and the Sinim Fellowship, are less easily merged with the others (although they have established a degree of unity among themselves).
China’s drive to unify the churches was mainly to make them autonomous of outside control, but it was easier when there were fewer unofficial groups and a less individualized communist state; today, “in an era of greater individualism…[there is a] “kaleidoscope of different allegiances, groupings, networks, and even sects,” Starr writes. “There are still voices holding out for the older vision of post-denominationalism, for a single Chinese church which enfolds all other divisions within itself…but events have surely overtaken such an ideology. “The real challenge is for the government to “find new ways to legitimize and manage the array of evolving church groups.”
Perfect Children: Growing Up on the Religious Fringe (Oxford University Press, $24.95), by Amanda van Eck Duymaer van Twist, sheds new light on the much-speculated subject of “second generation” members of new religious movements—including both those who have left and stayed. Van Twist, the deputy director of Inform, a London-based research center on new religious movements, includes such groups in her ethnographic study as The Family (formerly Children of God), Scientology, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Unification Church, and the communal Anabaptist group the Bruderhof. The conflict for these children, many of who are now in their 20s or older, comes from outside as well as within these movements as many are subject to legal battles over custody, children’s rights laws (especially in Europe) and serious adjustment problems in adapting to the “real world” (fitting in neither with the movement they were raised in or with outside society). Often, those leaving feel a strong sense of “anomie” or normlessness, though there are more support groups and networks forming (often starting out as web sites and showing different degrees of animosity to their former groups).
Van Twist devotes a significant part of the book to the sex abuse crisis that shook and almost brought down The Family. But she does an especially good job in showing how these NRMs are changing, with some better able to meet the challenges and criticisms of the second generation than others; the Unification Church and the Family have proven more flexible to demands for greater freedom and less uniformly communal lifestyles, while the other groups are more resistant to change, either because a bureaucratic structure is in place (especially in the case of Scientology) or strong tradition-based ties (in the case of the Bruderhof).
02: Political scientist Ani Sarkissian focuses on authoritarian regimes and how religious restrictions and regulations function in such societies in her new book The Varieties of Religious Repression (Oxford University Press, $29.95). Sarkissian draws on data from more than 100 authoritarian states, as well as presenting 16 case studies of such societies [see April RW for more on Sarkissian’s research findings]. She finds that there is considerable diversity in the manner in which these regimes restrict religion; no clear connection exists between the extent of authoritarianism and the degree of religious repression (more democratic Malaysia and Turkey being more repressive than more autocratic Swaziland and Cameroon).
Rather than classifying societies as open or closed regarding religious freedom, the author categorizes authoritarian governments as either the state favoring one religion while repressing other ones, high regulation of all religions (such as Saudi Arabia), or selective repression of one targeted religious group (such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Singapore). Sarkissian concludes with an examination of the high number of Muslim states repressing religion, noting how various Islamic groups are often on the receiving end of restrictions and regulations by their governments.
03: The Zoroastrian religion has faced the double dilemma of its diaspora in the West rapidly assimilating and discarding its traditions and its home base in Iran undergoing persecution from the Shi’a Muslim majority. In his fascinating new study Reclaiming The Faravahar (Leiden University Press; distributed through University of Chicago Press, $59), anthropologist Navid Fosi looks at the way Zoroastrianism is surviving through recasting its traditions in a more universalistic and contemporary mode while gaining a public face in contemporary Iran. Fosi’s ethnographic study of Zoroastrian life in Tehran examines how religious leaders have to counter Shi’a accusations, such as being worshippers of fire (because fire is a key symbol in their ceremonies) , while at the same time trying to stem the flow of young members to the West.
The author finds that Tehran’s Zoroastrians have reclaimed and emphasized their unique Persian or Iranian identity (predating Islam and other monotheistic religions), which appeals to Shi’a Muslims as they seek to differentiate themselves from Arab Sunni Muslims and cultivate an interest in their pre-Islamic identity. At the same time, religious leaders are also “rationalizing” the faith, stressing its modern, universal and intellectual nature to retain the loyalty of their young people (though retaining their opposition to converts). Fosi sees something of a Zoroastrian awakening afoot: three communal centers have reopened in the city, ceremonies are being adapted along more modern lines, and web sites are being launched, with the most important sign of this resilience being the construction of a massive fire-temple complex in Tehran.