Symbol of the Zoroastrian faith. Zarathustra with wings

Why You Can’t Convert to Zoroastrianism

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Symbol of the Zoroastrian faith. Zarathustra with wings
Ahura Mazda via Flickr

You might have just heard about the re-emergence of Zoroastrianism among the Kurds of Iraq and you’re now wondering to yourself “can I convert to Zoroastrianism?”

So the short and sweet answer is a resounding…no. You can’t convert to Zoroastrianism.  By happenstance, the Zoroastrian faith is based on ethnicity and not on being a convert. Sorry to burst your bubble.  Chances of being Zoroastrian are short to none considering the faith is only about 200,000 followers worldwide.  A possible “in” does exist for you, however, if your father happens to be Zoroastrian. Maybe your dad can get you in dude. 

Why are Zoroastrians against allowing people to convert?

1.Exclusivity

This is one of the big reasons how cults use exclusivity in marketing. The reason that Zoroastrians won’t allow people to convert really comes down to scarcity. Humans all want to feel like they are special and one of the ways they do this is by being part of the “in-crowd” or whatever. It’s sad but true.  Zoroastrians have ground rules for this sort of thing. They act as reasons for excluding people from the faith.

2. Ethnorelgious traditionalism

A lot of the reason as to why Zoroastrians have a rule against conversions actually has a lot to do with their religion that just so happens to also be coupled with race. Racial purity becomes a religious obligation and rite for inclusion.  You can see how this opens Zoroastrianism up to many serious allegations of“racist”.

A religion that is partially based on ethnicity means enforcing breeding only with other members of your ethnic group.  To top it all off to keep your religion in a genetic family also serves to promote a whole other level of the “us & them” mentality which is one of the primary basis of how cults work.  Traditionalism would, therefore, dictate that to preserve the faith would also mean to preserve the ethnicity. Conveniently, however, for the Zoroastrian, a couple of caveats exist in order to curtail the inevitable triggered few who see the Zoroastrian stress on ethnic purity as a seemingly racist vestibule.

 2. No need to convert: Zoroastrians accept all religions as valid:

So Zoroastrians use philosophical and religious ways to validate their policy on converts. When asked, “why don’t you allow people to convert,” the answer may surprise you. Let’s say you asked a Zoroastrian, why you aren’t allowed to convert to their religion.  This particular Zoroastrian may look at you, nod and with a coy smile on his or her face reply: all religions are equal and no one faith is actually better than any other. All religions lead to God and are somehow inspired by the divine force of nature and therefore a person who follows their own faith, is coincidentally in line with the divine.

With this sort of off-handed, open-ended line of answering a Zoroastrian has essentially diffused your eager quest to convert to Zoroastrianism when in fact you’ve essentially been snubbed, but maybe not in such a vicious way.  Actually you can feel a little bit more included in the faith now considering you’ve just had a Zoroastrian tell you that all you need to do to get in on their whole “spiritual thing” is to follow your own faith and life path.  That is in a sense to say that Christians can follow Christianity & still be in line with Zoroastrian teachings. Jews may follow Judaism, Muslims Islam and everybody is one big happy cult family.

So what old Zarathustra is trying to say is everybody should just rest assured. Yes, indeed all rivers do lead to the sea and we all should stop coveting the illusory beliefs of someone else’s weird cult spiritual fetishes.

The Parsis traditionalists

As for the Parsis (the Indian sect of Zoroastrianism), traditionalism runs much deeper. Under these accounts, your faith itself is a sort of religious destiny.  A Parsis would tell you that the desire to convert to Zoroastrianism, in itself, is a kind of blasphemy against the inherent ever-flowing harmony of the natural process that God laid down for you. You’ve blasphemed the sacred divine with your inability to accept what God has given you and what God has given you is not to be a Zoroastrian.  Converting would be disobedience against God.

Parsis sect of Zoroastrianism
Parsis sect of Zoroastrianism, Link

3. The Zoroastrian myth that explains why there are no converts

A myth that has been handed down.  This myth helps Zoroastrians rationalize their position on rejecting converts and it goes like this:

When Indo-Persian refugees left the oppressive Muslim politics of Iran they went to a kingdom called Gujarat in India.  Upon arrival, the ruler asks them to explain their religion to him.  After he heard the story of their history he allowed them safe haven. This safe haven, though, would come with certain conditions.

They had to learn the local language of that area and to also adopt the dress and garb of that region as well as participate in local customs and ceremonies.  However, they could not attempt to convert the local populations.  In this way and only in this way would they be able to continue to practice their religion and traditions.  These people became the Parsis and this myth helps to reinforce the reasoning behind the “no-convert” policy.

4.Psychological explanations against converts

Zoroastrian traditionalists argue that the longevity of their tradition is tied up with a lot of emotional and psychological reasons. You see, ever since the Muslim revolution in Iran Zoroastrianism has been a minority religion.  Even in India, when the Parsis refugees moved there. Zoroastrians have always been a differentiated minority group.  The argument goes like this: “the only way that these minority groups have been able to survive through the millennia is due to their ability to maintain the purity of their community.”  By this account not allowing converts has worked thus far. Therefore why change anything?

Just Shut up and tell me How to be a Zoroastrian Already?

The first question I have for you is, why do you want to be a Zoroastrian? Is it because of the cool branding opportunities that this rare and exclusive religion can get you?  Do you think that there is some special otherworldly knowledge hidden away for you behind the holy beard of the ever-cool Zoroastrian messiah Zarathustra?  Well if you want to follow in line, lockstep with this particular cult brand of religion, you may already be on the right path and in the next paragraph, I’ll tell you why.

Image of Zoroaster or Zarathustra, prophet of the Zoroastrian religion
Zarathustra

Technically you already are a Zoroastrian simply because of their brand of monotheismAhuramazda is probably not a word you hear thrown around too often but it is incredibly central to the Zoroastrian belief system. The Ahuramazda created “the world, mankind and all good things in it.” So traditionally your chosen religion is in line with the divine will of God. Zoroastrianism does not deny other deities.  This type of cross-religious acceptance is called henotheism.

Henotheism: the acceptance of one god while at the same time accepting the divinity and existence of God in other deities.

Traditionalists consider inclusion in the faith as the following inspiration from a “true” prophet and it just so happens that the Parsis sect I was talking about regards any such divine inspiration to have come from the likes of some of your favorite Prophets.  These Prophets are called yazatas. Yazata essentially means “good prophet.” This means you can follow all of your favorite prophets throughout history-such as Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, Krishna, Buddha, Joseph Smith and many more.

“God bears in mind all prayers made to Him, past, present, and future; those made by ordinary people as well as the believers in many Gods.”

 -The Avesta, Yasna 29:4

Even some Zoroastrians Can’t Convert to Zoroastrianism

So it is hard for Zoroastrians themselves to convert to Zoroastrians.  That may sound a little complicated but let me explain. Being that Zoroastrianism is a patrilineal ethnic religion means that it is only based on your father’s lineage.  At least strict traditionalists of the religion abide by this priestly rule. This means that if your mother is Zoroastrian but your father is not you will not be allowed into the faith.  Your bloodline can still be Zoroastrian, but you still won’t be allowed in.

Zoroaster was not a real creative type.  He didn’t quite create a new religion so much as reform an old one.  So basically the traditions of the Zoroastrians predate Zoroaster himself. An unbroken lineage of true “Indo-Iranian” people may seem a little extreme to some.  Either way, the traditionalist Zoroastrians keep to their strict tradition of intermarriage only with other Zoroastrians.  Ethnicity and religion are being used as a way to preserve living history to be connected to the past.

Keep in mind that the ethnic Zoroastrian makes it more than simply religion. Ethnicity becomes integral to the faith and its practices.  This all hangs on the balance of the meaning behind the language, ethics, traditional clothes, holidays, food, family, songs, literature, etc.  In this way, Zoroastrianism seems to be a utility of social engineering.  It is a precious continuation of tradition, an heirloom.

The Islamic revolution

After the Islamic revolution in Iran, many Zoroastrians converted to Islam.  By all ethnic guidelines, they were Zoroastrian.  Ethnic Zoroastrians wanted to re-enter the community. The Parsi sect, however, didn’t recognize their reintegration. So while the reintroduced Zoroastrians were recognized in the Iranian communities, they were not recognized as “True Zoroastrian” by the Parsi sect.

Why Zoroastrianism may be allowing people to convert in the future

1. There is no textual prohibition in the original texts

Zoroastrianism Conversion meme

So there is a going chance that the Iranian sects of “liberal” Zoroastrians may be opening the faith to people who want to convert to Zoroastrianism. One of the bases they use to support this claim is that documented history allows it.  According to the scriptures outlined by Zarathustra known as the Gathas, conversion has been accepted and practiced throughout religious history.

In the Gathas the Prophet Zarathustra explicitly claims a mission to convert people.  This reference is even seen in the Avesta which is a much later account of Zoroastrianism tradition.  In fact, academics on the subject have written extensively on how Zoroastrian spread to other regions of the world through conversion. Archaeological evidence also supports this claim.  Many people who became Zoroastrian in this time frame were not ethnically Zoroastrian at all.  It appears that the ban on conversion only appears in the teachings from the 19th century AD.

Zarathustra really wanted a central doctrine for all humankind.

“one lifted from barbaric tribalism to civilization, who would renew this world. Armed with this inspired precept, the Prophet of Righteous Orde (the New Order) would convert all living things.” 

“Thereafter from Spenta, Mainyu, the Bountiful Spirit of Ahura Mazda, that Right-mindedness and truth come together to convert the many who are seeking” 

-Yasht text

So these texts give a very good dictum for conversion. Traditionalists who oppose those who want to convert to Zoroastrianism try to counter-argue these points. Apparently, the entire world can follow the teachings. On the other hand, the religious tradition and its rites belong to the lineage.  Another way to say this is that everyone can benefit from the concepts within the Zoroastrian holy words, yet only the true Indo-Persian people can be the holders of that religion.  Either way, there is a very clear debate going on within the community of Zoroastrians as to the allowing of people to convert.

When it comes to sectarianism interpretation truly relies on a given perspective.  The Gathas regarded as the only surviving words of the prophet.  Therefore, this makes the Gathas central to the tradition.  Within the Gathas, there is no mention of excluding those who wish to convert. It was only at a later point that the religious extremists introduced the ethnic elements into the religion.  Inherently this means that there should really be no prohibition to those who wish to convert.

2. Zoroastrian numbers are going down

The number of Zoroastrians in the world continues to decrease.  Some reasons for this include Birth rate drop, poverty, not enough Zoroastrian mates, Emigration, inbreeding and those who drop off from the faith.  Zoroastrians alienating themselves from those who wish to convert has alienated them from the rest of the world.  Their populations are now dwindling by a thread.  If Zoroastrians don’t begin accepting those who wish to convert then the religion itself may fall entirely into extinction. Zoroastrians need to adopt a more flexible outlook towards allowing new followers to convert.

Persia, India, Europe and North America are where Zoroastrians live. High priests with a local authority govern these small communities.  Authority is not central.  Even in a given community, individual Zoroastrians might deny the authority of the high priest.  Due to these dwindling numbers and friable social structure, many Zoroastrians are siding with the idea of reforming a new regulation. This new regulation would be more lenient on allowing people to convert to Zoroastrianism.  They’ve even gone so far as to openly talk about proselytism like Mormons.

Is this the End of Zoroastrianism?

The fact that Iranian Zoroastrians have reformed gives some hope to the faith. Zoroastrianism has been around for 3500 years.  If this monotheistic cult can pull it together and allow members they have a chance at surviving.  If the traditionalists keep up their follower embargo then Zoroastrians don’t have a chance.

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