Lately I’ve been trying to teach my World Religions class about Zoroastrianism. I say trying because in the past two weeks we’ve had only 1.5 days of class, meaning I have only seen my WR students once. So what is typically a short unit on Zoroastrianism, an introduction and/or foundation for the ethical monotheistic faiths that will follow, has now been drawn out over sixteen days. I think they will hardly remember anything about this faith when we get to day 2.
But, I’ll persist for two main reasons: in Zoroastrianism, we get a sense of important beginnings and get to explore the fears that surround possible endings. By beginnings, I mean the basic ideas of monotheism, heaven and hell, and human free will that exist within Zoroastrianism and are seen in later monotheistic faiths. Studying Zoroastrianism gives us a chance to talk about these ideas in an unfamiliar context, and maybe consider them more objectively. But the number of adherents to faith is also dwindling, and by looking at the contemporary state of Zoroastrianism, we get to think about how religions grow and fade, and what factors might lead to their demise.
On day one, we focused on the beginnings and the basics of the faith, via some videos, a lecture, and readings. I try to emphasize those foundational ideas that I mentioned earlier: monotheism, good vs. evil, Heaven, Hell, and free will. The ideas are incredibly familiar to the students but the names of the god (Ahura Mazda) and the force of evil (Angra Mainyu–best name ever), the use of water and fire in practice, and the locations and traditions all make it something different and intriguing.
On day 2, whenever that happens, I hope to have students complete a webquest reviewing the practices of Zoroastrianism as well as investigating the question of intermarriage. As a rule, the practice of marriage outside of the faith has been discouraged, but not barred, and so the numbers of children born into the faith are dropping over time. In response, old-fashioned Zoroastrian matchmakers and more new-fangled singles Zoroastrian websites have emerged.
Intermarriage is one factor, but there is also the simple struggle of practicing a minority faith far from home. This video from the NYT captures this challenge and the efforts made by current generations to maintain the practices and traditions (there is an accompanying article, too). So, in this small religion (less than 200,000 adherents today), we witness the advantages and disadvantages of a faith readily adapting to new countries and new eras, and we also learn about the big ideas in religion and philosophy that began to dramatically change the world 3,000 years ago. Here’s hoping I actually get to teach this lesson Monday!