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Human history is a graveyard of vanished religions: Egyptian beliefs, Norse beliefs, Greek and Roman pantheons, and many more. In their heyday, these beliefs ruled empires and exerted a powerful influence on world events. Today, they no longer exist except in the form of dusty relics and cryptic writings.

Those religions died out in antiquity, leaving no trace of what their last living practitioners thought and felt. However, we may soon see another venerable faith go extinct before our eyes. We can get a glimpse of the process in an article in the Guardian by Shaun Walker: “The last of the Zoroastrians“.

Zoroastrianism is one of the most ancient religions in the world, dating back at least 2500 years. Cyrus the Great, the king who liberated the Jews from the Babylonian captivity, was a Zoroastrian, and there’s evidence that Zoroastrian beliefs had a profound impact on Judaism and eventually on Christianity. The faith originated in Iran, and some members still live there, but most were chased out by Islamic conquerors. The largest population now lives in India, where they’re also called Parsis for their Persian origins.

One thing I appreciate about Zoroastrian beliefs is that they, virtually alone of world religions, have a logical answer to the problem of evil. They believe in two gods: a good one, Ahura Mazda, and an evil one, known as Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, who are evenly matched in power and who are struggling for dominion over the world. Zoroastrians look forward to the apocalyptic battle, Frashokereti, when the good side wins. (The idea of Satan being a separate power opposed to God, rather than God’s prosecuting attorney, and the idea of an final confrontation between good and evil, are Judeo-Christian beliefs that were likely borrowed from Zoroastrianism.)

Walker’s mother was born to Zoroastrian parents, but went to London to attend university and married outside the religion, and she didn’t raise him to be observant. As an adult, he went back to India with her on a Return to Roots trip, a sort of Birthright tour for Zoroastrians, where he saw firsthand why his family’s faith is slipping into extinction.

The biggest problem Zoroastrians are facing is that they aren’t just a creedal faith, they’re an ethno-religious group. They don’t proselytize, they don’t allow conversion, and if a young person marries outside the faith (as Walker’s mother did), they’re kicked out. As you can imagine, this creates difficulties:

“You’ve seen four weddings and a funeral – well, for Parsis, it’s four funerals and a wedding,” says Jehangir Patel, who has edited the community’s monthly magazine, Parsiana, for almost 50 years. When he finally retires, he fears the magazine will simply close, as more of its readers are dying off each year. India’s Parsi population shrank from 114,000 in 1941 to 57,000 at the last census in 2011. Projections suggest that by the end of the century, there will be just 9,000 left.

This decline is almost entirely self-imposed, yet the majority of Parsis are fanatically resistant to change, despite the evidence of their own future crumbling to dust before their eyes.

One example of this concerns their death ritual. Orthodox Zoroastrians consider both earth and fire to be sacred and believe it’s a sin to pollute either element with human corpses. Their solution is called the Towers of Silence: structures open to the sky where dead bodies are exposed so they can be eaten by vultures and other carrion birds, like Tibetan sky burial.

The problem is a common veterinary drug, diclofenac, that’s toxic to vultures which eat the bodies of treated livestock. Its widespread use in India wiped out much of the vulture population, making sky burial an untenable proposition. For a lack of other options, some Zoroastrians have resorted to traditional cremation, including Walker’s grandfather. But as he finds out, the larger community (much like traditional Catholicism) is adamantly against it. Khojeste Mistree, his guide on the tour, was fanatical on the subject:

“I’m sorry to say,” said Mistree, in a tone that was notably unapologetic, “that those Parsis who opt for cremation will go to hell.” Later, he clarified that Parsis who lived abroad could choose alternative methods, though never cremation, as it sullied fire with the evil spirits present in a dead body. But for those who lived in Mumbai, like my grandfather, there was no excuse. In Mistree’s severe reading of Zoroastrianism, a man who had spent most of his 95 years on Earth steeped in prayer, and abiding by the exhortation to good thoughts, words and deeds, had been despatched to hell.

And when Walker inquired about the possibility of having a navjote, the Zoroastrian initiation ceremony, the young priest who accompanied them on the tour was outright insulting:

I started to ponder the idea of having a late-in-life navjote, egged on by many of the friendly co-participants in the tour, who thought it would be a fun excuse to all meet up again. I floated the idea with Sherry, but as we got chatting on the bus, I quickly realised I had been mistaken to infer from his bleached hair and carefree demeanour that he was a reformer and would approve of the idea. In Zoroastrianism, there is no need to be ascetic or severe in order to be conservative. Sherry told me that if either parent was not a Parsi, he would not perform a navjote. He did not accept the century-old ruling allowing navjotes for those children who have just a Parsi father. It seemed odd, given that Sherry was clearly devoted to the community’s survival, and spoke with visible passion about his work as a priest. Wasn’t this kind of attitude hastening its decline? “We want to focus on quality, not just quantity,” he said.

On his tour, Walker meets a few reformists who want to change the rules to allow cremation, mixed marriage and conversion, but they’re consistently drowned out by an ultraconservative majority. Meanwhile, in Parsi enclaves, ultra-elderly priests are dying out, leaving their temples empty and their sacred flames to go out untended.

You might think that there’s no larger lesson to be drawn from this; that this is an unusual case, a religion that’s dogmatic and recalcitrant even by the standard of other religions, and its errors are obvious and unlikely to be repeated. But I believe that there is a moral to be found here about the way religions die.

Zoroastrianism was a powerful world faith in its day, but now it’s teetering on the brink of extinction. Christianity is a global religion, counting its devotees in the billions, flushed with imperial power. And yet, for those who can see the signs, it’s at an earlier stage of the same downward slide. Its clergy are aging and graying, its churches are being closed down and converted to other uses.

What’s more, it’s for many of the same reasons. Although Christians accept intermarriage and conversion, the major churches of the West have begun to stiffen and become more rigid, like a religious version of old-age atherosclerosis. They’re coming to value ideological purity and conservative political beliefs above all else, even though it’s driving away the young people they need to perpetuate themselves. And in a positive-feedback spiral, as moderate and liberal believers head for the doors, only the conservatives are left, and they double down on orthodoxy above all else, accelerating the decline. Sheer demographic inertia will likely sustain them for another generation to come – but the distant future may well say that this was the era when the seeds of Christianity’s ultimate downfall were sown.

Image: The Prophet Zoroaster, an etched-glass image at the Zoroastrian fire temple of Taft, Iran. Credit: A. Davey via Wikimedia Commons; released under CC BY 2.0 license

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...