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Iranian Atheism & The Dependence On God


"All power comes from a divine source".


This is one of the criteria in Bob Altemayer's conception of the authoritarian mind (1981, 1988, 1997) . It assumes that power is divine in origin; following the orders of a person in the position of authority is obeying God, and vice versa, disobeying authority is disobeying God. In the minds of those high in the Right-Wing Authoritarianism psychological trait, the unconscious connection between power and God dominates their political thinking. So, you may ask, what does this have to do with Iran?


Iran is a religious country, regardless of how you cut it. I propose my argument on three pillars: the formation of religion in Iran, the inseparability of Church and State in Iran, and the Shi'ite concept of apolitical, passive resistance. For these three reasons, I maintain that Iranians are high in the authoritarianism trait and that the true Iranian atheist is hard to come by. Take the first pillar: Iran is home to the formation of six major religions throughout time: Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, Mazdakism, Manichaeanism, Persianized Shi'a Islam, and Baha'ism. Most Iranians ascribe to some sort of belief in a higher power and the connection of power and divinity is best represented by the second pillar- the inseparability of religion and politics in Iran. The Achaemenids imposed a state religion as did the Sassanians. During the Sassanian period, the magi had the power that contemporary mullahs have held since the Safavid period, and continue to hold today- their sway on politics was not different from their influence in the Qajarid and Pahlavid dynasty's measures (although this was greatly curbed by Reza Shah, only to be later reeled back by Mohammad Reza's favorable attitude to the mullahs). In many ways, the mullahs of today are the magi of Iran's ancient past. Iranian monarchic dynasties were ordained and supported by God and subsequent state religions were imposed until the fall of the Qajarids. For many Iranians, what constitutes morality cannot be separated from the holy; it is inconceivable that morality can come from humanistic impulses or social movements. Even at the root of Iranian social movements, God's stamp of approval is visible.


The last pillar, Shi'a Islam's stance of persecution and passive resistance, also rests on the fear of God and the equation of the divine with earthly power. Since earthly power is a manifestation of God's order, political hegemony is seen as unbreakable and resistance is seen as futile. This is further underlined by Shi'isms insistence in the Ahl-ul-Bayt, the succession of rule placed on the Islamic Prophet's family, instead of elected and appointed officials from allied clans. Power is seen as holy in Shi'ism, just as power was seen as Holy in Zoroastrianism and the religion of Mani. Baha'ism is just an extension of Iran's dependence on God; a humanistic acceptance of, but not questioning of, all religions.


So why is divinity inseparable from power in Iran? The answer lies in the Iranian mind. By examining the psychological characteristics of the Iranian mind, one arrives at the conclusion that Iranian culture places heavy emphasis on the father's authority and the law of tribalism. In such societies, a father figure is necessary as a guide, questioning is viewed as taboo, and morality is inseperable from religion. In this sense, Iranians are more "religious" than "spiritual". When male dominance is emphasized in authoritarian cultures, God is seen as an extension of the earthly father figure, and the laws of morality and conduct embodied by the father figure are transferred in their absoluteness to the God figure and thus, the connection between earthly conduct and morality is made to the holy, and power is attributed to God and religion.



This is why true Iranian atheism- an atheism that sees fault in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic morality structures as obsolete, that calls for a new, humanistic and rational morality based on pragmatism and social laws, an atheism that promotes science as the harbinger of reality and accepts the uncertainty of existential angst- is hard to come by. Many Iranian humanists and atheists prescribe themselves to a certain "philosophy"; Zoroastrianism for some, Baha'ism for others, forgetting that these movements were indeed religions with clear-cut rules and systems of worship, rather than an emphasis on epistemology and ontological questioning. They tell you "this is how the world came to be" as opposed to questioning. With questioning comes uncertainty, with uncertainty comes existential angst, and with that comes friend of mortality, a characteristic prevalent in authoritarian Third-World cultures. For Iranian atheism to evolve, Iranian freethinkers must shed the misconception that Zoroastrianism, Shi'ism, and Baha'ism can be thought of as philosophies- the misconception is not only nominal, it is absolute. Religions emphasize order and certainty, while philosophies, in the manner of science, emphasize a rational and spiritual quest into the void of the uncertain, the metaphysical explanation of existence. For Iranian atheism to evolve, Iranians must shed systems of morality tied to their religions and tied to the divinity-power complex, and instead form new ones from the ground up based on science, reason, and comfort in uncertainty padded with a moral absoluteness that is founded on humanism and social pragmatism.



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Good article. Should be written on an on in different ways, from different angles.

I'm not sure the Achaemenids made Zoroastrianism the State Religion. While this is true of the Sassanids, some historian believe that during the Achaemenid period there was no religion as the state religion, although the priests were regarded as a distinguished class. It seems that Zoroastrianism was only the the religion of the King and his entourage. We don't have much information about the Achamaenids, but it is true that Zoroastrianism was the State religion under the Sassanids. One of the members on this site who is obsessed with writing under 20 IDs, once wrote an article and suggested that theocracy existed under the Sassanids as well. That's a nonsense, because the Magi's having too much power is not the same as the Dictator being a religious figure. The Kings (and for a couple of moths queens) was the Dictators and ultimate power not someone from among the Magi. I digress.

When you speak of "The last pillar, Shi'a Islam's stance of persecution and passive resistance..", don't you mean passive ACCEPTANCE? Resistance comes with the rejection of the religion, and this is not what you were developing.

The best part of your article (for my taste) is when you speak of "with certainty comes existential angst" . This is so true. Most people cannot tolerate 2 things Uncertainty and Ambiguity. I think being comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty is the sign of mental and spiritual maturity. Both are also part of experiencing a-theism. One can only learn these two through modern Continental philosophies such as Existentialism, and through years of psycho-analysis & therapy of oneself and other.


AshkanJahani Nietzche summed it best.

I'm an Iranian atheist. I think no matter which way you view it, atheists will never really shed their prior conceptions of morality. Atheists in the US and Europe base their humanism on Christian values of charity, peace, and sacrifice. Atheists in Iran are just as dogmatic as their religious counterparts. Atheism is just a rejection of God, not really a system of morals.


Sayyad Sha'er visit:

Thanks for your comment. I believe atheism isn't just a rejection. It's a perspective that adopts its own ideas on morality, largely based on humanism. Of course, there are some who have values left over by religions, but in order to completely fix this phenomenon, we need to question the very basis of our understanding of morality.