Resilience and Zarathustra

Stephen DeAngelis

September 12, 2006

Lessons can be learned from both successes and failures. A New York Times article about the Zoroastrian religion dramatically demonstrates how non-resilience strategies can lead to an organization’s demise [“Zoroastrians Keep the Faith, and Keep Dwindling,” by Laurie Goldstein, 6 September 2006]. Zoroastrians can trace their religion back nearly 3000 years, making it one of the oldest in the world. Some Christians believe that Zoroastrian priests were the New Testament magi who, at Christ’s birth, came from the east in search of the new king of Israel. Zoroastrians follow the precepts of the prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster in Greek), who is probably more noted as the subject of the Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche’s book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Richard Strauss’ orchestral piece of the same name that was famously used at the beginning of the popular movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. One would think that a religion that can trace it roots back three millennia would have a resilient strategy worth emulating, but that is not the case. Kersey H. Antia, a psychologist who specializes in panic disorders and a Zoroastrian priest, put it this way.

“We were once at least 40, 50 million — can you imagine?” said Mr. Antia, senior priest at the fire temple here in suburban Chicago. “At one point we had reached the pinnacle of glory of the Persian Empire and had a beautiful religious philosophy that governed the Persian kings. Where are we now? Completely wiped out,” he said. “It pains me to say, in 100 years we won’t have many Zoroastrians.”

What happened? According to the article, “The Zoroastrians’ mobility and adaptability has contributed to their demographic crisis. They assimilate and intermarry, virtually disappearing into their adopted cultures. And since the faith encourages opportunities for women, many Zoroastrian women are working professionals who, like many other professional women, have few children or none.” Since the faith doesn’t proselytize, doesn’t accept converts, and even rejects children of interfaith marriages in some areas, the Zoroastrians are walking a path very similar to the one that led to the demise of the Shakers in America. Not all of the faithful believe adhering to that strategy is a good idea. The article notes that several groups have struggled in vain to establish a global organization for Zoroastrians that could help establish policies, foster a proselytizing effort, and attempt to move the faith away from the brink of the abyss into which it is about to tumble.

Resilience requires growth. Consider the giant sequoia and redwood trees in California. They don’t grow much each year, but they do continue growing. The same is true for companies or economies. Resilience requires growth. While the future of the Zoroastrian faith remains in question, its adherents are individually doing very well. It’s an interesting paradox.

Although the collective picture is bleak, most individual Zoroastrians appear to be thriving. They are well-educated and well-traveled professionals, earning incomes that place them in the middle and upper classes of the countries where they or their families settled after leaving their homelands in Iran and India. About 11,000 Zoroastrians live in the United States, 6,000 in Canada, 5,000 in England, 2,700 in Australia and 2,200 in the Persian Gulf nations, according to the Fezana Journal survey.

The basic tenets of the faith have universal appeal — “good thoughts, good words, good deeds” — and they have served the faithful well. The sect believes strongly in free will, which has resulted in many marrying outside the faith. Collectively, as noted above, they have yet to deal successfully with the consequences of using that free will. Right now those consequences include a sure end to the faith as its numbers shrink to levels that will make it unsustainable. A resilient strategy is one that includes a way to grow. Such a strategy is flexible and adaptable. Since many Zorastrian priests see theirs as an ethnic faith (ethnicity is not an adaptable trait–you are either a Parsi or you are not), it forces strategic rigidity and keeps the sect on its downward trend.