When growing up in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Shay Khatiri recalls that it was fairly common to hear criticism of the regime expressed behind closed doors; criticism of Islam, however, was exceedingly rare. But after over four decades of theocratic rule, that too has changed. Khatiri cites ample anecdotal evidence that this is so—such as a friend’s elderly and once-pious father who declined to participate in an annual ritual with the words, “Son, I have come to realize that all these things are bullshit!” And these are not the only reasons to believe that the religious ideology that fueled the 1979 Islamic Revolution has taken a toll on Islam:
GAMAAN, a Netherlands-based center run by two Iranian political scientists that tracks public attitudes in Iran, reports that 67 percent of Iranians reject the idea of theocracy, and 72 percent reject having a religious figure as the head of the state. A 2020 report by the same organization found that only 32.2 percent identify as Shiite Muslims, with another 5 percent identifying as Sunni. (Contrast that with the CIA World Factbook, which reports that 90–95 percent of the country is Shiite.) Nearly half identified as some form of irreligious—none, agnostic, spiritual, or atheist. A whopping 7.7 percent called themselves Zoroastrian, far higher than the 0.03 percent of the Zoroastrian population inside Iran. It’s not that Shiite Iranians are converting en masse to the religion of their pre-Islamic forbears—Zoroastrianism doesn’t accept converts. The better interpretation is that a significant number of Iranians claim the ancient Persian religion as a method of identifying as Persian and shedding the Muslim identity they’ve come to hate.
Iran’s plummeting fertility rate gives more evidence of its declining religiosity. Iranians have been poor in the past, but they still had high fertility rates despite being high on the misery index. The return of poverty doesn’t alone explain why the fertility rate has fallen to 1.7 children per woman of child-bearing years, but it makes sense when one considers the rise of “nones.” Religiously unaffiliated people, on average, have fewer children than religious people. In 1989, when I was born, Iran’s average fertility rate was 5.1.
But none of these data are as astounding as the clergy under attack. Iranians used to respect the clerical class, either sincerely or begrudgingly. It wasn’t just fear of its power but also a tradition and a custom. Nowadays, the stories that populate the news are about how pedestrians, often without cause, physically assault random mullahs on the street.
Before the Islamic Revolution, Iran had an Iranian state and a religious population. Now, it has a theocracy and a population increasingly embracing the non-religious components of its national heritage.