The Zoroastrian Ethic & Spirit of Modernity

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Max Weber sought to correct or temper Karl Marx’s view that religion was always a reflection or epiphenomenon of the economic base. Although Marx’s understanding of religion was considerably more complicated and drew heavily on Ludwig Feuerbach’s idealist critique in The Essence of Christianity (1841), his assertion that religion “is the opium of the people” usually obscures this fact. Weber’s intent was to show that religion, rather than being a mere result of economy, could produce economic transformations; in his view, Calvinism gave birth to capitalism.

While Weber surely was right to argue that religion and economy influence one another dialectically, few scholars accept his argument that capitalism was made possible by Calvinism. Although the Protestant Ethic remains a classic, its reputation has dimmed. Few have been more scathing in their criticism than Rodney Stark, who takes Weber to the woodshed in “Putting an End to Ancestor Worship“:

[E]conomic historians long ago dismissed Weber’s monograph as anti-Catholic nonsense on the irrefutable grounds that the rise of capitalism in Europe preceded the Reformation by centuries. Weber was aware that economic historians rejected his thesis on the basis of time order. Consequently, he progressively made his definitions finer in an attempt to restrict capitalism to “modern” Reformation business organizations. Clearly, Weber inserted the adjective “modern” in order to confound those who argued that capitalism was far older than Protestantism.

If Protestant ideals didn’t create capitalism, this doesn’t mean religion had no impact on the mercantilism and mindset that led to it. It simply means we should shift our temporal focus and look for earlier possible influences.

In “The Protestant Ethic and the Parsis,” Robert Kennedy does just this and suggests that Zoroastrianism — an ancestral monotheism — set the stage for Modernity, which encompasses not only capitalism but also science. Kennedy identifies five abstract values associated with Modernity: (1) an underlying order in nature, (2) sensory standard of verification, (3) material work is intrinsically good, (4) maximization of material prosperity, and (5) accumulation rather than consumption of material goods.

Zoroastrian and Parsi Symbol-Motif

Using historical data on the Parsis or Zoroastrian Persians who fled from Iran to India after the Islamic conquest in the 8th century AD, Kennedy examines their beliefs, culture, and society for correspondences. Finding many, Kennedy suggests that modern economy and science may have roots in Zoroastrian religion.

It is an unfortunate fact that we know less about Zoroastrianism than we would like. Although it was the official state religion of the Persian Empire for nearly seven centuries, the conquering Muslims attempted to eradicate every vestige of the faith. One thing is certain: Zoroastrian ideas and influences can be found in Judaism and Christianity. This raises an interesting possibility.

Nietzsche asserted that modern science arose in the West because the West was Christian. To make a long intellectual history short, Christianity’s obsessive search for sacred “Truth” turned on itself and (paradoxically) gave rise to a profane search for truth, which we now call science. If there is in fact a connection between Christianity and science, there may be an even deeper (or older) connection between Zoroastrianism and science.


Stark, R. (2004). SSSR Presidential Address, 2004: Putting an End to Ancestor Worship Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 43 (4), 465-475 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2004.00249.x

Kennedy, Jr., R. (1962). The Protestant Ethic and the Parsis American Journal of Sociology, 68 (1) DOI: 10.1086/223262

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9 thoughts on “The Zoroastrian Ethic & Spirit of Modernity

  1. Bob

    I’ve heard mentioned in discussions about fundamentalism that we owe Muslims what we have today of Greek literary works because they saved it from Christians’ persecution of paganism, sounds like they changed their idea.

  2. Behnam

    I Love Zoroastrianism from my heart . I love to know more and more about it and become a real Zoroastrian.

  3. Cris Post author

    If you think it will make you happy, then go for it. It will be hard to do given that most Zoroastrians live in Iran and there aren’t many Zoroastrians in the UK.

  4. wolfy ghalkhani

    there are Iranian Zoroastrian communities in the US mostly in Orange county, California. in response to the gentlemen who wrote that the Muslims saved Greek literary works from Christians is a complete lie. the Muslim invaders destroyed libraries in both Iran and Egypt when they weren’t committing genocide (250 million and counting). they turned advancing civilizations into intellectual deserts. The literary works of the Greeks were brought to Europe by the Greeks themselves after the fall of Constantinople. Its not only stupid but dangerous to give Islam credit it does not deserve. It should be noted that Zoroastrains nutured Christianity in the founding of Jesus by 3 maji who were following what their religion predicted – a messiah. (also, the holy spirit, the trinity, life after death are all tenets of zoroastrianism added the essence to what we know as Christian.

  5. John

    I know this is an older post but it bothered me no one had corrected this last comment, and since Islamic Neoplatonism is a subject I enjoy, I feel the need to contribute. Not only is your (above commenter) assertion about Muslims creating ‘intellectual deserts’ absolutely ridiculous, but there is substantial scholarship indicating that Arab translations were the source for which the West was re-introduced to the writings of Antiquity and spurred forward into the Renaissance. It’s not that they didn’t have the books, the knowledge of translating them correctly simply fell into decay during the Dark/Early Middle Ages (a particularly emotional scholar wrote in his chronicle that he would weep over his untranslatable Greek texts, and modern chemical analysis found some suspicious salt stains on them that may indicate he was telling the truth! (Hilarious)) . Additional evidence can be found in the work done on Islamic philosophers which shows a lively engagement and embrace of many Neoplatonic and Pythagorean ideals, which lead to an emphasis on mathematics and the development of algebra (that’s right, the AL at the front there is an Allah reference right in our modern mathematics!) and major advances in astronomy. Even today we have only been able to understand the logic behind some of their geometric designs (like this with fractal theory and computers.

    The final point being, Persia, Greece, and the Islamic world were not somehow separate. Their shared geographical space led to the logical overlap of many ideas and philosophies (Zoroastrianism even got a weird syncretic revival with Persian Illuminationism, a branch of Sufi mysticism). To essentialize any one of these three worlds and not see them as overlapping and engaged with one another is simply erroneous, and develops the line of colonialist thought in which the Near East only become “active” when modern Europe engaged and found them.

  6. John

    And one last point I forgot. The fall of Constantinople? Are you referring to the event in which it was sacked by a large number of Western Crusaders? If you are referring to its eventual fall to the Ottomans, I’m even more confused, as Greek scholarship in Europe was well underway by that time.

  7. Cris Post author

    John, I fear that you replied to someone who was either deliberately trolling (though I usually try to remove those kinds of comments), or someone whose comment was so inane that I allowed it to remain for educational purposes. Even wholly ignorant comments can be instructive, if only to remind us that the world is filled with stupidity and intolerance, with the former breeding the latter.

    Having said that, thanks for the history lessons.

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