Organized religions seem to be giving way to more personalized, individualistic, and informal belief systems. Very interesting development.

Why Evolution Is True

The results of a new study on the prevalence of world religion were summarized in the New York Times last week, and I’ve now read the full report. The survey, “The global religious landscape” (download full report here) was conducted by the Pew Research Center (now in collaboration with the Templeton Foundation!).   It’s a long report (80) pages, but unless you’re interested in the variation among nations, there are only a few salient results for us.

  • The first is that although 84% of the world’s population (5.8 billion people0 identifies with a religious group, 16%—one in six—is “religiously” unaffiliated. This figure from the survey tells the tale:

Picture 1

These data are for 2010.  (Oy vey: only 0.2% Jews!)

The 1.1 billion people who aren’t affiliated with a religion aren’t, of course, all atheists.  As the report notes,

Surveys indicate that many of the unaffiliated hold some religious beliefs (such…

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Happy Nowruz!

Today is the start of the Persian New Year known as Nowruz, which is celebrated by tens of millions of Iranian peoples all over the world (namely in Central and South Asia, Northwestern China, the Middle-East, and the Balkans). It’s one of the world’s most ancient holidays, and it’s one of the few pre-Islamic traditions still widely practiced in Iran.

Though originally a Zoroastrian festival, it’s come to be celebrated by a variety of cultures and faiths that adhere to the Iranian calendar (which recognizes the start of the new year on the day of the vernal equinox, when the Earth’s axis is “straight,” tilting neither away or toward the sun). Given the diversity of the cultures that celebrate it, festivities can be quite variable.

However, Nowruz incorporates just about every element we could imagine from our Western holidays: feasting, fireworks, the exchanging of gifts, thanksgiving, spring cleaning, spending time with loved ones, and even some trick-or-treating (or something roughly akin to it).

Perhaps the most iconic custom is the Haft-Seen, also known as the “Seven S’s”, a traditional table setting that includes seven symbolic items that represent the elements of life (in the original Zoroastrian faith, they also corresponded to immortal divinities, or angels). These items, and their significance, include:

  • Sabzeh – wheat, barley or lentil sprouts growing in a dish – symbolizing rebirth
  • Samanu – a sweet pudding made from wheat germ – symbolizing affluence
  • Senjed – the dried fruit of the oleaster tree – symbolizing love
  • Sīr – garlic – symbolizing medicine
  • Sīb – apples – symbolizing beauty and health
  • Somaq – sumac berries – symbolizing (the color of) sunrise
  • Serkeh – vinegar – symbolizing age and patience

Other examples may include:

  • Sonbol – Hyacinth (plant)
  • Sekkeh – Coins – representative of wealth
  • Traditional Iranian pastries such as baghlavatoot, naan-nokhodchi
  • Aajeel – dried nuts, berries and raisins
  • Lit candles (enlightenment and happiness)
  • A mirror (symbolizing cleanness and honesty)
  • Decorated eggs, sometimes one for each member of the family (fertility)
  • A bowl of water with goldfish (life within life, and the sign of Pisces which the sun is leaving). As an essential object of the Nowruz table, the goldfish is also “very ancient and meaningful” and with Zoroastrian connection.
  • Rosewater, believed to have magical cleansing powers
  • The national colors of a given country, for a patriotic touch
  • A holy book, such as the AvestaQur’an,or Kitáb-i-Aqdas and/or a poetry book (almost always either the Shahnameh or the Divan of Hafiz)

I remember having a lot of Iranian customers visit my pet store to purchase goldfish for Nowruz, which is how I first learned about the  the holiday. It’s definitely one of the most delightful and colorful holidays I’ve ever read up on, and I highly encourage you all to learn more about it. There are far more interesting traditions and customs that I simply don’t have the time to cover. It’s also a nice change of pace to read something nice about Iran.

I wish any Iranian readers out there a happy Norwuz!