To commemorate the Zoroastrian holiday of Khordad Sal, World Religions News recently resurrected a December 2015 article meant as a primer for the little- known Iranian religion, which has had a big syncretistic impact on the development of successive religious traditions in the region, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The piece, titled, “What do you know about the world’s oldest monotheistic religion?” lists “10 Facts About Zoroastrianism,” the first being, “Zoroastrians believe in only one God, which is Ahura Mazda.”
This triggered an old memory from an early World Religions class, when I was told that Zoroastrians were considered dualists—not monotheists. I recall learning that, similar to Manichaeism, Zoroastrian cosmology consists of two equally balanced deities, holding the universe together in perfect polar opposition. Or at least that’s what I think I remember.
However, in researching this claim, I discovered both understandings to be insufficient representations of the true complexity of Zoroastrianism. My quest to categorize Zoroastrian belief introduced me to the long history of this at-least two and a half millennia year old tradition and its at-times frustratingly abstruse belief system. This question also led me to investigate how broader criticisms of the “World Religions Paradigm” may be represented by this particular problem.
Claim: Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic religion.
Source: A well-meaning World Religion News article (http://www.worldreligionnews.com/religion-news/what-do-you-know-about-the-oldest-monotheistic-religion)
Accuracy rating: At-least a little correct, and at-most mostly correct
Analysis: Zoroastrianism may be both monotheistic and dualistic, or it may be neither, but the least helpful option would be to describe it as either one or the other. While these distinctions may have practical value in teaching unfamiliar religious traditions, reducing complex theological abstractions to fit into a “this or that” classification system—which placates Western audiences to the frustration and foreignness in understanding non-Abrahamic faiths—may produce unintended negative consequences.
Ultimately, by classifying Zoroastrianism as either a dualistic or monotheistic religion, we are not adequately respecting the religion’s followers, who commonly reject such simplistic labels imposed on their religion by outsiders, and we are not helping others effectively comprehend this unique worldview. While it may cause some headaches for instructors of courses in World Religions, I think a more nuanced and in-depth discussion of Zoroastrian cosmological belief would be well worth the time and energy.
What is Zoroastrianism?
Let’s begin with what we can definitively say about Zoroastrianism (referred to as Mazdayasna or Behdin in the East). According to Pahlavi sources, Zarathustra (also called Zoroaster) lived from 628-551 BCE, but some scholars date his birth as early as 1500 BCE.  Assigning anything close to a universally recognized date for the life Zarathustra—the prophetic figure at the center of Zoroastrian faith—has proved a fruitless task, but most scholars agree that he was likely preaching in the geographic region of Eastern Persia, based on evidence from the Avesta collection, which serves as the religion’s sacred scripture. Like many ancient scriptures, the Avesta is the written account of a much older oral tradition and is tentatively dated to between 500 and 600 C.E.
The heart of the Avesta are the Gathas. Essentially these Gathas are Zoroastrianism’s most cherished writings, comprising 17 hymns venerated as the prophet’s enduring written word, which guide adherents to the truth of his revelations by evoking deep contemplation of human existence. The Gathas address a supreme god, Ahura Mazda, and asks Zoroastrians to live a life in accordance with Ahura Mazda’s professed guidelines. Zarathustra also describes the world as what one scholar calls “a theater of conflict between two diametrically opposed moral spirits,” where the Spirit of Goodness (Spenta Mainyu) and the Spirit of Evil (Angre Mainyu), are mirrored in all of creation. The relationship of these spirits to Ahura Mazda is confusing and will be addressed in more detail later.
Following the end of the Greek occupation of Central Asia, Zoroastrianism thrived again in the Iranian region and spread East into modern India and West to the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, the religion has lost popularity in modern times and the currently stands at approximately 140,000 people., This has caused many to fear that the religion’s extinction is imminent, with youth under 18 comprising just 18% percent of the modern Zoroastrian population (by contrast, followers 60 and older constitute 31%).
In what ways is Zoroastrianism monotheistic?
In much of the English-language writings that I have encountered, Ahura Mazda is referred to as the Zoroastrian “God.” They (a genderless being) are most often identified as the receptacle—or perhaps more accurately, the reference point—of Zoroastrian worship practices. In their oft-quoted 1979 article, “Is Zoroastrianism Dualistic or Monotheistic?,” James W. Boyd and Donald A. Crosby conclude,
“Zoroastrianism combines cosmogonic dualism and eschatological monotheism in a manner unique to itself among the major religions of the world. This combination results in a religious outlook which cannot be categorized as either straightforward dualism or straightforward monotheism, meaning that the question in the title of this paper poses a false dichotomy. The dichotomy arises, we contend, from a failure to take seriously enough the central role played by time in Zoroastrian theology. Zoroastrianism proclaims a movement through time from dualism toward monotheism […].”
Boyd and Crosby further explain that Zoroastrian theology dictates that monotheism will eventually triumph and Ahura Mazda’s “good” creation, embodied in Spenta Mainyu, will ultimately ascend to the heights of omnipotence over the spirit’s “evil,” but ultimately unmatched adversary, Angra Mainyu.
Understandably, this partial interpretation of Zoroastrian theology is widespread within the Western world, even among authorities on world religions. After all, this version does closely resemble the Abrahamic belief in the supremacy of God over Satan, and the eventual defeat of evil after a long period of cosmic warfare—and for good reason; Zoroastrianism is believed to have had a syncretistic effect on the development of these faiths,  especially in the concepts of the Devil, Heaven, and Hell.
In searching to find quicker ways to acquire knowledge of foreign religious traditions, it is not surprising that we in the West focus on that which is most familiar while ignoring more challenging, culturally relativistic material that blurs lines, rather than reinforces them.
In what ways is Zoroastrianism dualistic?
Modern confusion can most often be attributed to the confounding of the concept of the malevolent Angra spirit, as an entirely separate entity from the supreme God, Ahura Mazda, or to minimize the two opposing moral spirits’ important role in shaping the material world. To be fair, Zoroastrian theology is quite confusing on this subject. For example, in one part of the Avesta, Ahura Mazda is designated as the creator of the universe; elsewhere, the two spirits are referenced as “setting in place the ‘creations.’”
Boyd and Crosby also struggle with this question, finding seemingly contradictory evidence suggesting that the two spirits (Angra Mainyu and Spenta Mainyu) are primordial (existing from the beginning of time—i.e. without the need for a creator) and also that they are secondary creations of Ahura Mazda.
While Ahura Mazda identifies with the benevolent Spenta Mainyu, the two opposing spirits are considered to be “mutually limiting,” “coeternal,” and more-or-less evenly-matched. While they are commonly thought to be lesser beings than then Ahura Mazda, they are also believed to be responsible for the state of the physical world, with its moral fluctuations, purposeless, and chaos. In this way, the two spirits exemplify a type of “cosmological dualism,” as the origins of the physical world’s goodness and its troubles.
Boyd and Crosby state that the existence of the two spirits, and Angra Mainyu in particular, are important for explaining how Ahura Mazda could be a wholly benevolent god, but there could still be so much evil in the world. This common paradox exists within many religious traditions: how can bad things happen if God is both all-powerful and completely good? Zoroastrian theology attempts to reconcile this puzzle by simultaneously distancing and uniting Ahura Mazda with these two opposing moral spirits.
How do Zoroastrians define their religion?
Zoroastrians define their God as distinctly indistinguishable. Our mere material existence and lack of spiritual awareness make grasping the characteristics of God beyond our capabilities.
“Understanding the true nature of God is beyond human comprehension (an-aiyafah). God is not of human form (aekh-tan) […] and without gender. God is a spiritual entity (mino-tum) and thereby formless (an-ainah) and invisible. God has no human frailties (a-bish) or emotions (rakhoh). God shows no anger and no favour (a-sato). God is without duality (a-dui). God is uncreated and without end (abadah), without cause (a-chem), the great cause (jamaga), the cause of all causes (chamana), and the root of all creation (bune-stih).”
They also reject “labels” and translations imposed on their religion from the Western world.
“The name Zoroastrianism and labels such as monotheism, monism, dualism, pantheism and panentheism have been imposed on the Daenam Vanghuhim Mazdayasnim by those seeing or seeking to understand the religion through western frames of reference. However, these labels have become value laden, and can cause misunderstandings and confusion about the religion. In addition, the labels produce a confirmation bias on the part of those who wish to prove their understanding of ‘Zoroastrianism’ must necessarily fit one of the models. […]. The Daenam Vanghuhim Mazdayasnim has its own philosophical and belief system which is unique and for which western labels do not apply.
“Zoroastrians have always been known and recognized not by the labels imposed on them or their religion, but by their upright character, generous community spirit, and their reverence for all of creation. The efficacy of their beliefs is not found in thoughts relegated to a life of philosophical enlightenment in seclusion, or words consumed by futile and divisive debates, but rather by beneficent and constructive deeds.
“[…] The Zoroastrianism that has lived from its inception, and, which lives in the heart of its adherents is a way of being and living. It is quite different, indeed alien, from the supposed ‘Zoroastrianism’ that is labelled [sic] and debated in western literature. The former is authentic. The latter is manufactured.”
Issues with the “World Religion’s Paradigm”
The esoteric nature of Ahura Mazda does not exactly conform to the Western, Abrahamic model of “monotheism,” as an anthropomorphized, sometimes vengeful—sometimes merciful, male deity that popular culture imagines as a bearded old man in the clouds. However, the concept of the two spirits also does not precisely fit with the common definition of “dualism,” as a “metaphysical system which holds that good and evil are the product of spate and equally ultimate first causes.”
We are left with a definition of Zoroastrianism that is either elements of both or neither one nor the other. Perhaps a simpler way to view this religion would be to reject the World Religions Paradigm (WRP) all together, which is heavily criticized for being too laden with “Abrahamocentric” preconceptions.
Christopher Cotter and David Robertson, proponents of re-imagining Religious Studies beyond the World Religions Paradigm, argue that the rigid taxonomy meant to legitimize Religious Studies as a “science,” is ultimately detrimental to that very goal. In excluding or glossing over unique relativistic variables about religious/spiritual traditions, students of these beliefs miss out on valuable, even essential information.
This argument is perfectly captured in the Zoroastrian example. If given assumption that the religion is monotheistic, one is left instinctually visualizing Ahura Mazda as we do the old bearded god in the sky. Ironically, this practice is entirely antithetical to Zoroastrian theology, which states that the deity is utterly incomprehensible to humans. The same issues are present in the “alternative” view of Zoroastrianism as dualistic, which dismisses the omnipotence of Ahura Mazda.
 https://www.britannica.com/topic/Zoroastrianism  http://www.zarathushtra.com/z/article/influenc.htm  My emphasis added, http://www.worldreligionnews.com/religion-news/what-do-you-know-about-the-oldest-monotheistic-religion  Scholars typically age Zoroastrianism at between 2,400 and 3,100 years old.  http://www.heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/overview/simplified.htm  http://www.ancient.eu/zoroaster/  Ibid.  http://www.heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/overview/simplified.htm  Rods Oktor Skjærvø, “Zoroastrian Dualism,” in Light Against Darkness: Dualism in Ancient Mediterranean Religion and the Contemporary World.  http://www.zoroastrian.org/other/faq.htm  http://zarathushtra.com/z/gatha/dji/The%20Gathas%20-%20DJI.pdf  http://zarathushtra.com/z/gatha/dji/The%20Gathas%20-%20DJI.pdf  These beings are not explicitly named in the Gathas, but their names are provided in other Avesta writings.  https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ahura-Mazda  https://www.britannica.com/topic/Zoroastrianism#toc9185  http://www.heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/demographics/index.htm  http://heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/demographics/  https://tribune.com.pk/story/808297/decline-in-population-of-zoroastrian-descent/  http://www.heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/demographics/index.htm  http://www.heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/overview/index.htm#god  http://www.heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/worship/index.htm  Boyd, James W., and Donald A. Crosby. "Is Zoroastrianism Dualistic or Monotheistic?" Journal of the American Academy of Religion 47, no. 4 (1979): 557-88. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1462275.  https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ahura-Mazda  Ibid.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/zoroastrian/beliefs/dualism.shtml  As exemplified in the publications of World Religion News  http://www.zarathushtra.com/z/article/influenc.htm  http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/zoroastrian/beliefs/god.shtml  Rods Oktor Skjærvø, “Zoroastrian Dualism,” in Light Against Darkness: Dualism in Ancient Mediterranean Religion and the Contemporary World.  Boyd, James W., and Donald A. Crosby. "Is Zoroastrianism Dualistic or Monotheistic?" Journal of the American Academy of Religion 47, no. 4 (1979): 557-88.  https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ahura-Mazda  Boyd, James W., and Donald A. Crosby. "Is Zoroastrianism Dualistic or Monotheistic?" Journal of the American Academy of Religion 47, no. 4 (1979): 557-88.  http://zarathushtra.com/z/gatha/dji/The%20Gathas%20-%20DJI.pdf  Boyd, James W., and Donald A. Crosby. "Is Zoroastrianism Dualistic or Monotheistic?" Journal of the American Academy of Religion 47, no. 4 (1979): 557-88.  http://www.heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/overview/index.htm#god  http://www.heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/overview/simplified.htm  E.A. Livingstone, Ed., The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd Edition, 2013.  Christopher Cotter and David Robertson, Eds., After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies.