Christian service in the Serkis Church in Tehran (photo: MEHR)

Turning away from Shia in Iran
''A Tsunami of Atheism''

Iran's moral guardians are concerned: while Islam is increasing in political importance throughout the Arab world, people in the Islamic Republic of Iran are leaving the mosques in droves. As Ali Sadrzadeh found out, young people seem especially susceptible to the attractions of sects or Christianity

"Baztab" ("Echo") is the most widely read and quoted news portal in Iran. It has increased I prominence as a result of the presidential electoral campaign which is now under way, but it also benefits from the fact that it enjoys the protection of Mohsen Rezai, who is campaigning to become Mahmud Ahmadinejad's successor as president.

Rezai, who's a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, doesn't have much hope in the election, but he's thrown his hat in the ring nevertheless, as he has done in the past. His "Baztab" portal provides an echo, as its name implies, of almost all the topics which are relevant to the current campaign.

The site reports surprisingly openly and critically on many of the problems which face Iranians in their daily life. It crosses red lines and breaks taboos: recently it even looked at "Atheism in the Islamic Republic".

Mohsen Razai (photo: Ilna)
The man behind the website: Mohsen Razai, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, allows "Baztab" to explore taboo topics like the spread of atheism in the country, the rejection of the official religion by the young, or the increase in superstition

​​The article said that atheism, superstition and adherence to sects were breaking like a tsunami over Iranian youth. "Baztab" argued that this "shameful phenomenon" was due to the abuse of religion by the government.

The short article seemed like a mixture of analysis, editorial and warning – but more important than the article were the many commentaries in which readers described their experience of the daily abuse of religion. Some of the readers suggest their explanations for the fact that young people are turning from religion; some have even admitted that they don't believe in God.

Empty mosques

Elements in the Iranian opposition find this "phenomenon", which "Baztab" describes as "shameful", easy to explain. And the debate reveals a notable discrepancy between Iran and other Muslim countries. In the Arab world, Islam is becoming more important, both privately and politically, but in Iran, the people are leaving the mosques in droves.

Many people are on a spiritual search for meaning which may take them to Christianity, the Muslim order of Dervishes, or new age sects. In any case, the security services have a existential and complicated fight on their hands as they try to deal with followers of any confession which calls into question the theoretical basis of the Islamic Republic.

According to that theoretical basis, on the one hand religious minorities have to be tolerated, while at the same time anything which is religiously "offensive" has to be fought back firmly, since it's not just a matter of religious conviction, but a threat to national security. And every time some foreign organisation or government protests against the persecution of religious minorities in Iran, Mohammed-Javad Larijani, the chairman of the Iranian Human Rights Commission, repeats, "Nobody is persecuted in Iran because of his beliefs."

New age sects popular

But the claim is heard more frequently these days, following the arrest of eleven housewives in Shahrud in north-eastern Iran for their membership of the Interuniversal Mysticism sect.

The Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (photo: picture-alliance/abaca)
The Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued a challenge to renegades, false mystics, evangelical Christians and meta-therapists

​​The women held a weekly six-hour learning session which their teacher, a lawyer from Isfahan, who travelled 700 kilometres just to attend. The Fars news agency reported on 20th December 2012 that they were involved not only with "obscure mysticism", but also with a damaging psychotherapy, the so-called "meta-therapy".

For some, Interuniversal Mysticism is an attempt to become one with the world and to find one's inner peace. For the religious and moral guardians of the state it's a false mysticism, a subversive and dangerous tendency which manipulates the young and undermines Islam.

The sect offers a mixture of a search for meaning and a system of psychotherapy. As well as offering an explanation of the world, it also offers a therapeutic method called "Faradarmani" or "meta-therapy".

The sect began to grow five years ago among students and the urban middle-class, but quickly began to spread throughout the country, as the cases from Shahrud show. Its members believe that the world has consciousness and radiates energy. According to the sect's founder, Mohammed Ali Taheri, who has been sentenced to seven years in prison and 70 lashes, the task of the faithful is to turn aside the negative energy in the world.

The sect's members focus on the unity of being, as do Rumi and other great masters of Iranian mysticism: everything is just a form of God's presence. When the sect started up, it received the support of the authorities, since it referred back to Islam and Iran's traditional mysticism.

The well-known Iranian theologian and philosopher Mohsen Kadivar (photo: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)
The well-known Iranian theologian and philosopher Mohsen Kadivar believes that the version of Islam propagated by the state has caused most Iranians to move away from their religion

​​Believers were able to publish books about their faith; seminars were held at universities. The sect's teachings were publicised abroad, in Armenia, Turkey or South Korea. Taheri travelled abroad and boasted of his two foreign honorary doctorates. Even state television praised his commitment.

But since Ahmadinejad was voted back into power three and a half years ago, the focus has been on the "wide-ranging struggle" against "any form of false mysticism", which is being led by the highest level of the country's political and religious authorities. The Seminary for the Purification of the Faith at the theological university of Homs puts the number of people in the Interuniversal Mysticism sect at around 300,000.

On the websites which are leading the fight against the sect, that figure is said to be too low. The sect is no longer just a harmless mystical circle but a dangerous movement, almost a small mass movement, which calls the principles of the Islamic Republic into question.

No more pussy-footing

The official campaign against "false mysticism" was started more than two years ago personally by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. He spent a week in the holy city of Ghom in October 2010, where he met with a number of Grand Ayatollahs.

On the last day of his visit, he gave a keynote address to theology students in which he said, "The prevalence of licentiousness, the propagation of false mysticism, and the so-called house churches are attempts undertaken by the Zionists and other enemies to fight against Islam."

As soon as he left the city, which is seen as the main centre of Shiite scholarship, one Ayatollah after another issued a fatwa against "false mysticism", declaring that the propagation of its teachings meant apostasy and sacrilege.

In spite of repression, the numbers who seek their salvation in sects or other religious minorities continues to grow. The number of New Christians who organise themselves in underground churches is believed to have increased significantly in recent years. According to the website of the evangelical organisation "Open Doors", the number of Christians in Iran has risen from 300,000 to 460,000.

There's no evidence for the figures, but the trend towards faiths other than Islam is unmistakable. The well-known Iranian theologian and philosopher Mohsen Kadivar believes that the version of Islam propagated by the state has caused most Iranians to move away from their religion. But the search for a spiritual path never ends, and Kadivar says that this leads people to try to find their salvation in Christianity, Buddhism or one of the sects instead.

Ali Sadrzadeh

© 2013

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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Comments for this article: ''A Tsunami of Atheism''

Matter of time before Iran regains its pre Islamic Hindu - Zorastrian glory.

shilpi 08.04.2014 | 04:37 Uhr

tsunami of atheism

Anonymous13.08.2014 | 21:52 Uhr

The decline of our people can be traced back to the fall of the Sasanian Empire and the Arab introduction of Islam. This backward religion has prevented our people from entering the modern age and made life for most Iranians incompatible with the modern age. If Iranians were smart, they would abandon Islam completely and reject any Arab influence on our culture. The sooner, the better.

Sohrob Tahmasebi05.02.2015 | 01:59 Uhr

We should not believe in gods and goddesses for the same reason we do not believe in trolls, santa, sprites, goblins, dragons or Thor. And that reason should be obvious to anyone over the age of 10.

We need education, proper education, bot bronze age primitive suppressions written by people who knew less about science, bacteria or space, than our elementary school children today.

Mohammad-Javad...03.03.2015 | 18:26 Uhr

The Iranian regimes insistence on the "zionist this and zionist that" for all problems is so chronic these days. Maybe Muslims should learn to enjoin this epithet in every calamity situation.

Masud15.07.2015 | 08:23 Uhr

It took me a while to realize the virus of Islam which has been the biggest demise of iran and persians but I have yet to meet a single muslim Persian. I mean every single Persian I have met in my circle of friends and relatives, in US or australia or EU is avid athiest. The ones in iran, less religious and in cognito though the Newley arrived persians are mostly unvelievers and highly educated. Since I was born and raised in Iran, my guess is my friends and relatives there perhaps will think like me if they ever had access to my freedom.

Sb06.10.2015 | 18:02 Uhr

Im a 19 years old girl in iran i turned into atheism yet because it makes sense . All religiouns are big lies... after all , Islam and arabic culture is the worlds most violent and anti human culture ever.... just look at ISIS ... this is real islam... i touched it... i felt it... i used to be muslim because of my birthplace... but now , I found my own way !!! Thanks to some aware Iranians who have woken me up ...million thanks to Iranian atheists commitee ❤

Bahar01.07.2016 | 00:32 Uhr

Same as in Turkey ,young generation is choosing atheism ,deism despite governments wish of creating a pious youth .
I stand with Iranian youngsters , no one should be forced by state to believe in any religion for political reasons. Religion should be personal choice.

suyla29.07.2019 | 15:22 Uhr