An online survey revealed increased secular attitudes among 50,000 respondents with a critical view of the country’s religious governance system, and nearly half reported losing their religion.
Iranian society is apparently undergoing a dramatic shift in religiosity and diversity of beliefs.
In June, the Netherlands-based Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN (GAMAAN) conducted an online survey in collaboration with Ladan Boroumand, co-founder of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran, with results revealing unprecedented secularisation in the Islamic Republic.
Titled “Iranians’ attitudes toward religion”, over 50,000 respondents drawn from various demographics were anonymously surveyed from June 6 to 21, 90 percent of whom lived in Iran.
Diverse digital channels were targeted and shared by Shia, Kurdish, Arab, Sufi and other networks. The survey also reached a mass audience on Instagram and Telegram channels.
Iran’s census claims that 99.5 percent of the population are Muslim, but only 40 percent of respondents identified as Muslim. While state propaganda portrays Iran as a Shia nation, only 32 percent explicitly identified as such, 5 percent said they were Sunni Muslim and 3 percent Sufi Muslim.
18 percent said they were either agnostics, atheists, or humanists, while 22 percent chose not to identify with any label.
8 percent identified as Zoroastrian, although it is stated that this may indicate a non-Islamic Persian nationalism rather than a true system of belief. 7 percent claimed to be spiritual, Christians accounted for 1.5 percent, and Baha’i 0.5 percent.
90 percent described themselves as hailing from a believing or practicing religious family, yet approximately half of respondents reported losing their religion.
On the other hand, 41 percent did not report significant changes in religious or non-religious views during their lifetime. Around 6 percent of the population said they had converted from one religion to another.
Younger people reported higher levels of irreligiosity and conversion to Christianity than older respondents.
While 78 percent of Iranians believe in God, only 37 percent believe in the afterlife and 30 percent believe in heaven and hell. A quarter of respondents said they believed in jinns, and 20 percent said they did not believe in any of the options, including God.
Around 60 percent reported that they do not pray, while 40 percent differed in their reported frequency of praying, among whom over 27 percent reported praying five times a day.
The authors of the study said that “these numbers demonstrate that a general process of secularisation, known to encourage religious diversity, is taking place in Iran.”
Religion and politics
The findings link increased societal secularisation to a critical view of the country’s religious governance system.
68 percent agreed that religious prescriptions should be excluded from legislation, even if believers hold a parliamentary majority.
72 percent opposed the law mandating all women to wear the hijab, and 58 percent said they do not believe in the hijab altogether.
Despite legally enforced alcohol prohibition, about 35 percent of the population drink occasionally or regularly. On the other hand, 56 percent report that they do not consume alcohol, and 9 percent do not due to their inability to purchase alcoholic drinks.
Regarding religious diversity, 43 percent said that no religions should have the right to proselytise in public, while 41 percent believed every religion should be allowed to manifest in public.
In a 2019 survey by GAMAAN, 79 percent of respondents said they would vote against an Islamic republic.
The internet is also an important factor.
According to official statistics published in August, 78 million people – 94 percent of the population – use the internet, among whom 69 million are mobile native. Roughly 70 percent of Iranians use at least one social media platform.
Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, literacy rates have risen sharply and the urban population has grown substantially.
GAMAAN’s latest survey is significant in that reliable large-scale data on Iranians’ post-revolutionary religious beliefs has long been lacking.
Over the years, research and waves of protests and crackdowns indicated considerable dissatisfaction among Iranians with their theocratic political system, which might be steadily translating into disillusionment with institutional religion.
“Four decades ago, the Islamic revolution taught sociologists that European-style secularisation is not followed universally around the world,” the authors of the report said.
“The subsequent secularisation of Iran confirmed by our survey demonstrates that Europe is not exceptional either, but rather part of complex, global interactions between religious and secular forces.”