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None Of The Above

Sarah Parvini |
May 17, 2013 | 7:24 p.m. PDT

Deputy Editor

Dark hair and dark features do not always equal Muslim--or any religion for that matter.
Dark hair and dark features do not always equal Muslim--or any religion for that matter.
I’m an Iranian-American. I have olive skin, dark eyes and long, thick brown hair. So I can’t blame people who ask if I’m a Muslim. It seems a logical conclusion, but it’s still wrong. 

When that fails, people follow up with “Are you Jewish?” based on a narrow idea of what they think a Jewish person looks like. I’m not Jewish, though. “Then you’re Catholic?” Also incorrect. 

When people ask my religious affiliation I tell them, “I’m not religious.” It’s a response that’s becoming increasingly common. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in anything, or that I’m militantly anti-spiritual. Most generally seem puzzled by that; I’m equally baffled that in 2013 my lack of religion is so jarring.

As a "none," I am among one of the fastest growing “religious” demographics in the country. Nearly 20 percent of Americans are “unaffiliated” according to the Pew Research Center, and with 1.1 billion adherents it is the third-largest “religious” group in the world. That number continues to grow. 

But when I took a course on reporting on religion, specifically Catholicism and Protestantism, I didn’t know where to begin. The only thing more difficult than reporting evenhandedly on your own faith is reporting on others’ without having a thorough grasp of its basic tenets. This was one of my biggest fears going into class. 

The extent of my religious experiences goes as far as a couple trips to mass with Catholic friends, going to a Bat Mitzvah when I was 12 and attending a Passover Seder. I’ve never participated in a Muslim ritual—unless you count letting out a groan when prayers, roaring through speakers around Tehran, force Quranic verses on the masses. 

I don’t practice a religion because no one in my family does. Like many Americans, we put up a Christmas tree and decked the halls. Easters were spent searching for painted eggs hidden on a family friend’s massive ranch. Eating pork was never an issue. We did not follow a religious tradition, but my parents’ words and actions provided a moral foundation. The idea of worship never appealed to me.

My grandfather renounced his Muslim faith in 1979, when the Islamic Revolution in Iran installed the fundamentalist regime that stands to this day. Disagreeing with Islamic government, he refused to be associated with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s administration simply because he was Muslim. My mother is spiritual but isn’t beholden to a particular God; my father simply believes in being a good person. 

The foundation of religion was never laid down in my life, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned reporting on the topic for five months, it’s that much of religion is about tradition; identity is passed down from generation to generation through faith and the values it instills among its adherents. But the differing beliefs and historical antagonisms tied to the world’s religions can cause a host of deeply entrenched conflicts. 


I went into my class cynically believing in the divisive nature of organized religion. I was ready for the red flags of sham and hypocrisy.

The first weeks of the course, I learned that the stature and power of the Roman Catholic Church, as well as its grandeur, are nothing like the simplicity of Jesus’ ministry. In fact, they are quite the opposite. Red flag number one. 

Later, reading Hans Küng, I discovered that many of the Pope’s—and therefore the Vatican’s—powers were created through papal forgeries (the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals) that bestowed authority based on false precedent. My Catholic colleagues, lifelong members of the Church, were just as surprised as I was. Red flag number two.

Dublin Archbishop Diarmiud Martin greets parishioners following St. Patrick's Day Mass (Sarah Parvini).
Dublin Archbishop Diarmiud Martin greets parishioners following St. Patrick's Day Mass (Sarah Parvini).
In Dublin, the Catholic Church—despite its waning influence—still stokes societal divisions. Church-state tensions continue to roil following the death of Savita Halapannavar, a 31-year-old woman who died from a miscarriage last October after she was denied an emergency abortion. The debate over abortion rights in Ireland continues still, with Catholic pro-life groups and the Church itself spearheading the fight to keep legislation as is. 

Most Irish women are forced to travel to England for an abortion, though a recently drafted bill would allow termination for mothers whose lives are at risk. Having spent time in Dublin reporting on the topic, I saw the Irish abortion debate as a clear example of religion dividing the public. 

In Belfast, such schisms are more pronounced.

There, the ethnoreligious conflict between Catholics and Protestants—a product of the Troubles—has seeped into every aspect of life, from the pews to politics. The Catholic and Protestant areas of the city are segregated. Catholics inhabit the Short Strand, a neighborhood marked with Irish tricolors and red and black anarchy flags.  Protestants populate East Belfast, where a slew of Union Jacks—the United Kingdom’s flag—line the streets. 

Northern Ireland’s political parties are tied exclusively to religion, and for all intents and purposes the two—religion and politics—are the same. Unionists and loyalists are Protestant, while nationalists are Catholic. These centuries-old religious divisions (dating back to the Battle of the Boyne and the economic hardships of the 1800s) have been engrained into Belfast’s present-day reality, manifesting themselves in the form of flag protests and rioting throughout the city.

Yet in the midst of affirming my darkest suspicions about organized religion, I also found good. Experiencing St. Patrick’s Day mass in Dublin, speaking with women’s rights activists and discussing the changing state of the Church with my Catholic classmates showed me another side of what faith could be and do. 

Ruth Bowie's faith helped her through her hardships, and helped me see the good in religion (Sarah Parvini).
Ruth Bowie's faith helped her through her hardships, and helped me see the good in religion (Sarah Parvini).
While reporting in Ireland, I took a cab from Dublin’s city center to the outskirts of town to meet with Ruth Bowie, a woman who had traveled to England to have an abortion. Bowie’s local doctors knew that her child would not survive outside the womb, but they refused to sign off on the procedure because it was against the law. Bowie felt demonized by her doctors for seeking termination for a pregnancy destined for tragedy. She hid the news from her Catholic friends and said she had a miscarriage.

Despite this, when asked if her hardships shook her beliefs she described herself as a woman of “strong faith.” It was this unyielding faith in God—and her gratitude toward Him—that got her though the heartbreak. 

Bowie has a son now, Dougie, and she thanks God for him too.

Bowie’s experience helped me to realize the value of religion. In the face of despair, she and her family had a rock to lean on. Instead of being crippled by society’s condemnation of abortion, they called on their faith to guide them through tumultuous times. Religion helped Bowie see the light in the darkness. 


I’d like to think my lack of religion has allowed me to approach reporting through a different lens. True, I didn’t have the foundation of each Catholic rite of passage to draw on, but I saw that as an advantage. To me, the conflicts I saw in Belfast weren’t part of a complex and tangled web. They were a longstanding sectarian discord between Catholics and Protestants, with both seeking to preserve the significance of their political identity in the region. Perhaps I was able to understand both sides because neither was my own. 

I had no horse in the race, but just because I’m not placing a bet doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy watching the sport. My brief time reporting on Catholicism taught me an invaluable lesson: whether or not you subscribe to a particular faith, religion plays an integral role in the world around us.

Regardless of topic—be it a social issue like immigration, a rivalry between soccer teams, or the role a language can play in religious identity—religion permeates the stories we tell. There’s no denying its ubiquity.



Reach Deputy Editor Sarah Parvini here. Follow her on Twitter.



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