Life's tough for Indonesia's atheists

The plight of atheists in Indonesia has been attracting a bit of attention lately, with the sad case of the man facing five years in prison for doubting the existence of god in a Facebook post coming on the heels of this interesting profile on an atheist activist in the Jakarta Globe.

While Indonesia often prides itself on its religious tolerance, that tolerance is not readily extended to adherents of faiths or non-faiths beyond the six religions recognised in the Constitution (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism). And frankly, often adherents of those six have their rights violated, such as in the case of the East Java Shiites or the GKI Yasmin church congregation in Bogor.

Early on in my time in Indonesia, it was explained to me that Indonesians have a rather distrusting attitude to atheism. Many associate it with communism, which was demonised by Suharto after he ousted leftist Sukarno in 1965.

That may be part of it, but I think the explanation is a bit broader than that. Indonesians are a very spiritual people, be it in adhering to an established religion, the animist tradition or local folklore. To them, a person's religion is an inherent part of their character and identity, and so to deny your belief in a religion is to give the impression that you have all the facets necessary to be a fully formed person.

The commitment to rationalism the underlies most atheists' thinking is not well received in Indonesia. Here, people take their cues from leaders, from history and from superstition, and use that as the guide for acceptable behaviour. The idea that someone can assess the evidence before them and reach their own conclusion about the right course of action is unfamiliar, and perhaps even arrogant. Far safer, goes the thinking, to trust the judgement of others than to trust your own judgement.

Whatever the reason, there are very few people who publicly promote their atheism in this country.

Most foreigners who are atheists or believers of faiths beyond the six often decide that the safest option when asked about their religion in to nonchalantly declare themselves Protestants and let the matter rest. Engaging in a discussion on the topic can turn ugly quickly.

This can occasionally backfire for someone like me, who is atheist on matters spiritual. Last year, I was at a train station in Jakarta when an Indonesian man came up for a chat, and after the usual questions on where I was from, whether I was married and whether I had children, he asked my religion.

"Christian," I replied.
"Me?," he said, "I'm an atheist. So tell me, why are you a Christian? Why do you believe in god?"

Very good question. Served me right for not being more honest on these things.


downtown dave said…
Those who call themselves "atheist" should get used to the idea of being made to worship something or someone. They have been deceived into thinking that they will always have the ability to remain neutral on matters of faith. This matter in Indonesia shows what's coming. Everyone will bow to something. Since we were made to serve and worship, and no one is excluded from that, it is good for everyone to search out the true and living God, and serve Him.
fun run said…
Well, I never heard about this story yet. So thanks for the info.
Anonymous said…
So why did you claim to be Christian rather than admit to being Jewish?
Ari Sharp said…
Anonymous, I'm Jewish by birth and by culture, but theologically I'm very much an atheist.

If someone asks me for my religion, I take it that they're asking me about my view on a deity and the source of my moral inspiration. On those questions, atheism - and by extention humanism - is the most accurate answer for me.

As to why I say I'm a Christian rather than an atheist, as I explained in the blog post, it's a safer option when you're not sure of the values and likely response of the person you're talking to. Like I wrote, atheism carries a lot of cultural baggage here.


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