The Rise of Indonesian Atheism
Embedded within Indonesia’s constitution are the following two lines: “all persons have the right to worship according to their own religion or belief” and “the nation is based upon belief in one supreme God.”
Placed side by side, it’s almost as if those two lines take on a new meaning. Feel free to worship however you choose, but make sure you choose to worship.
However one interprets it, there is no question that inter-religious conflict is on the rise in Indonesia.
Recent confrontations over faith have been allowed to turn the ideal of tolerance on its head with violent and ugly results.
And while finding common religious ground among those of different faiths has always been a delicate dance, it seems there are some people who are interested in changing the tune entirely.
In greater numbers than ever before, they are standing up and doing the unthinkable: they are proclaiming that they no longer have any religious faith at all.
They are members of a small community of non-believers, otherwise known as atheists, and it seems that many of them are no longer content being silent.
More and more Indonesian non-believers are taking a stance against what they perceive is an archaic and repressive system.
Of course, this being Indonesia, these outspoken non-believers are still relatively few and many choose to mull their rational queries quietly in their own minds rather than submit themselves to becoming outcasts and freaks in their own neighborhoods, communities and even among their own families and friends.
Still, despite the overwhelming odds, the rank of non-believers is growing — largely thanks to the Internet which offers an anonymous meeting place where non-believers can gather without the fear of reprisal.
By utilizing social networking tools such as blogs and Facebook groups, Indonesian non-believers are discovering that there is a considerable amount of like-minded people in the country.
Some of these social networking-based collectives include Indonesian Atheists, Indonesian Freethinkers and Indonesian Atheist Community, just to name a few.
Most of the Web sites are run by outspoken, young men who do not shy away from letting it rip with some of the most lively and heated discussion boards on the Internet.
Most of the sites also have a fair share of scholarly articles on topics related to atheism and like-minded beliefs including universalism, existentialism, agnosticism, and the like.
Whatever you call it, the sheer number of people visiting these sites indicates that they have become a gathering ground for all sorts of people and opinions, most of which fall squarely into the less-than-conventional category by Indonesian standards.
Graduate School student Karl Karnadi is a 27-year-old non-believer who co-founded the online community Indonesian Atheists and has become an outspoken proponent of atheism.
After two years of existence, his online group has more than 400 members.
Karl explained the process of building an online community as a means of “survival” for Indonesian non-believers, calling his site “a safe haven.”
“We share stories regarding the difficulties and discrimination we face for being non-religious and we support and console each other. The discussions, debates, sharing and learning process that we receive from our community makes us stronger and, therefore, better able to deal with discrimination we face in our daily lives,” Karl said.
For Karl, the rules set up by Indonesian establishments are senseless and forceful. He is baffled by laws that make religion a prerequisite to being a an official member of the society.
“One would wonder why we have to be a member of a religion before we can marry. We are similarly forced to choose a religion on our ID cards. By law, we cannot publicly criticize a religion or religious beliefs in general,” Karl said.
“I refuse to submit to such restrictions which I view as a clear violation of my human rights.”
Qosbil Alc, who co-founded Indonesian Atheists along with Karl, said he holds no personal disdain for religion or religious groups.
What he dreads are fundamentalist groups’ increasing hold on the country.
“I regret the existence of those fundamentalist groups who, since the Reformation Era began 12 years ago, have increased their influence on the country’s politics,” he said.
Like most Indonesian non-believers, both Karl and Qosbil had religious upbringings. Karl was raised in what he refers to as “a very religious” Christian household, while Qosbil came from an “un-harmonious” Muslim family.
“At some point in my life I began to read a lot about science, skepticism, rationality and about the many diverse types of religions in the world. What I found out was that, while there are many religions out there, they all basically consist of the same dogma and teaching that says you should not question anything that religion tells you,” Karl said.
Qosbil said that prior to the worldwide spread of social networking Internet sites like Facebook, he had to endure the baffled queries of family members and friends who considered him a Muslim but did not understand why he never went to the mosque on Fridays or took part in fasting.
Rizky Tanuwijaya, 22, is an active member of various online communities including Indonesian Atheists.
He fancies himself an existentialist, which means he does believe in a spiritual god but does not consider himself a “pure atheist.”
Raised as a Hindu, Rizky found himself unable to stop questioning his faith as he grew older.
“When I was a child, I was taught ancestral beliefs, which consisted of worshipping Bodhisattvas and the like,” Rizky said.
Once he discovered books written by the likes of Christian existentialist Soren Kierkegaard as well as Jean Paul Sartre, Nietzsche and Jacques Derrida, Rizky decided to put his religious days behind him.
To say the least, spreading the word is an uphill battle. Even a cursory glance at the message board of any of the online community shows that for every intelligent back-and-forth or urbane discussion, there are 10 posts that defame, threaten and insult.
Karl understands where such derision for atheism springs from, and he is out to face it head on. “Religion in Indonesia is definitely on the rise. There are even movements to make Indonesia a country of Sharia law,” he said.
Karl argues that those who think that religious teaching is the solution to all problems are wrong. He claims that all one needs to do is look at the recent tension between Christian and Islamic factions in Jakarta.
According to Karl, the incorporation of religious law into the government (which includes the Anti-Pornography Law and many Sharia-inspired regional laws in various provinces and cities) would “exacerbate the religious tension between Muslims and non-Muslims.”
For Karl, the issue goes back to the danger of bowing down to religion-based laws which “lead the country to a system of deluded policy making.”
Karl said his main fear is that public policy will one day be made based not on fact, but on blind obedience to holy scriptures. “That is a great danger to Indonesia that all of us have to prevent.”
For Karl, Qosbil and the other non-believers and alternative-thinkers, living in a religious country like Indonesia will never be without its challenges.
But they also all firmly believe that the benefits of being an atheist in Indonesia outweigh the hardships of being considered outcasts.
“The reality is, the more you learn and question things, the harder it becomes to believe in religious dogma,” Karl said.
“One can choose to believe in something because they were taught to believe in it. But I choose to keep questioning things because I want to progress. This is my path to a happy life.”