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Surviving Indonesia as an atheist when the country is built on rigid religious traditions and policies

South China Morning Post - October 3, 2019

Marcel Thee – A former school principal in Indonesia, Yudhistira has paid a steep price for his personal beliefs. He defied the inflexible religious expectations of his home country and tried to teach his students to think objectively about the world's faiths.

Angry parents confronted him, and now the 30-year-old, who lives just outside Jakarta, declines to reveal his surname because he knows how dangerous it could be. The owner of an educational business, and former head of a Buddhism-affiliated school, Yudhistira is a firm non-believer.

"Although legally there aren't any laws that prohibit atheism in Indonesia, there are so many loopholes used to persecute us here, such as the defamation article [for slander and libel] and the first principle of Pancasila," he says, referring to one of Indonesia's five overarching philosophical principles: a belief in holiness or godliness.

Baptised a Protestant, Yudhistira now questions the "judgmental" nature of Indonesian Protestants and the way they use "questionable scriptures" to justify their attitudes. He abandoned his family's faith because he could not come to terms with its rigid nature.

Although religion has a vice-like grip on everyday traditions and public policies in Indonesia, the country has its fair share of atheists – non-believers who reject the nation's six officially recognised religions and refuse to believe in all-powerful deities.

The sprawling Southeast Asian archipelago is officially pluralist and freedom of expression is supposed to be guaranteed by law, but Indonesians are expected to be believers, and the vast majority profess to be Muslim.

Indonesian atheists can end up in prison for refusing to embrace one of the nation's approved religions: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Catholicism and Protestantism.

Many Indonesian atheists remain in the closet, but with the help of the internet, their critical conversations are slowly seeping into the public discourse.

Indonesian atheist communities have formed online via social media sites such as Facebook. In the past few years, an increasing number of these communities have provided spaces for serious discourse as well as forums for casual socialising with fellow non-believers and those on the periphery of disbelief.

Karl Karnadi created the online group Indonesian Atheists, or IA, in 2008, while he was studying in Germany. His simple goal was to create a space "where I can be myself, as an atheist, without the fear of being judged; a place where I won't feel alone any more".

The software engineer, now 36 and based in the United States, recalls receiving regular death threats and hate messages at the time, but he persevered. He says he had seen "too many people hate and vilify each other because of religion. I just don't want to be a part of that hate".

Although IA began as a group of 10, it now has roughly 1,600 active members, many of whom regularly hold meet-ups offline. As Karnadi had hoped, today IA is a community where discussion "doesn't always have to revolve around religious issues".

To survive as an atheist in Indonesia, Karnadi says a person "should be wise in deciding carefully when, where, and how they start opening up about their atheism". As arguably Indonesia's most public face of atheism, he's heard first-hand accounts of acceptance from people who've made their non-believer stance public. But he's also heard the worst of it.

"People have been fired from their jobs, kicked out of their homes, and even disowned by their parents," he says. "People should make the decision to be open, or not, by themselves, but [they] should absolutely be ready for the consequences of doing so."

He believes that most religious sermonising blasphemes against other religions, but it's always the minorities, including atheists, who are threatened by Indonesia's blasphemy law. He has managed to stay relatively safe because he lives in the US and works for a well-known global company.

Indonesia's various atheist communities – IA and the forums that emerged in its wake – now have memberships ranging from a few hundred to tens of thousands.

Some groups encourage debate with believers both moderate and fanatical, but most retain a strict filtering system to minimise trolling and ensure the privacy of members. This is done by using entry questionnaires, heavy moderation and routine sweeping of problematic and passive members (IA kicked out around 400 of its members a couple of years ago).

The dialogue within these different communities ranges from the mundane (book and film recommendations); the sarcastic and humorous (religion-related memes); practical tips ("Going to a family gathering next week – how do I avoid praying without them noticing?"); to the sharing of personal problems unrelated to religion.

The connection with like-minded people can be a lifesaver. Karnadi recalls meeting a 90-year-old Indonesian atheist not long ago. Lacking the technological savvy of younger people, the man did not know about IA or communities like it. He thought he was alone until Karnadi told him that he wasn't – there were many like him. Browsing the IA forums with Karnadi's help, he beamed and told the IA founder he finally felt at home.

Indonesia has a poor track record when it comes to the freedom of not believing. In one high-profile 2012 case, an outspoken atheist named Alexander Aan was attacked on his way to work by an angry mob for a Facebook message he posted criticising religion and its adherents. Though initially taken to the police to report the beating he endured, Aan was instead prosecuted and eventually imprisoned for "disseminating information aimed at inciting religious hatred or hostility".

Aan's case isn't a rarity. RD, the founder of an initiative that promotes multiculturalism and secularism in Indonesia, says the untouchable aura surrounding religion becomes even more of a problem when religion influences public policies. He points to the blocking of public streets to accommodate parking spaces for worshippers as one small but telling example.

Requesting anonymity because he's received death threats for criticising religion, RD says the Indonesian government "tends to choose silence and passivity, in dealing with things like [religious questions]".

Religion has also played a part in Indonesian elections. Jakarta's one-time ethnic Chinese, Christian governor Basuki "Ahok" Purnama was found guilty of insulting Islam in a rural campaign speech and sentenced to two years in prison in 2017. The contentious trial and penalty outraged liberal Indonesians across the archipelago. This year's presidential election was marred by identity politics, with the opposition targeting the president's religious credentials.

For many, these acts of alienation and the general atmosphere of negativity from religion makes them weary of voicing or simply living their God-free lives. For others, it acts as the last straw to fully abandon the religion forced upon them since birth.

Nadia, a member of an online atheist community and a 37-year-old freelance graphic designer who also prefers anonymity, says she moved to Australia, partly to get away from the abuse she endured.

"Religious activities were forced on me, my mother would beat me up if I made her late to church or if I showed any signs of reluctance to go to church," she explains.

Nadia says that leaving her religion, opened her mind to new things: "I'm more appreciative of people with different beliefs."

Other Indonesians feel an obvious division between who they are and what they're taught to believe.

Hendra, a researcher in science education, points to the clash between his sexuality and religion as a jumping off point for him to seek answers. From West Java, and trying to find his way in rural Indonesia in the 1990s, he "couldn't find my place as a gay [man] in Islam". He searched for answers in religious texts and eventually in science books.

"Gradually, from 1998 to early 2005, I became less and less devout and more and more detached from both the religious dogma and the community I was brought up in," Hendra says. In 2009, he moved to Europe to be closer to his partner, "crystallising" his identity as an atheist.

"I'm out and proud, both as a gay [man] and an atheist," the 38-year-old says of his life abroad. "I've never looked back, never regretted my decisions."

For these atheists, the act of leaving their beliefs behind was a breakout moment in their lives, even if it wasn't easy mentally.

Born in Surabaya and raised in Surakarta, Patricia remembers how freeing and how difficult her decision to abandon her long-ingrained religion had been. A freelance digital marketer, now 36, she also prefers to remain anonymous.

"Sometimes it feels that one part of my culture has been ripped out of me," she says. "I was raised as a Catholic, but I've realised it has a cult mentality and so that makes me feel better about leaving."

Source: https://www.scmp.com/print/lifestyle/article/3031261/surviving-indonesia-atheist-when-country-built-rigid-religious-traditions