Feb 28, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

An imagined threat

Published: May 13, 2020
Atheists are treated with suspicion in a religious society, but they represent an opportunity

Timo Duile

Indonesia has always been portrayed as a religious nation. The state itself says religion is one of its main foundations. Ketuhanan yang maha esa (or monotheism) is its fundamental norm. Social scientists have reinforced this perception by persistently looking at Indonesia in terms of religion, religiosity and the supernatural. This is for good reason. Indonesians frequently stress how important religion is to them. According to Pew Research Center surveys conducted between 2008 and 2017, 93 per cent of Indonesians say that religion is ‘very important’ in their lives.

However, in my opinion we have neglected the possibility of secular and even atheist ways of life in Indonesia. The term ‘way of life’ here does not refer only to belief, but puts an emphasis on social practice. It is a form of engaging with people and the world in general, as the cultural anthropologist Tim Ingold wrote. Being atheist in a religious society always affects one’s way of life. Indonesian atheists have found numerous ways of dealing with that problem, as I will outline later. However, I first want to give a short overview of what atheism means for the state and society in Indonesia.

A crime

More than fifty years after the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of communists in 1965-1966, very little effort has been made to come to terms with that bloody past. Discourses depicting the outlawed PKI (Communist Party of Indonesia) as a latent threat remain potent. Politicians and the military invoke them all the time. They always portray the PKI as hostile to religion and therefore as atheist, even though PKI leaders in reality went to great lengths to avoid appearing anti-religious, not wanting to scare away ordinary people who were affiliated with religion. Portraying the PKI as an anti-religious force, however, was one of the Suharto regime’s most powerful tools to make people afraid of communism.

In 1965, just before the crackdown on the PKI, the government adopted a blasphemy law that prohibited efforts to promote atheism in public. When in 2010 the Constitutional Court dismissed an appeal issued by human rights groups against the blasphemy law, the court explicitly declared that the Indonesian people are a religious, not atheist, people. It argued that the blasphemy law was necessary to prevent social unrest. The law is still part of the KUHP (Indonesian Criminal Code). August 2019 brought news of a proposed revision of the KUHP that would also outlaw agnosticism expressed in public.

Furthermore, there are other laws – not specifically formulated against atheism – that can be applied to atheists who announce their unbelief in public. Alexander Aan, a civil servant in West Sumatra, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison and a fine of Rp.100 million (A$10,350) after he posted comments to the Facebook group Ateis Minang and these comments became public. He had written that he did not believe in God, and suggested that the Prophet Muhammad had sex with his wife’s maid. The court found him guilty of spreading information that could incite hostility and hatred based on religion. It applied Law No.11/2008 on Electronic Information and Transactions. The presence of an angry mob, which first beat up Aan and then protested outside the courtroom during the proceedings, probably contributed to the court’s decision.

Politicians and clerics regularly warn their audiences about the dangers of secularism and atheism even when the discussion does not concern communism. In November 2019, for instance, Vice President Ma’ruf Amin weighed in on the current debate about violent religious radicalism. He said secularism was also a form of radical thought that must be rejected in Indonesia. That is to say, atheism has no place in Indonesia.

Atheist ways of life

Given this context, atheists in Indonesia realise they cannot express their convictions publicly. Some of my informants choose to be individual atheists, declaring their atheism to nobody or only to very close friends. Other atheists actively search for like-minded people. Atheist groups on social media like WhatsApp or Facebook are a means to find them. In major cities there are also off-line gatherings of atheists. Atheism is a form of life for all of them. It always influences the way an individual feels, interacts with and perceives their (social) environment. Yet there is no one set way of life among these various communities. There are many ways to be an atheist in Indonesia – for example in politics, relationships and ethics.

Box 1: I am often told that my atheism will surely risk my access to heaven and I will definitely end up in hell. But whose hell is it? Whose heaven is it? / I am often told that just in case, I should just have faith and believe in God, because after all I have nothing to lose. But which God? With that much choice, isn’t it likely that I would make the wrong choice? / with permission from Kartunesia

Most atheists I talked to are interested in political issues. But as Indonesian politics usually relies on having religious links (as the state does), they find concrete political representation something of a lost cause. Many of my atheist friends did not vote in the 2019 election. Only a few atheists I know voted for Jokowi – not because they thought he could represent their political conviction but as the lesser of two evils. This general detachment from the state and politics can be expressed in different ways of life. Some are quite apolitical, some are leftist, and yet others describe themselves as liberal (or libertarian). Some of the latter will quote anti-Islamic discourses from the global north as a way to criticise political Islam in their own country – a strategy at odds with views of leftist atheists. All, however, feel estranged from state and society by their atheism but, perhaps because of their differing social class origins, they find different ways of expressing it ideologically.

Atheism also has consequences for private relationships, and for sexuality. Without the normative framework of religion, atheists have to find their own understandings of what relationships, love, and sexuality mean to them. Monogamous female-male relationships are the norm for many atheists, but they do not base these relationships on religious ideas such as kodrat wanita (the essential female nature). Often, they demand from, and allow, their partners more freedom. Models of relationships not accepted in mainstream society such as polyamory or same-sex relationships are usually accepted. Atheists often indeed define their sexual morals precisely in opposition to Islamic teaching. They mercilessly mock, for example, the conservative network ‘Indonesia without premarital relationships’.

Yet finding their own ethics presents many Indonesian atheists with a major challenge. Most were raised as religious people. They now have to conceptualise entirely new approaches towards what is good and bad, and how one should behave towards others. Many Indonesians – indeed many societies around the world – view atheists as having no ethics. To them, all ethics come from religion. There are some atheists who subscribe to a rather Nietzschean way of looking at morals. That is, rather than taking the genealogy of morals for granted as something given and natural, they want to rethink them for themselves.

Some others respond more out of their disaffection with society, as a way of rebelling silently against it. They withdraw from common morals and, in their own social spaces, follow rather hedonistic ways of life. Other atheists engage with society precisely because of their atheism. Since they feel that society, under the influence of (reactionary) religion, is at odds with what they value as good and right, they take on the struggle for their values. These values are, of course, based on atheist convictions. They focus on different goals, such as environmental protection, social justice and civil liberties. But they know they cannot make their atheism explicit when arguing for their causes in public.

A form of disaffection

Many Indonesian atheists left religion because of bad personal experiences. Others left because they believe in science, which they see as being in conflict with religion. The decision to become an atheist is a personal one in the first place, but it heavily influences the way someone engages in a religious society. Having taken that step, one has to find out what it means for everyday relationships. Atheism, in return, can be an expression of uneasiness with the religious foundations of society. It allows people to look differently at things mainstream society takes for granted. What appears normal to most Indonesians begins to look like an absurd and arbitrary convention.

Atheists are an invisible minority most of the time in Indonesia, but that is no reason to leave them out of our picture of what we think Indonesia is. On the contrary, they can teach us to look at politics and social phenomena in Indonesia from a new, yet still ‘Indonesian’, viewpoint. Atheist perspectives arise both from within Indonesian society (that is, they are ‘emic’), as well as from outside, as they transcend norms of, and divisions between, societies. Their way of seeing the absurd – and the cruel – in things everyone else assumes are normal should help the rest of us to sit up and rethink what we think we know about this country.

Timo Duile (tduile@uni-bonn.de) is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department for Southeast Asia Studies, Bonn University.

Inside Indonesia 140: Apr-Jun 2020

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