Amrina R Wijaya
It was a relief to drive my scooter away from the stifling crowd of Kaliurang Street, heading east to a small cafe to meet an old friend. I was ten minutes late when I stepped in and, as expected, Gilang was already there – his eyes fixed on his laptop, a half empty cup of coffee on his table. He looked just like everyone else in the room but, unlike probably everybody else in the room, his belief in God had been long gone, like papers down the shredder. I wore an awkward, held-back smile to greet him and chatted with him for a bit. Fearing we would be overheard, I asked him if he was comfortable talking about his irreligiosity among the murmuring cafe crowd. He answered with a snicker, ‘I once had an argument with a stranger about it at this very place’.
In a country where the belief in One Supreme God and religion is imposed by the state, religiosity has been a centrepiece in Indonesia’s societal landscape. In fact, the visibility of it is uncanny. This is the kind of country where you can expect a huge mosque and a cathedral rising side by side as lanterns are seen deluging the sky during Vesak Day. All the while, there are demonstrations calling for Indonesia to be turned into an Islamic state as religious leaders turn into fiery politicians. The importance of religion in Indonesia is well supported by a survey of 20,000 young people born between 1999 and 2001, carried out by the Varkey Foundation, which shows that 93 per cent of Indonesian youth believe that religion is the source of happiness.
Conversely, very little light has been shed on the people making up the other seven per cent – the ones, like Gilang, saying that religion is not their source of happiness. As unseen as they are, irreligious and nonbelieving youth exist in religious Indonesia, unheeded beneath Friday prayer chants and church bell chimes. They live in the shadows, away from the public’s attention, and often lead a double life. This is understandable considering Indonesian law and society see irreligiosity as unfavourable and inimical to being Indonesian. The Indonesian penal code, for example, prohibits citizens from committing blasphemy and spreading atheist ideologies. With one of the goals of national education being to create individuals who are devout and faithful to the One Supreme God, an unfriendly stance towards nonbelievers is sometimes made painfully clear in educational settings. For example, a short piece published on Universitas Gadjah Mada’s official website was tendentiously titled ‘Menangkal ateisme melalui penguatan ideologi Pancasila’ (‘Turning back atheism through the strengthening of Pancasila’).
In a country so hostile to irreligious people, what is the story behind the Indonesian youth who choose not to believe in any gods or religions and how do they cope with their everyday struggles?
Leaving God behind
Being an Indonesian baby means you are likely to be a part of a religious community even before you are born. From that moment on, religion becomes an unavoidable thing, enveloping you from many sides as you grow up. On television, morning sermon is a fixture. At school, classes start with prayer, and religious classes are mandatory.
Nevertheless, love towards God and religion does not always flourish in Indonesian youths’ hearts. In some cases, it wilts – even dies. Irreligious university students in Yogyakarta explained that their decision to leave God mostly began by feeling disappointed in God, while they still believed.
Irreligiosity in Indonesia covers a broad spectrum. Some people don’t believe in either the concept of God or religion, some believe in God but not religion, others acknowledge a greater power beyond humankind, and still others believe in God and religion but see no point in practicing rituals. Rosita and Joan believe in neither God nor religion although they do not identify themselves by any labels, including atheism. They were both survivors of highschool bullying and it was during those times of distress that their disappointment towards God started building. Their prayers to be rescued from their unpleasant situation went unanswered, contrary to what they once believed: that God is with those who suffer. Similarly, Kaka had a severe mental breakdown approaching final exam week despite his prayers for a peaceful mind. In Gilang’s case, it was not the unanswered knocks on God’s door that disappointed him but a broken heart. He dated a Christian girl for years before his parents told him to break up with her because interreligious dating did not align with Islamic ideals. This made him wonder: if God is indeed good, why would He separate two loving beings just because they worship differently?
These disappointments can grow into scepticism about the logic of religion. Former Muslim girls are especially sceptical of the way Islam favours men over women. Joan felt uncomfortable that Islam acknowledges no women apostles. According to Janice, an atheist civil servant, Islam is patriarchal. In Gilang’s journey to becoming irreligious, he found that creationism in Islam made no sense at all compared to evolution.
At some point, these questions may turn into a complete leap of unfaith. Joan and Gilang confessed that they found it liberating to be able to think without the constant fear of sinning. Janice agrees – after spending years exploring religiosity, she decided that being an irreligious person made her feel more comfortable in her own skin.
Yet, these decisions come at a cost. Most of the time, these young people have to live a life of pretense. As Timo Duile, an anthropologist writing on Indonesian atheism, puts it, these youths have to maintain multiple identities. More often than not they have to pretend to pray behind closed bedroom doors when they are actually lying on their beds biding their time. During Ramadhan, they don’t eat in front of their families and friends so they look like they’re fasting. In the case of Arkan, an anthropology student, the game of pretence extends beyond family and friends. Arkan often has to go to research sites and stay with host families who are sometimes very religious and constantly ask him to pray in a nearby mosque. This poses a dilemma for Arkan. Praying at all, let alone doing it with the congregation in a mosque, is against his nonbelieving principles. On the other hand, Arkan knows that praying with them will give him easier access to data through a good reputation among the villagers. In the end, he always chooses the latter.
The internal struggles
‘Maybe you’re wondering why I act differently in front of my friends and in front of my parents.’ A short hesitation filled the air, then Gilang’s raspy voice continued. ‘To my friends, I don’t feel like I have – for lack of a better word – a moral obligation. But parents are different. They’ve done a lot for me. I am so scared that I will hurt their feelings. It’s true that I feel like what they’re doing to me – forcing me to be a Muslim no matter what – is an infringement on my freedom of expression. But then again, I understand that they do it not to oppress me but because they love me. I deserve to be free, to express what I want but they also deserve not to be hurt after spending years loving me. That’s my dilemma.’
For youths like Gilang, it is never easy to be openly irreligious in Indonesia. Not only is the law hostile to those who do not believe but there are daily emotional and psychological challenges to face – something that is not widely discussed. There are unspoken dilemmas, fears and shame that keep many from expressing what they believe.
Mixed feelings towards parents tops the list of emotional concerns. Almost all who I spoke to said that their parents gave them a religious upbringing in the hope of raising devout believers, and for those parents to see their children grow into irreligious adults is deemed not only a disappointment but a tragedy. The thought of disappointing their parents is a difficult one for these young people. While financial dependence on their parents, especially for those who are still living at home, may further complicate the issue, the emotional dilemma they face is what these young people find most poignant. They are afraid that their confessions will destroy their familial relationships. Janice, for example, once tried to come clean to her mother about her religious stance and her mother answered her by weeping: ‘Who’s going to pray for me when I die?’ Janice, not wanting to upset her mother, has never brought up the topic again.
There are also the psychological struggles. Her first days at college were one of the most difficult times for Joan. While others, in the face of a new environment, found consolation in praying, Joan often didn’t know where to turn. As she grew more anxious, Joan tried seeing psychologists only to be told to pray more often. Out of her shame from being different, Joan never dared confess her irreligiosity and ask for other recommendations which meant she didn’t get the help that she needed.
At other times, it is fear rather than shame that takes over. Janice is perpetually haunted by her fear of what she tweets online being found out because, as a civil servant, she is obliged to believe in God. Gilang is also careful about publishing his essays for the public – is this going to offend anyone, create an uproar, or worse, put him in jail? The fear also extends to other parts of their lives, such as their eligibility to run for office in the future or how they will raise their children in such a religious society.
As long as irreligiosity is still demonised in Indonesian society, these internal struggles will continue to plague these young people. But life must go on. They must still wake up every morning and face pretending for another day, to avoid discrimination or, even worse, prosecution. Gilang told me that he is lucky that he can still manage to hide his irreligiosity. But for how long?
Amrina R Wijaya (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an undergraduate student at the Department of Cultural Anthropology, Faculty of Cultural Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada.