An evolutionary perspective
on Indonesia’s religious

In spite of our happiness in the fasting month of Ramadan, we – Indonesian Muslims – know that religious conflict has happened – and continues to happen – in our country: the attack on Ahmadiyah followers by other Muslim observants, the Poso conflict, violent deeds conducted by the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), catastrophic bombings that have killed many innocent victims, etc.

Using common sense, we may say that this conflict should not have happened, since all religions teach their followers to be good people. So why did it happen?

Some people would argue that the conflict is proof that religion is bad – as most people in Western Europe would say – and some would say that it is proof of the government’s inability to guarantee religious freedom in our country.

Indeed, the two arguments need to be examined. The first argument is a new trend. A growing number of people in this world are skeptical about religion because of the huge number of religious conflicts during human history. The well-known biologist and atheist proponent, Richard Dawkins, says that religion is a parasitic disease in humanity, spreading illusory thought and killing people.

To make this argument stronger, I would mention Marc Hauser, a professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard, who found that religion is not related to the morality of every individual.

Hence, religion is bad for humanity. This is indeed a challenging and debatable issue, but we cannot solve the problem in our country just by admitting this argument.

The second argument is an issue that is usually studied in sociopolitical science. I agree with an interesting viewpoint on this perspective in the article, “Pitfalls in Securing Religious Freedom” written by Sunny Tanuwidjaya (The Jakarta Post, Aug. 20, 2010).

Indeed, the government should take proactive action to minimize religious conflict in Indonesia, but it is not enough to solve the problem. The people creating the anarchy consist of individuals who have their own views about what is good and bad for their world.

For example, if the government cancels the ministerial decree on the Ahmadiyah, many Muslims will be angry and again turn to violence. This is because they are fighting for what they “believe” in, and the term “believe” is part of human nature.

Therefore, even though the government prohibits Indonesian Muslims from attacking Ahmadiyah followers, they still fight for the “truth”, and create anarchy.

Thus, I would like to introduce a new approach to dealing with this problem. From an evolutionary perspective, religion itself is defined as a biocultural trait that is transmitted from generation to generation, just like musicality and speech.

Some scientists, like Richard Sosis, suggest that religion is an adaptive feature that is good to support the survival of the human species, because it enhances group cooperation and reproductive success.
And some scientists like Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran suggest that religion is a by-product of human evolution, hence the need for religion in humanity needs to be questioned.

However, in spite of that debate, both perspectives imply that religion is biologically embedded in the human mind.

Therefore, I think it is difficult for the government to rule upon what people should believe (as in the Ahmadiyah case) and what they should not do pertaining to their religious salvation (the FPI attacks and terrorism). I do not mean to be pessimistic, but this is something that needs to be considered.

In addition, it is important to take into account the fact that Indonesia has a fantastic ethnic diversity, since this involves interaction between people and the natural characteristics of each individual.

Therefore, the solving of the problem is not only a task for the government but also for academics from all disciplines, to understand the nature of Indonesian people in handling their “beliefs”. Thus, a long-term solution for religious conflict in Indonesia will be found.        


The author is a science writer.

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