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An old friend of mine responds to a recent commentary titled “Is there room for atheists in Indonesia?”
Although he is not an unbeliever, he was rather upset by the prevailing assumption there are more theists than atheists in this country. He holds a different view — there are a disturbingly large number of atheists here, particularly among those who belong to the middle classes. How so? I was confused.
“I strongly suspect the recent howls of protest against atheism are founded on a tacit stereotypical generalization that all or most atheists are depraved human beings and that atheism is an abominable creed because it produces only wicked citizens who constantly cause harm and suffering to others,” my friend argued.
“A devotee friend of mine even tells me atheism is the work of the Devil. If this view were true, then we would be forced to concede, albeit grudgingly, that Indonesia is now guilty of the same accusation.
“Let me sort of play Devil’s advocate and at the same time try to prove there is hardly any room for theists, as far as I’m concerned, in Indonesia. This is tantamount to adopting an attitude that we judge people by what they do and how they treat others rather than what they believe or don’t believe.
“Just think of the current social evils, the blatant disregard for the law, abuses of power, widespread graft and corruption, persecution of minorities, fraud of all sorts.”
I was stunned into silence but continued to listen.
“You see, if you judge someone by their external actions, a standpoint I fully support, you can’t help agreeing with me: all these public officers — politicians, government officials, legislators, prosecutors and members of the judiciary who impoverish large sections of the populace by enriching themselves, their political parties and business partners with tax-payers’ money they unashamedly steal, with kickbacks worth millions, with the nation’s wealth they misappropriate — must be labeled atheists too.”
I found myself at a loss what to say but could not conceal my disagreement. I told him most of his fellow countrymen would be offended by his remark because those he classified as atheists describe themselves as faithful followers of religions as written on their ID cards. They also regularly give alms and charitable donations, and perform rituals and other religious observances.
Hearing my defensive reaction, he laughed out loud. “You’re probably right, but in that case I’d dare to apply the designation AR to them, which is an abbreviation for ‘atheistic religionists’, a contradiction in terms? Food for reflection for you.”
I offered as a substitute for the AR label — “nominal religionists”, thus avoiding the social stigma attached to atheism in Indonesian society or perhaps “misguided adherents” of a particular religion?
My friend was adamant and said no. He was even critical of the word “corruptors”, which he found to be so much overused that it struck him as an almost nice-sounding name with no trace of a sense of shame or guilt.
He thinks they deserve the Indonesian expression maling berdasi (tie-wearing thieves) who are motivated by sheer greed, not by urgent need but by an excessive desire to amass a huge fortune to suit their hideously extravagant life-styles, unmindful of the thousands of fellow citizens who live out their lives below subsistence level.
On my visit to his home, I asked him about his stance on what happened in this country over a decade ago but has been recurring ever since — communal violence between adherents of different religions, suicide bombings in many places, cruel and unfair treatment of defenseless religious factions by larger groups and similar events that show man’s inhumanity to man.
I saw a sad expression come over his face and he began to recall a heart-rending scene he personally witnessed years ago on an island in West Nusa Tenggara when a large number of villagers were terrorized simply because they belonged to a different denomination of the same religion.
In another scene in West Java, a minor sect’s place of worship was pulled down, their members driven out, some of whom were tortured and killed. Then on Madura Island, a religious sect’s boarding school was set on fire by some mainstream religionists.
Then, a moment of silence.
“It grieved me to see this public display of hatred, suspicion, envy and bigotry by those who took the law into their own hands, it reminded me of an assertion by a great satirist; that we have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another [J. Swift],” he said.
“It’s sad this assertion was made in the 18th century and it is still true today in some parts of the world. Where are the theists? Where are those defenders of theism?”
I quickly sensed he would call the perpetrators AR too.
“Of course”, he said. “But since they seem to be content with and even proud of all the atrocities they have committed against their innocent fellow men in the name of what they believe to be a religious duty, I’d prefer to label them SAR — the ‘staunchly atheistic religionists’.”
— Alex H. Rambadeta