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Jakarta Post

After Baha'€™i: In search of an alternative framework for religion

  • Pradipa P. Rasidi

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Sun, August 31, 2014   /  12:46 pm

The Religious Affairs Ministry'€™s acknowledgment of the Baha'€™i faith as an official religion is good news preceding the installment of the new administration. However, there is still much work to be done.

As with any other '€œnon-mainstream'€ faith, there are many questions as to whether Baha'€™i deserves to be acknowledged as a '€œreligion'€. Recently, for example, Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) deputy secretary-general KH Tengku Zulkarnain argued that Baha'€™i was just a system of thought that was not on a par with a religion.

Such an argument is not new, and while the matter seems pedantic, it could bring serious consequences to those who profess the faith. Though formally guaranteed by the Constitution, believers of faiths outside the six official religions have faced difficulties expressing their piety.

The Baduy people who believe in Sunda Wiwitan, a local religion, have been denied identity cards as their faith is not recognized by the state. Similarly, the believers of the Parmalim faith around Lake Toba in North Sumatra must choose to acknowledge either Islam or Christianity.

While there are different approaches to this problem, the start would be to take a critical look at how the government defines religion.

According to Zulkarnain, to qualify as a religion, a faith has to have a scripture, prophet and a huge amount of followers. These kinds of characteristics are shared by '€” and most probably derived from '€” the ministry'€™s previous attempt in 1952 to define the criteria of a recognized religion (Picard and Madinier, 2011).

The definition requires a faith to be revealed by a God, possess a prophet and scripture, have a codified system of law for its followers and be recognized internationally.

This limits the acknowledgment of local religions as the scope of their support is not as wide as the major religions. The lack of a codified system of local religions '€” given their main reliance on oral traditions '€” is a further barrier.

But such criteria also poses problems even to the latest recognized faith, Confucianism. When former president Abdurrahman '€œGus Dur'€ Wahid acknowledged Confucianism as an official religion, one question was, '€œwhat God does a Confucian believe in?'€

Similarly, Buddhists raised the concept of Sanghyang Adi Buddha to reconcile with the criteria that deems the acknowledgement of God as a necessity to be officially accepted as a religion.

In reality, not every faith acknowledges the presence of God. Some belief systems, like Buddhism, leave the governance of the universe to the law of nature, regulated through karma.

Some others, like Confucianism, direct mankind through its leader'€™s way of living. This, of course, does not necessarily make those religions '€œatheist'€ '€” only that the presence of a divine being is considered less important than the other aspects of its belief system.

Therefore, there is a need to reconceptualize the state'€™s definition of religion. One can look at the frameworks given by anthropologists and sociologists such as Emile Durkheim.

Durkheim'€™s classic framework of religion ( 1915 ) defines it as a '€œunified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things'€ that is united in '€œone single moral community'€.

This framework is quite brief and succinct in defining religion. His definition requires only the belief in something sacred, the practice '€” or rituals '€” in observing it, and the actual people who believe and practice the faith.

Such a framework does not stress the prescriptive side of religion, which may require the presence of a supreme being or the existence of a scripture.

It gives spaces to faiths like Buddhism or those without a codified law like Sunda Wiwitan. As the title of Durkheim'€™s work suggests, it is defining religion in its most '€œelementary form'€.

Of course, this is not meant to disregard the tenets of Islam or Christianity, which acknowledge the presence of God '€” nor to disprove the existence of God. And apart from Durkheim'€™s, varying useful frameworks are provided by many social scientists.

The search for an alternative framework for religion, defined by the state, is just one attempt to accommodate the diversity of faith and give every believer the rights they deserve. Observance to the Constitution remains crucial '€” but while we'€™re at it, why not go a step further?

The writer is a student of political science at the University of Indonesia.

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