The Jakarta Post
The presence of agnostics and atheists is not often felt in conservative Indonesia, where society largely defines itself along religious lines.
Widespread belief in traditional family values stokes fear in nonbelievers that they will be rejected by close relatives for their perspectives and often prevents them from speaking their minds.
As Muslims across the Indonesian archipelago celebrate Ramadan, nonbelievers are having a hard time blending in, feeling the weight of familial and social expectations amid a lack of space and mobility under COVID-19 social restrictions.
Fate led Jefry – who asked to be referred to with a pseudonym to protect his privacy – to spend Ramadan with his family in Riau this year. Jefry describes himself as an agnostic and has been living away from his family for the past couple of years attending university in Jakarta.
“Days before [Jakarta] implemented PSBB [large-scale social restrictions], I was asked to go back to attend a relative’s wedding. When the situation got worse, my parents wouldn’t let me go back to Jakarta,” he told The Jakarta Post last week.
Living with his extended family has been stressful for Jefry, especially as there are more than five other people under the same roof.
Because no one in the family knows that he is agnostic, he has participated in religious rituals, mainly out of fear that his parents would scold him if he refused.
“I performed the rituals just like a robot. It’s just a formality for me. I do it because I still have respect for my parents,” said the 26-year-old with a chuckle.
“Even though I am like this, I still care about them.”
Coming from a conservative religious family, Jefry said he had been secretly exploring the limits of his belief since junior high school. After he left his hometown for university, he was exposed to a number of diverse experiences and religious attitudes.
He eventually reached a point where he no longer believed in the teachings he was raised with. He stopped praying soon thereafter.
“I studied a lot until I was able to come to the conclusion that there is a higher being or power that governs us, but I also believe that religion is a man-made construct created with a certain agenda in mind,” he said.
No one knows how many nonbelievers there are in Indonesia, but some estimates have put the figures in the extreme minority. Many remain closeted for most of their lives.
In Muslim-majority Indonesia, where freedom of religious belief is supposed to be guaranteed and the state is officially pluralist, Indonesians are still expected to officially subscribe to one of six approved religions (and more recently to “native faiths”), while other religious minorities still regularly face discrimination.
Nonbelievers, who don’t fit any of the government’s categories, can end up in prison or face persecution, as any rejection of religion is frowned upon.
But not all nonbelievers choose to abandon their religious identities completely.
In a 2017 interview with Vox about his book The Atheist Muslim, Pakistan-born author Ali Rizvi said that many nonbelievers still retained an element of religion in their lives, noting how he himself, a self-professed free thinker, still enjoyed Idul Fitri and breaking fast during Ramadan with his family.
“I think all of us have the right to believe what we want, and we must respect that right, but that doesn't necessarily mean we have to respect the beliefs themselves,” Rizvi said.
“I think we should be able to enjoy some of these rituals without the burden of belief.”
For Doni, who also asked to use a pseudonym, there is much more leeway when it comes to dealing with his religious duties during Ramadan.
His bedroom has become a safe place for him to create the illusion that he is fasting and praying to appease his family.
“I store some food in my bedroom, which I eat in the afternoon. And since everyone prays in their own rooms, I just pretend to have performed ablutions and then go back inside [my room] without actually praying,” said the 32-year-old social media manager.
He said he left behind all religious practices three years ago.
His family, however, has become increasingly religious over the past few years, especially after being introduced to the Salafi movement, an ultra-conservative Sunni group, many of whose adherents consider more moderate Muslims infidels.
Doni said it would be almost impossible to admit to his family that he was a nonbeliever.
To keep his secret safe, Doni tries to mind his attitude at home. The real challenge, he said, was to keep his mouth shut when the topic of belief was raised in family discussions.
“I am naturally a debater. Whenever it comes up, I avoid it like the plague because I’m afraid I might say something that will reveal how I don’t believe in religion anymore,” he said.