Ask Richard: Indonesian Atheist Wants to Be Open About Her Views May 30, 2011

Ask Richard: Indonesian Atheist Wants to Be Open About Her Views

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

I am a 24-year-old atheist living in the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia. The version of Islam here is much more relaxed (in general) than the extremism we see so much in the Middle East, but even non-religious people aren’t generally cool with atheism. If they’re not Muslim, they’re Christian, usually Protestant, less so Catholic, but they are not generally atheist, at least not publicly. I’m proud of my affiliation, and fairly disparaging of religion in nearly all aspects, but I’ve found myself caught in a weird place when it comes to being publicly out as an atheist.

Most of my coworkers are nominally Christian, some are church goers, and while I frequently get asked about my religion, no one seems perturbed when I say that I’m not religious (my go to term for here). When I get asked about my religion in different circumstances, say by a cab driver, I chicken out and say something non-committal, or even lie and say I’m Christian. Every time something like this happens, I feel really ashamed of myself, and I dwell on it for days. I know I’m not beholden to anyone to be out to perfect strangers, but I still can’t get rid of the feeling.

I suppose it’s partially true that I don’t really know what the reaction would be, and that it’s possible my safety could be compromised by the admission of my atheism, but that doesn’t seem like an honest reality for where I am. I think the fear is less for my safety, and more that people won’t be nice to me if they know. Should I be more open about my atheism, and how do I go about being open when I freeze up and get really uncomfortable when people ask about my religion?


Dear Irene,

Whether you’re in a marketplace in Banda Aceh, or a taxi in Jakarta, or a small town hall meeting in Mississippi, or a coffee house in San Francisco, your personal safety, your financial best interests, and your social comfort should always be your first considerations.

Coming out as an atheist can carry very different expectations of risk at those dissimilar places, but you can never completely take it for granted that you will not encounter negative consequences.

Many atheists write to me feeling conflicted about keeping their views a secret or pretending to adhere to a religion. They generally feel shame or guilt for one or both of these two reasons:

1. They think they are being disingenuous, hypocritical, dishonest, or insincere to their family, friends and co-workers.

You can be loving to your family, true to your friends, and helpful to your co-workers without having to tell them everything about you. You and only you get to decide what is private and what is public about you, what is only your business, and what you’re willing to share. There is no outside standard by which you must judge the “morality” of that decision. Keeping something like your atheism to yourself requires no more justification beyond your own sense of prudence. Simply taking care of yourself in a way that harms no one else is not something for which you should ever feel ashamed or guilty.

2. They think they are somehow being disloyal to “the cause for atheism,” that they owe it to all other atheists to come out and make our situation better by helping to normalize atheism in society.

That is an attractive goal. Do that if it is right for you, but you don’t owe it to anyone to take uncomfortable or ill-considered risks. Situation by situation, only you can be the judge of what action is prudent, and what risk is worth taking. No one else has the right to tell you that you should do this or should do that.

How ironic it is that we have freed ourselves from a system of controlling people through shame and guilt, yet many of us still live according to shame and guilt. You can stop doing that. You are free to act in your own best interests. That may include taking risks, or being cautious, or a mixture of both, but the choice is always, always yours to make.

Judge yourself in these matters with great patience and compassion. If you’re being harsh and condemning of yourself, you are probably using someone else’s expectations that you have internalized. Tell your inner prosecutor that she’s fired.

Don’t confuse shame and guilt with frustration. It’s very understandable that you would feel frustrated because you have to tiptoe through daily conversations instead of being able to be frank and open about your views. Many people around the world feel that way.

My background reading about Indonesia gave me the impression of a remarkable and beautiful country that is moving in different directions at once. Over 17,000 islands spread across 3,977 miles means that the culture and social attitudes will be very different from one part to another. Modernism and tolerance clash with fundamentalism and intolerance. It all depends on where you’re standing and with whom you’re talking.

Indonesia’s constitution contains two statements that seem to point toward opposite poles: “All persons have the right to worship according to their own religion or belief” and “The nation is based upon belief in one supreme God.”

These two statements in the same document seem to say that you’re free to worship as you see fit, but you had better be worshipping something. And not just anything. If the information I read is correct, six religions are officially recognized by the government: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. One of those six is required to be indicated on every Indonesian citizen’s identity card, which is used to apply for jobs, civil service, marriage licenses, birth certificates, and many other things. In order to participate in the society and the economy, an atheist has to pretend to be an adherent.

So Irene, you have plenty of exterior justification to be guarded and discreet about your atheism, and no reason at all to feel bad about yourself for doing so. Pick very carefully the people you tell. You said you think the fear is less for your safety, and more that people won’t be nice to you if they know. That is not a trivial concern; that is legitimate. Even if you are not in any actual danger, there is no reason to go around collecting the stress of people turning cold or distant. Social shunning comes in many forms and levels of intensity. Like a slow, chronic disease, it can wear down even very strong people.

The general advice I often repeat is to never underestimate the divisive power of religion. When it does not spoil friendships or turn strangers into enemies, that is a pleasant surprise, but there is no need to fill your life with unpleasant surprises by thinking you’re supposed to be tough or brave according to someone else’s standards.

Channel your frustration into skillful action, rather than unfair self-criticism. Tell the few people who are worthy of your trust, and find your comrades within the safety of the internet as so many are doing in your country and around the world. Find each other! Build your community.

Indonesian Atheists, Indonesian Atheists Facebook, South-East Asian Atheists, Karl Karnadi’s Atheist Nexus Page

Fighting the good fight simply requires being brave. Winning the good fight means staying alive, strong, and healthy to keep fighting by being skillful, patient, and persistent. Your child, and even more so your grandchild will be able to think for themselves with openness and ease, in part because of your wisdom, tenacity, and endurance.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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  • Chris

    Wow.. beautiful.. thank you. I have been much more open about my atheism lately, this helps me understand why I am still hesitant in some/many situations..

  • CharlesHelms

    Are you all seriously trying to say that being in a Christian in one of the remaining Officially Atheistic States is not dangerous?

    The pretense to moral superiority on the part of atheists never ceases to amuse me.

  • carcharodon

    Sound answer, completely agree with it. I’m also an Indonesian who live in the most diverse part of the country. I’m usually selective with who I tell. Strangers are strangers, I don’t have to share everything with one. It won’t matter if I pretend to a stranger anyway. I only share the fact that I’m an atheist with people who are important in my life, which are my closest friends. I don’t even tell my parents because it’s not important for them. I follow my family’s religious tradition because I respect the people & I don’t feel by doing so I’m being dishonest to myself. Don’t look at it as a challenge if you don’t have to.

  • Thanks Richard for posting our group “Indonesian Atheists (IA)” links and my nexus page.

    There are many other Indonesian nonbelievers/atheists, understandably only a handful are completely open in the real world, but most are open about their atheism on Facebook (some do use fake accounts to protect their identities).

    The group IA was founded in 2008. We currently have about 500 members, and held regular gatherings in Jakarta, Bandung, Jogjakarta, and perhaps also Surabaya. We have appeared several times in the media, and we have close contacts with other atheists/freethinkers from neighboring countries, with RDFRS, and several other friends from around the world.

    The struggle for freedom is obviously far from successful, but I think we have a great start and a big hope for the future.

    We welcome any of you, Indonesian and non-Indonesian atheists/freethinkers to join our facebook group 🙂 (link posted above).

  • Claudia

    I would place one exception to the “tell only whom you want to” rule. I think we do have an ethical obligation to tell a significant other of our religious views before commitment becomes too serious, particularly if the other person has indicated that this is an important issue for them.

    I know I wouldn’t want to get seriously invested in a relationship, only to find that the man had been hiding the fact that they are a fundamentalist Christian/Muslim/Hindu and had the equivalent expectations of my role as the female of the relationship. You have no obligation to tell someone you’re just casually seeing, but a serious relationship I think requires openess and giving your partner the chance to accept you as you are, not as you may present to the world.

  • Erp

    I believe in the 1960s in Indonesia being atheist was equated with being communist and either could get you killed (several hundred thousand may have been). Many Indonesians probably are underground atheists either those who declared themselves Christian (or some other religion) back in the 1960s to avoid death or their descendants. There may be less pressure on atheists now though the Ahmadiyya community face violence (legal and illegal) and death.

    Note that blasphemy is still an offense in Indonesia and is still punished with up to 5 years imprisonment so be careful.

  • About coming out, it is understandable that some people can’t make that decision easily in Indonesia. You can loose your family, your loved ones, children, parents, friends. You can even loose your job. In some regions it can even be dangerous to your personal safety. But yes, there is this enormous frustration every time you have to lie, to put religion mask, to shut your mouth and prevent yourself from expressing your true opinion. It isn’t easy at all.

    However, using the social media, especially Facebook group, many people feel at home and feel safe and convenient in openly expressing themselves. This becomes a relieving compensation for the whole day pretending to be someone you’re not. And our IA community functions as a support group whenever you need to share anything. You can say that it is some kind of an extended family. 🙂

  • Amanda

    Ah, thank you! As a relatively recent “convert” to atheism, I’ve encountered many similar dilemmas. My husband and I often struggle to find a comfortable medium when it comes to disclosure.

    “…your personal safety, your financial best interests, and your social comfort should always be your first considerations” is THE BEST advice I think I’ve heard so far. I’m proud of my journey, and I’m glad to have shed the restrictions of religion, but I must also consider the fact that disclosing some of my reasoning may alienate me from my conservative Christian family. As much as I disagree with their beliefs, I still love them and wouldn’t want to hurt them.

    I also strongly agree with Claudia; while not disclosing my lack of faith is a personal choice, I make those decisions on a case by case basis, depending on how intimate the relationship is.

    Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  • carcharodon

    @Erp: That is true, however it was a different time. Of course, in certain areas, being an atheist will put you in danger even nowadays. People still think that atheist = communist. Only share if you know the person have the capability to tolerate you.

  • Trace

    “Your child, and even more so your grandchild will be able to think for themselves with openness and ease…”

    I like that.

  • JB

    Being prudent trumps being disingenuous, hypocritical, dishonest, or insincere. There is no point in trying to be honest, if that virtue will bring you harm. By making the environment hostile, they have instructed you to be dishonest and to tell them what they want to hear. It is an implied contract, much as we expect and require novelists to lie to us when they write fiction.

    In my life, this question just doesn’t seem to come up so I have no empirical evidence that this will work, but when someone asks what religion you are, perhaps you could turn it back on them. Ask them, “Why do you ask?” or “Why would you ask?” or even “Why does it matter to you?” and then decide how much to reveal based on where they take the topic.

  • AJ

    Halo Irene,

    Apa kabar?

    I hope you are reading this, and wanted to let you know that you aren’t alone, there is a Facebook group [] just for atheists living in Indonesia, you will be able to find some help there as well.

    While, my experiences with Indonesia and the religious there is limited, I still have experienced first hand some of the problems with being an atheist there.

    While I don’t live there, I have been there and also have many friends there who judge me by my “lack of beliefs”.

    I have also followed lots of the news stories there to do with religious intolerance too 🙁

    I have to keep quiet with some of my friends about my views, but thankfully there are also some understanding people there, some accept and are open to discussing atheism in general.

    I find it helps to be tolerant of their beliefs too, if I can’t listen to their views, how can I expect them to listen to mine?

    I am open to them either not asking about it, or being scared of some of the things I have talked about with them, a lot just simply can’t accept that people can have different views and beliefs though, mostly those are moslems, but some christians too.

    And don’t ever let them make you feel like you are less of a person than they are.

    Ok, I will finish by saying that even though I’m not living in Indonesia, I am still a member of that Facebook group, because to me I have a soft spot for Indonesia, and more openness and tolerance towards others is an important thing.

  • Heidi

    Cab drivers ask what her religion is?? That is bizarre to me. My conversations with cab drivers tend toward “Wow, the sun is out. It’s been what, three weeks?”

  • Maggie

    I think the best approach, when one is uncertain of the questioner’s response, is to say that you don’t talk about it and then quickly change the subject.

    One taxi driver who did ask me (city where people are not too very religious but the driver was) and I said I was an atheist. He was very polite and that means I must be well educated. Interesting response.

  • For many people “atheism” is a loaded term. To play it safe, you could always say you are a “seeker” and are open to your own experiences of God.

    You may want to avoid, though, saying that your own experience of God would be something like seeing all the stars in the night sky re-arrange in a message and that seeing things like puppy dogs, rainbows, and laughing babies aren’t, for you, evidence of the existence of God… And until you experience something like the stars re-arranging, you will take the default position that there is probably no God. You might want to save something like that extra explanation for your potential significant other.

    It all depends on the “situation on the ground” and only you can evaluate that.

    Good luck.

  • For many people “atheism” is a loaded term. To play it safe, you could always say you are a “seeker” and are open to your own experiences of God.

    I was going to say something similar, except just recommend that Irene stick with her “not religious” reply. That reply is in fact 100% accurate – it’s what “atheist” means, after all. It just avoids the loaded term.

    But for cases when that might not be acceptable (with an unknown cab driver, for instance), a little deceit might be necessary for your own safety. Perhaps try an answer like “I come from a Christian family” (assuming that’s the case; unless your family is atheistic, substitute as appropriate). The wording might seem a bit suspicious, but you might be able to make it look like you’re trying to make conversation. Start talking about your family history and the role of religion in it afterward, perhaps.

    Be true to yourself, and true to those you can trust. Coming out publicly as an atheist is a huge risk in many countries, so there’s nothing to be ashamed of if you choose to keep this a private matter. If you are forced to lie or deceive in order to do so, then you still needn’t be shamed, as it’s not a question you should be asked in the first place (at least, as long as it remains a loaded question).

  • Peter

    I heard this book is written by Indonesian professor living abroad. He also discussed about your group? indonesia atheist? May be you guys should be in contact with him…?

  • anonymous

    I’m a Canadian Atheist who has been living in Indonesia for the past five years. I speak the language quite well and am married to a Javanese practicing Muslim.

    I would like to start by saying that Irene’s English absolutely blew me away. It’s fabulous, and most likely the best written English I have read from an Indonesian. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of Indonesians are proficient English writers, but Irene, you’re better than most native speakers! A truly enjoyable read.

    I’d like to share my experience as an Atheist foreigner living in Indonesia. If I get things wrong or if you feel that I am a bad ambassador for your culture, please amend my mistakes.

    To understand Irene’s discourse we first have to talk about the Indonesian culture and how it differs from Western cultures. This is a point that is missing from Irene’s original post and the following comments, but I think it is crucial. Heidi’s comment above about finding it strange that a cab driver would enquire on one’s religious adherence shows this.

    Indonesians are extremely nice people. They are relaxed and love to talk. It’s very easy to meet people here. When you take a bus, it is normal to talk to the person in front of you. For someone just arriving from Canada, this is a strange but pleasant feeling. But, after a time, you can start to miss your privacy, especially if you live in a small village where people will eventually know all the details of your life even if they don’t yet know your name.

    The questions that will be asked when you meet someone for the first time are completely different than in the West. People may ask you where you live, if you are already married, how many children you have, and what is your religion. They may ask you how much money you make. All sorts of questions we consider as being impolite when first meeting someone. For Indonesians, this is not impolite. It is an integral part of their culture.

    So, when a cab driver asks Irene what her religion is, it is an entirely normal question. An everyday question.

    Another point to mention is that Atheism is not a viable answer. Not only are you expected to follow a religion in Indonesia, but the idea of being an Atheist is not well understood and often cannot be appreciated. If I tell someone here that I am an Atheist, I’ll get a blank stare 90% of the time. An Atheist? What’s that? When I say that I don’t believe in a God, most will think that I am absolutely out of my mind. That’s impossible!

    It doesn’t matter too much what religion you are, as long as it is one of the main faiths. Most Muslims accept Christians, and vice versa. There is not much of a problem here, accept in certain areas were religious wars are being waged.

    However, Iv’e noticed a funny thing. When I visit someone’s house for the first time, I am always asked what is my religion within the first 5 minutes. Usually, before I enter the house. If I answer a religion that is not theirs, I will still be respected and the subject will not be discussed further. However, if I say that I follow their faith, they will be extremely happy. There’s nothing like a foreign ‘bule’ Muslim to light up a smile in Java. This is something that displeases me and I compare it to a form of soft or light racism. However, it is done in an extremely naive way.

    It might be hard for an Atheist to live in America and feel that his beliefs are accepted, but imagine living in a land where the very concept of Atheism is little known and where you are constantly asked what your religion is with the expected answer being that you follow one of the main religious faiths. It’s hard, tricky, and tiring.

    I usually tell strangers that I am religious. If they are Muslims, I am a Muslim. If they are Christians, I am a Christian. I don’t fear for my life in any way, but I don’t want to be caught up in a situation where I have to explain Atheism to someone who can’t possibly understand it. The vast majority of Indonesians do not read books. This is a cultural thing. Indonesia has functioned with oral tradition for hundreds of years. Books are quite recent. Furthermore, Indonesians are not usually aware of world news. Most news channels here only show what’s going on in Indonesia. I would say that 80% of the people I meet have no idea where Canada is on the world map.

    I understand your situation Irene, but I’m not sure what advice to give you. It would really depend on your family and friends. Most likely, if I were in your shoes, I would not talk about my Atheism much. Although Indonesia is a very religious country, it’s not a fanatical one in any way. You can easily say that you are Muslim and not wear a jilbab and not go to the mosque. Nobody will really care about your religious practice.

    On a side note, if there is an Indonesian here who could explain this to me I would be very grateful. Although homosexuality is not accepted in Indonesia, many TV shows in Jakarta are hosted by open transvestites. You’ll be in the most rural regions of Muslim Java and people will enjoy watching these hosts and laugh at their jokes. If their child was gay however, it would be a whole different affair. How does that work?

  • Hwilliams

    Wow.. I’m not sure how I ended up here. I was just researching autism and here I am. I noticed this is an atheist site? Anyway.. I guess since I am here this is my only comment.. I notice there is a lot of fear connected to your Atheistic set of beliefs. You want to hide it instead of face the consequences of admitting who you really are in places of danger. That is probably the biggest contrast between atheists and believers I suppose.. except of course the believing in God/not believing in God thing. My faith in Christ would lead me to rather die for confessing to believing in Him than to deny that I do. As a Christian I don’t believe I am better than anyone else.. just the opposite. I believe I am in need of a savior.. maybe that makes me weak intellectually or whatever.. I am okay with that. I’m not afraid to die.. I’m not afraid of what lies beyond the grave. I have full confidence in what I believe. Right or wrong what I believe in I am willing to die for..that does not say anything good about me.. but it speaks volumes of  the One in whom I believe.

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