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