Mon, Jan 26, 2009 - Page 3 News List

FEATURE : Indonesian atheists find refuge online


Chain-smoking at a trendy coffee shop while studiously ignoring the mosque’s evening call to prayer, Indonesian atheists Didi and Dewi have little patience for the beliefs of most of their countrymen.

The two young women are defiant unbelievers in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, but they let few people in the real world know it.

Instead, the women have joined scores of young Indonesian atheists who have found refuge on the Internet, using web tools such as social networking sites, mailing lists, blogs and wikis to communicate with like-minded people in a country where declaring there is no God can turn someone into an outcast.

“For me personally [going online] is just to share my thoughts and to meet people who think the same way I do, because I don’t see many in my real life,” said Didi, a 29-year-old architect. “It’s easier to say that you’re gay than an atheist.”

Dewi, a 21-year-old student fond of sardonic put-downs of religion and superstition, agreed. In her life in the West Java city of Bandung, she keeps her lack of belief secret from all but her closest friends.

“If someone asks me ‘do you want to pray?,’ then I pray. It’s a political prayer,” she said.

Both women, who refused to give their real names, go online daily to debate religion with fellow atheists — and the few believers hardy enough to brave their barbs — from safely behind their computer screens.

Asked what she would be without the Internet, Didi laughed: “I would be a full-closet atheist.”

It is impossible to know how many atheists there are in Indonesia, a country of 234 million people that is nearly 90 percent Muslim, and where non-believers officially don’t exist.

Every Indonesian must carry an identity card stating his or her adherence to one of six official religions — Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or Confucianism — and belief in “one God” is the first tenet of the official national ideology of Pancasila.

The deaths of upwards of half a million people during the suppression of the Indonesian Communist Party in the lead-up to the 1966 rise to power of former dictator Suharto have also left their mark. Propaganda during Suharto’s 32-year rule mean atheists are often conflated with communists, a stinging charge in Indonesia

It was such a stigma that prompted a 35-year-old teacher from West Sumatra, known online as “XYZMan,” to start an e-mail mailing list in 2004 to allow atheists to discuss their beliefs. The list now has more than 350 members.

Despite the success of the mailing list, XYZMan said he is forced to keep his own atheism secret in the real world, and has already suffered the breakdown of a marriage with a Muslim woman due to his non-belief.

“If everyone knew that I’m an atheist, I could lose my job, my family would hate me and also some friends,” he said in an e-mail interview, adding “It’s also more likely that I could be physically attacked or killed because I’m a kafir [unbeliever] and my blood is halal [allowed to be spilled] according to Islam.”

Although small in number, Indonesia’s online atheists have been quick adopters of the so-called “Web 2.0” innovations of blogs, wikis and social networking sites.

“We use every means possible [Facebook, etc] to show our existence, gather people,” Karl Karnadi, a 25-year-old Indonesian student studying in Germany who is behind many of the Web projects, said in a Facebook message.

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