June 14, 2017
Breaking Free from Religious Indoctrination

An "innocent" science book gave her a glimpse of the vastness of the universe, and got her to start questioning her religion.

by Dian
Issues // Politics and Society
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In 2012, for the first time in ten years, I stepped outside my home without a headscarf on.

That rainy spring afternoon, I felt naked as I walked down the street. It had been ages since I last felt the wind in my hair.

I was studying in the Netherlands at the time, where I didn't know anyone except a few friends from Western countries. When seeing my head uncovered for the first time, these friends – in a curious but non-judgmental way – asked, "Why aren't you wearing your headscarf?"

Not ready to go into a lengthy discussion, I smiled and said, "No specific reason."
 
It was a lie. I had a very specific reason: I was no longer comfortable with my religion. More precisely, the religion my parents taught me.




My doubt started the year before. I was reading a book called Big Bang by Simon Singh. It was an innocent, little science book; it wasn't supposed to challenge my faith in any way. For years I believed that science and religion could go hand in hand. But that book gave me the first glimpse of the vastness of the universe and my place in it.

The following months, I binge-read on the writings of Bertrand Russell, Carl Sagan, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and many more. And the more I read, the more uncomfortable I became. They scared me, those books. They gave me thoughts and ideas that are bigger than what I have believed all my life through religious indoctrination. And for the first time I wondered why I, who thought of myself as having enough intelligence, had swallowed up all the doctrines without questions.

Re-examining my faith had been a scary, painful, and lonely experience. The miraculous stories about prophets and winged horse and creation of man from clay now seemed as no more than an attempt by our ancestors to describe how the universe works. My principles went from "we hear and we obey" to "we hear, we question, we look for evidence, and we stopped believing claims that have no evidence."

“There's always a moment when you start to fall out of love, whether it's with a person or an idea or a cause, even if it's one you only narrate to yourself years after the event: a tiny thing, a wrong word, a false note, which means that things can never be quite the same again.”
- Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

 
Being an atheist in a secular country where I knew no one was easy. But it was time to go back to Indonesia. As soon as I got off the plane in Jakarta, I put my headscarf back on. I figured it would be too much for my parents to see their youngest daughter changed so much after being away for so long.
 

To this day I still have people badgering me to put the headscarf back on. It does not annoy me anymore, though. Because when I look in the mirror, I like what I see.


And, yet, each day I grew more restless. At some point I came to a conclusion: if I took off my headscarf, people would talk – for two weeks at the most – then they would forget about it. But if I don't, I'd spend the rest of my life feeling trapped with the fabric over my head. So I took it off.

And people did talk. But I was wrong. They did not forget it in two weeks. To this day I still have people badgering me to put the headscarf back on. It does not annoy me anymore, though. Because when I look in the mirror, I like what I see.

They asked me how my husband and my mother felt about my uncovered head. I said I didn't really ask for their permission. While I respect my husband very much, how I choose to dress is not up to him.

As for my mother, she once did make a remark: "I see you don't wear your scarf lately."
 
I did not dare look in her eyes when I made a lame excuse, "Yeah, I'm overheated and it made me dizzy." She nodded, and she loved me no less because of it.

When she died two years ago, I was devastated. I went through a terrible period of grief. Yet I could not take comfort in the idea of her being in heaven. A world without her is scary and lonely, but I'd rather face the hard truth than taking comfort in an imaginary garden.

To this day I remain a closeted atheist. Only my husband and very few friends know about my (lack of) faith.

Today I hear the sad news of a politician being sentenced two years in jail for a blasphemy case. I don't know when we can have the freedom for religion and from religion in this country. But I'm afraid it won't be anytime soon.
 
Dian started wearing a headscarf at 14. She took it off at 24 when she stopped believing in her (family’s) religion.