Women Lead Pendidikan Seks
July 15, 2015

How to Live As a Non-Believer in the Land of Believers

How do you reconcile living as a non-believer in a country in which all citizens have to state their religion?

by Magdalene

Dear Madge,
I live in Indonesia, but I choose not to believe in any religion although I uphold teachings on spirituality and kindness from all religions. Is it possible for me to stay in Indonesia? I am tired of pretending. And, one more thing, my mother’s side of the family is very religious and narrow-minded. How do I deal with them?  
Thank you
Dear C,
I can totally relate to you. The thing is, although we are inherently free to choose what we want to believe (or whether or not we want to believe), Indonesia requires us to declare “a religion” in order to be its lawful citizen. So, until there’s a change in policy, agnostic people, atheists, or even believers of anything other than the six religions acknowledged by the state will have to bite their tongue and state one of those religions in their ID.

For me, I choose the one that I was born into anyway, because all the existing documentations show that, and it’s just easier administratively. If you want to make some grand personal statement, you can of course declare something totally different than the religion of your upbringing, but, really, what’s the point?
The way I see it, is we can always take the middle way. We don’t have to pretend; we can be truthful to people about the fact that we have distanced ourselves from our religion, but in a way that doesn’t create unnecessary frictions. I don’t go to the house of worships, but I would bow my head in silence out of respect when the prayers are read in public gatherings or in family events. Find excuses, or do things like disappearing to the bathroom, or stores, or running errands, or even traveling, if you don’t want to come out yet about your choice.
If people pressure you to perform some rituals because everybody else does it, and you’re fed up with having to make up excuses, simply say, “I’m sorry, I don’t do it for my own personal reason. Will you please respect my choice as I’m not causing anybody harm?”
Don’t get sucked in to what could be a hostile exchange about faiths, but little by little show people that kindness can come from non-believers. If we non-believers start judging other people for what they believe in, or cutting our ties with them, then we’re no better than the people we criticize.
You don’t have to move overseas to a place where you are more welcome (unless you want to or can afford it or can find a job there). In fact, I think we need to normalize the fact that there are non-believers, and they deserve to live without the sanctimonious judgment of others, and Indonesians should just get over it. Be the face of good and compassionate non-believers. Stay kind and live a life of integrity. In the end, people will eventually accept you for who you are.
And if they don’t, who cares? You’ll eventually find your tribe where you will thrive as you are.
Happy holiday!
*Photo by V Manninen
Got a burning question about something? Send it to [email protected] -- in English or Indonesian -- with the subject "Ask Madge" or tweet your question to @the_magdalene.