Religion in Indonesia: An Insight

Religion in Indonesia: An Insight October 28, 2018

This piece is a guest article from an Indonesian reader whom I asked to provide some insight to religion in their country. Thanks so much to Wan Kun Sandy for the time spent putting this together. Enjoy.

In the previous ATP article “The Chequered Picture of Religion Around the World“, there is a glimpse of a description of religion in Indonesia:

In Indonesia, religion is an integral part of life; like nothing I have experienced since preparing for my confirmation in rural Kildare. Many of my workmates will find a quiet corner of our small office to pray at least once a day, something I never experienced once in Ireland or Australia. Friday prayers see the mosques overflow onto the surrounding streets.

It is not just Islam that’s thriving in Indonesia however – Christianity is vibrant, trendy and growing. Across Indonesia there are over 26 million Christians and Catholics, more than four times the population of Ireland, north and south. The last time I went to church in Jakarta, the place was so full I had to sit in an overflow room with another 200 people who joined in the service in the next building via video linkup. American-style megachurches, mainly evangelical, are also springing up across the country.

As a native Indonesian, I can confirm this to be true. Religion is so much a part of everyday life that it’s as common as rice, the staple food, even probably more common than rice in the Eastern part of Indonesia. While many countries in the world are going in a secular direction, Indonesia is going in the opposite direction.

In this post, I’m going to talk about religion in Indonesia: why religion is still considered important, people’s observance of religion, the ways religion intersects with daily life, and how irreligion is viewed in Indonesia.

Maybe you wonder why Indonesia is so religious. Indonesia has its own special ideology called “Pancasila” (English: Five Principles). The first and foremost principle is “Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa”, which means “belief in the One and Only God”. It is usually interpreted as “obligatory to adhere to a religion”. While it explicitly advocates for monotheism, non-monotheistic religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese traditional religion, and indigenous religions like animism or the like are also allowed and adhered to by some folks; for example, most Balinese adhere to Hinduism. However, their numbers are insignificant compared to Abrahamic monotheism.

The particular principle thereby allows, encourages, and mandates practice of religion, even in public place. The Constitution of Indonesia, Undang-undang Dasar 1945, in section 29, states that:

(1) The State is based on the One and Only God. (echoes the first principle of Pancasila)

(2) The State guarantees the independence of each citizen to embrace their respective religions and to worship according to their religion and belief. (religious freedom)

Indonesia is also one of the countries (or is it the only one?) which has a “Ministry of Religion”, specialised for dealing with things involving religion.

So, according to the ideology and constitution, religion is central for Indonesia. This is the basis of Indonesia’s wide practice of religion.

The first principle is evident in daily life. Religion is, as I say, as staple as rice for most Indonesians. It’s taken for granted for someone to follow a religion. The idea of “no religion” is alien to Indonesians, unless one has gone abroad to secular countries and met nones already, or somehow encountered irreligious people on the internet. The Indonesian identity card, called KTP (Kartu Tanda Penduduk), has a religion section on it, and it’s expected to be filled in, if not then you will have difficulties in social errands and you will be stigmatized by society. The family identity card (Kartu Keluarga) also lists the religion of family members.

Look at the reddish-orange box. The word “agama” means “religion”. Too bad it doesn’t mean a kind of lizard

This is the Indonesian family ID. The reddish-orange box is the religion section.

It’s also expected by society for you to practice your religion. So for example, if you say “I’m Christian” but you say that you never attend church, you will get strange looks or be seen rather negatively, even by Muslims. The same goes for Muslims; if you say “I’m Muslim” but you rarely pray (doing shalat), people will look at you strangely and most likely to view you negatively. Due to familial and societal pressure, religious observance becomes habit in people. The idea of “cultural Muslim”, “cultural Christian”, “religion in name only” and so on are viewed unfavourably or negatively and tend to be negatively judged by people. It’s also seen as alright to ask directly what religion someone belongs to. It’s common to be curious of or search for info about a celebrity’s religion. Some people also develop judgement based on religion.

Because practice of religion is deemed very important, religious buildings are basically everywhere. Mosques are usually found just in intervals of metres, often less than 1 km. Nearing the time of prayer (shalat), you can hear adzan (call of prayer) nearly everywhere. You’ll be hard-pressed to avoid hearing adzan in cities, towns, or villages. The Maghrib (the 4th time of prayer, starts at around 17.30 or 5.30 PM) adzan is portrayed in TVs as interstitials. There are also many religious programs on public/free TV services (not TV cable/parabola services), such as sermons (dakwah). The state-owned TV station, TVRI, hosts religious programs for Islam, Christianity, Hindu, and Buddhists.

Based on the first principle stated above, religiosity is hailed as a virtue and one of the “characters of the Nation of Indonesia”. It is a part of the “character building” for both children and adults. The National Ministry of Education has made an official list of “18 characters of the Nation of Indonesia” to be taught and instilled to students/children, and religiosity (being religious) is listed in first place. Indonesia’s most recent education curriculum, the 2013 curriculum, also lists religiosity as a character to be taught to children. So, children are encouraged to be taught to be religious in school, home – basically everywhere. Children are therefore taught religious concepts and activities such as to pray, to go worship, and observe religion by parents from an early age, and usually these activities become habitual when they become adults. There are religious after-school activities, such as Qur’an reading/recitation (known here as “mengaji”) for Muslim children. Christians have Sunday school in all kinds of churches, and parents are usually encouraged or even expected to send their kids to Sunday school.

According to the Government Regulation of the Republic of Indonesia Number 55 of 2007, religious education is mandatory at all education levels, from the first grade in elementary school to university. Students are grouped according to their religion and are then assigned to the appropriate religion class, so it’s not the education of comparative religion. Thus, from an early age, children are taught religion and to live life according to their religion, regardless as to whether they really understand it or not. This also means that creationism is taught early and with religion everywhere; creationism, which is based on religion, easily gets “rooted” in children’s minds. By contrast, evolution is included only in the 12th grade in high school (from my experience in state-owned school), and even then, it’s only for natural sciences students, not including social sciences students. Evolution is only taught in more detail in Biology major. In addition, prayer is also employed at school, before and after lessons.

Not only does this happen in religious practice and education, but public events also often invoke God or include religion. Prayer is habitually done before starting and after finishing any events, be it private or public. Public speeches often start by religious greetings, usually the Islamic “assalamualaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh” – the equivalent of “shalom aleichem” – and include the utterance of “let us be thankful to God that we’re able to present in this event hale and hearty…” and finish by religious greetings “wassalamu’alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh”. The greetings are also used by some non-muslims and widely used at other occasions as well.

Marriages are, by law, only valid and recognised if done as part of a religious ceremony and include the signing of a marriage certificate. The signing of the secular document (the certificate of marriage) is done after the religious ceremony. Indonesia does not hold nor recognise secular, non-religious marriage in its territory. However, Indonesia does recognise secular marriages performed in other countries. The law of marriage in Indonesia after 1974 also states that it’s done only in one religion’s ceremony, so “unequally yoked” couples usually have to follow one partner’s religion and give up the other.

Religion also extends in book forewords. It’s common to put the phrase of thanking God for finishing the work in forewords. This is common in many books of various genres, be it fiction or non-fiction.

Notice the boxed section. It says in English: “Praise and thanks we offer to the One and Only God for his grace and guidance so that this Biology (text)book for Grade 10 Senior High School (2013 curriculum) could be finished well.” (Source: Own Documentation)

Expressions from Arabic-Islam are also widely used by Muslims and even sometimes also by non-muslims. Examples are “Alhamdulillah” (praise be to Allah) when getting favourable situations, “astaghfirullah” when surprised, “Masya Allah” when encountering bad behaviour, and “inshallah” (may Allah wills it, equivalent to God wills it, Deus vult) when promising.

You can also see how religious most Indonesians are by the way they react to favours, such as getting big prizes or winning competitions. Most religious Muslim Indonesians will “fall flat on their face” (KJV style, known as “sujud syukur” which means thankful sujud/bowing) while religious Christians will usually say “praise the Lord”.

Indonesian people also still tend to believe in superstition. Demons, ghosts, demonic possession, and other supernatural stuff are still believed as real by the majority of Indonesians. Myths and urban legends are commonly believed and paranormals are still abundant here, and there are people who still visit and seek their help.

Indonesia still holds most conservative ethics commonly held by fundamentalists and the USA’s Religious Right, which are based on religions, mainly Abrahamic faiths such as Islam. Indonesia is one of the countries that doesn’t recognise LGBT rights along with Arabic countries. LGBT is still seen as abnormal and an anomaly. Ethics on sex is also strict, in which sex before marriage is taboo and stigmatized;  there is a purity culture; there is a big no-no on abortion; and many others. Most people, especially women, will go to the beach or swimming pool in full clothing; bikinis or too revealing clothes are heavily stigmatized. Many Muslim girls are taught or trained to “cover their aurat” by wearing hijab, thus you’ll be hard-pressed to find non-hijaber Muslim girls, and the hijab is quite useful to differentiate between Muslim girls and non-muslims. Alcoholic beverages are also very strictly regulated, such that they are expensive and hard to find, including wine, unless you’re at Eucharist. Religious laws are held in very high regard in Indonesia.

Hell is used extensively in Islam, Indonesia’s majority religion, and we all know that hell, for believers, isn’t pretty; thus people are driven to avoid hell by being religious. Christians also employ hell; however, they don’t ude it much here, instead saying that “Christ has assured us that we are saved from hell, so be grateful to him”, so lots of Christians also strive to be more religious to show that they are grateful to God, to gain more blessings, to “reach and become intimate” with God, etc. The idea of sin and hell is commonplace here, and often brought up in many conversations.

Atheism is seen as “enemy” and “being incompatible” with Indonesian values, due to Pancasila stated above. Furthermore, Indonesia was hurt by communist attempt of coup d’état in 1965, in which communism was (and still is) equated with atheism since communist countries were atheist at the time; thus atheism is seen as an equal of communism. Due to Pancasila, Indonesians are brought to the idea that the belief in God is automatic or occurs naturally in humans. Such a view is also boosted by the fact that there is no encounter with atheists, agnostics, or nones, making the vast majority of Indonesians lack understanding in the concepts of atheism, agnosticism, and irreligion. This then tends to stigmatize those views heavily. Indonesians are taught that “Indonesians are people with religion; we are religious people” and, as such, atheists seen to be unfit as part of the Indonesian people.

In addition, Indonesia also has a blasphemy law. This is used as an advantage by people who easily get overly offended when their religion is criticised. The way I see it, it hinders criticism of religion and is an obstacle to freedom of speech. In Indonesia, there is a “defender” for the body of Islam: the Islam Defender Front (Front Pembela Islam). The blasphemy law makes the act of criticising any religion very risky, especially Islam, considering the FPI organisation mentioned before. You can be jailed for speaking out against a religion’s teachings, dogma, or holy writ. One famous example is Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, the former governor of Jakarta who inadvertently said that Muslims were fooled by a chapter in the Qur’an in the front of a Muslim crowd in Seribu Island. Am offended Muslim took this as a blasphemy and all hell was let loose. What was weird was that the Muslim crowd was not at all bothered by Ahok’s comment, but a offended Muslim, who was not in the place, interpreted it as blasphemy. This happened roughly 2 years ago, and at the end, Ahok was “found guilty” and jailed until now.

However, there are some Indonesian atheists. There is a group named “Anda Bertanya, Ateis Menjawab” (You Ask, Atheist(s) Answer) on Facebook. A prominent Indonesian atheist is Karl Karnadi, the founder of the aforementioned FB group. Indonesian atheists, agnostics, or those who don’t share the usual, traditional, conservative views of God and religion, usually opt to leave the country and live in more secular countries such as Europe, Australia, Singapore, etc. (Karl Karnadi lives in Germany now), while those who can’t are forced to play pretend.

So, you can see now that religion is ingrained in Indonesia. It’s very much religious, and despite the fact that the nation doesn’t actually have a state religion, religion is itself embodied de facto as a part of the state’s ideology. Coupled with Indonesia’s relatively low education quality compared to other countries (constantly sitting at the top 10 lowest rank of PISA ranking), and the fact that many people didn’t even get an education in the country’s past, religion is even taking root deeper within its culture.


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