No Need to Believe: Indonesia's Atheists

This article was originally published in The Jakarta Globe

At first glance, Karl Karnadi may look like any other 20-something trying to find his place in the world. It doesn’t take long, however, to realize there is something positively different about him. 

Consciously argumentative, eagerly opinionated and thoroughly knowledgeable, Karl stands for something many Indonesians still find utterly unfathomable: He is an outspoken atheist, and the founder of the rapidly growing Indonesian Atheists community. 

Karl, 29, does not keep his beliefs private, something many other Indonesian atheists have chosen to do in the face of frequent hostility. He makes no bones about his rejection of what he refers to as supernaturally infused beliefs, and he is passionate about fostering a fundamental change in Indonesia while remaining realistic about the challenges. 

Furthermore, Karl promotes tolerance, and is far less hostile toward religion than some of the world’s most recognized scholars of nonbelief such as Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett and Richard Dawkins. 

Established in 2008, Karl’s IA has 677 active members on its Facebook page who discuss the profusion of religiously related topics around the country. 

The IA community has also taken part in a variety of scientific and philosophical seminars and gatherings, and has expanded its ties with similar groups outside Indonesia. 

“We’ve built a network with other nonbelievers and humanist organizations in Southeast Asia,” Karl says. 

With other atheist associations in Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, IA has established a joint Web site called Southeast Asian Atheists, or sea-atheists.org, which hopes to broaden the discussion among atheists from different backgrounds. 

“Starting last year, we have also affiliated ourselves with a global network called Atheist Alliance International, through which we build close contacts with similar communities around the world,” Karl said. “From Pakistan, Brazil, Ireland and Afghanistan, there are atheists and agnostics everywhere.” 

Karl’s road toward becoming one of the country’s most outspoken atheists was both unique and lengthy. Born in a country where faith takes a strong hold beginning at birth, he grew up religiously in a Christian home. By his own account, Karl, who now lives in Germany, was brought up in a very religious setting. “My childhood was filled with church activities,” Karl said. He was even a church pianist up until only two years ago. “I knew nothing about science, about skepticism,” he said. “I wasn’t a rebellious kid compared to others the same age. I accepted all religious teachings and never questioned it in the slightest.” But his family was also very religiously tolerant. He would often pay visits to acquaintances from other faiths during religious holidays, instilling a sense of open-mindedness, something that would eventually help to shape his atheism. “I went over to our Muslim neighbors every Idul Fitri to congratulate them. Eventually, every Christmas, our Muslim neighbors would also do the same,” he said. “This very valuable experience has stayed with me, and taught me that religious tolerance is not only possible, but also worth fighting for.” 

Karl’s acceptance of his religious upbringing, however, would undergo a crucial change after a move to Germany, where he went to study in his early 20s. He noticed a change in how many of his Indonesian peers began addressing themselves. Instead of identifying themselves according to a specific Indonesian ethnicity (such as Javanese or Balinese), they referred to themselves as strictly Indonesian. All the different levels of wealth, culture and regional identity that seemed so important back home were suddenly irrelevant. For Karl this change showed how people, when removed from their comfort zone and placed somewhere foreign, tend to bond with those who are most similar. And while these fellowships might be an obvious psychological response experienced by countless people, for Karl it was something more: An awakening. He realized that this rare feeling of nationalism was something to strive for, and something that could only be achieved if every Indonesian truly accepted all beliefs. Karl’s convictions evolved into an atypical form of atheism; instead of wanting to rid his country of organized religion, he wanted atheism to be an acknowledged part of a harmonious country. It was unlike most forms of irreligiousness, but Karl was convinced it could work. “It is sad that only after we experience loneliness in a foreign land are those feelings of nationalism evoked within us,” he said. “Indonesia does not belong to any particular group, nor does it belong to the majority; it belongs to every Indonesian, regardless of their religiosity, or lack thereof. We should always remember this.” 

Karl’s transformation from a tolerant-religious person to a tolerant-atheist came after what he calls years of learning and questioning. “I learned that people can be religion-less and still live a happy and moral-filled life full of passion and dreams,” he said. “My irreligiousness wasn’t shaped in an instant. About eight years ago, I started to acquaint myself with larger philosophical information and knowledge in documentaries and books,” he said. “At first, I did it all without any intention of leaving my religion. But the more I learned, the harder it was for me to accept any religious teachings, books or anything labeled as ‘holy.’ I started to question, and eventually doubt them.” Through this doubt, Karl concluded that there was nothing left for him in religion. “I found that all religion basically has the same dogmatism: That you should not question any given teachings,” he said. He began questioning some of the staunchly religion-based policies in Indonesia, such as why it is compulsory for an Indonesian to be registered under a religion in order to marry, or in some cases, study. The impossibility of even challenging these policies further enraged him. 

“Why must we be forced to shut our mouths against publicly criticizing religion or religious beliefs in general?” he said. “I refuse to submit to such restrictions, which are a clear violation of my human rights.” Once he openly pronounced himself a nonbeliever, Karl realized living by his convictions was going to be a challenge, even as an Indonesian living abroad. “There are many Indonesian nonbelievers who aren’t as lucky as me,” he said. “Living in Indonesia, they have to lead a double life and are forced to pretend they are religious in order to avoid trouble, discrimination and all forms of negative repercussions, including the violent ones.” He says that living in Germany shields him from most of his acquaintances’ reactions. As he learned more about atheism and religion, it also became clear just how necessary an open forum was to discuss the variety of beliefs. So it only seems natural that IA came to fruition. 

“IA was established to function as a safe haven for the Indonesian nonbelievers, and to eventually accommodate a lot of other people, not just atheists and agnostics, but also some ‘moderate’ Muslim and Christian friends that we have. The IA group has evolved from an exclusive online Facebook group to a real community with real people and real support,” he said. 

As IA expands its membership, its notoriety has followed suit. Karl and his peers regularly engage in heated (though rarely immature or disrespectful) arguments on their Facebook page. These debates are not only with religious believers, but also with fellow skeptics. 
“It is funny that some people still see our atheist group as the enemy,” Karl said. “All that we are doing is seeking friends and acceptance. While I don’t personally believe in any form of religion, I do believe in religious freedom. And I’ve passionately defended the rights of GKI Yasmin Christians, Shia Islam, Ahmadiyyah and Buddhists to worship according to their beliefs, just as I am defending my own right to not worship anything and to express my opinions freely.” 

Though IA has yet to achieve everything Karl and his peers want — namely complete freedom to not believe — they have found comfort in each other’s presence. “We Indonesian nonbelievers are still highly discriminated against, both by the law and a lot of people, but at least we have each other and no longer feel alone and disheartened,” Karl said. “We’ve also gotten a lot of support from some of our religious friends who are also very passionate in their fight against religious discrimination.” Karl said he didn’t know what the future held for IA. “But I dream of an Indonesia where people of various religions or no religion can live side by side without fear. And for Indonesia to truly become a Bhinneka Tunggal Ika [Unity in Diversity] country that sees diversity truly as a strength, not a weakness.” 

For more information go to, www.sea-atheists.org/indonesia