Monday, September 27, 2010

Group Therapy

Religion never seems to be far from the news headlines these days alas. You've got Koran burnings, Ground Zero Islamic community center scandals, the Pope visiting Anglican Britain and being confronted with huge demonstrations, Vicars in Jakarta being stabbed and the image of the Virgin Mary that miraculously appeared on a slice of toast that I was buttering last week (although this last story has yet to be picked up by the press). Peace be upon us indeed.

Last weekend though, I threw caution to the four winds and headed off to a meeting of the new group called IA, (it stands for Indonesian Atheists). Many of you I'm sure will find the concept of an Indonesian atheist an oxymoron on a par with adult male, military intelligence or business ethics, but IA are a real group who use the power of the Internet to offer support to each other in a country that, to say the least, isn't too big on irreligious free thinking...or free thinking of any kind really.

In any case, I donned my finest infidel hair shirt and headed down to... well, I promised that I wouldn't tell as these are, to put it mildly, religiously delicate times in the good old R of I. It was basically a completely normal Jakartan house though and people were hanging out and talking earnestly about their various trials and tribulations as godless freaks of nature in this land of unity in diversity.

Religion may indeed be the opium of the masses (along with actual opium of course), however the IA gathering felt like nothing so much as an AA meeting. Perhaps being an atheist in Indonesia is akin to being an alcoholic in the West, a deviation from social norms requiring the mutual support and affirmation of the similarly afflicted. "Hi, my name is Bambang and I'm an atheist. I last had a pray two years ago."

I overheard a few snatches of conversation, one ethnic Chinese chap was saying that, "My family said I was misquoting Jesus.” I guess his family must have had access to the original transcripts. I noted though that there were both Christian atheists and Muslim atheists present (to adapt an old joke about the Irishman who is stopped by some thugs of unknown denomination on the street one night. "Are you Protestant or Catholic?" The thugs demand. "I'm an atheist" he replies shrewdly. "But are you Protestant atheist or Catholic atheist?" They demand).

We were then all treated to a rather nifty PowerPoint presentation by our host. IA has a rather neat logo in fact, although I doubt that you'll be seeing it on advertising hoardings at public events across Indonesia anytime soon alongside the imprecations to contract lung cancer. Our host briefly adumbrated his hopes for IA and was at pains to stress that IA is just an idea and a group in which people can share their stories and support each other. He explained that the group had no central dogmas but was rather, "A free marketplace of ideas."

Obviously atheism is a lack of belief in something rather than a belief, and as such, getting atheists to agree on an issue has been likened to attempting to herd cats. Conversely though, everyone present seemed to occupy the top end of the Indonesian educational spectrum and I've always felt that atheists, more often than not, do in fact share a lot of values in common, including a belief in freedom, reason and pluralism.

IA apparently has 400 members, not a great dent in a population of 230 million admittedly, but it's a start and hopefully others will find their way to the group via the Internet, as they become disillusioned with this country's demagoguery, barely concealed politics of exclusion and often numbingly conformist social hegemony. This is provided, of course, that Communications and Information Technology Minister Sembiring doesn't decide to start filtering the group’s web presence, although he's not having much joy with the blocking of pictures of nude ladies so far. Perhaps IA should make sure their Internet site features plenty of nipples.

Religion, as has been distressingly demonstrated recently, is an extremely high stakes game in this country but if there's hope, it is that a new generation will use the Internet to educate itself about the wider world. As our IA imam explained, the Internet is, "A free world inside the real world." Long may it stay that way.

I tarried a while before eventually leaving. There was no holy water on hand to steady my nerves, but I chatted to a few fellow godless types and enjoyed the extremely novel sensation of being in a room full of Indonesian unbelievers (although personally I've always have a soft spot for Thor and his jolly impressive hammer).

Hopefully the group won’t be infiltrated by Jihadist types wielding big sticks and will continue to meet and offer people the opportunity to discuss their lack of superstition with people who understand. The country surely needs clear thinkers and humanists such as this if it is to prosper. Now let us all rise and sing hymn number 54, “I'm Goin' to a Hole in the Ground.” Amen brothers and sisters.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Smash It Up

Hot on the heels of no lesser figure than SBY himself, I jetted over to Kinabalu on Borneo’s northernmost tip for this year’s Lebaran holiday. I was hoping for a pleasant break, although I also wanted to check if hard-line Indonesian nationalists had made good on their promise to, “Smash Malaysia.”

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the place seemed to be fully intact as I bagged a taxi into town.  Kota Kinabalu is rather a pleasant city in fact and sports a lovely long waterfront which overlooks five pristine tropical islands, each of which can be accessed cheaply by day trippers via a 20 minute boat ride.  The province of Sabah that KK sits in is also full of natural wonders.

I guess I’m already beginning to sound like the anodyne croon of a ‘Malaysia Truly Asia’ ad. Hopefully however, the experience of visiting this sunny and vibrant seaside city acted as a soothing balm on the inflamed prostate of the president’s national pride and a major conflagration was averted at the recent Kota Kinabalu peace conference between Indonesia and Malaysia. After all SBY has more pressing matters to attend to at home, such as building a luxurious five star fun shack for the country’s indolent legislators and sweeping stabbed vicars under the carpet.

For my part, I was glad to tarry a while in Malaysia and enjoy my Lebaran break somewhere just a touch more organized and together than most of Indonesia is (although I’d better tread carefully here, lest the putative Malaysia smashers redirect their attentions towards the more easily accessible target of Metro Madness Towers).

My main mission however this fine Lebaran was to, in hindsight rather masochistically, scale the mighty Mount Kinabalu and live to tell the tale. Gunung Kinabalu is apparently the tallest mountain between the Himalayas and Papua and stands a daunting 4095m above sea level. Modest by global standards perhaps but quite tall enough for my aging pins to be getting on with.

The entrance to the mountain trail sits in a beautifully verdant national park a couple of hours from town. I set off midmorning with a guide and a frighteningly healthy group of muesli chomping European backpackers and yomped up an increasingly steep 6km long path to the overnight base camp where we rested before the final 3km push to the summit. Along the way I chatted to some of the local guides in their own language (which is almost identical to Indonesian after all) and they told me that they were not particularly interested in going to war with Indonesia as they were great fans of Luna Maya and Ariel’s educational video. Good lads.

After a fitful sleep at base camp, we awoke at 1.30am for the moment of truth. This would sort out the men from the prematurely geriatric newspaper columnists. It was pitch black, raining and pea soup foggy, which is just as well because at times the climb involved clinging onto ropes and gingerly shuffling across precipices and drops that may have had a big wuss like me turning back if I could have seen down for further than about two meters.
Near the top, the terrain was barren, rocky and vertiginously steep and I could only manage around five minutes standing still on the summit before my delicate nipples started to freeze over. And so I began the long trudge down as daylight started to soften the engulfing blackness. After around half an hour I briefly looked up from my frozen hands as they clung for dear life to the guide ropes and was confronted with the most amazingly vast and panoramic view I have ever seen. A huge sweep of rugged geography stretching all the way to the ocean around 90km away.

I still had about 8km of descending to do though and began shoveling chocolate into my face to fuel the ensuing marathon. I’m reasonably fit, however ascending and descending mountains works those muscles like a sadistic, amphetamine fuelled aerobics instructor who’s just lost her car keys. When I finally staggered over the finish line I passed a board proclaiming the results of the ‘2009 Kinabalu Climabathon’. Apparently the winner had made it to the summit and all the way back down again in 2 hours and 40 minutes. He must have been using a stunt double in my opinion.

The following day my calf muscles felt as if they had been surgically removed, hammered with a meat tenderizer for an hour and then delicately sutured back into place. I had used a walking stick on the descent in an attempt to save the old knees a bit, however this meant that my arms were almost as spavined as my legs were. I covered my entire body in mentholated sticking plasters but to no immediate relief.

Don’t let me discourage you though. There are plenty of less strenuous activities on offer in Sabah: jungle treks, beaches, white water rafting, it’s all there and Malays do do the whole tourism thing rather well. Consider it doing your bit for bilateral relations. Promise me that you won’t smash anything while you’re there though.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Holidays in the Sun

Hopefully, all of you are currently on holiday, windsurfing, hiking, having candlelit dinners, getting ripped to the tits on Shiraz and generally giving thanks to Allah for this break from having your souls crushed to dust beneath the relentless pounding of life's hammers.

I have also managed to skip town and head off into the wide blue yonder for some much needed rest and relaxation, more of which next week I shouldn't wonder. If you're still in Jakarta, then enjoy the relative peace. I stress the word 'relative' however as it's not as if tumbleweeds start blowing down Jl. Sudirman during Idul Fitri. Some respite from the 10 million plus souls that sardine can themselves into the capital every day is most welcome I’m sure though.

Thank the lord that the spell of work has been broken for a while and I can crawl off to reflect upon my own mortality and really get to work on those hangovers. Many of you may be thinking about turning over a new leaf after the holiday, however I somehow doubt that Indonesia as a whole, or indeed the rest of the world will manage to pull itself back from the brink.

It’s perhaps a myth that we all buy into, to a greater or lesser extent, that somewhere there’s a group of bureaucrats ultimately in charge of things and that the world is following a well thought out master plan. SBY, for example, is currently being berated for letting the country slip out of his control, but does anyone really believe the media sound bites and unctuous concerns of the world's politicians anymore? Do we really believe that they have any meaningful long term plans for us beyond five year economic cycles?

It's like the classic Santa Claus scenario. The parents don't believe in Father Christmas but do it for the kids, the kids don't really believe in Father Christmas after a certain age but keep the ritual going because they're afraid to say something and enjoy the presents. A whole belief system is sustained, without anyone actually believing in it.

This is how I feel about modern governments and democracies, but possibly many of you are a good deal more optimistic than myself. Alas, personally, I find it hard to square the sickly, Hollywood, feel-good ethic of wistful, crypto-Zen environmentalism and caring, global village philanthropy that we're all force-fed and told to aspire to through the media and movies, with the corporate machine currently chewing up our world for fun and profit. I’ve lost all faith.

It seems to me that you can't be a politician in these tricky, propaganda filled times and combine conviction (in official ideology), intelligence and honesty together in one package. If you believe and are intelligent, then you're not honest. If you are intelligent and honest, you're not a believer. If you're a believer and honest, you're not intelligent. Such is the malaise of our age and I doubt that SBY will be able to do much to reverse this sorry state of affairs with the political tools he has at his disposal. This is perhaps strange though, considering that the Indonesian parliament is simply full of political tools, as far as I can tell.

But never mind, this holiday has at least propelled me outside Jakarta’s preposterous urban frenzy and given me a good look at the rainforests of Southeast Asia, whilst there are still some of them left. Getting a ticket proved to be tricky however. The mass exodus out of Jakarta includes all flights and supposedly Bali is rammed with Idul Fitri holidaymakers this week, who are no doubt currently turning the Island of the Gods into the Island of the Sods.

In fact, the only flight I could manage to find out of Jakarta to the Southeast Asia area, that wasn't triple or even quadruple the normal fare, was an AirAsia jaunt over to Kota Kinabalu up in Borneo's northernmost Malaysian province of Sabah. I snapped up the ticket and then learned a couple of days later that the Indonesian and Malaysian governments would be having a peace conference in this very same city before my arrival. Hopefully the conference went well and ended with an agreement to cap faecal embassy lobbings and fishermen arrests at an acceptable level.

For my part, I aim to report back from KK for next week's column, and perhaps offer a comparative study of the Indonesian and Malaysian tourism industries. All being well, I'll also be climbing the famous Gunung Kinabalu, which is supposedly Southeast Asia's highest peak (if you discount the island of Papua, which is cheating a little I know).

As of now however, it's Wednesday afternoon and the rain is bucketing down on Jakarta once again, dampening my holiday spirits and generally annoying the hell out of me as I'm wanting to pop round to my local mini mart for a few cleansing beverages. Chin chin everyone, and don't pray to hard, you may just get what you wish for, and nothing’s worse than that.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Mama Weer All Crazee Now

Well this year's Ramadan has been a surprisingly trouble free affair, given the increasingly high profile of religious paramilitary urban guerrilla types in the country. I've been expecting to have my Prohibition era teacup dashed from my lips as I enjoy a little holy month holy water in some of the city's less salubrious watering holes, but thankfully nothing has transpired. It's long been a pet theory of mine that Bintang and Anker both have their own groups of thugs who don religious garb before tooling around town in flatbed trucks, smashing up each other's bars.

Most of Jakarta's boorish yobbery is currently being channeled into nationalism as opposed to religious radicalism in fact. Protesters have got all excremental on the Malaysian Embassy, seemingly oblivious to the fact that if you start throwing your own stools around like some of Ragunan Zoo's more simian charges, then the joke's kind of on you. Moreover, presumably it was Indonesians, rather than Malaysians, who had to clear the whole sorry mess up.

Religion wise, all seems to be calm however. There have hardly been any drums pounding at 3am or relentless fireworks keeping me awake all night. A couple of times however I found myself being woken up, having forgotten to insert my anti-sectarian, godless communist expanding foam earplugs (available from all good drugstores, land-of-nod fans).

The call to sahur (i.e. wake up and do some cooking) has been going off at a ludicrously early 2.30am around my neck of the woods this year. This occasionally gives me a rude awakening and finds me stumbling to the toilet through the stygian gloom of my bedroom in order to purge my bowels of Ramadan "tea" before all falls silent...for another 90 minutes and then it all kicks off again of course.

As a baby eating atheist, religious observance and the dedication and commitment that the faithful show towards religious rituals never ceases to amaze me. In fact, I almost wish I could feel some of that spirituality myself, although, as a true trencherman, I wouldn't be so keen on the actual fasting side of things. It's a scientific fact though that the religiously committed on this planet suffer significantly lower levels of stress and depression than Darwinian infidels such as myself, who know that the existential void lurks malevolently out there beyond human culture, like a freshly soiled embassy compound.

I've been reading some fascinatingly contentious academic theories about religion of late and about the mental processes and irrational behaviors that may have bought them about in the first place. We still live in an ostensibly irrational world, that's for sure. A recent opinion poll revealed that 25% of Americans believe in ghosts, that 35% of them believe in mental telepathy and that more than 50% believe that Satan influences events on Earth. These are people who can vote, serve on juries, make decisions about medical interventions and so on and one can only imagine what the figures would be like for this country. We live in a highly irrational world for sure but where does it all come from?

A psychologist called Devereux in the 1940s posited religion as organized schizophrenia and theorized that shamans and prophets were neurotic and "schizotypal" (basically, mildly schizophrenic). In other words, conditions that the secular world classifies as mental illness may have played a crucial role in the propagation of religions.

The meta-magical thinking involved in coming up with stories about talking snakes, flying horses and virgin births is commensurate with the kind of disconnection from reality seen in schizotypal patients. It's important however that this shamanic-schizotypal behavior not be too extreme for it to work as a religious catalyst.

If you’re hearing voices all the time then things won't work, however if you hear voices in the right context, at the right moments, then you can be perceived as a holy man. If you babble and speak in tongues continually then you'll be ostracized, but babble during your tribe's holiest ceremony and you've been touched by God. In other words, get it wrong and you're labeled a dangerous, freakish cult. Exhibit the schizotypal behavior in the right context however and just maybe, for the next few millennia, people won't have to go to work on your birthday.

Similarly, it's been theorized that many religious rituals may have origins in another kind of mental disturbance, mainly OCD or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Most of the world's major religious rituals involve such OCD type behavior as repeated washing, entering and leaving buildings in certain special ways and obsessive numerology. It is therefore not difficult to imagine OCD sufferers millennia ago saying to their tribes, "This is how I've been honoring the Almighty all these years, you should join me."

It's all fascinating stuff and if you wish to engage in a debate, then all letter bombs and envelopes full of anthrax should be mailed to me with a return address on the back. In the meantime, enjoy next week's holiday and I hope you have a blessed rest. Have a thoroughly rational Lebaran one and all.