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.