The members of Indonesian Atheist Parents come together to answer a simple question: How do you survive as an atheist parent in a country where such a stance is considered blasphemous?
In a place where a hint of holding an unpopular opinion — about God, no less — can land a person in jail, or at the very least make someone a social outcast, it can often feel like raising a child to think differently is impossible for both child and parent.
For too many, the social and administrative challenges will be too much. Seemingly trivial tasks such as filling out forms, visiting family and chitchat around the table become a burden wrought with personal ramifications.
Simply put, is the effort worth the trouble?
The Indonesian Atheist Parents Facebook community was established in April. As an outgrowth of Indonesia’s increasingly vocal atheist movement — showcased most visibly by Karl Karnadi’s Indonesian Atheist group — the group’s specific focus has garnered it followers with a dedicated interest toward what its founders tags as “parenting beyond belief.”
The group’s 70-plus members discuss topics ranging from specifically atheist issues (“What schools are secular?”; “What do you do when a relative asks the children about their religious studies?”; “How do you survive religious holiday gatherings?”) to more general ones about sex education, home-schooling and holiday destinations.
A.F. Simanjuntak, who agreed to speak only under his initials and clan name, founded the Indonesian Atheist Parents group. His clan name indicates that A.F. is Batak, a North Sumatran ethnicity that in general, holds strong Protestant values. He also comes from a military family, prompting him to joke that elements of his background are “not exactly a good combination” for him to be able to express progressive beliefs.
Along with his wife, A.F. hides his non-religiosity from their families, an understandable survival mechanism for the majority of Indonesian atheists.
The familial pressures of endless religious rituals — as well as the general outlook of a strongly religious family — became even more of a challenge when A.F. and his wife had children.
The Protestant religious rite Peneguhan Sidi (Sidi Confirmation), practiced as children enter their early teens, is of particular concern for the couple.
“We don’t particularly want our two children (boys in grades four and six) to partake in those rituals, but at the same time, it is a social process [in Indonesia] that is part of the child’s life,” A.F. said.
Announcing that their children will not undergo such rituals is likely to provoke family and friends, and has the potential to lead to alienation.
It could also deny their children a sense of shared experience with their peers.
“The biggest challenge is in encouraging the children’s character-building away from religious dogmas that surround them,” A.F. said. “Don’t get me wrong, we are not molding our kids into atheists — they are free to choose their own path, even as persons who believe in God — but they should be critical, free, and responsible.”
A.F.’s wife — who would only speak anonymously — said the children’s challenge as freethinkers is in making peace with themselves if they choose to continue living in the country.
“With the advantages they have [of not being subscribed into any religious dogma], our children could slip into being persons filled with hatred,” she said.
“Our task now as parents is to show them that people who believe in God can live next to someone who doesn’t; someone who is ‘smart’ can live along with someone who may not particularly be so, and so on. It is important for them to know that being able to survive in a society is much more important than basing their lives on a sense of narrow idealism.”
Group member Cherrie Petrissa, who lives in the Netherlands with her German husband, said being an atheist parent does have its drawbacks in terms of relationships, which she has come to terms with.
“I was raised in a mixed-faith family myself, with a Muslim father and a Catholic mother,” she said.
“My father is not a practicing Muslim, but my mother deals with me being an atheist raising an atheist child by being in denial. She keeps thinking that deep in my heart we’re all still believers. I let her have her peace that way.”
Another group member, a political journalist who only wishes to be identified as T.R., says he and his wife (who is not an atheist but a “very, very liberal Muslim”) have made peace with how much of their child’s life will be surrounded by religious beliefs. T.R. still commits to Muslim praying practices sometimes for the sake of familial “togetherness.”
“[My wife and I] think that shielding our daughter from religion will actually make her susceptible toward it, and vice versa,” he said.
T.R.’s only daughter, who is now in elementary school, goes to a “dangerously” religious school because of a lack of alternatives. But T.R. considers what matters most is the example that he and his wife set at home.
“If her home is filled with rational thinking, [her school and home life] creates a good balance,” T.R. said.
T.R. has little trepidation about how his daughter will cope in what he calls an “increasingly Muslim Indonesia.”
“The substance of [my daughter’s] generation of irreligious, rational thinkers will be the ones battling against [fundamentalists], and they will be prepared,” he said.
Both A.F. and T.R. accept that their children will have to live their lives — at least on paper — as religious believers. Their citizen ID card notes their religion (“Hers states Muslim, but does that really mean anything?” T.R. said of his daughter) and they both go to schools where religious studies are compulsory.
For A.F., religion benefits his children at least in familiarizing them with their ethnic roots. He said it was important for his family to be able to live a normal life despite their beliefs, or lack thereof.
His wife said it was important to prepare their children to be flexible in their idealism in order to survive.
She explained that although there “might be some great, achievable things without the presence of religion, [we’ve] gotten used to just see, take, and process the best out of all the bad things that exist in this life.”
For T.R., being a parent without the baggage of religion results in “a child who is stronger and not a crybaby, because she would not have to be dependent on something outside herself that is abstract and never concretely debated.”
He added: “There is nothing sadder than seeing an 8- or 9-year-old explain everything using ‘by the grace of god,’ showcasing a formed weakness of a mind that should be thinking about things without any limits.”
Facebook group (closed membership) Indonesian Atheist Parents.