Novi is from Jakarta, the sprawling metropolis of 28 million people on the island of Java in Indonesia. This is largest Muslim country in the world, with 87% of its 250 million residents identifying as Muslim. Like the majority of Indonesians, Novi grew up in a Muslim family, but unlike most, she eventually lost her faith in Islam and became an atheist. Indonesia has been a relatively moderate Muslim country but being an atheist carries costs beyond just being a social outcast – it can lose you your job or wind you up in jail, as happened to Alexander Aan in Sumatra in 2012. He was sentenced to two and half years prison time for blasphemy, declaring himself an atheist, and insulting Mohammad on his personal Facebook page and a Facebook group for atheists which he administered. In this environment, how does a person decide to leave God and the religion they were indoctrinated with from birth?
During her childhood, Novi had a good relationship with God and Islam. As she describes it, “I was praying 5 times or more a day. My mom would wake me up at 4am to pray. It bothered me a little but I accepted it as a belief that must be followed. It was like meditation. It calmed me.” When she was 16, her father passed away from health issues. Novi absorbed herself in prayer, reading the Quran and reciting the special prayers for a deceased parent. She also prayed when she was nervous for exams, as she explains:
“It helped me focus and gave me support. I remember when I wanted to study at one of the best universities in Indonesia, but it was competitive and I wasn’t sure they would accept me. So I went to the mosque on the campus and prayed. It strengthened me and gave me purpose. When I got into my preferred school, I attributed it not only to my studies, but to God.
At university, she was considering showing her devotion to Islam by wearing the hijab, the Muslim head covering also known as a jilbab. Her mom wore one but the only time Novi covered her head before had been when she went to mosque or her mom’s prayer meetings. She decided against the hijab during her second year of university when she started questioning things while being exposed to different student organizations and new ways of thinking. “The journalist student organization had lots of atheists. It was my first experience speaking with people who didn’t believe in God,” she relates. She also spent time in the library reading tons of books that were considered taboo. “I was pouring through books on socialism and Marx – they were hidden away in the fourth floor in a corner. I saw that socialist thought was not some crazy, horrible thing like we were taught from the anti-communist propaganda in our school system. I started to question the line ‘They don’t believe in God, therefore they are evil’.” The international student organization that she joined brought in exchange students from Germany, Austria, and the United States exposing her to even more non-believers:
“We hung out with them and some of them didn’t believe in any religions and this brought me perspective. They were nice, honest people. They didn’t lie, they were smart, they worked, they were normal, good people. So I questioned even more. I still considered myself a Muslim but was praying less. I couldn’t see the point. I didn’t feel there would be negative consequences if I didn’t.”
In her last year of studies, Novi was at party held by an acquaintance of her mom and met Ricky, a 33 year-old from a Christian family who was also losing his religion. “We were similar in that sense and began seriously dating. We had to keep it secret though because our families were both religious. Sex before marriage was a no-no, but sex with a non-Muslim or non-Christian – it would be a catastrophe.” When Novi’s family suspected she had a relationship with a Christian, they confronted her and warned her about the consequences of dating him: they would sue him for abducting her and worse. Of the situation, Novi says:
“My family thought that if I had sex with him, that I would be his and therefore be a slave to his religion. His family thought I would do the same with him – I would use sex to seduce him and make him beholden to Islam. This blind hatred of other religions made me deeply question if religion was right. In these religions, they teach you to love but then on the other hand they also teach you to hate. This hypocrisy helped pushed me toward non-belief.”
For the next two years Novi and Ricky were in love and took extra care to hide their relationship. While Novi was enjoying her life, she felt moments of guilt around not-praying, not fasting, having sex, and some guilt around her un-Muslim actions hurting her mom, who she says was a loving parent. She was drinking too, which is also “haram” (forbidden) in Islam, but she never felt guilty about it. But going to hell was a concern. “Growing up I had a lot of worry about hell, so the fear of hell was definitely there. I was doing things that my religion said I would be punished for.” When she was seven, she saw a TV news program about tribal people in Africa who lived in a remote area without modern technology. Novi recalls:
“I asked my parents how could these people get blamed for not being Muslim, since there was no way they could know about our religion. I said it wasn’t fair if they went to hell, but my parents replied that, yes, they will go to hell and it’s their bad luck they didn’t get to the light.”
Eventually Novi and Ricky came up with plan to get married in Singapore and then return to Indonesia to get their marriage legalized in country. “At that point, we wanted to keep our respective religions but wanted to be together. In Indonesia, we could have gotten married but one would have had to change to the other’s religion. While we weren’t practicing, it was still part of our identity at the time as a result of growing up that way.” The plan was for Novi to graduate quickly and save enough money to be outside of her family’s control. After the marriage, they would move to Holland, where Ricky had a lot of relatives.
Upon graduation, Novi found a job and the couple prepared to carry out the rest of their plan. Ricky was working in his small shipping business. One night he was making the long drive home from Bogor to Jakarta after having made the journey multiple times that day. It was late and he was tired. Sleep overtook him and he crashed the car. Novi had last seen him two days before the accident and they had been discussing their future. “I wanted to come visit him at the hospital but he said he had only hit something and was fine now, his family was there, and everything was going to be fine.” Then she saw the car – the entire front was smashed up to the tire – and she became really worried. After a week in the hospital, Ricky died.
Novi went to the funeral as a “friend” of her deceased fiancé, which is how his family knew her. She fought back her tears so as to not expose their relationship and eventually had to leave to watch from a distance while she cried. Afterward she “worked her ass off trying to keep her sanity intact,” which helped somewhat with the pain of the loss. The first weekend after the funeral she wore his favorite dress and visited his tomb to say her personal goodbyes. “It was the hardest time of my life. At one point I thought I might die of a heart attack or something, I was just very sad.” But there were no prayers. She came to the conclusion that they were useless and the thought of them made her angry. Instead of lamentations to God when she thought about Ricky, she said, “Fuck you, God.” Her whole experience with Ricky made her question Islam and that didn’t change after his death.
Ricky had always stressed the importance of living abroad and experiencing other societies, something that was also discussed in Novi’s international student organization. Novi followed the advice and applied to an exchange program that landed her in Mumbai, India. “While many see India as a spiritual destination, in India I completely lost my faith,” she says laughing. Before arriving she knew she was almost finished with Islam. However, the question of a deity and other religions still loomed. At first she tried praying in Hindu temples and Christian churches to help with her grief. She also was hanging out with her fellow exchange students from more than 70 countries including atheists from ex-communist countries, the US, and Europe. Interacting with this diverse group of people from different backgrounds in a foreign environment had its effect:
“I quit practicing and didn’t believe anymore. I proved I could make it on my own without a god. It was so liberating not to have to worry about the rules, the guilt or fear about hell. For me it was just be ethical, don’t, lie, kill, etc. It was amazing to be doing things on my own, being in charge of my own life, knowing I could be whoever I wanted to be and could choose whatever I want. ”
It takes serious effort to leave a religion behind. Formerly, a core of Novi’s basis of the world had been Islam and she saw the notion of removing it threatening to her identity. Over time she found solid ground for understanding the world and her role in it from a humanist perspective without a god or the supernatural. This struggle over identity is something that believers often experience when leaving a religion behind and makes the journey harder than just a philosophical debate.
When Novi returned to Jakarta, she told her mom, “I will probably take a different path. I will still love you and if I change, accept me.” Novi found her own apartment, began work, and made new friends, both Indonesians and foreigners. Her mom accepted her but wished she wouldn’t have changed. She describes their relationship as “OK,” adding, “She’s religious and hopes that I identify as a Muslim, but I still don’t want to tell her the truth because I don’t want to hurt her.” Novi’s brother is a religious Muslim but has never said anything to her about her lack of faith or change of lifestyle.
But the extended family was another story. When she was 26, Novi joined her brother and mother on a visit to her mom’s relatives in Lampung in South Sumatra for the post-Ramadan holiday of Idul Fitri. There was a tribunal waiting for her made up of aunts, uncles and cousins all sitting in one room of her uncle’s house and she was told to sit in the middle. She reckoned some of them had probably seen her activities on Facebook and had been gossiping. Her mom went to the kitchen while the family judges bombarded her with questions: “Are you still praying? Are you fasting? Are you drinking? Why haven’t you married yet?” Novi’s response was short and direct, which she says was rude by Indonesian etiquette, saying only, “Whether or not I do these things is none of your business. When my father passed away, my mother was the only one who supported me. None of you were there to help. So you have no right to question or tell me what to do. Even my own mother doesn’t ask these questions to me.” Her uncle accused her of being possessed by demons and Novi assured him that there were no demons and she was speaking for herself. After that, the questions stopped and she hasn’t seen anyone from that part of the family since.
A year ago, Novi joined an Indonesian atheist group through social media that she is still active in. She’s now in her early thirties and has met most of her new friends through this network. “It’s a way to meet like-minded people and hang out and be yourself without fear. It’s been growing slowly.” She says that due to safety concerns, aspiring members need two people to vouch for them to join. There is still need for caution, especially as conservative Islam surges in the country. “If I could I would leave Indonesia. I can identify better with other parts of the world. I feel connected with people outside of Indonesia. Here I have to be cautious, I have to be careful.” Some of her Jakarta atheist friends took the next best option and moved to the Indonesian island of Bali, where 85% of the population is Hindu, which allows non-locals more freedoms and less-judgement. Novi concludes:
“Fascinatingly, I turned or shifted towards atheism without having realized I had become one. I did not search for more info about atheism. Little by little, I lost faith in my own religion. There had been too many contradicting facts on how Muslims act versus their ‘religion of peace.’ I only started to read about atheism four to five years ago. After India, I had lost my belief but I became more tolerant of other religions and people in general, including my mom. I see myself as a humanist that doesn’t believe in God. I believe in humans and our capabilities. The good and the bad.”
(The name “Novi” is a pseudonym used at her request due to potential risks for rejecting Islam and becoming an atheist.)
Grigoris Douros is the author of the satirical graphic novel Satanic Hell, about a metal band trapped in Texas run by Christian fanatics. Out now on Alterna Comics.