Culture / Indonesia / Peace Corps / People / Religion

The Culture of Religion

That’s what learning is all about where spirituality is concerned: unlearning almost everything you’ve been taught. A willingness to learn and listen.

– Anthony de Mello, SJ

It is Sunday and there’s an elephant in the room. It’s because of me—of course—but not because I am “American” or not related to this family or because I barely speak since my language skills have plateaued and I’m not looking to engage in small talk yet again.

Today, the awkwardness is caused because I am supposedly Catholic and it’s Sunday. The questions start—diplomatically of course—I am Muslim, on Fridays I go to the Mosque, and you?

In my school and community, I’m surrounded by pious Muslims whose religion is likely the most important aspect of their life—and it should be. They pray several times a day and go to the mosque on a regular basis. Because I have identified myself as Catholic and because their religion is so important to them, they expect it to be for me as well and they are genuinely concerned with helping me find ways to practice my religion. There’s a Catholic church nearby, they tell me.

I know. I’ve seen it.

I greatly appreciate their efforts, but I respond, I am Catholic, but I usually don’t go to church.

Nervous laughter. Silence.

And my own internal conflict starts:

I shouldn’t even say I’m Catholic…

I can’t go to church here just to look good…

…I wouldn’t understand it if it’s all in bahasa Indonesia anyways.

Will I lose credibility as a community member and teacher if I am not a religious person?

I should just say I’m some other religion…

…Is it too late to say I’m Buddhist?

Wait…do Buddhists have a set day to go to temple?

What are the ethical implications involved in lying about being a religion you are not?

Man, I wish I had the language skills to explain this.

What exactly would I explain?

In the 3 months I’ve been living in Indonesia, I didn’t encounter this problem. My training host family was what is jokingly referred to as “Muslim I.D. Card,” which means they are Muslim according to government records, but don’t fully practice. In passing my training host family asked if I was Christian brought on by the ring bearing a cross that I always wear. I confirmed that I am Catholic, and they never brought it up again.

When you live in a country whose constitution proclaims—roughly paraphrased—we are a monotheistic republic and recognize the existence of one and only one God, religion is important. There are six recognized religions in Indonesia and you must belong to one of the following: Islam, Catholic, Christian, Protestant, Buddhism, Confucianism. You cannot legally be any other religion and you most certainly cannot be atheist. It is quite literally against the law and people have actually been arrested for it.

I knew this coming in to Indonesia and I wasn’t troubled. I am not an atheist. I do fervently believe in God. I have been raised Catholic all my life, I’ve been educated in my religion, I’ve fulfilled all of the Catholic religious milestones. So why am I not religious?

At some point of my college education at a Jesuit university, I came across this question: If you weren’t born in Ecuador, would you still be Catholic?

From that question stemmed many thoughts, and all that has become the big, fat elephant in my life—not just in Indonesia and with its people—but with my real family at home, too.

And I still don’t have an answer—and all of my thoughts on religion are too long and complicated to cover in one blog post. What I do know is that I have great respect for those people who have converted to a religion based primarily on their faith, not because of geo-specific associations or cultural ties to that religion.

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with another volunteer about his decision to convert to Islam after being raised Catholic all his life. Coincidentally, it was he who posed a version of the above question to our cultural facilitators during training: If you weren’t born in Indonesia, would you still be Muslim? The answer we received was unhesitatingly, no.

So where does this leave my religious confusion? Pretty much in the same place— which means to say, nowhere. I am neither for Catholicism nor against it. It is more on hold until I have more clarity on the subject. For me, God is too big and unexplainable to be packaged and rationalized by any human made system, so I have no urgency in finding a resolution. I also have no desire to disassociate myself entirely from Catholicism or to associate myself with any other religion, in large part because Catholicism does make me feel closer to my very religious family and to my overall Latin culture—the very thing that makes me doubt the authenticity of any geo-specific faith.

This entire internal conflict escalated in my mind to such a point that I decided to speak to Wawan, our Peace Corps Regional Manager, on the subject. He laughed heartily when I asked him if Indonesian people would understand my being Catholic but not religious, indicating that most people here are in the same predicament. It’s comforting to hear, but hard to believe that when it seems most people go off to pray and wear hijabs. Religion here is much more visible and it goes beyond Sundays or jewelry. Religion in Indonesia is a presence felt every day, many times a day—as constant as the multiple calls to prayer.

It is in Indonesia that I can really see how deeply religion infiltrates culture. If in the United States we are a country divided by thousands of different religions and thus, cultures, Indonesia is a country primarily united by one: Islam. If the people of Indonesia are divided by anything, it is by the hundreds of languages spoken by the hundreds of different ethnic groups. In turn, the United States is united in that most of its people speak English and share a predominant American pop culture, which spills into most other countries including Indonesia.

With this connection between culture and religion established, Wawan suggested that I should go to church at least one Sunday. It will help you integrate with your community, he said. Before talking to him, going to church just wasn’t even an option in my mind, but he’s right. Going to a Catholic church, even if it is just a few times a year, will help me meet the few people in my community who are culturally similar to me. The culture of religion does transcend borders, though language may not.

I’m still mulling this idea over. Though finding people who are culturally similar to me is appealing, religion is also dividing. I am already an outsider. Would I want to make it much more so by setting up a dynamic of me—the foreigner Catholic—mingling with the Catholic Indonesians versus the Indonesian Muslims in my school and home? It doesn’t necessarily have to be a conflict, but it does set up a divide that wouldn’t exist with maintaining religious ambiguity.

6 thoughts on “The Culture of Religion

  1. Dang, girl, you’ve been busy! I’ve got some catching up to do (I just got this internet sorted).
    Oh my…the religion is a fascinating topic, isn’t it?

    I hope you made your peace….for tonite anyway 😉


  2. Very insightful post, Melanie. I remember my first week at site, I was asked if I wanted to go to church and I declined. It never really turned out to be a thing. I think it would be interesting to attend one service, even though I’m not religious at all, just to see how it works in Indonesia. I’m afraid, though, that doing that would set a precedent that might actually re-open the question of having a religion.

    I’ve only ever had a real conversation about religion with one person here and she seemed confused at my lack of faith. It was as though I didn’t have a face, something foundational was missing. Religion is so deeply embedded here on Java that there’s no real separation between it and the overarching culture, and, to many people in the village, living without it is like someone never hearing music. It’s a truth and beauty that can only be experienced and never satisfactorily described, and choosing not to embrace that is…hella weird. That was the impression I got, anyway.

    Got serious for a moment there.


    That’s better.

    -John A.

    • I was primarily worried that if Indonesians are likely to judge you by what you wear and how you present yourself, the same would apply on whether you practice your religion or not. I’m still not sure what they really think of me since I am not practicing and I haven’t really asked- and I might eventually- but I do get a feeling (like you said) that they think something big is missing in my life and for that reason, over most other things, they see me as being different from them.

  3. Pingback: 5 Shots of Arak in Riung « in the land of dragons

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s