Defining faith: Beyond the contentious ‘religion column’

Home Minister Tjahjo Kumolo has stated that followers of minority faiths can leave the religion column on their KTP (identity cards) blank. Yet the real problem beyond the debate of leaving the column blank or removing it altogether not only regards equality and civil rights for followers of aliran kepercayaan (indigenous religions or local faiths) — but the definition of agama (religion) itself.

Leaving the religion column blank for followers of faiths “which are not yet recognized as religions based on laws and regulations or adherents of kepercayaan [faiths]”, according to the 2013 Population Administration Law, was already legal in the 2006 law that it replaced. 

Now stated as an option, the right of leaving the religion column blank has been obtained after quite a long struggle. For decades under the New Order, followers of indigenous beliefs were forced to state that they were followers of one of the “official religions” — Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and later also Confucianism. 

Some scholars argue that this policy was to oppose communism, which is sometimes associated with atheism. The Constitution itself does not address the “recognized religions” or “official religions”, but it allows all adherents of any religion to embrace and practice their faith, whatever it is, which should be understood to include atheists.

However, leaving the religion column blank is still a minimum step toward equality in rights and justice. Some civil rights, such as education and lessons on religion in schools, child custody and marriage registration, remain a problem for those leaving the religion column blank. 

Moreover, the negative stigma is still entrenched in society and leads to discrimination; people who have no religion listed on their KTP are often considered to be atheist. Some may argue we should expand the scope of the definition of “religion” to include followers of aliran kepercayaan.

Generally, religion refers to a system of belief often associated with at least three ideas: the concept of God (whatever the name is), one who gets a revelation from God and conveys it to people, as well as a scripture.

This definition is very theistic and influenced by Abrahamic religions’ mindset. Problems have emerged regarding beliefs that lack such criteria. Buddhism, a non-theistic religion, for example, lacks the concept of God as understood by theistic ones. In Indonesian Buddhism, under the New Order era, Buddhists created the name of a God so as to be recognized by the state and to avoid oppression.

It is still awkward for laypeople who always use a theistic mindset to ask Buddhists about their God and not get an exact answer. 

Another example is Hinduism. For many centuries, Hindus did not have a scripture in the form of a written sacred text. The Veda was orally transmitted from generation to generation and was not written down — historians note the oldest Sanskrit text of the Hindu faith was not printed as a book until 1854. Studies suggest the terms Buddhism and Hinduism came from the West. 

Today the term “world religions” still has several problems. Aliran kepercayaan are still very fluid compared to the rigid criteria of religions and are not theologically systematized. 

Definitions have their own political power. They are judgments — why and when do we define beliefs as faith, religion, indigenous beliefs, aliran kepercayaan? Contemporary scholars of religious studies reveal that the term religion was politically invented in the West and imposed upon the East. 

In Indonesian the Sanskrit loanword agama combines a Christian view of what counts as a world religion with an Islamic understanding of what defines a proper religion. 

This politics of “religionization” implies that adherents of indigenous beliefs are “not yet religious” and therefore are expected to be religionized. Expanding the definition of religion arguably constitutes this way of religion-izing aliran kepercayaan. 

Religious studies have various definitions of religion, and imagine how many “traditions” would be included or excluded because of that definition. 

So, should we religionize indigenous beliefs? We should not take the imposed term and its definition for granted.

Nevertheless, what must be of utmost concern for the government is the equal treatment toward all of its people regardless of their faith. Leaving blank or, if necessary, removing the column of religion on identification cards might be the best option so far to minimize discrimination in civil rights.

~ published in the Jakarta Post (14/11/2014)

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