My life and travels

Last night I had a rather annoying little nightmare. But first, some background. The day before yesterday, I learned something rather upsetting from the Jakarta Post. Since Indonesia has six state religions and Indonesian schools have a lot of religion education, I had taken for granted that all children get to learn about all six state religions.

The day before yesterday, I learned that this is not the case. On the contrary, all children learn only about the religion of their parents. They are actually barred from learning about the other five state religions!

What if a child’s mother and father belong to different religions? Well, then the child is probably not allowed to go to school in the first place: The parents are not permitted to get married without one of them changing religion first, the hospitals are reluctant to give birth certificates to the children of unmarried parents, and schools are getting stricter and stricter with demanding birth certificate from the students. If the child gets to go to school, he or she will still count as the illegitimate child of one of the parents (usually the mother) and be defined as belonging to her religion.

So, anyway. Each child gets to learn only about the religion that the child is considered to belong to. Not learning anything about the other religions. And the education is all about making the children believe in the religion. Thus, including children of other religions could be seen as an attempt to make them convert to that religion.

This was news to me when I read about it I The Jakarta Post, so I asked several of my Indonesian friends and coworkers about it. They all confirmed that yes, that’s the way it works here. And they have never really given it any thought, because to them it’s simply how things are. One of them had even taken for granted that it works the same way in Sweden, and in all other countries. It does not. On the contrary, religion class in Swedish schools teaches about all religions. This is considered important, because if we don’t know about a religion we will be prejudiced and suspicious against the people who follow it.

This was also the main point of the article in Jakarta Post: If the current system doesn’t outright make people prejudiced and hateful against each other (which it probably does), then it still fails to help them overcome prejudice. The children need to learn about all religions, and learn in a way that teaches ABOUT the religion rather than teaching IN the religion. Trying to convert them to six different religions at once would indeed be confusing and pointless, but they need to know about what others believe. Know about it in a neutral way, not a way that portray one culture or religion as being superior or inferior to any other.

Dividing people, making them identify with their own group and keeping them from knowing about the other group… There have been so many psychological experiments that has proven that this is a sure way to create conflict and mistreatment, a sure way to make people mistrust and dislike each other. It goes against the basic teachings of Pancasila, the national philosophy of Indonesia. This country is trying it best to live up to its motto of “Unity In Diversity” and to be a good democracy. Why would such a democracy create a destructive system like this. Well, to put it simply: It didn’t.

As I asked around about the origins of the policy, I was told it was created by the Suharto regime. The bad old dictatorship, ruling by “Divide and conquer”. It stayed in power by turning its victims against each other, and this education policy was one of its tools for that. However, Suharto and his lackeys didn’t cook this up on their own. The colonial regime laid the groundwork. Not only for the use of “Divide and conquer” policies as such but also of misusing religion education as a way of dividing the people. I the colonial regime, their lackeys went to catholic schools and learned only about Catholicism, while the most of the people didn’t get to go to school at all. Some boys (but not girls, until Kartini) were allowed to attend Islamic pesantren schools, where they learned only about Islam.

Please note that except for the part about Kartini, the entire last paragraph is just hearsay. Things I have recently heard from various people who I have reason to believe that they know what they are talking about. I would like to know more about these issues, and I’ll keep looking for more information on these topics. Your opinions, experiences and any credible written sources you provide are all much appreciated.

Back to my own life. Yesterday I told one of my friends about the article in Jakarta Post. But we were sitting in a restaurant, so she simply asked me to change the subject. Afterwards she explained that education of religion is a sensitive topic, so she had been afraid that some other visitor would overhear us and launch a physical attack for talking about such a topic.

The night between today and yesterday, I dreamt that I was defending someone in court. It didn’t matter who I defended or from what charges, this was just business as usual. However, the prosecutor refused to talk about the case. Instead, he built his argument on trying to convince the jury that I am worthless and evil, so if I’m defending someone then it must mean that this someone is guilty. It didn’t matter to the prosecutor who I was or who I defended from what charges, this was just business as usual.

Waking up from this dream, I was feeling very tired of my life. It has been very long since the last time I felt that way. The problem is that the dream is true. To challenge the expressions of categorism – prejudice, bigotry, discrimination, marginalization, certain kinds of conspiracy theories and so on – is to make oneself a target.

When you question categorism, people will attack. And they will not attack your arguments, since they would not win an honest debate. People who cling to their expressions of categorism will say that they are right because you are evil (or any specific label they bother to come up with) and that they are right because they will beat your worthless little head into ground meat. Some who use this method will use it to persuade themselves and others that they are right and that you are wrong. Others will not bother with getting emotionally involved. They will simply go through the motions because it gives them power or because it is the job they are expected to do.

Many will also try their best to avoid finding out what your position is: If you are not with them then you are against them. There are always a lot of conflicts where people on both sides will demand that everyone hate the other side. If you argue against this, aggressive people on both sides will take for granted that you are secretly a member of the other side. In Sweden, it is currently becoming more and more mainstream to hate either Jews or Muslims. People who fight against antisemitism will spread antimuslimism, and vice versa. And if you don’t share the hatred, you will be labeled as a “Kulturmarxist” (“Cultural Marxist”), a word invented by Hitler’s Nazi Party.

This week, my future has seemed so clear. And it still is. The dream was an important reminder that the path I have chosen includes having to deal with a lot of bullshit. Hatred, personal attacks, accusations of all kinds, and so on. But it doesn’t change anything. I already knew that I need a strong network of allies, and I have that already. It just has to keep growing stronger. And I already knew that I need to be careful to minimize the risks and to pick my battlegrounds. I am trying to do that, within reason. Limiting my life or work simply because some people might take offence or find an excuse to attack me is to give them power they don’t deserve. I don’t want to distribute more than necessary of such rotten power. The balance is a thin line to always walk on.

Most importantly, we should all try to understand each other and dare to talk about things. We need mutual respect, not merely “I won’t tell you how much I hate you, and I expect you to shut up as well”. Knowing about different faiths and systems of belief is a good start.


A few weeks ago, I attended a wedding together with one of my coworkers. At the wedding, we met some of his friends from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and a governmental unit for preventing terrorism. One of them was helping to organize the Interfaith Summit 2012 in Bali. This meeting eventually led to me being invited there as a speaker.

Thus, early Thursday morning my coworker and I left for Bali. The conference was great. People from all over the world coming to connect with each other across the lines of religious boundaries. Muslims, Christians, Hindus and so on. The biggest groups were from Indonesia, Malaysia and Uzbekistan. But we also had people from Russia, Norway, Bangladesh, India, and many other places. People working together for human rights and equal dignity for everyone, under the premise that God created us all and loves us all equally.

One early speaker put emphasis on the importance of secularism. Perhaps to the point that secularism is the only possible basis for human rights, but I didn’t ask for a transcript to analyze.

Another early speaker went very far in the other direction. This man, who I later was told is a Christian, put his emphasis squarely on the idea that God loves us all. His speech was very good at it’s main purpose, to promote understanding and tolerance between different religions. He seemed to have a good understanding of different religions and their potential for finding mutual ground.

On the other hand, he seemed to know nothing about how non-religious people think. He had this project of unifying all religions into one big family. One ”us”, one big in-group. But this project came at the price of excluding everyone who is not religious. Sadly, this is a common phenomenon: While to include everyone based on categories, there will always be people overlooked and left out. In this case, including all religions, but excluding the growing number of people who doesn’t have a religion.

He made it sound as if secular people cannot have morality and cannot understand human rights. He argued against the principle that ”if you don’t hurt anyone, you can do whatever you want”. He seemed to believe, or at least argue, that this is the one and only principle that all secular people follows. Ironically, the principle he objected to is not secular. Instead, it is one of the core faith principles in a religion called Wicca. Real secular moral philosophy is far more complicated and nuanced, as I have mentioned in a previous post.

His prejudice against non-religious people was a small part of his speech, but a part that would have been very damaging if it would have had stood unopposed. Thankfully, it got rebuffed quickly and firmly. As soon as there was time for questions, a young veiled Indonesian Muslim woman stood up and explained that she has many Atheist and Agnostic friends at her university. Friends who are just as good and moral people as any of her fellow Muslims. As she finished speaking, the entire audience cheered for her.

Two hours later it was time for my own speech. I held a summary of my blog posts Universal Morality and Categorism, with a bit of Beliefs and Reality thrown in for good measure.

My message was that three kinds of morality are universal, but for us to use these kinds of morality we must understand that they apply equally to everyone. Empathy, respect and maximization of outcome is not only for oneself or for one’s own group, but for everyone.

I explained a bit about the tree kinds of morality and took some examples from religious and secular sources. How these three principles exist in all major religions and almost all small religious groups, as well as in all cultures and the bulk of secular philosophy.

Regarding respect, I talked a it about The Golden Rule in sources such as the Bible and also about the Kant’s Categorical Imperative. I claimed that these two principles are the same as long as you just use them for spiritual guidance, but that Kant’s version is far better at sealing the loopholes when you want to use it for logical arguments.

I explained about how racism, sexism, homophobia, antisemitism, antimuslimism and so on are just different forms of Categorism. While prejudice, bigotry, discrimination and so on are different expressions of it. That when it comes to morality and human rights, we must overcome the habit of dividing people into categories. That we must consider all humans equal and part of the same big family, without losing this unity in divisions such as between different religions or between religious and secular.

So, how do we come to truly understand this most basic and most important fact? How does one reach the insight that he is not the center of the universe and that ”the others” are equally human and equally valid? I offered two options, one religious and one secular. The religious option was the one already offered: That God created us all and love us all equally. As the secular option, I claimed that it is enough to accept that reality exists and isn’t a conspiracy. You are not just imagining other people, and they are not just pretending to have thoughts and feelings: They are, in fact, just as real as you are.

On the last day we all took a trip to see a volcano and a beach with black (volcanic) sand. The nature along the way was beautiful, and the view over the volcano quite breathtaking. I had a fever during the entire weekend in Bali, but it was still awesome. In the evening, my coworker and I went to see the monument over the victims of the Bali bombing. Around it, life was going on as usual. We will honor the victims, and never let some fascists – religious or otherwise – run our lives for us.

Back in Jakarta, we visited a seminar held by CDCC, Center for Dialogue and Cooperation among Civilizations. One of the speakers, the Norwegian bishop Gunnar Stalsett, claimed that while interfaith dialogue is very important, we are facing an even greater challenge: Intrafaith dialogue, dialogue within each faith. Because there is so much difference and variation within each religion. Within Christianity, within Islam, and so on. He has a very important point there, and I think the most important thing to remember here is that no religion is ever monolithic. It consists of religious individuals, each of them unique.

He also tried to solve the dilemma of how to include atheists and agnostics, by making a strong distinction between faith and belief. The concept of ”faith” may be reserved for religions, but everybody has beliefs in one way or another. One might argue the opposite, that Atheism is a faith but not a belief since it’s actually a disbelief. In any case, I do agree that talking about faith AND belief is a good starting point when it comes to issues of respecting beliefs. When it comes to respecting people, however, we shouldn’t divide them by faith or belief in the first place. When it comes to beliefs, faiths, worldview-identities or whatever you call it, they are not a valid ground for discrimination or other expressions of categorisms. This goes both ways. In one way, your religion does not give you a right to discriminate. Not against outsiders, and not against insiders – for example women and gay people within your own religious group. In the other way, you may not discriminate other people because you don’t like their religion. Not if you belong to another religion, or another subset within the same religion, and not if you are secular either. That is all. May we all share this planet together in peace.