Tuesday, September 30, 2008

An Atheist Prays

At fifteen I decided high school was unbearable. I told my mother that I had to either graduate early or do something else for a year. Foreign exchange programs coo’d seductively in my ear, and at first I thought I would go to a Spanish-speaking country. Logical: I had studied Spanish for three years. But I had already been to Spain and Mexico, and I thought, probably naively, I would be reasonably comfortable traveling to any other Spanish-speaking country. I decided I would rather go somewhere I would not be comfortable. The interviewer took note. So when my assignment came I read those mellifluous four syllables, In-do-ne-sia, in black type on the white page and realized I would have to consult our globe to find out exactly where it was.

Some months later there I was, a sixteen-year old atheist ambassador from Texas, living with a Muslim family in a Muslim region of a very religious, mostly Muslim, country. Atheism is essentially illegal in Indonesia. That is, every citizen must declare to the government a religious affiliation. The first pillar of the official government ideology, the Pancasila (pronounced pancha seela), is belief in one supreme God. At the time I went, the five officially acceptable religion choices were Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

In Indonesia an atheist is a Communist is just about the worst thing you can be. During the McCarthy era in the United States, left-leaning Americans were harassed, interrogated, black-listed. But in Indonesia anti-communism was a deadly force. In 1965-66 many thousands of supposed Communists, maybe even as many as a million, were killed. Some of their names came from lists supplied by the United States.

I knew none of this before arriving. And nobody pegged me as a Communist. But my atheism baffled many. I took up my unexpected diplomatic mission with pride and proclaimed my anti-faith whenever asked. I wasn’t really there, though, to proclaim my ways. Come to think of it, I’m not sure what I was there for. An experience. An adventure. To learn other people’s ways. Ta’aruf, I have recently read, is the religious obligation in Islam to know the other. I was not religious. My “other” was.

Signs and acts of faith were everywhere. They were new and different, and I didn’t have pre-formed negative associations with them, as I did with the forms of Christianity which I knew, or imagined I knew, in the United States. And as part of being with my family and classmates, I pretended to pray. A militaristic ritual began each school day when the elected head of the class barked out commands: “Setiap Siap” (All ready), at which everyone stood. “Doa Mulai.” (Begin prayer), at which we all bowed our heads in silence. Then, if memory serves me correctly: “Selesai.” (Finish).

For religion studies I joined the Islam class. After a few weeks the Christianity teacher sent a student to call me to his room, thinking, I guess, that I rightly belonged to him. A long awkward conversation in his bad English and my bad Indonesian ended with an agreement that I would join his class temporarily, so long as he understood that I was not Indonesian, and I did not have to believe. Why, he asked, didn’t President Reagan simply order all Americans to choose a religion? I attended a few times then reverted. I was not Christian, and I was going to study Islam.

Nothing of the kind actually happened, not in school. I sat through Islam class and understood almost nothing. “It’s a great class when they do the chanting,” I wrote home while sitting there, “but right now they’re only talking.” Unintelligibly to me. It was hard enough to learn, without any skilled assistance, the language of daily life, and impossible to simultaneously acquire the special vocabularies of 15 subject areas from scratch. The whole school system baffled me. Instead of students moving from one class to another for different subjects, with a few exceptions, students stayed together in one class, and the teachers moved around. We studied everything simultaneously. In the U.S., algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus each have their own dedicated year of study, whereas in Indonesia, several maths were taught one or two days of the week—algebra, statistics, and trigonometry—so that on Monday the math would be something I had learned two years ago, and on another day something I wouldn’t learn until the next year. Physics and Chemistry were each allotted two classes a week, and on Wednesdays biology, physics, and chemistry followed one after the other with double periods, filling the day. “The classroom is constantly filled with noise,” I wrote in a letter, “and the teacher often seems to be talking to herself while the students come and go as they please.”

I didn’t understand how the result could be anything other than brain soup. I attempted early on to understand, then surrendered. I never knew what was going to happen until it happened. I occasionally took a math test on whim. I completed the drafting exercises with zero comprehension. And I nearly passed out a couple times when we rallied for the country, beaten by the equatorial sun in the concrete courtyard. But mostly I just sat on the little metal bench, wrote letters, and waited out each day, subsisting on the affection of my classmates, particularly Ita, who played with my long nails, bit my fingers, and pinched my face to express how cute she thought I was.

I intend, though, to be writing about prayer and the beginnings of faith. When my host family prayed together before a special meal, I too made that perfect gesture: down-turned eyes and upturned, open, empty hands. My host parents faithfully performed salat five times a day, the children rarely even once a day. This seemed healthy to me—it was a personal matter, not something dictated or enforced. But during Ramadan the family often prayed the evening prayer and Tarawih together, and the father made a point of directing me to pray as well. He said it was good for me.

I have no idea how well I understood what Tarawih was. I recently found the word in the daybook I kept and a quick Google search yielded the explanation that it is a special prayer performed by Sunni Muslims during Ramadan after the evening salat. On the first day of Ramadan one of the sisters, two years older than me and a college student, taught me to make wudu, the ritual washing performed before prayer. Then I prayed next to her, following her movements by watching from the corner of my eye. And I must have followed others on other evenings, because I remember thinking with resentment at one point that I prayed more often than my sisters did. They liked me in the cloak enough to snap this wretched picture.

I fasted too. Thirty days. During Ramadan I received a box of Girl Scout cookies from my little sister in the United States. They were Samoas—oh my—rounded squares with a hole in the center; coconut, caramel, and chocolate drizzled on a vanilla cookie base. I tucked the box in my personal cupboard and told no one. Mid-afternoon the next day, I shut myself alone in the room I shared with one sister and ate. I stalled out with only a few cookies left. I think it took about five minutes. Then, sitting on the floor with my back against the door, I realized I was thirsty. I was really thirsty. But I was fasting, wink, wink. I couldn’t get water in the bathroom because it wasn’t potable, and I couldn’t get water from the kitchen because I would be found out. I suffered in secrecy till sundown, my just due.

I loved the fast, though. I can’t say exactly why, something like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia. I often went running at the very end of the day when my body was finally cruising on stored energy. I came home feeling exhilarated, disciplined, and a bit cocky, just in time to see the final countdown on television and break the fast with whoever in the family happened to be about.

It must have been beautiful a couple hundred years ago, when there was no electricity, and the call to prayer came from a practiced human voice, live. But my affection and nostalgia has attached to the cheap amplification of what I always assumed was a pre-recorded call. It would sound from all directions five times a day, most noticeably in the late afternoon, when the streets quieted briefly, and the population fresh from afternoon naps and second baths, prayed or did not pray, depending on faith and inclination. I learned to be home before that time, home before Maghrib, sunset. Unless I was out with a sister; exceptions were made.

One of my sisters advised me against windsurfing during the fast. She thought I might get water in my mouth and that it would invalidate my fast—not something I could bring myself to be concerned about, since I didn’t even believe in God. Besides, I desperately needed my windsurfing time. It was a hard year, in many ways. For one, I was far more idle and restricted than I was used to being, and the windsurfing was a brief interval a couple times a week when I had some sense of freedom and could enjoy a friendship with my teacher that wasn’t conducted according to social expectations and a prescribed script.

I remember reading the Qur’an in English, probably a poor translation, but I don’t remember much of it. And I enjoyed many long conversations with one cousin of the family who, among his family peers, was the most serious about Islam. Of those talks I remember this: a feeling grew in me—I might find a faith I can believe in. I did; the Baha’i Faith, the very next year.

And then I left the Baha’i Faith twelve years later. I wouldn’t exactly say I believe in a faith now. I believe in grace, in the freely given gift of the love we most desire. My theology is definitely Christian, and apparently so am I, though I still find the admission about as embarrassing as being found out having sex with animals. And I do not believe in Christianity like I believed in the Baha’i Faith, as a perfect divine system that will save the world. I believe in God.

That is not near as embarrassing to me as it used to be. My mom recognized me early as her religious child, but my pride found a partner in my atheist identity. When my Indonesian host cousin described Islam to me, I softened a bit. I think I found a calming orderliness in it which gave me pause—okay, this religion-thing may not be as completely crazy as I thought. I have always felt a debt of gratitude to him and to the other Indonesian Muslims I knew.

Twenty years have passed since I set out on that journey. There is much more talk of Islam in American public culture now. About a year ago all the bad news about Islam was leaving me a bit disoriented. I wanted to stand up, hold my hand in the air and say to I don’t know who, “Wait a minute, I don’t understand!” I did not learn a lot about Islam in my year in Indonesia; I did not come home able to discourse freely on Islamic theology and practices. But I knew and loved people, and they knew and loved me. There were difficulties between us, yet I never, ever experienced anything even remotely scary associated specifically with Islam there. How, I wondered, do I reconcile my experience with the news?

Although I do miss my Indonesian host family (because they are a prominent family I have been particularly careful to keep pictures, location, and identifying information out of this piece), I’m not in touch with them any more, for reasons I won’t explore here. So I started looking into Islam through the web, trying to reduce my ignorance a tad, but mostly seeking a fresh positive connection that would help me understand the old one in this new context. Eventually, I found myself looking for the kind of Muslim I would be if I were Muslim—an interesting exercise, since I didn’t know what that was or what the options were. I’m getting a better idea, though, and I may post some of my thoughts on Islam here in the future. I am not uncritical, and I am not the theological virgin I was twenty years ago. So I come to my exploration with my own religious point of view. But I would like to support the good life of moderate Islam, which helped me, and which I believe is endangered just now. It is hard to hear from an Indonesian friend that his family is not considered truly Muslim anymore by many of the people he grew up with as neighbors because they are not down with jihad. And “jihad,” here, does not refer to the inner struggle with self.

A couple months before leaving Indonesia I attended prayers with several hundred thousand people on Idul Fitri (Indonesian spelling), the holy day at the end of Ramadan. I debated whether to pray or photograph and one sister urged me to take pictures, which I did. It was an experience; it was fascinating; it was beautiful, and strange and alien and fun. And even if I had made wudu, worn a prayer cloak, and followed the gestures, it would not have been real prayer. It wasn’t real prayer any of the times I did do those things, not yet. But it was something; it was a beginning. Benign fakery got me started.

Tomorrow is the festival of Eid al-Fitr (common English spelling) for much of the Muslim world. In Indonesia, after early morning communal prayers, people will visit the homes of family and friends, eat mountains of food, and greet each other with the words “Mohon maaf lahir dan batin”—I ask forgiveness in body and soul.

To my Indonesian host family: for the time I made Texas chili with beer and expected you to eat it; for my skimpy bathing suit, which you wisely disappeared; for my teenage materialism; for my need for constant activity; for all the ways I contributed to our trouble with each other; and for my inability to remain in contact—I ask forgiveness in body and soul.


  1. This brought tears to my eyes.

  2. Excellent post. Very profound and thought-provoking. We need more open-minded discussion about Islam around here... I know that most Muslims are a peaceful folk, and it's the minority of radicals that are making the most noise wishing death on everybody. And it was great to read more about your stay in Indonesia.

  3. What a wonderful post! Well written, fascinating, with interesting and relevant pictures. Well done.

    Did you ever return to Indo whilst you were Baha'i? My Baha'i father lived there for nearly fourteen years and never had a problem - the Indonesians he mixed with always thought Baha'i was just like Islam.

  4. Thank you Dale, Thomas, and Umm Yasmin. I’m glad this piece came across; I never knows for sure until I get a little feedback.

    To answer your question, Umm Yasmin, yes I did return to Indonesia as a Baha’i about three and a half years after the first trip. I was there for six months. I’m not surprised your father didn’t have any trouble as an ex-pat. And being there as a Baha’i myself certainly made me more aware of the close kinship of the Baha’i Faith and Islam. BTW, is your blog gone, or moved, or just having difficulties? I can’t get it to come up.


  5. Priscilla -- this is beautiful! In that "life is beautifully hard" sort of way. I especially felt a bond with your "benign fakery" of faith; maybe it's a sign of grace that the hard-wired easy "believers" don't get to hog ALL the faith. Even the rest of us can sprout some here and there, and experience God.

  6. Hello, Priscilla.
    I want to say thank you for such a wonderful post.
    I have several ideas laying dormant that are stirring here, and I don't want to say too much all at once.

    But I appreciate your honesty.
    You have that biting sort of introspective honesty.
    I like that.
    People, on the whole, are much too closed.

  7. I think the problem might be that you believe the Baha'i Faith is the perfect divine system to save the world and since it does not appear perfect at this time you have felt betrayed. I think you may have forgotten all that the Baha'i Faith teaches about the evolution of humankind. Just as the UHJ can change a decision arrived at earlier. It is an organic system which is leading to a more perfect world. This in itself makes it perfect. It is not rigid. It is not, contrary to what some may say, legalistic and bound by rules and laws. It's hallmark is love when judged fairly and with all the Writings fairly brought forth.


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