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Atheism, a challenge to the faithful

Written by eastern writer on Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Atheism is perhaps a new global trend, but it is nearly as old as the idea of God itself.

Due to the increase in religiously motivated violence in many parts of the world and the widening gap between science and religion, the idea is now becoming more inviting, more challenging and, thanks to the Internet, more militant than ever before.

Here the word "atheist" is usually linked to the demonized Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), whose aborted "coup" left a traumatic wound deep inside the consciousness of most Indonesians. That is why, according to Martin Sinaga, a Christian theologian at the Jakarta School of Theology, atheism is more often prejudiced against here than discussed.

In 1949, Achdiat Karta Mihardja published Atheist, a novel about a young Muslim named Hasan in his quest for God in the newly born country charmed by atheistic socialism. The book stirred controversy and Achdiat was intimidated -- even though he never proclaimed himself to be an atheist -- after people misunderstood his novel.

In 2004, he wrote Manifesto Khalifatullah (The Manifesto of God's Successor), which he considered as a sequel to Atheist because in it the quest of God is over, concluding that human beings are the successors of God on Earth.

Responding to the planned publication of books on atheism in Indonesian language, Sinaga said there was nothing to worry about.

"We can't deny their existence. Such books as The God Delusion and God is Not Great are asking the questions that are also asked by the believers.

"Where is God when people are suffering? Where is God when disasters strike? Where is God when there is evil? The main issue is not atheism here but the internal struggle in the quest for God," Sinaga said.

Ihsan Ali Fauzi, a Muslim scholar at the Paramadina Foundation, concurred with Sinaga, saying there was no use in pretending the books never existed or deliberately trying to keep them away from the younger generation.

"The youth, who are mostly Internet literate, would easily find out about it one way or another." he said.

Fauzi argued that religions, if they are true, should be able to survive any attack, and books on atheism should be seen as a test for the faithful.

"Instead of damning these books as poisonous, it would be a lot more productive if we proved that what they claimed was false," Fauzi said.

"This is actually something that we should appreciate as it will sharpen our thoughts," he added.

Nevertheless, both Fauzi and Sinaga both doubted these kinds of books would be widely accepted by the Indonesian public. If they did not resist, they said, the public would simply ignore the books, especially when the big players in the industry, which have bigger promotional budgets, refused to publish them.

Candra Gautama, the editor in chief of Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia (KPG), said it would not be easy to translate a book like The God Delusion.

"The main problem our publishing industry faces is the quality of translation," he said.

Pustaka Alvabet said it would press ahead with its plans to publish "enlightening" books on atheism, despite apprehension they would not sell well or, worse, incite religious violence, confirming what the anti-religion books are saying.

Serambi is also prepared to launch Julian Baggini's A Very Short Introduction to Atheism, which the company's editor in chief Qomaruddin SF said was more "informative" than "provocative".

Time will tell whether books on atheism -- whether or not they have sufficient promotion and high quality translation -- really have a place in Indonesia.

Ary Hermawan. Jakarta Post

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