Indonesia’s religious make up is a mixture of many influences and movements, resulting in an individual and unique religious culture.
High quality translation is often about the story. You read something in one language, and you have to convey the story it tells in another. The thing about stories, you soon learn, is that there are many layers to each one. There’s the obvious, superficial layer, and then there’s the deeper story – the Real Story. Getting down to the Real Story isn’t always easy, and most people are satisfied with the surface anyway. You can apply this to a country or culture, too – every country has a story, and that means a superficial top-level story as well as the deeper one. The perfect example of this is Indonesia and religion.
The Real Story
The simple story is that Indonesia is an Islamic country. On the surface, that’s perfectly true and accurate: 88% of the country is nominally Islamic. The minority religions are clear: 8% of the country are Christians of one strain or another, 2% are Hindus, and Buddhists and Animists represent about 1% of the population (and yes, that’s only 99% but let’s pretend the mystery 1% doesn’t exist for now). A simple story!
Except, things are much more complex than that. Indonesia is a country where many cultures have historically crossed paths and mixed together. In fact, the overriding feature of Indonesian culture is a fusion of elements, and this applies to religion as well.
A Brief History
Indigenous people in Indonesia were Animists. Animism, in simplified form, believes that all things, including plants, rocks, animals, trees – everything, have souls and intelligence and thus influence on the world. These souls can be placated with offerings and rituals. When international trade began to bring other cultures and religions into Indonesia, Animism went on a steep decline, though it remains practised in Indonesia to this day in small pockets of the country.
Hinduism and Buddhism were the first to invade and displace Animism, but like everything else in the country these religions were heavily adapted by the Indonesian people. In fact, the version of Hinduism practised in Indonesia today has its own name – Balinese Hinduism – to mark it off as a wholly separate variant of the religion.
Islam came to Indonesia and is today the most practised religion, making Indonesia the largest Muslim country in the world. But even Islam has been made to fit Indonesia rather than the other way around, most clearly demonstrated in the Abangan religion, which is actually a mixture of Islamic, Hindu, and Animistic beliefs forming a unique religious expression.
In the 1980s, Christianity began to make real inroads into Indonesian culture. This was in part due to a law that labelled anyone without an official religious affiliation an Atheist; many Indonesians who were uncomfortable with the political side of the Islamic groups in the country chose to become Christians as a result. Despite this explosion, Christianity still represents less than 10% of the country.
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