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Indonesian priest builds faith by examining atheism

Father Simon Petrus Lili Tjahjadi says critical study of atheism frees you from fear

Indonesian priest builds faith by examining atheism

Father Simon Petrus Lili Tjahjadi holds a certificate from the Indonesian Museum of Records in recognition of him becoming the first Catholic Indonesian priest to earn a doctorate with a dissertation on modern atheism. (Photo: Katharina R. Lestari/UCA News)

Father Simon Petrus Lili Tjahjadi, a 57-year-old lecturer at Jakarta’s Driyarkara School of Philosophy, has been recognized as the first Catholic priest in Indonesia to earn a doctorate in philosophy with a dissertation on modern atheism.

The recognition came from the Indonesian Museum of Records, locally known as MURI, in the form of a special certificate presented to the Chinese-Indonesian priest, a former rector of the school, by MURI founder Jaya Suprana in November last year.

“First, this is my competence and what I have learned. Second, this is what the MURI always looks for, which is the first for everything. The MURI might think that it is weird that a Catholic priest studies atheism as he usually talks about belief in God,” he said with a smile.

Father Simon began studying the doctoral program at the University of Johann Wolfgang Goethe in Frankfurt, Germany, in 2000, three years after he earned a master’s degree in German philosophy from a university in Munich, and finished it in 2004.

“There was a projection of the need for a lecturer of divine philosophy at that time. I was asked to choose and — after thinking about it — I decided to take the chance as it suited my interest in divine philosophy. And the theme of atheism is part of it,” he said.

Born on June 13, 1963, and ordained a diocesan priest on Aug. 18, 1992, Father Simon did not face any serious challenge in writing his dissertation.

You may say you are religious, but your deeds show that you are corrupt and oppressive

“It was only how I should have good argumentation with the Germans’ way of thinking because I studied there. It would be easier if you speak in your own language. The rest was just fine,” said the priest, who served in a parish in Germany for one year after completing the doctoral program.

It took about 16 years for Father Simon to receive recognition from the MURI.

“I actually know the MURI founder very well. He knew that I studied the doctoral program in Germany. If you see his YouTube channel, he talked with me about atheism before. November last year was chosen [to present the certificate] as I was also asked to speak about bushido for his program on the social media platform,” he said.

The word “bushido” comes from the Japanese roots “bushi,” meaning “warrior,” and “do,” meaning “path.” Bushido is a code of conduct that emerged in Japan from the Samurai warrior caste, who spread their ideals through society.

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“I also studied Japanese philosophy, and bushido is Japanese philosophy. I am also the only Catholic priest in Indonesia who practices kendo, a modern Japanese martial art. If you want to study philosophy — like it or not — you should learn various themes,” he said.

According to Father Simon, who was born a Buddhist, raised a Protestant and converted to Catholicism when he was 15, the root of atheism in Indonesia is psychological immaturity.

“It is related to the faithful’s deeds. You may say you are religious, but your deeds show that you are corrupt and oppressive; you kill others in the name of God; you ignore other people’s rights. People can become atheists because of such deeds,” said the priest, who has written dozens of books since 1988, including the latest one titled Surviving the Dai Nippon.

“A German Lutheran theologian, Gerhard Ebeling, said that only when God is defended by all means, can the seeds of atheism grow. Interesting, is it not?”

Father Simon did not know for sure how many Indonesian people had chose atheism as there is no data.

“From my experience, those choosing atheism seem to be not really atheists. They just have a different understanding of God. For example, they believe in God only as the life-giving entity and the energy that moves everything. But they do not believe in God as a person, or monotheism,” he said.

Studying atheism helps us to be introspective, both personally and socially

The good thing is that Indonesia has a religious situation. Churches and mosques, for example, are always packed with the faithful. Also, there are numerous traditional beliefs.

The country officially recognizes only six religions — Buddhism, Catholicism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam and Protestantism. It also has more than 180 traditional beliefs.

“Thus, atheism can never be a serious threat to nationality. However, it can be a serious problem if it interferes with our humanity and religious life. This is what I think,” the priest said.

For Father Simon, who conducted research on Japanese history, philosophy and culture in Tokyo, Kyoto and Nagasaki between 2015 and 2018, studying atheism as a science is important.

“Studying atheism helps us to be introspective, both personally and socially. It is not taboo. Never be afraid of studying atheism, and never think that it is taboo. Just study it critically as a science instead of an ideology,” he said.

“Once you do a critical study of atheism, you will find the truth. And those who find the truth will be freed from fear and become mature in faith.”

He believes that atheism can never survive. “None of its argumentations are reassuring,” Father Simon said.

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