At first sight these two conditions seem to be somewhat contradictory but Soekarno, Indonesia's first president, resolved this issue by hypothesizing that every religion (including 'soft polytheistic' Hinduism) essentially has one highest Supreme Being to which one subjects oneself.

Although Indonesia is not an Islamic state, Islamic principles do influence political decision making. Moreover, certain hardcore Muslim groups have been able to influence political and judicial decision making through (the threat of) violence.

One peculiarity of the Indonesian government's stance on (freedom of) religion is that it recognizes six official religions only (namely Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism). Every Indonesian is required to embrace one of these religions as it is mandatory personal data that is mentioned in official documents such as passports and other identification cards.

Atheism is not an option and constitutes a socially unacceptable ideology in Indonesia (however there is no law that bans atheism). In recent years it has happened that Indonesians who published atheist worldviews on social networks were threatened by their local community and arrested by the police on charges of blasphemy; charges that can lead to imprisonment.

Composition of Indonesia's Six Official Religions

   Percentage share
(of total population)
Absolute numbers
      (in millions)
Muslim             87.2            207.2
Protestant              6.9             16.5
Catholic              2.9              6.9
Hindu              1.7              4.0
Buddhist              0.7              1.7
Confucian             0.05              0.1

Source: Statistics Indonesia (Badan Pusat Statistik), Population Census 2010

It should be emphasized, however, that the Indonesian followers of above-mentioned religions do not form coherent groups. For example, there are many strict Muslims who focus on the mosque, scripture and ritual and therefore Islam plays an important role in their daily activities and lives. However, there are also many moderate or cultural Muslims in Indonesia who are Muslim according to their identity cards and who identify with the Muslim culture due to their family background but who rarely pray, rarely visit the mosque, and rarely read the Quran. The same distinction can be found in the other religions.

Although not acknowledged by the government there also still exist forms of animism in several parts of Indonesia. Various varieties of animism were already practiced in the region before the arrival of Hinduism (Hinduism arrived in the archipelago through a trade network stretching from China to India in the first century of the Common Era). However, over the course of centuries these animist streams have blended with the mainstream monotheistic religions (and Sufi Islam), resulting in several specific local belief-systems such as Kejawen in Java and Kaharingan in Kalimantan (practiced by Dayaks). In order to comply with the Pancasila (which stipulates "the belief in the one and only God"), animists tend to be classified as Hindus because this religion is more flexible to absorb these streams.

Religions & Violence

Unfortunately, religion has also been the cause of much violence throughout the history of Indonesia. Regarding Indonesia's recent history, one important turning point can be discerned. After the fall of president Suharto's New Order regime (which was marked by a strong central government and a weak civil society) radical Islamic voices and violent (terrorist) acts - previously largely suppressed by the government - found their way to the surface in the form of bomb attacks and other threats.

In the era of Reformation, Indonesian media have reported frequently about attacks by radical Muslims on minority communities such as the Ahmadiyya community (a stream within Islam) or Christians. Moreover, perpetrators or instigators of such violent acts sometimes receive very short prison sentences only. These issues have received international attention as several governments, organizations and media have expressed concern over the ensuring of freedom of religion in Indonesia.

However - as appalling as it may be - such religious violence is the exception rather than the rule and it should be stressed that, by far, the majority of the Indonesian Muslim community is highly supportive of a religious pluralist and peaceful society. For a detailed account regarding violent Islamism in Indonesia visit our Radical Islam section. Lastly, it should be mentioned that religious intolerance or discrimination in Indonesia also takes non-violent forms such as the difficulty of building places of worship that are non-Islamic in areas that are mainly occupied by Muslims (and vise versa). However, any minority in any country will, most likely, have to deal with discriminatory actions, and Indonesia is no exception to this 'rule'.

Islam in Indonesia

By far the majority of the Indonesian population is Muslim. This does, however, not mean that it constitutes a coherent group. As the various regions in Indonesia are marked by separate histories and therefore absorbed different influences, the outcome regarding the Islamic faith has been different as well. Although a process of PAN-Islamization has been continuing for a number of centuries up to the present, Indonesia has not lost its diversity of Islamic varieties.

There are currently more than 207 million Muslims living in Indonesia, mostly Sunni Muslims. Trade played a crucial role in the Islamization process of Indonesia. However, this was not a quick and easy process and was sometimes forced by the power of the sword. The process of Islamization of Indonesia occurred in a series of waves involving international trade, the establishment of various influential Muslim Sultanates, and social movements.

Read more about Islam in Indonesia

Christianity in Indonesia

One clear example of the lasting impact of European influence and Dutch colonial power on Indonesian society is the presence of around 23 million Christians currently living in Indonesia. Christianity is the second-largest religion in Indonesia, albeit relatively small compared to the Islam. Indonesian Christianity consists of Protestantism and Catholicism, the former being the majority. These Christian communities tend to cluster in the eastern part of Indonesia.

Although there have occurred some violent incidents between Muslims and Christians, most notoriously the 1999-2002 Muslim-Christian conflict in the Moluccas, as well as the forced closure of several churches over the years, worshipers of both religions generally live in social harmony across the country. Apart from the traditional (mainline) church, the charismatic movement (which - like Pentecostals - puts emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit) has a growing following in the bigger cities of Indonesia.

Read more about Christianity in Indonesia

Hinduism in Indonesia

Of all official religions Hinduism has the longest history in the archipelago. However, on most Indonesian islands this chapter in its history has been erased by time or conquest. The only exception being the island of Bali. Until the present day most inhabitants of this island (known as 'island of the Gods') practice Balinese Hinduism. Besides Bali's beautiful countryside and beaches, this Balinese Hinduism is a major reason for tourists to visit the island.

Before Hinduism and Buddhism arrived in the Archipelago, the indigenous population practiced forms of animism. However, when Hinduism arrived in the western part of the archipelago through a trade network that stretched from China to India in the first century of the Common Era, local rulers considered this new religion as a tool that could enhance their power. By representing themselves as Hindu deities, they managed to grow their status.

Read more about Hinduism in Indonesia

Buddhism in Indonesia

Only 0.7 percent of the Indonesian population - or 1.7 million individuals - are Buddhists. Indonesia's Buddhist communities are concentrated in Riau, the Riau Islands, Bangka Belitung, North Sumatra, West Kalimantan and Jakarta. The clear majority of Indonesian Buddhists consist of the ethnic Chinese community. In fact there are many Chinese who actually practice Taoism and Chinese folk religion but are classified as Buddhist as the Indonesia government does not recognize these streams.

The history of Buddhism and Hinduism in Indonesia is highly intertwined. In the second century of the Common Era Buddhism spread to Southeast Asia through the same trade networks that had brought Hinduism to the archipelago one century earlier. The early maritime empire of Srivijaya on Sumatra served as a Buddhist learning center for Chinese monks in the seventh century. One century later the impressive Borobudur temple was built by the Sailendra dynasty in Central Java, while in the 15th century the grand Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit empire ruled a large part of the Archipelago. There are various sites on Sumatra and Java where you can find Buddhist remnants from between the 2nd - 15th century. Starting from the 16th century Islam became the dominant religion on Sumatra and Java.

Confucianism in Indonesia

Similar to Buddhism, not everyone will agree that Confucianism is a religion (many prefer to think of it as a belief or philosophy). However, the Indonesian government acknowledges it as one of the six state religions. It is interesting to note that the government's stance on Confucianism has been ambiguous. Under President Soekarno it was one of the state religions. However, it was de-recognized by the Suharto government as the regime tried to restrict expressions that originated from China (including the Chinese language, celebrations, and names) in order to prevent the emergence of clashes between the native Indonesians and ethnic Chinese (although forming less than 3 percent of the Indonesian population, this Chinese minority gained a disproportionately large share in the nation's economy). Those who practiced Confucianism therefore "changed" their religion to Buddhism or Christianity (on their identity cards only). In 2006 the government, again, recognized Confucianism as one of the state's official religions.

Confucianism was brought to the Archipelago (from mainland China), primarily by Chinese merchants and immigrants starting from the 3rd century of the Common Era.