Welcome to the modern world. Now pick a religion.
The Orang Rimba people of central Sumatra were given this greeting last year when Palm Oil plantation farmers burned enough of Sumatra’s jungles that the Orang Rimba could no longer survive off the land. The government of Indonesia was willing to provide housing and schools for the Rimba, but to receive these benefits the Orang Rimba were forced to pick one of six nationally recognized religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism or Confucianism.
The elders of the Orang Rimba met to decide which religion the community would follow. They have a survival mindset, and when faced with the government of the largest Muslim population in the world, they selected the religion that would give their children the best chance for success: Islam.
Soon after, the government issued national ID cards detailing the Orang Rimba’s chosen faith. Muslim leaders opened religious schools in the area to teach the Orang Rimba children. They claimed children are easier to convert into true Muslims.
But Did They Mean It?
Although on paper they are now officially Muslims, Rimba adults are still strongly animistic in their beliefs. They want to eat pork, uncover their heads and give offerings to various jungle spirits. While they have verbally stated, “There is no God but Allah,” in their hearts they remain true to their animistic worship of forests, hornbill birds and rivers.
The Orang Rimba “conversion” is not an anomaly. Superficial conversions have occurred in other groups and with other religions. A large portion of the Dayak people on the island of Borneo have “Protestant” written on their national ID cards. Christian missionaries have been working with Dayak peoples for more than 100 years.
Dr. James Masing, a Christian Dayak politician in Malaysia, is quoted as saying Christianity was accepted by Dayaks “not because of the promise of life after death” but because they could “increase their economic and social standing while alive.”
It was a head decision, not a heart decision. Today, Dayaks attend church and sing translated western hymns, but some Dayak Christians still practice animistic beliefs handed down from their ancestors. Once again it is evident the teachings of a new faith failed to filter into daily obedience.
When Conversion Isn’t Conversion
Two things have occurred in these examples. First, the community-oriented value system of Eastern culture allowed these peoples to choose their new faith as a group. When these decisions are made without the understanding of every group member, the resulting new faith is often syncretistic.
Second, even for individuals who truly desire to embrace the new religion, mentally agreeing with the truth of a religion is different from applying the truths in daily life. The Orang Rimba people agreed to identify as Muslims but within months reembraced their ancestral animistic practices. Dayaks have identified as Christians for nearly 100 years, but animistic beliefs still influence their everyday lives.
In both of these cultures, when new, logical beliefs intersect with tradition, they fall back to heart-led behavior. They may know what the new religion teaches, but their heart makes them do what “feels” right.