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Some Issues With “The Handmaid's Tale”

“Blessed day!”

“Under His eye.”

“Blessed be the fruit.”

“May the Lord open.”

These and other hackneyed catchphrases are part of the everyday conversational usages to be found in the Republic of Gilead.  This is, of course, the world of Margaret Atwood’s novel and subsequent television series, The Handmaid’s Tale, the story of what happened when, in the wake of a pandemic which impacts human fertility and reproduction on a global level [sound familiar?], a radical Christian faction became sufficiently powerful and influential that they could and did overthrow the government of the United States and install an actual Christian theocracy. 

Having watched the first four seasons of THT, I think I’m fairly familiar with the social and religious ground it is written on.  There should be no surprise at all that Gilead, for the large portion, is utterly orthodox in its practices and usages.  This extends from the stilted conversational phrases cited above to the predictable departures from its superficially rigorous social norms, as evinced by facets such as Jezebel’s.  The contrast provided by Canada as a de-facto sanctuary state are equally predictable, from its welcoming and supportive attitude toward those who have managed to escape Gilead’s absolutist and totalitarian rule, to those Canadians who actually support Gilead’s position and would see their own country follow suit.

Still, I find that something has been missing in its overall structure.  There is an element that hasn’t been considered in the overall warp and woof of Ms. Atwood’s story, absent both from the rebel factions inside Gilead and the alternative offered by Canada.  That oversight can be summed up in a four-word question:

Where are the atheists?

Certainly, I wouldn’t expect to find any active, self-professed non-believers in Gilead.  The necessary attitude of such a government toward atheism would be utter intolerance, not just toward atheists and agnostics, but very possibly any other religion, whether Abrahamic or not.  That being the case, any such people would have been hunted down once the theocracy had taken power, and far more than likely, many if not most of them would have seen this tragedy coming and headed north, long before the shit hit the fan.  That atheism is not to be found in Gilead approaches the same logic as is found in 2+2=4.

But what about Canada?  Having been freed from the religious tyranny of the regime to their south, one would think that some of those coming out of Gilead would reflect on the cruelty, not just of that country but of the god it was supposedly founded on and just possibly reject BOTH.  Yet characters transplanted from Gilead to Canada still talk about their god as though it is a valid part of their lives, treating that deity’s interpretation in what once was America as a tragic aberration.  The fact is, disbelief in gods showed itself not at all in the book, nor in the television series to this point.

And I think I know why.  Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, 16 years before the events of September 11th, 2001 and the political and religious fallout from that horrific day.  It is possible that she didn’t anticipate in her novel that a reaction to such an event as the dissolution of the Constitution and the rise of a Christian theocracy could be as religious as it was political, that there would be those who would decry and denounce not just the loss of democracy, but the loss of religious freedom, diversity, and tolerance as well.  The atmosphere was far less critical of religion in the mid-1980s, and all one has to do is mention names such as Jim and Tammy Fae Bakker or Jimmy Swaggart to support such a suggestion.  In addition, atheists were simply not a regular part of the scene at that time, and so their absence is almost to be expected.

There is, however, another aspect to the issue of Gilead, versus that of 9/11, which makes the former potentially more pernicious.  With the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, that was radical Islam acting against a country which at the time was largely Christian.  Not just the religious component of that incident but that the religion itself was NOT the majority practice of this country, and the fact that it was a substantial element behind its reasoning must certainly be considered when looking at how the US reacted to 9/11.  In the case of THT, however, the antagonist is, itself, Christian, albeit twisted and mutated very nearly beyond recognition.  It may be possible that the thin commonality between Gilead and the average believer allows for the “that’s-not-MY-Christianity” mindset to come into play, and the apologetics and justifications that would result have the potential for being FAR more complex.

Which makes me wonder: what would have happened if it had been Christian radicals who had flown those planes on the second Tuesday of September, 2001?  No, it’s not a comfortable question, but then, I didn’t mean it to be one.

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Comment was by Joan Denoo on January 27, 2023 at 1:48pm

Q.     How does change come about?

A.     Through language & action!

             A Plan to change language is:

             A Plan to change action is:

Comment was by Loren Miller on January 3, 2023 at 6:39am

You make a good point, Chris.  About the only time Islam makes the news is when it's BAD news, with radical Muslims being the alleged cause.  Certainly in the United States, Islam is NOT well integrated into American culture.  It's not rejected outright, but it's also not even close to being a part of the baseball-hot-dog-apple-pie stereotypical model. This reflects a further problem, too: the US may not be a de-jure Christian nation, but it IS in too many ways a de-facto Christian nation in how the vast majority of its citizens see it. The great shame is that we've allowed it to become so, and this doesn't just foster anti-Islamic sentiment, but also antisemitism as well.

And we need to freaking DO something about that.

Comment was by Chris B on January 3, 2023 at 6:00am

We have to think of the way news is brought - I suspect the following but can't prove it; that Muslims are automatically depicted as religious extremists and white people as disturbed, with a bad youth, etc. You can fill in the labels commonly pasted on other people. I don't trust the news at all, and I think I've every reason for it. But I don't have a straight answer to your question.

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