The Handmaid’s Tale(s): A Theocracy is Harmful to Believers and Infidels Alike

August 17th, 2008 11:59 pm by Kelly Garbato

This is part five in a nine-part series on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A full TOC, complete with links for easy navigation, is included at the bottom of each post. (An especially timely post, considering last night’s religious interrogation of “church chat” between Barack Obama, John McCain and Rick Warren.)

Spoiler alert: Danger ahead, oh the horra! Plot spoilers abound! If you haven’t yet read the book, consider yourself warned. In fact, back away from this blog asap, go borrow The Handmaid’s Tale from your local library, and come back when you’re done. We’ll still be on the internets, promise.

A Theocracy is Harmful to Believers and Infidels Alike

The Handmaid's Tale (Book 04)

Just as the patriarchy hurts men as well as women, so too does a theocracy hurt believers and non-believers alike.

Although Atwood never identifies Gilead’s sect, we do know that it’s a Christian theocracy. We can eliminate Catholics, Quakers and Baptists, for Gilead forces young Catholic nuns to either renounce their religion and become Handmaids, or else face exile to The Colonies; fights against the Quakers, many of which are helping Gilead’s women escape via the Underground Femaleroad; and is engaged in open warfare with the Baptists. Given the state of current American religion and politics, Southern Baptist seems the best bet, however, all we can say about Gilead’s religion is that it is a fundamentalist Christian sect that is vehemently opposed by most of the other American religious sects – Christian or otherwise.

In fact, Gilead considers every religious sect other than its own the enemy, and demands that their adherents submit and convert – or die. The only believers which were spared during the Civil War were practicing Jews, who could either convert or immigrate to Israel. (Not as lucky a fate as it sounds; according to our future scientists, Gilead “privatiz[ed ] the Jewish repatriation scheme, with the result that more than one boatload of Jews was simply dumped into the Atlantic.” KBR, anyone?)

Gilead’s fundamentalist reading of the Bible, coupled with their brute force and religious zealotry, proved harmful to believers and non-believers alike, who were forced to submit to Gilead’s dogma or die. Nor did being “Christian enough” placate the Sons of Jacob – all citizens must follow Gilead’s religiously derived laws, to the letter, or face draconian punishments. A woman caught reading, for example, might lose a hand. No matter whether that woman agrees with Gilead and views “reading while female” a Biblical sin; she must abide by her government’s reading of holy doctrine either way.

In a theocracy, there’s no guarantee that the government will share your interpretation of the Bible. Better still to enshrine strong civil liberties protections in the Constitution, along with a healthy respect for the separation of church and state – that way, no one can force their religious beliefs on others, or have their own religious beliefs taken from them.

While many conservative American Christians claim that America is “founded on Christian principles” (or Judeo Christian, if they’re feeling generous and/or pandering) to which we should return, they don’t clearly specify which Christian edicts we should enshrine in law. After all, this coalition (which primarily consists of conservative/fundamentalist Christians, orthodox Jews and Catholics) only shares the most general of values; thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness. What about those doctrines which differ between these three religions, not to mention those which differ between sub-sects of each? Would the Catholic religion’s contempt of birth control mean that it should be prohibited, by the state, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike? What of those other seven commandments – will the state make working on the Sabbath and dishonoring one’s father crimes, punishable by…what? Jail time? Loss of a hand? Even the day of the Sabbath is up for debate: Is it Friday? Sunday? Once a month at new moon?

A state founded on religious principles – and, more to the point, that seeks to impose religious dogma on its citizens – is harmful to everyone. As each religion (and every subset of that religion) has different doctrines, a theocracy will necessarily violate at least some of its citizens beliefs (including their own personal religious beliefs). Even if the state’s religion is identical to that of a majority of its citizens’, imposing religious ideology on others, even a small minority, is still a gross human rights violation.

This doesn’t mean that the state shouldn’t enforce any sort of morality; that anything goes. Quite the contrary – justice, order and a sense of morality are necessary for a free, open, functioning society. But all rules and policies must have a secular basis and rationale. If a religious edict cannot be justified from a secular standpoint, then it should not be forced on anyone. Nor is this to imply that citizens, of their own free will, cannot follow any religious practice they wish. Indeed, as long as they are not violating anyone else’s rights in so doing, then they should be free to follow their religion as they see fit.

Do to others what you would have them do to you. Though America is a “Christian Nation” inasmuch as a majority of its citizens self-identify as “Christians”, there may come a day when they are in the religious minority. Would it then be acceptable for Muslims, Hindus, Orthodox Jews or Pastafarians to force their respective religions on the minority believers – with the full force of the government? As Gilead did to all other Christians-who-were-not-them? Of course not.

Do to others what you would have them do to you...because one day, you will be the “other”.

We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.

So, too, are we all infidels, in at least one other religion’s eyes.


The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Table of Contents

1. The Handmaid’s Tale, The Book (Margaret Atwood, 1985): Intro & Plot Summary

2. Misogyny & the Oppression of Women

3. Race, Ethnicity and Sexual Orientation: Gilead is a Society of Isms

4. The Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too (or, “But What About Teh Menz!!!1!?”)

5. A Theocracy is Harmful to Believers and Infidels Alike

6. Hypocrites, Egotists & Apologists: Who’s Sorry Now?

7. Dear Dystopian Deniers

8. The Handmaid’s Tale, The Film (Volker Schlöndorff, 1990)

9. The Handmaid’s Tale, The Dramatization (BBC Radio 4, 2000)

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