“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people” (Marx 260). This statement implies that religion is a powerful concept that encourages people to accept their conditions instead of revolting against their plight. Indeed in the wrong hands, it can be perverted to justify countless atrocities and so be used as a tool of oppression. In her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood portrays a dystopian society, a fictional republic called Gilead, whose rulers use the power of religion to validate their terrifying personal agenda.
She satirizes the political system that uses faith to validate its mandate, and justify its more questionable laws. Clearly the use of religion for political purposes is one of the central themes of the novel; Atwood takes a set of fundamentalist religious beliefs followed by certain fringe elements in contemporary society and takes them to their logical end to highlight their true despotic nature.
In Gilead, politics and religion go hand in hand. The Sons of Jacob use religion and psychological tactics to control the masses and bend them to their will.
Consequently the republic makes extensive use of religious terminologies for example domestic servants are called “Marthas” referring to a domestic character in the bible, the soldiers are called “Angels” while the local police are the “Guardians of the Faith”. The ruling government officials are called the “Commanders of the Faithful”. Even the names of shopping stores have biblical references like All Flesh, Milk and Honey, Loaves and Fishes. The purpose of this extensive use of biblical language is to deceive the people of Gilead into believing that their rulers enact the will of God Himself.
Moreover the government only adopts certain aspects of Christianity while it shuns those that it finds inconvenient. For example Aunt Lydia, a teacher to the handmaids, says “I’ve learned to do without a lot of things, you get too attached to this material world and forget spiritual values. You must cultivate poverty of spirit. Blessed are the meek. ” (Atwood 110) at this point in the novel Offred notes that Aunt Lydia says nothing about inheriting the Earth. Thus the republic used religious justification to demand docile behavior from the handmaids.
Therefore religion is used as a powerful political tool in Gilead. Women play a very limited role in Gilead’s society; biblical allusions are used to weaken their status. A Commander makes the following speech at the women’s prayvaganza. “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.
Notwithstanding she shall be saved by childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety. “(273) Therefore, by drawing an interpretation from a single biblical story the role of women is limited to reproduction. Moreover, in order to prevent the women from getting libertarian, secular ideas mass censorship takes place in Gilead. The country is cut off from the outside world as it does not even allow international television to be broadcasted; Offred notes this while watching the television “Serena clicks the channel changer.
Waves, colored zigzags, a garble of sound: it is the Montreal Satellite Station being blocked. “(101) Furthermore all books deemed heretical by the republic are burned and women are not allowed to read at all, the bible is kept under lock and key so that the Commanders can read out only those parts that are prescribed by the government. Offred’s commander reads out the following passage from the bible on the day of the monthly ceremony “Give me children, or else I die. Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?
Behold my maid Bilhah. She shall bear fruit upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. “(112) This biblical tale, narrated in the novel by the Commander, forms the basis of the concept of a handmaid which is why it is given special significance in Gilead and it is also another one of the archaic stories from the bible that are used to enforce highly questionable obligations on women. Thus the women of Gilead are subjugated by a warped version of Christianity.
Religion is supposed to emancipate man. But The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a society in which it is used to shackle people, to brainwash them, to force them to conform to a lifestyle permitted by their government. Margaret Atwood compares the people living in Gilead’s repressive society to rats trapped in a maze, she points out “A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere as long as it stays in the maze”(363). In fact those that rebel to the established norms are dealt with harshly; they are punished at a seudo-religious ceremony called the Particicution, where they are lynched to death by a mob of women for false crimes they did not commit. Regarding this, the dissident handmaid, Ofglen remarks “He wasn’t a rapist at all, he was a political. He was one of ours. “(350) What this entails is that the society in the novel is highly autocratic and it does not allow the freedom of expression, in fact it uses fear to control its citizens and induce their piety, as Offred notes “We must look good from a distance: picturesque, like Dutch milkmaids on a wallpaper frieze.
Soothing to the eye, the eyes, the Eyes, for that’s who this show is for. We’re off to the Prayvaganza to demonstrate how obedient and pious we are. ” (266) This highlights the peoples’ inherent paranoia, the fear of being found unfaithful, that has been slowly cultivated into their hearts and minds. Truly the establishment defiles the true spirit of religion by going against its very essence: the spiritual liberation of mankind.
The use of religion for political purposes is one of the central themes of the novel; Atwood takes a set of religious beliefs followed by certain fringe elements in contemporary society and takes them to their logical end to highlight their true despotic nature. In conclusion, Margaret Atwood portrays a horrifying alternate reality in which religious fundamentalists dominate and religion comes to dictate every aspect of human life. The topic of religion carries a lot of significance in the novel; in fact the novel serves as a warning against the extremist views held by many modern think tanks.