By James Haught
The Handmaid’s Tale — a grotesque novel about a fundamentalist takeover that turns part of America into a cruel theocracy called Gilead — rang a worldwide bell when published in 1985.
The vivid book by Canadian Margaret Atwood sold eight million copies and was made into a Hulu television series that won eight Emmies and two Golden Globes. It was a sensation.
In the fictional Gilead, women have no rights, can’t vote, can’t own property, must obey men — and their fingers are chopped off if they’re caught reading.
The book’s title is taken from the Bible (Genesis 30). When one of Jacob’s wives can’t bear children, she offers her handmaid Bilhah as a substitute to be impregnated by Jacob. In Gilead, some women are designated handmaids for fundamentalist leaders, whose wives hold them down while they’re penetrated.
This subjugation of women seemed real to millions of people because it reflects the Puritanical male supremacy of born-again churches. To oppose fundamentalist laws, some women protesters dressed as handmaids to picket Congress and state legislatures.
Why did the novel have such strong impact? Here’s my theory:
The danger of a fundamentalist theocracy was at a peak in 1985 when the book appeared. White evangelicals had just taken control of the Republican Party and elected Ronald Reagan twice. Big-money preachers were calling for “true believers” to dominate America as a “Christian nation.”
At that time, the ratio of Americans who called themselves born-again evangelicals was estimated as high as one-third. They had great political power. But something amazing happened. Religion collapsed in America so rapidly that sociologists are baffled by the swift transformation. Educated “mainline” faiths fell first, then fundamentalists followed.
The born-again Southern Baptist Convention lost two million members since 2006. Thousands of churches close each year. Young educated Americans especially renounce supernaturalism. A recent Gallup poll found that, for the first time, the share of Americans who belong to congregations has fallen below half. Fundamentalist power is fizzling. Only about 15 percent of Americans remain white evangelicals.
In other words, the possibility of a Gilead theocracy loomed more likely in 1985 than it does today. The warning story that gripped the world a generation ago has fallen victim to a profound cultural shift.
However, while shrinking, fundamentalists remain a hazard to America. Reports say they’re growing more fanatical as they slip. For example, what if they finally win their goal of re-criminalizing abortion, sending women, girls and doctors to prison — and sending other desperate females to back-alley butchers once again?
If that happens, The Handmaid’s Tale would come partly true.
*Associates and resources listing last updated May 31, 2020.*
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.
About Canadian Atheist
Canadian Atheist is an independent blog with multiple contributors providing articles of interest to Canadian atheists, secularists, humanists, and freethinkers.
Canadian Atheist is not an organization — there is no membership and nothing to join — and we offer no professional services or products. It is a privately-owned publishing platform shared with our contributors, with a focus on topics relevant to Canadian atheists.
Canadian Atheist is not affiliated with any other organization or group. While our contributors may be individually be members of other organizations or groups, and may even speak in an official capacity for them, CA itself is independent.
For more information about Canadian Atheist, or to contact us for any other reason, see our contact page.
About Canadian Atheist Contributors
Canadian Atheist contributors are volunteers who provide content for CA. They receive no payment for their contributions from CA, though they may be sponsored by other means.
Our contributors are people who have both a passion for issues of interest to Canadian atheists, secularists, humanists, and freethinkers, and a demonstrated ability to communicate content and ideas of interest on those topics to our readers. Some are members of Canadian secularist, humanist, atheist, or freethought organizations, either at the national, provincial, regional, or local level. They come from all walks of life, and offer a diversity of perspectives and presentation styles.
CA merely provides our contributors with a platform with almost complete editorial freedom. Their opinions are their own, expressed as they see fit; they do not speak for Canadian Atheist, and Canadian Atheist does not speak for them.
For more information about Canadian Atheist’s contributors, or to get in contact with any of them, or if you are interested in becoming a contributor, see our contact page.
Image Credit: James Haught.