The Handmaid’s Tale: Snuff for Secularists

Having not read the book and watched the first four episodes of the television adaptation, here are some quick thoughts on The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Handmaid’s Tale is clearly deeply anti-Christian. As so many historians have claimed Christians ruined the past – the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, the early modern period and so on – now science fiction writers are predicting that Christians will ruin the future. So it’s nothing new in a sense.

In another sense, however, it is quite new. Most of the dystopian fiction that I’m aware of – 1984, Brave New World, latterly The Hunger Games, the fiction of Ray Bradbury etc. – see the world as a highly secularised, desacralised reality in which the state has made itself the ultimate object of transcendence. This makes perfect sense, and this is always what happens when totalitarian or dictatorial regimes come about: they abolish religion. Why? Because religion has the dangerous feature of commanding a loyalty to something greater than earthly power. (This, incidentally, is why monarchies are such a good idea.) 1984, for instance, (surely the greatest dystopian novel ever written by quite some distance) creates a picture of a society so utterly restrictive in its compelling immanence that the human persons caught within its ambit are crushed by the oppressive atmosphere into comformity at the very deepest emotional and psychological level.

The Handmaid’s Tale by contrast (and this might change, I don’t know) provides no account of how the society depicted could go from a highly secularised, liberal Western democracy to a mad, dictatorial, fundamentalist, religiously-fanatical totalitarian state, nor does it give an account of why the powers that be would want their state to be ordered in such a way. Would highly educated and powerful Westerners all across America suddenly begin to buy into interpretations of Christianity which cause them to throw away all their secular, liberal values and start to enslave and systematically  rape fertile women using only the most absurdly crass and literalistic interpretations of the Bible imaginable? Could the secularising trend of the last four centuries be overturned in a matter of days? Of course not.

The scary thing about 1984 and others is their prescience. The fact that they are a warning to society about what could happen if certain things are taken too far (the whole point of science fiction en generale really): government surveillance, for example, or the right to free speech and thought. That is why 1984 remains so pertinent to this day: its prophetic edge. The Handmaid’s Tale, however, though very well acted and produced on the whole (barring the bizarre soundtrack choices), is ludicrous to the point of farse. And in the absence of a credible scenario, the immense suffering of its protagists simply becomes a kind of anti-Christian torture porn, snuff for secularists.

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