Things to Learn from Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale was a best-selling 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood, which was turned into a TV series in recent years. My neighbor and I have been binge-watching episodes of it for months, after it was recommended by a co-worker. I did not read the original novel, but the series is so good that I can’t stop watching. Here are four things to learn from Handmaid’s Tale.

The Bible is Incompatible With the Constitution

Handmaid’s Tale reminds us, time and again, that attempts to re-create the primitive, Bronze-Age social conventions found in the Bible in modern society are not only barbaric, but seditious. They represent an attempt to overthrow legitimate, agreed-upon governance, and we should be compelled to ask where does it end, as the Bible mentions practices like polygamy, slavery, sexual slavery, and the crush of all dissent via the death penalty. Here is what the First Amendment of the US Constitution declares:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

… and here the first four (and, presumably, the most “important”) of the revered Ten Commandments, which directly violate the constitutional guarantees described above:

  1. I am the Lord your God … You shall have no other gods before Me.
  2. You shall not make for yourself a carved image.
  3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

All four of these commandments violate the establishment clause, which forbids our government from having an established religion. The first one establishes the lordship of a particular god. The second one establishes the manner of worship. The third one forbids free expression, which guarantees the right to blaspheme or to treat the name of the Abrahamic god just like any other word. The fourth one violates the freedom to work and engage in activities that any free citizen may wish to engage in, outside of those allowed in arbitrary Biblical law concerning what one may do on Saturdays. A series like Handmaid’s Tale may help those who believe that laws should be based on the Bible to re-think what they think they know and believe.

The Bible contains awful acts of violence in the name of religion (genocide in order to steal the lands of the Canaanites, the killing of all first-born children in Egypt, the sacrifice of the daughter of Jephthah as a “burnt offering” to Jehovah, etc.), yet many Christians today say they want Bible-based laws and society–and even wish to place monuments to the Ten Commandments prominently on government grounds, as if to say that our government is bound or ruled by them. These arrogant, evil insinuations and attempts at Christian hegemony in the public discourse should be met with hostility and treated as what they are: sedition!

Hell on Earth

Fundamentalists who want to advance a theocratic agenda generally find it useful to turn this world into a hell, so that their afterlife promises seem to give hope to those who stand to suffer as a result of their bullshit.

We see it in Nigeria today, where Boko Haram has successfully convinced dozens of girls to become terrorists–perhaps under threat, or perhaps by making life for women and girls there so miserable that they have no will to live and nothing to look forward to. Boko Haram–whose name means “Books are Forbidden”–is against so-called “Western” education, particularly the education of girls, and has been involved in very high-profile cases of sexual enslavement and human trafficking of girls in Northern Nigeria.

Giving a Voice to the Voiceless

History is told by the victors, but victors don’t stay in power forever and when their power wanes, the opportunity arises to tell the story of those who were vanquished, silenced, and abused. Michel Onfray has done a good job of reminding us that historiography is an act of power.

As a result of centuries of misplaced piety, there haven’t been many attempts to tell the stories of the victims of religious tyranny, particularly as depicted in the Bible. But that is changing: there is a Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, and the novel The Red Tent was made into a movie a few years back. It tells the story of Dinah, the daughter of one of the Biblical patriarchs. The Annotated Skeptic’s Bible has published commentaries on the evil episodes in scripture, but this is not the same as giving a human voice and restoring the humanity of people like Jephthah’s daughter, who was placed in the pyre as a girl by her own father–a necessary step, if we wish to have an honest public assessment of the contents of the Bible.

Handmaid’s Tale imagines many of the evil practices in the Bible happening in a post-apocalyptic future ISIS-like America after theocrats have overthrown the government. In this way, the viewer is helped to put visuals next to Bible verses that are never mentioned in Sunday school. Sexual slavery? Check! Public executions? Check! Theocratic legal code? Check!

The name of the novel is inspired in the bizarre ritual rape of the few remaining fertile women by powerful, moneyed couples, which is based on sexual slave Hagar’s impregnation by Abraham at his wife’s Sarah’s suggestion, and on the description of Jacob having sex with two sister-wives and two sexual slaves in Genesis 30.

The Boiling Frog

According to the Boiling Frog Wikipedia page:

The boiling frog is a fable describing a frog being slowly boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to or be aware of sinister threats that arise gradually rather than suddenly.

Iran in the 60's

The boiling frog metaphor has been used to describe how societies fall into theocracy or authoritarian regimes after having experienced some semblance of freedom. The change happens slowly, gradually, and only over a long span of time does it become evident that change has happened. People have to first get used to a slightly greater degree of surveillance, first in public, then in the workplace, then in more private environments … they then have to slowly get used to laws that tell them what they must do with their bodies, in bed, or when they choose their clothing. Then self-expression is attacked, and once that happens it is clear that citizens are not free, because only the free can be frank.

One only needs to consider the history of Iran during the last half of the 20th Century, before the Islamic Revolution. Women in Iran during the 60’s and 70’s dressed like Westerners, and lived lives relatively free of constant religious policing and harassment. Today, if an Iranian woman does not cover the entirety of their body in public, she will be shamed and insulted.

Are we in the U.S. losing our liberties? Did the so-called “Patriot Act” bring us a few degrees closer to boiling? Does the constant mining of data on us (by Facebook, Google, and other companies, or by the government) constitute a loss of freedom, in addition to privacy? Is there increased surveillance? Clearly, in recent years there has been an increase of laws against abortion in states that would like to see Roe vs. Wade reverted–and the oppressive culture in states that are advancing compulsive motherhood does remind us of Handmaid’s Tale. However it’s not clear if this trend is part of a boiling-frog process, or merely a function of the pendulum swinging to the right, particularly as Christians are emboldened by politicians that cater to their Evangelical base and by a more conservative Supreme Court.

It’s also not likely that theocratic measures would be sustainable over the long term (particularly at the federal level) in a country as diverse as the US, and with about a third of teenagers currently identifying as atheist, agnostic or irreligious. So we should be cautiously hopeful for now.

Plato’s Republic

The Republic of Plato idealizes a regime that would separate mothers from children and where their role in procreation is seen as instrumental to the state, and has the state taking the place of the family in raising the children for the sake of “wisdom”. While the regime at Gilead is a theocracy, and it’s not clear to what extent it mirrors the hell-on-Earth that Plato envisioned, it gives us some idea of how bad Plato’s ideas were in practice and how much of the respect Plato gets is undeserved.

Further Reading:

The Handmaid’s Tale

The Testaments: The Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale (Graphic Novel)

The Red Tent

Jimmy Carter: Losing my religion for equality

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014), 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and Epicurus of Samos – His Philosophy and Life: All the principal Classical texts Compiled and Introduced by Hiram Crespo (Ukemi Audiobooks, 2020). He's the founder of, and has written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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