Paganism and Handmaids

This post is inspired by a post on Patheos by Matthew Currie, called “Is The Handmaid’s Tale Anti-Christian?”

I apologize in advance if this comes across like a literary analysis.  I love doing them, and The Handmaid’s Tale offers a rich commentary on society, so please bear with me.

A little about The Handmaid’s Tale

If you haven’t watched the show (which is what I’ll be referring to), or read the book (which I haven’t, but I imagine the themes are similar), then please go do so.  Or at least familiarize yourself with the narrative.

Margaret Atwood is a master at creating bleak, realistic near-future stories.  I read Oryx and Crake, which was brilliant, and which in my mind I could totally see happening.  Which is one thing that terrifies me about Handmaid.

So, let me get this out of the way first – I don’t think The Handmaid’s Tale is in any way anti-Christian.  Currie makes the point that comparing this story to Christianity is asking the wrong question – and that a better question might be, “how does this narrative illustrate the abuses mankind visits upon itself?”  I agree – this isn’t anti-Christian.  It’s a warning about how extremists could use Christianity to enact a totalitarian government.  And why everyone – not just Pagans – should be concerned about Christian extremism.

I know there are some Christians that this narrative certainly would not apply to.  But there are many highly vocal Christians out there that terrify me, and The Handmaid’s Tale outlines most of the reasons why.

As a Pagan, I feel as threatened by the state of Gilead (in the narrative) as I do by some branches of Evangelical Christianity.  Here’s why.

(some) Christians want to be in charge

Not all Christians.  (Hehe.  “Not all men.”)

But there are enough loud, vocal Christians who simply want to be in charge of the way everyone does things.  They want to be in charge of who gets married.  (“Gays shouldn’t get married!  It’s against the bahble!”)  They want to be in charge of what gets taught in school.  (“Ain’t no way mah kid is learning we’re related to monkeys!”)  They want to be in charge of morality, charity, crime, courts, and punishment.

This creeps out subtly into more mainstream Christianity too.  I’ve heard conservatives talk about letting churches handle social welfare programs, because the government doesn’t do a good job.  But the problem with church-based charity is that it always comes with a hook.  My wife used to be a social worker, and she heard multiple stories from people who would go hungry rather than sit through a pre-meal sermon at the Salvation Army.

In many public Christian groups, there’s a tendency to use shame as a punishment.  “Well, if you didn’t want to be a parent, you shouldn’t have opened your legs in the first place!  You made your bed, now lay in it!”  It’s as if they are trying to mete out the punishment dictated by their religion (which is admittedly scarce in the text) against everyone in society, not just people who belong to the same religion.

Even that nutjob who knifed a couple people for interrupting his tirade against Muslims in Portland a couple days ago made remarks against “fake Christians,” as if he was the authority on who is – and is not – a good Christian.

Now, if you consider yourself Christian, you might be thinking “Well, this isn’t really that bad, I mean most Christians aren’t like this.”

But from the perspective of a non-Christian, this is downright terrifying.  Because we know we’re on some crazy guy’s list of people who need to be killed in the name of a Christian nation.  It’s a constant, low-level tension that some unhinged wacko will take their Christianity a little too seriously, and attack us.  It’s the notion that the louder the Christian, the more likely they are to be an intolerant bigot.  And that you never know if it stops with a reasonable “agree to disagree,” or if they take it as far as threatening our life.

Just like the quote “any man could be a rapist,” or “any cop could be a dirty cop,” or “any immigrant could be a terrorist,” any Christian could be a violent bigot.

(I am familiar with the “not all Christians” argument, so there’s no need to repeat it.  Also, I’m not advocating that you adopt paranoia as a safety strategy.  To avoid being the victim of violence, learn a little about the five stages of crime, and risky behavior that you can avoid.)

(some) Christians cherry-pick their scripture

One thing that The Handmaid’s Tale really highlights is the selective use of scripture to support an oppressive totalitarian government.

For instance, the line about “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” is tossed completely out the window in favor of a line advocating a barren wife letting her husband rape a slave in order to have children.

This hypocrisy isn’t anything new.  We’ve all heard the story of the anti-gay cake-bakers that unlawfully discriminated against a gay couple.  And I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of rhetoric on both sides of that argument.  But does that bakery ask women if they’re virgins before they’ll bake a cake?  Do they make sure the bride and groom aren’t wearing mixed fabrics?  Do they make sure there aren’t any shrimp or clams at the reception?

We don’t know.  Of course we don’t know.  The rule Christians have decided to fight on is about gays.  It’s not even that well supported in their holy text (something something raping angels).  It’s more of a cultural issue, where Christian groups have decided that they need more people at church, and the best way to do that is to get women pregnant.  That’s hard to do when there’s abortion, contraceptive, and homosexuality.  It’s also hard to do when women have agency over their own sexuality.

But it persists as a cultural artifact, and they shoehorn their scripture to support it.

I think we could say the same thing for the Islamic State committing atrocities over in the Middle East.  It’s not about promoting Islam.  It’s about using the Islamic holy text to support your totalitarian political ambitions.

Currie nailed the issue here.  This isn’t really about Christianity, it’s about people wanting control.

But as a Pagan, we have to deal with an America that is becoming increasingly more extremist, and that extremism is coming in the form of White Christian Men.  And those WCM’s will twist and manipulate their holy text to support whatever agenda they are trying to achieve, so they can congratulate themselves on being moral even in the face of committing atrocities.

Now, I’m not really completely against the Bible.  It’s not the book for me, but I know other people get something out of it.  And it’s got some decent advice about being kind and compassionate to other people.

But if you ignore the kindness and compassion, and instead go straight for “Burn the witch,” then a) you’re a hypocrite, and b) you are part of the problem in The Handmaid’s Tale.

 (some) Christians want to control womens’ sexuality

Fun fact – according to a recent poll, 70% of women who get an abortion self-identify as Christian.

Why am I bringing up abortion in the context of government-sanctioned sex slavery?

Because although it might not seem like it at first, the anti-abortion movement is only a teeny bit different from the fictional government of Gilead.

In Gilead, we see the following restrictions:

  • Non-heterosexuals are labeled “gender traitors,” and punished
  • Fertile women are captured, tagged, brainwashed, and traded as sex slaves
  • Sexuality for procreation is highly regulated
  • The government decides what happens to a handmaid’s body
  • The government decides who these handmaids have sex with
  • The government decides what happens to the children of the handmaids

If it’s not already clear, let’s look at the pro-life movement:

  • Wants to stop all abortions
  • Wants to close down clinics that perform abortions
  • Wants to decide for women what they can and can’t do with the fetus in their body
  • Wants to prevent access to sex education
  • Wants to defund access to parental planning, contraception, STI treatment, and other sexual health functions
  • Advocates that women “hold an aspirin between their legs” as a means of birth control (which, in addition to being incredibly offensive, implies women are responsible for following a moral code of sexuality, and that they should be shamed if they do not, all the while mentioning nothing about men’s involvement)

Additionally, there’s a strong overlap between the Christian pro-life movement and people who

  • Think gay marriage is an abomination
  • Advocate for adoption, but only by Christians and heterosexuals
  • Tell victims of sexual violence that it’s the victim’s fault
  • Condition their congregations to accept male dominance

Do you see it now?

The (largely Christian) pro-life movement is less about abortion, and more about controlling women’s sexuality and reproductive rights.  Take away access to abortions, STI screening, and contraception.  Shame them for behaving in a way you don’t approve of.  (I think it’s arguable that a large portion of many large religions is about controlling women’s sexuality.  And likewise, being Pagan – and especially being a Witch – is in part about reclaiming the sacred feminine sexuality.  But I digress.)  And these Christian organizations have a substantial following that believes it’s OK to use some Old-Testament-style punishments on women who “step out of line.”

The (Christian-based) fictional government of Gilead is about turning fertile women into a commodity.  Those women have to be controlled, if the government is going to maintain its power, and if it’s going to have the ability to reproduce to the next generation.  Fertile women are controlled, and their actions are restricted.  They need permission to speak to anyone other than another Handmaid.  They are not allowed to read, or to pursue hobbies.  If they rebel – refusing to participate, speaking out, disobeying, having unsanctioned sex – they may be punished by having an eye gouged out, having a hand cut off, or having their genitals mutilated.

Pagans are scared of extreme Christians for the same reason everyone watching The Handmaid’s Tale should be scared of Gilead.  Just a few small steps, by a committed and focused group of Christian extremists, and we could be Gilead.

It would be a mistake to think extremist Christians don’t mean what they say regarding the treatment of women who have abortions.

We saw it happen in Iran, when conservative Muslims got into power.

We’re seeing it in Syria and Turkey right now (2017).

We might think that, since it’s Islam and it’s on the other side of the planet where the terrorists live, it can’t happen to us.

But if it does, and you identify as a religion with an emotionally-loaded name like “Pagan” or “Witch,” and the Bible itself says “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” which “deviants” do you think will be the first to be rounded up?

(some) Christians want to be more equal than non-Christians

Have you heard about Glenn Beck’s “War on Christianity?”  He promotes this idea that people saying “Happy Holidays” is somehow a war against Christians, by the Evil Forces of Secularness, to try to prevent Good Christians from Saying Merry Christmas.  And that somehow, this constitutes part of a “war” against Christianity.

Which is really a load of bullshit, because saying “Happy Holidays” in no way stops you from going to church on Sunday.

But it does reinforce that pesky idea that America isn’t exclusively Christian.  No matter how badly (some) Christians want it to be.

(some) Christians want to be able to hold bible study groups in schools.  But when Pagans or Satanists want equal access, they freak out.

Gideons want to distribute Bibles in schools.

Bakers want to exercise their “deeply held religious beliefs” and force a Christian morality on their customers.

Employers and universities want to exercise their “deeply held religious beliefs” to not have to pay for contraception in healthcare plans, forcing their ideology on employees.  (Which, it’s arguable, you might figure if you’re working for a Catholic university, it comes with the territory.  But it’s still discriminatory, in my book.)

But when a Muslim wants to build a mosque in po-drip Idaho, suddenly it’s “We don’t want Sharia Law!”

When a Pagan wants to wear a pentacle because a colleague is wearing a cross, we get dirty looks and snide comments – when it’s not outright prohibited.  (Though usually, employers will back down and put up a “no religious symbols at work” policy, rather than fight Pagans on pentacles.)

So Christians want all their religious freedom (and freedom to push their religious agenda), but they don’t at all want that same courtesy extended to other religions.

It really isn’t about the religion

It’s about the extremism.  All these points I’ve laid out are parts of a fundamentalist/extremist religious view.  The problem is, American Christianity is teetering dangerously on the edge of extremism.  The “Religious Right” has been pushing its agenda since the 1970’s, training kids to be Christian-oriented leaders and promote their agenda in local and state governments.  Jerry Falwell was failing, until he repurposed the pro-life argument as a way to regain relevance and attract money to his church and university.  The political landscape has been sliding slowly to the right, so that even a position that would be considered moderate in most areas of the world, in America is regarded as “commie libtard.”

But like we see with the Islamic State in the Middle East, these extremists must ignore a substantial part of their scripture in order to gain power and control.  Like, all the parts about peace and love.

Personally, I think it’s all about control, sex, and money.  The people who are leading these extreme Christian movements want to be in control, as evidenced by their advocacy against the right to have an abortion and the right of marriage.  Many of them want sex, as suggested by the growing list of Evangelical preachers involved in sex scandals.  And most of them want your money, which may or may not be spent on the “ministry,” which itself is a lavish lifestyle.

What can Pagans do about it?

In the first place, I advocate for being a cool person first, and letting people get to know you and your awesome self before you advertise your Pagan practices.  (True story – one of my favorite tales from tech support is when a guy told me I was a good Christian for helping him.)

Now, I know that may not fly well with some of you.  I totally respect you for living your life as you see fit, in or out of the closet to the degree you choose.

So, in addition to just being a cool person, here are a few other ideas.

Learn your legal rights, and defend them.  In a facebook argument a while back, I had to push back on a guy who was attacking gay marriage, calling legalization of gay marriage an “attack on Christianity.”  I had to remind him that two dudes getting married did not, in any way, stop him from going to church on Sunday.  And that likewise, nothing he could do would stop me from performing a Pagan ritual.  Those rights are guaranteed in the US Constitution.

But don’t be an asshole about it.  Here’s a handy list on how to be more cool and pro-social as a Pagan.

Set appropriate boundaries.  If you’ve got someone haranguing at you because of your religion, tell them to stop.  If they don’t, then leave.  If they follow you, call the authorities and consider filing a complaint, statement, or even (if it’s bad enough) a restraining order.

Take a self-defense class.  Learn the legalities of self-defense.  Emotions can run hot when people are talking about their “deeply held religious beliefs.”  It can help to have an ace in the hole, to know how to protect yourself.  (Better yet, how to keep yourself safe and prevent an escalated conflict in the first place!)  But courts will take a dim view of you putting someone in the hospital without a really good reason.  Check your local legal situation, and do some homework on the different types of self-defense.

Live your practice.  By this I mean, do all the rituals and activities you find meaningful.  I like to practice in private.  I don’t typically advertise what I’m doing.  You do you, but realize that as a minority religion (when it’s even recognized as a religion), Paganism can attract unwelcome attention.  Decide what you’re comfortable with, and do that.  If you’re performing a circle in the local park, most people will have no clue what you’re really doing.  If they are even paying attention in the first place.

Become an activist.  Again, you do you.  If you want to do marches, go right ahead.  You might find it more helpful to donate to (and get friendly with) your local ACLU chapter.  Start making phone calls to your elected representatives.  Use your voice to advocate for religious freedom for everyone, not just Christians.  (Or, you could do like the Satanists do, and put up a statue of Baphomet next to the Ten Commandments.  That usually shuts Christians up on their “religious freedom.”)

Good old Baphomet.

Final thoughts

Wow, this post kinda went all over the place, didn’t it?

Let me just close out by saying, Margaret Atwood has a way of writing that makes me think, “I could see this happening.  Soon.  And that scares me.”

In this case, and with our current President and the growing influence of radical Christianity, I think Pagans and other non-Christians have some cause for concern.

There is some wisdom in the adage, “Don’t make yourself a victim.”  It’s like crossing the street with a car coming.  You might be right, in that you’re on a crosswalk.  But it doesn’t matter if you get hit by the car, because you’re smaller and squishier.  I think the same applies to being Pagan in the face of a growing extremist Christian presence in the US.

Does that mean that you should be passive and closeted?  That’s up to you.  But at the end of the day, we all want to practice what we want to practice.  If we can do that and avoid antagonizing violent extremists, I’d call that a win.

Ultimately, The Handmaid’s Tale should serve as a wake-up call to moderate Christians – that even though they aren’t technically supporting extremist Christianity, they are tacitly allowing it by saying nothing.  And that, in the same way the people of Gilead didn’t believe they would be subject to the horrors of oppression and sex slavery, we too could be victims of an extreme religious totalitarian government.

What do you think?  Sound off in the comments!

About the Author

I live in the sagebrush desert of southern Idaho, in a little town perched above a deep, rocky canyon. I've been pagan for a little over two decades. I've dipped my toes in Wicca, Rosicrucianism, Yoga, Reiki, and Qabala, only to settle into an Earth-based Neopagan Buddhist path. My credentials (if you care about such things), include an MA in English, an apprenticeship with Jason Miller, and a few publications here and there. I run a small Pagan group with my lovely wife, where we encourage people to show up, do pagan stuff, and live empowered and ethical lives.

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