The Representation of Religion in Dystopian Fiction: ‘Parable of the Sower’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
Dystopian novels often focus on expanding certain fears of society to the extreme. Many times, at the top of these fears, is religion and the exploitation of it. It is often the case that dystopian writers will represent religion as a being that controls everyone and used as a tool to justify cruel punishments, but this is not always the case. Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower utilized religion to become a hopeful tool in a time of distress, while the dystopian classic, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood uses religion in the more traditional sense.
The Parable of the Sower changed many parts of the dystopian fiction world. It was the first dystopian novel to be written by an African American woman and featured a young, African American female protagonist. The novel is set in 2024, post-apocalyptic America making it unique in that it is set in the recent future. All of these characteristics make the novel unique in the dystopian fiction world, but one characteristic that is especially unique is the fact that religion in the novel is not seen with a controlling or dividing nature, but instead religion gives hope and represents equality. The protagonist, Lauren Olamina, lives in a Baptist community, that her father runs, when she becomes compelled to begin her own religion; one that relates to their time, instead of one that gives false hope and security. This new religion is called Earthseed and it revolved around the concept of change, stating, “All that you touch You Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth Is Change. God Is Change”.(2) This idea is revolutionary in the world of religion because many religions in today’s world religions believe that the only thing that doesn’t change is God. Along with this central theme, there is another that is equally as revolutionary. It is the idea that, “We do not worship God. We perceive and attend God. We learn from God.”(20) This makes everyone following Earthseed equal, where as in most other religions there are hierarchies and God is seen as the greatest being.
The Earthseed religion is always portrayed as one that is inherently good through the idea that “All that you touch, You Change. All that you Change Changes you”.(103) This concept makes it so that the idea of cause and effect is at the forefront of its followers thoughts persuading them to make better decisions, adding to it’s idea of inherent goodness. The other action it takes is to seek goodness out, instead of waiting or praying for it to come to you. Instead of the religion becoming one that uses it’s themes to cover up actions, Earthseed uses their themes to seek out action, saying to seek change out because “Any Change may bear seeds of benefit.” (138) Lastly, the religion build community instead of dividing. Lauren’s hope for the community is to be a place “where people look out for each other and don’t have to take being pushed around”.(292) The Earthseed religion is portrayed as on that is inherently good, supports equality of all things and seeks out good actions, all of which conflict with the normal portrayal of religion in dystopian fiction.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is very much the classic portrayal of religion in dystopian fiction. One of the first things the reader understands about the religion that is controlling Gilead is that it is dividing. When the narrator first describes her walking partner Ofglen she is worried about what she says because “she may be a real believer, a Handmaid in more than name. I can’t take the risk”.(31) Even between people of the same status there are divides. She is worried that Ofglen will report her to the government for her own gain and leave her fellow Handmaid to be punished. Not only is there the worry that someone you know will report you, but there are undercover spies, called Eyes that can punish you if seen doing something wrong. Offred, the protagonist, describes it as “the Eyes of God run all over the earth”.(298) There is no safety anywhere, people are always alert and paranoid. Offred herself says multiple times that she’s scared she’ll be caught doing something when she hasn’t done anything wrong. As the Eye’s and ever-present religion suggests, there is obvious distortment of what the religion is supposed to do.=
It is now common in Gilead for Eyes to capture and punish people harshly in the name of the bible. Offred accounts a public hanging down when the speaker says that, “The penalty for rape, as you know, is death. Deuteronomy 22:23-29.”(427) It is the citing on the bible that makes this punishment so wrong. The bible justifies the extreme measures the government takes to keep their people in line. Much like the disregard for people’s privacy by having Eye’s everywhere the government also often raids people’s homes who are suspected of being either against the government or a different religion. It’s forcefulness is put on display when Offred account when she saw a raiding of a Jewish person’s house. She says that “secret hoards of jewish things being dragged out from under beds torahs talliths mogen divides. And the owners of them, sullen-faced, unrepentant, pushed by the Eyes against the walls of their bedrooms”.(308) The extremes that the religion in The Handmaid’s Tale shows the stark difference between how religion is portrayed in dystopian fiction.
Both extreme portrayals of religion show how different people’s fears can be exploited. On one hand, Earthseed is seen as this perfect, all inclusive religion while the government in Gilead is seen as forceful and distorted. It is interesting to see the contrast of these religions because they both harbor fears people have surrounding religion.
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