In chapter fifteen, just before the ceremony the commander reads several extracts from the bible. The Bible the Commander reads from is locked in a brass bound leather box; this is a practice that was widespread during the Dark Ages. The Commander reads selected sections of the Bible that could be used to support the Ceremony and the role of the Handmaids. ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth’ ‘Give me children, or else I dies… Behold my maid Bilhah. She shall bear upon my knees that I may also have children by her.
‘ The Commander reads numerous sections from the book of Genesis and also an extract from Zechariah. Much like the censored television broadcasts the Commander is limiting the truth. The sections chosen have been picked to support the idea of handmaids. The commander has decided to ignore such things as the Ten Commandments, in which one them is ‘thou shalt not commit adultery’ but abuses the bible for his own cause. Offred discovers a cushion with the word ‘FAITH’ on it, as reading is banned the cushion should not be allowed in Offred’s room.
In chapter nineteen Offred considers that her ‘FAITH’ cushion would have been a set of three. ‘There must have been three once. HOPE and CHARITY, where have they been stowed? ‘ This is a direct reference to I Corinthians 13:13 “So faith, hope, love; abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. ” The cushion is a very significant symbol in the book as it represents the fact that Offred has been denied hope and love but is told that she must have faith. Hope and love are what Offred thrives for, however she has very little hope, apart from the faintest of belief that her husband and daughter are still alive.
In chapter twenty-one a handmaid named Janine (or Ofwarren) gives birth, there are numerous religious implications leading up and during the birth. In chapter nineteen Offred describes to the reader how anaesthetics and caesareans are no longer a part of childbirth, but how in a society based on religion women are supposed to feel the pain of childbirth. ‘Aunt Elizabeth said it was better for the baby, but also: I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children. ‘ Gilead has obviously dismissed medicine and science, probably because they can be used as arguments against the existence of God.
Despite the technology being available Gilead dismisses it using God’s punishment on Eve as evidence to dismiss science rather than science dismissing religion. In chapter twenty-one when Janine gives birth she is required to deliver the child on a two-tiered birthing stool, so that she can fulfil the biblical practice of the maid giving birth on the knees of the wife. ‘Two others lead Janine to the birthing stool, where she sits on the lower of two seats. ‘ The other seat is for the commander’s wife who sits above Janine and acts as if she is the one giving birth.
Gilead demonstrates a total lack of tolerance for other religions, not only do they battle with other branches of Christianity, but in chapter thirty-one we see how they react to other religions. Gilead justifies deporting Jews by claiming they are ‘sons of Jacob and therefore special’ the reader learns about how Jews were given the choice to emigrate or to convert. The reader is also told how people who pretend to convert are treated ‘raids at night, secret hoards of Jewish things dragged out from under beds… ‘ and hung for their beliefs.
Gilead is a completely totalitarian society that mirrors many of the fascist views held by the Nazi’s. It is odd that this society should choose to make an example of Jews though, considering their own religion is based on the Jewish faith and many of the extracts they use to govern come from the old testament. However, Jews don’t take obscure references from the Old Testament as literally as the powers in Gilead, and it is likely that an alternative faith was deemed threatening. Atwood uses religion to its greatest possible literary power by exploiting it and demonstrating what the reader doesn’t think would ever be possible.
Religion is at the core of Gilead and appears to be all that is left of America. The wars between branches of Christianity mirror the problems in Northern Ireland and numerous references mirror Gilead society with the Nazi regime. Atwood portrays religion as something very powerful; it is so powerful that it is able to govern an entire country. However a country governed by the bibles teaching sounds like something of a utopia, Atwood chooses to display how religion can be abused, twisted and altered to suit individuals and suppress others.
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ doesn’t seem too far fetched, the reader would be familiar with religion being abused, in fact the historical notes refer to one of Professor Pieixoto’s famous studies ‘Iran and Gilead: Two Late-Twentieth-Century Monotheocracies, as Seen Through Diaries. ‘ Linking Gilead with Iran’s conservative Islamic revolution, something the reader may be familiar with. The conservative Islamic revolution involved de-modernization and severe restrictions on the freedoms of women, just like Gilead.