Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Book Review: The Handmaid's Tale

I'm kind of hesitant to write about The Handmaid's Tale. It's obviously not in the same vein as the other books I've reviewed or mentioned, but it is arguably about religion, and shows a (very) extreme example of what could happen if American values of separation of church and state aren't protected. Also, I'm a few decades late to review this book, but it's scarily as relevant now as when it was written.

The Handmaid's Tale takes place in a dystopic future America whose society is based essentially on Old Testament law. The protagonist, Offred (literally "Of Fred," Fred being the name of the head of the household) is a handmaid in a wealthy household. This isn't handmaid in the Downton Abbey sense- it's handmaid in the Rachel-and-Leah sense. In Genesis 30:1-3, when Rachel is unable to bear children for Jacob, she offers him her maid Bilhah, such that any children born by Bilhah by Jacob could be raised by Rachel as her own. In The Handmaid's Tale, Offred's role is to bear children for a couple unable to conceive. This society is very restrictive of sex and pleasure, especially for women, and the rituals surrounding how the handmaid is to conceive a child are extremely bizarre and dehumanizing to all parties- especially the two women.

Women are blamed for the downfall of the previously advanced society.  Revealing clothing, magazines, makeup, and anything frivolous has been forbidden. All books have been burned. Women are not allowed to read and write. They aren't allowed to go outside alone. They aren't allowed to hold jobs or have their own money. The list goes on and on. Handmaids wear red dresses, veils, and "wings" around their faces, shielding them from view and limiting their own vision. "Wives" of wealthy men wear red. "Econowives" of poor men wear stripes. Cooks and servants also have prescribed wardrobes. Every restriction and every rule is traced back to the Old Testament and the idea that women are sinful, far more sinful than men. I'm sure feminist critics had a field day with this text in 80s.

The obvious response to a feminist or religious critique of this novel is "Okay, but that's a science fiction novel. No religious person wants that to happen in America!"  Even so, I couldn't help but see parallels to fairly mainstream Christian culture. I see articles shared widely on Facebook, arguing that women should never wear bikinis or revealing clothing, because it might tempt men into lusting after them. Likewise, I've been told that it's a woman's responsibility to prevent men from thinking lustful thoughts. I've also been told that birth control is wrong. Many Christians would stop at nothing to prevent abortion. Many Christians also argue that the Bible should be interpreted literally.

I don't think that the society described in this book is going to happen in America. I do think that many Americans would vote to abolish separation of church and state, and I think we should be mindful of what could happen if that were the case- even if this is an extreme example.

As an aside, from a literary perspective, I loved the book because it takes place during the "transitional generation." The main character still remembers a past where she could date anyone she chose, and wore bikinis to the beach.  Often, dystopic novels take place far, far in the distant future, and none of the characters remember what the past was like. Characters in The Handmaid's Tale question whether the lives they used to lead were really so evil that it's justifiable to live in such a regulated, controlling society.

I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in issues surrounding the separation of church and state, anyone who declares that they are or are not a feminist, and anyone who is interested in dystopic literature, since this book has value even beyond discussion of religion or feminism.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Checking In

Big life changes have kept me away from blogging, but I'm still actively thinking about religion, theology, and atheism.

I'm currently reading Caught In the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind. It's a fascinating look at clergy who have lost their faith, yet in many cases keep preaching and leading faith communities. So far, I've been struck the most by the accounts of seminary professors. Many students struggle with or lose their faith during their seminary years. For the first time, students are learning about the Bible through a historical lens, and find that the Bible stories of their childhood are not what they seemed. Some try to justify or compartmentalize these new ideas in order to preserve their childhood faiths, some quit, and some become our priests, pastors, and reverends- despite having lost their own beliefs altogether.

Personally, I have been calling myself a "non-practicing Catholic" when a label is called for. I do believe that my Catholicism is cultural. It's not something that I can drop, even if I drop my belief in God altogether.

Overall I've been feeling far less stress about losing my faith than I had been a few months ago. I feel good about it, even relieved. There's no pressure, no shame. If religion really is a crutch... I don't think it's one that I need.

Monday, May 5, 2014

What I strive to be

#Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their #minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs. This #stateofmind is not common, but is essential for right thinking; where it is absent, discussion is apt to become worse than useless." #LeoTolstoy #quote

 Note: It seems this image has been reused... everywhere...without credit. I was unable to locate the original, which I believe is from nirmukta.com 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Taking it slowly

At first, thinking constantly about religion and challenging my faith was exhilarating and consuming. I read loads of books (see my reading list), and starting reading and participating in online forums about atheism and religion. I started this blog, and wrote a few posts. I couldn't stop reading and planning what I would read next.

But suddenly, I hit a wall. I had to face some issues in my life, and the questions I've been exploring on this blog were causing me added stress. The other day, my dad asked me if I've been praying about an issue I've been struggling with. The answer was no, but how could I tell him that? It's stressful to think about denouncing my faith, even if I just keep it to myself.

So I took a break from the blog and the forums and the books waiting on my Kindle for a few days, and dealt with my real-life issues. I feel ready again now. I posted my review of Letter to a Christian Nation last night, and participated in a few forum discussions. It feels silly to limit myself to just a few posts, pages, or articles at a time, but I have to, at least for now. It's stressful to tear apart everything I've been taught and believed in. It gives me fear and anxiety, and I can't ignore or stifle those feelings. I have to step back, or I might abandon this truth-finding altogether. 

Some people would probably say that the fear and anxiety means I should turn back to the Lord. He's calling me, or something. Maybe that's true. I guess I don't feel like it is, though. I feel instead like I'm mourning my Christian childhood and traditions and the life I thought I would have. Sometimes it seems comforting and easy to return to my childhood faith. I have to remind myself that religion has rarely provided me the comfort and security that it always proclaims.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Book Review: Letter to a Christian Nation

Of the books by atheists that I've read so far, I'm probably most likely to recommend this one to believers. Rather than preaching to a choir of atheists, Sam Harris actually considers the Christian audience and what is most likely to reach them and resonate with them. The book is fairly brief, and he doesn't unnecessarily delve into redundant examples, which is my biggest critique of Richard Dawkins.

Throughout the book, Sam Harris speaks mainly to religious fundamentalists, those who denounce evolution and who interpret the Bible literally. He identifies problems with the beliefs of religious moderates and religious liberals right off the bat, because, as he puts it, "Either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it isn't." From this point on, he assumes his reader is a fundamentalist. At first I thought this was not the best choice, as so many Americans really are religious moderates-but now I think it was a shrewd decision. As a non-fundamentalist, I always felt like I was exempt from most of the criticism against those who took the Bible literally. The religious moderate reading this book, however, has not been given an out. He or she, as well as the fundamentalist, will need to come to terms with many arguments throughout the book, as well as the fact that the writer finds the moderate perhaps even more incorrect than the fundamentalist. 

Harris tackles numerous arguments against the existence of a divine, good-hearted God, from the evils of the Old Testament, to the origin of morality, to the "clash" between science and religion and the bloody conflicts religion has caused on Earth. Harris focuses primarily on the issues that affect Christians on a day to day basis, touching only briefly on evolution and science which, I think, he knows many Christians can easily gloss over. He is brief and factual, explaining scientific theory in terms the reader will understand, and remembering that his reader probably doesn't care for a scientific lecture.

He also questions the existence of many worldwide religions, asking the Christian, "You know exactly what it is like to be an atheist with respect to the beliefs of Muslims. Isn't it obvious that Muslims are fooling themselves?" We must ask ourselves, how, then, is Christianity different?

My only major critique of the book is the anti-Muslim section at the end. Harris maintains that the Islam is growing quickly and dangerously, and that most Muslims demand tolerance for extreme beliefs and actions. Harris goes so far as to say that "most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith."  In my opinion, this section takes a rational, well written text to an extreme, alarmist position. That is what Harris intends; he wants to scare the reader into acting and realizing the negative aspects of religion. But by targeting Muslims, he gives the extreme fundamentalist Christian reader an out.  Many Christians are already so anti-Islam that they may be encouraged to ignore the rest of Harris' very good, rational points, in favor of an "It's us against the Muslims" takeaway. Irrational? Yes, but I don't think it's improbable. He does end with the thought provoking question, "How can we ever hope to reason with the Muslim world if we are not reasonable ourselves?" but I still think it's possible that many may choose to miss the point.

Overall though, I recommend this text to atheist and Christian readers alike. It's a quick, easy read that, though it may not change minds right off the bat, will certainly give readers something accessible to think about and debate.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

I went to Easter Mass.

I visited my family this past weekend and attended Catholic Mass with them, just as I did every Sunday for the majority of my life. When I moved out on my own, I dutifully joined a Catholic church. I joined the choir, just as I had at my family's church. And I couldn't stand it. I couldn't stand the conservative political propaganda the choir members fervently believed. I couldn't stand the prayers for "traditional marriage" or the prayers for making abortion illegal. I couldn't stand the despair my fellow Catholics proclaimed when Obama was elected. I couldn't stand that I felt I had to hide who I voted for or what my personal beliefs and values really included.

I've toyed with trying to find a more liberal congregation, or no congregation, and I've found a Unitarian church that I may try out. But this Easter service was the first Mass I've been to in quite some time.

It was easy to attend. I didn't feel out of place. I sang the songs and chanted the responses. And also with you. Only say the word and my soul will be healed. I believe in One God, the Father Almighty. In that environment, it's hard to think critically about the sermon or the dogma.  Just comfortably slide in to what you've always done. Toss a five dollar bill in the collection basket. Lord, hear our prayer. Everyone else is doing it.

Something the priest said in the homily stuck with me, but not for the reason he intended.

"Do not ignore the truth. Seek it, even when all around you have forsaken it."

Of course, he meant the truth of Christ, and salvation, and the resurrection. But I looked around at all the people just assuming that his words were true. I hope he's right and we do seek the truth. I hope we don't just take what's comfortable and easy and common, just because it's what we've always done.

Friday, April 18, 2014

An Atheist Reads the Case for Christ

I'm headed back to my parents' home for Easter weekend (I anticipate lots of saying grace at the dinner table and pew-sitting in Catholic church), but I wanted to touch base and share what I've been thinking about lately.

I've been toying around with rereading Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ, and found a recommendation for the YouTube series "An Atheist Reads the Case for Christ." YouTuber Steve Shives is an atheist, who goes through each chapter of The Case for Christ, discussing the arguments' merits (spoiler: there are few), and shortcomings. I highly recommend it. Steve is funny, well-informed on Biblical issues and Christianity, and has a great speaking voice and YouTube presence. For the most part, he isn't disrespectful or crude, as Christians often fear atheist commentators to be. I'm on Chapter 7 (I've been listening during my commute), and I like having a dissenting opinion mixed in with the book's totally one-sided arguments- it provides some checks and balances. It's kind of a great way to read a controversial topic, and something I'll keep in mind for future research on other subjects, too.

You can start viewing below, or check out his YouTube channel.

Have a blessed Easter or happy Sunday or pleasant April day, or whatever you may prefer! I'll be back next week.