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©B astian censorship, hangings, torture and imposed illiteracy, is thus identified with the late Phyllis Schlafly, the highly-educated, resolutely unfashionable, Roman Catholic, Republican woman who defeated the Equal Rights Amendment in the USA, opposed abortion and argued against second-wave feminism. It is a perfect illustration of the total loss of proportion that sometimes afflicts the radical movement.
In the cross-cutting between funky Canada and strait-laced puritan Gilead, leaving aside the repression and the persecution, there is no question that Atwood is declaring an allegiance. On one side of the border is freedom, which is, deep down, all about bodily autonomy. On the other is repression, enforced ignorance and hypocrisy, which is, deep down, identified with Christianity. TV has transformed Atwood from an interesting author into a propagandist. I doubt anyone will read the later work for pleasure.
But what has brought Robert Harris, master of the intelligent thriller, to his condemnation of Christianity? Harris is famously grumpy about the vote to leave the EU, but how has he managed to identify Nigel Farage with the King James Bible and the Church of England, if that is what he has done? And if not, what has motivated this very odd work?
The premise of The Second Sleep (Hutchinson, £20) is as good as all Harris’s ideas.
Civilisation has ended because it became too reliant on computers, which failed. Hundreds of years later, in rural Wessex, we are introduced into a new dark age. Our world has ended in terror and is a matter of myth and archaeology. Out of the ruins man has built a society that is relentlessly hostile to the scientific ideas that are believed to have led to an apocalypse. Far from seeking to find out how the past was so prosperous and healthy, and to avoid the problems that brought it down, it has turned its back on “science” and “scientism”, without making much distinction between the two.
This wilfully stupid and ignorant regime suppresses knowledge of the past, burns books, and calls those who seek that knowledge “heretics”. It imprisons them and brands their foreheads.
Somehow this rather moronic despotism has settled on Stuart England as its ideal era. It has its attractive side. Though they struggle with exactly when to say “Ye”, or “Thee” or “Thou”, its people speak something like the language of the King James Bible or the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which is back in universal use. English customary measures are restored, and the metric system is forgotten. But we are not spared details of the squalid poverty and cruel, untreated and unprevented disease, which the lack of “scientism” has inflicted. The Bible has become a sort of Oldspeak Dictionary, whose words are the only ones allowed to be used. Somehow, this restriction is supposed to deter
“scientism” and science, which makes one wonder how Isaac Newton managed.
I cannot say that it is Harris’s best work, though I longed to like it. Its plot is, like its mud-choked brambled roads, reminiscent of Launcelot Andrewes’ great description of the journey of the Wise Men: “The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, the very dead of winter.”
But there is a spite in it: the identification of the Church, especially the Church of England and its glorious, poetic texts, with the suppression of human inquiry. At least Atwood’s conflict between bodily autonomy and Christian conscience is real, for the Church is ultimately on the side of the stable married family against the new fluid world, even if this is not a recipe for a repressive police state. But science is not the enemy of Christian belief. It is based upon the idea that the universe is a purposeful thing governed by discoverable laws. Einstein, though no sort of religious believer, was emphatically not an atheist. And in any search for human freedom under a proper rule of law in a world where these things are rare, those countries where Protestant Christianity has been the predominant belief are the best places to look.
Yet intelligent, literate, creative people such as Atwood and Harris—and many of their readers who will no doubt endorse both these books—continue to identify Christianity as an enemy. Will they only realise their mistake when it is too late, as is so often the case?
Anti-Trump protestors in “handmaid” costumes: The “Handmaid’s Tale” TV series firmly places Gilead in the modern USA