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EcoChristianity as Margaret Atwood’s ‘good religion’

We can’t take care of people while we steadily degrade the land upon which their bodies depend.

It’s no secret that Margaret Atwood’s dystopian 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale is presently enjoying a renaissance in light of political concerns in the U.S. It’s also no secret that The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a future theocracy which is extremist and totalitarian. As a result, many readers have assumed that Atwood is anti-religious. Readers of her more recent dystopian trilogy of novels, Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013), might have expected more of the same. But it turns out that things are a bit more complicated than that. 

Atwood has on several occasions expressed the belief that we are hard-wired for religion – in which case, as she said in a February 2014 interview with Lorna Dueck on the TV show Context, we’d better choose a good one if we’re going to make a difference. After all, though raised as what she calls a “strict agnostic,” she is above all a storyteller. And as she explained to Dueck: 

Religion is among other things a way of telling stories. There’s a set of stories that we tell to understand what we’re doing on the planet – why are we here, what are our relationships to other people and other living things. Most of the people on the planet have a religion of some kind or another . . . . I mean something that they believe in that’s bigger than them, that connects them to something bigger than themselves and is part of a story that we tell.

So what would a good religion look like, for Atwood?

“We can’t take care of people while we steadily 
degrade the land upon which their bodies depend.”  

Well, for a start, it would respect the rights and voices of women. But, as has become increasingly clear in Atwood’s public actions and statements over the last 20 years, it would also take environmental issues very seriously. In 2000 she donated a significant portion of her Booker Prize money to environmental groups; in the last 10 years she has used her book tours to promote environmental activism, ensuring that travel on these tours is carbon-neutral, and particularly promoting shade-grown coffee, to protect the migratory songbirds of the forest canopy. Even those 30-odd years ago when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood was referencing environmental problems: alongside STDs, one major cause of the falling birth-rate in that novel is sterility resulting from pollution. And she has put her money where her mouth is on environmental issues, in several very practical ways. For instance, in 1995 she gave up her house in France after President Jacques Chirac resumed nuclear testing.

The power of technology

So what do we actually find in the MaddAddam trilogy?

These novels centre around an environmental apocalypse, brought about by a disaffected scientist, Crake, who first bioengineers a race of childlike new beings, and then, with them safe in a huge egg-shaped climate-controlled dome called Paradice, lets loose a plague, a “waterless flood,” on the world which reduces almost everyone else to literal pulp. The world before the “waterless flood” is already an environmental disaster: it has suffered actual floods and droughts of epic proportions as a result of global warming (Harvard has disappeared underwater, for instance, and Texas “dried up and blew away”), while rampant capitalism treats the earth as mere resource. In face of unregulated biotechnological experimentation, Crake with his “ultimate solution” is seen alternately as a monster and a saviour.

Meanwhile, genetically modified hybrid animals in these novels – like the “pigoons,” pigs with extra organs for human harvesting but also with human brain tissue – are only a petri-dish away from the laboratory-fabricated meat products that have replaced all “real” meat. “Although MaddAddam is a work of fiction,” Atwood says, “it does not include any technologies or biobeings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or are not possible in theory.” Atwood, whose father and brother were both biologists, speaks like a contemporary Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein) into our culture’s current preoccupation with bioengineering, cloning and tissue regeneration. Theologian Anthony Siegrist says that Atwood demonstrates the almost irreversible power of technology in the hands of unethical megacorporations.

But the “almost” is important. Because Atwood does offer strands of hope, particularly in the gently comic religious environmentalist group known as the God’s Gardeners. 

Positioning themselves against the threat of the gated science-compounds manipulated by big business interests, members of this group are trying to meld faith, science and nature as they raise vegetables and bees on flat roofs in the urban slums. Their leader, Adam One, is the figure of a worldly saint. A few of the Gardeners survive the “waterless flood” in Volume 2, and re-emerge in Volume 3 to “sow” human/bioengineered seeds (children) for the future. 

Things might yet change

Initially their presentation can be read as simply a parody, and some readers with past experience of Atwood see the God’s Gardeners, with their childlike hymns, their vegetarian diet, their recycled crafts and their earnestness, as merely ridiculous – but there is surely more to them than that. Adam One’s sermons articulate many of Atwood’s own environmentalist views as expressed elsewhere. For instance, they echo her concerns about the vital necessity of caring for the oceans, the importance of knowing how to forage for edible plants, and the disastrous destruction of the ecosystem of the Amazon River basin. And in fact we may eventually conclude that Atwood sees a less eccentric version of the God’s Gardeners as key to planetary survival. As critic Brooks Bouson puts it, Atwood “looks to religion – specifically eco-religion – as she seeks evidence of our ethical capacity to find a remedy to humanity’s ills,” and “offers, as a kind of counter-vision,” the story of the God’s Gardeners.

At the end of the third volume, there is now a multispecies community of Crakers, ex-Gardeners and pigoons living in harmony. There is still danger and suffering, but the last words are those of a young Craker storyteller, in his consistent ending to his stories: “Thank you. Now we will sing” (390). The link to the end of each of Adam One’s sermons is clear: the Gardeners too used to sing after each “story.” And twice on this final page the young storyteller uses the phrase “a thing of hope,” to describe the potential for a new baby, and the fact that “Tomorrow is another day.” 

It seems, then, that Atwood is able to draw on what Gerry Canavan calls an “unexpected utopian potency lurking within our contemporary visions of eco-apocalypse.” The novels have a “sense of futurity” at their heart, because they suggest a “reopening of possibility: the assertion of the radical break, the strident insistence that things might yet be otherwise.”

Ethics of restraint

Of course in recent years there has been a lot of attention paid to environmental issues by Christians who are rediscovering the scriptural mandate to steward the earth. Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical letter Laudato Si´: Care for our common home was pointedly addressed not just to Catholics but to “every person living on this planet.” There he wrote, “Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last 200 years. Yet we are called to be instruments of God our Father, so that our planet might be what he desired when he created it and correspond with his plan for peace, beauty and fullness.” And many Protestant voices have been singing from the same hymnbook: God’s Book of Nature. Already back in 1970 Francis Schaeffer was arguing for an ethics of restraint, in relation to our interactions with the world around us:

I who am made in the image of God can make a choice. I am able to do things to nature that I should not do. So I am to put a self-limitation on what is possible. The horror and ugliness of modern man in his technology and in his individual life is that he does everything he can do, without limitation. Everything he can do he does. He kills the world, he kills mankind, and he kills himself. 

And of course Reformed readings of Christian scripture argue that “eschatological redemption consists in nothing other than the renewal of human cultural life on earth” (“New Heaven and New Earth,” J. Richard Middleton). It’s evident from various interviews she’s given that Atwood sees contemporary Christianity as needing to recover from its Enlightenment past in terms of its perspective on the environment – but she seems to recognize the signs that this is happening. 

Literary critics have tuned in to these concerns too: in fact there is now a whole branch of literary criticism called “ecocriticism.” In June 2015, Christianity and Literature, probably the foremost N. American journal for Christians in literary studies, produced a special issue on “The Environmental Imagination.” The first article in this issue, by Joshua Mabie, pointed out that what’s called “third-wave ecocriticism,” which enters into rigorous engagement with questions of environmental justice for the poor, “undercuts the opposition between human and non-human concerns made by earlier ecocritics” and thus paves the way for a clearer Christian environmentalism. 

This is indeed promising territory. As Norman Wirzba has recently argued cogently in an interview in the Christian online magazine The Other Journal, “We have forgotten that our abuse of people has always been mirrored in our abuse of our communities, lands and animals. The same logic of degradation is at work. We can see that when we look at the history of slavery and its connection to agricultural life and the way that agricultural workers are still abused today.” 

Speaking particularly about the situation in the U.S., he contends that “American churches don’t think much about human bodies in relation to all the plant and animal bodies. If they did, faith would become a much more economic and political matter. They would come to understand that we can’t take care of people while we steadily degrade the land upon which their bodies depend.”  After all, “It is important to remember that it is poor people who suffer the most from unhealthy, highly processed, cheap food.”

The key to survival

And so it seems that the time has at last come for environmentalists both secular and Christian to make common cause. One group which has been in the vanguard on such issues, and which will be familiar to Christian Courier readers, is A Rocha, an interdenominational Christian organization founded in Portugal in 1983. It is presently working in 19 countries, aiming to protect the environment through community-based conservation and education, and has recently set up a branch in my home town of Hamilton, ON. And for my money, two of the most intriguing conversations of the year 2014 were between Margaret Atwood and the Canadian leaders of A Rocha, Leah and Markku Kostamo. 

It was in the first of these conversations, in February 2014, that Lorna Dueck introduced Atwood to the Kostamos. Dueck asked for simple advice on caring for the environment from both the Kostamos and Atwood. And Atwood’s response to the Kostamos’ suggestions was to say, “They did my stuff!” and “I think you’re great!” Later that year she agreed to appear at a fundraising event for A Rocha where Leah Kostamo was her host.     

At that fundraiser Atwood sang one of the God’s Gardeners’ hymns, a capella and with obvious delight, for the audience. It was her children’s hymn for Mole Day, on which God’s Gardeners celebrate all underground creatures, not only moles but also ants, worms, carrion beetles and bacteria: “They turn the soil and till it, / They make the plants to thrive; / The Earth would be a desert, / If they were not alive.” The children are exhorted to “give joyful thanks” for all these “God’s small creatures,” for “God has found them good.” And so, it seems, has Atwood. Last May at the end of a presentation at the University of Ottawa where she and Leah Kostamo were addressing the topic of the role of religion in the Canadian imagination, Atwood sang this same hymn (their talks are available online at cbc.ca/tapestry).

When I first read The Year of the Flood, I initially assumed that the presentation of the Gardeners was entirely parodic; by the end of the book I was much less sure. And now, having listened to Atwood on several occasions, and read about the British publicity tour for the book in which, for instance, she got a bishop in Edinburgh to deliver one of Adam One’s sermons, I’m convinced that she does in fact see a less eccentric version of the God’s Gardeners as key to the survival of the planet. 

After meeting the Kostamos on Context, Atwood wrote an article for the progressive social-justice-oriented Christian journal Sojourners, and I’m going to end with a quote from that:

The God’s Gardeners group represents the position – probably true – that if the physical world is going to remain possible for human life, religious movements of many kinds will be an important element. We don’t save what we don’t love, and we don’t make sacrifices unless “called” in some way to make them by what AA refers to as “a higher authority.” Dueck and I talked a little about that, and then – surprise – right before me were two people who closely resembled the God’s Gardeners of my fiction. Leah and Markku Kostamo are walking the God’s Gardeners walk – through A Rocha, a hands-on creation-care organization. . . . Momentum is gathering, hearts and minds are changing, and not all Christians see environmentalists as hippy weirdoes or cloven-footed enemies. . . .And Leah and Markku are very welcome on the God’s Gardeners rooftop, anytime. If all Christians were like them, ours would be a radically different world.  


  • Deborah Bowen teaches English at Redeemer University College, and looks forward to teaching a course in Environmental Literature again this fall. Different versions of this article have appeared in Christianity and Literature and Alternatives Journal.

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