Religion as Technology in Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood

This piece contains spoilers.

Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood poses a disturbing conflict between humans and the Earth, exploring an issue that is pressing both globally and in North America today. The novel shows us an augmented version of America: a technologically advanced consumerist society dominated by multinational corporations. In this world, humans seek to extend their lives through supplements, cosmetics, and the growth and harvesting of organs.

Ironically, it is due to this consumerist attitude that a man-made pandemic disease, distributed covertly in a “fountain of youth” prophylactic product, results in a dystopian world where human beings are nearly extinct.

Oryx and Crake is the first novel of the trilogy to be published, but it takes places contemporaneously with The Year of the Flood, the second novel to be published. Oryx and Crake focuses on the scientific developments that lead to the pandemic, while The Year of the Flood offers a potential solution: a corrective measure to the behaviours of humankind through a positive set of religious beliefs.

Often in science fiction, the subject matter is secular and focused on some singular point, past or future, in the historical development of science and technology. If we consider technology to be any tool that alters our minds, affects the way we navigate the world, and extends our capabilities as humans, then by this definition we might begin to explore religion as a technology and its place in the genre.

As an antidote to consumerism, environmental conscientiousness is presented in the novel as an effective means of assuring the longevity of the Earth and of humanity as a whole. This perspective is given to us through Ren and Toby, two surviving members of the God’s Gardeners, an environmental religious group.

The God’s Gardeners sect is equipped with its own hymns, sermons, and a canon of saints (from Saint Francis of Assisi to Saint David Suzuki). It teaches practical survival skills that see several of the former members through the pandemic, which they refer to as the Waterless Flood. The religion’s aptness as a means of survival is one of the ways the novel validates religion as technology.

In more abstract terms, religion and technology converge in this novel on the question of what it means to be human.

Almost every work of fiction attempts to answer this question, but science fiction is unique in that it urges us to explore this question amidst alternate versions of our world, which are often technologically advanced. The question is complicated in the face of beings that challenge the category of human, such as cyborgs, artificial intelligence, the supernatural, creatures of fantasy, aliens, and—in the case of Atwood’s Year of the Flood—genetically modified humans.

The genetically modified humans created by Crake represent a critique of humankind. They are his “ideal” version of human beings, designed to live harmoniously with nature. The implication is that human beings tend towards the exploitation of nature. The dystopian conditions seen in the novels are the result of the actions Crake takes in order to implement a solution to humanity’s mistakes. He eradicates all but a few human beings by means of the pandemic disease, and releases his ‘improved’ human beings—known as the Crakers—to take their place in the world.

The Crakers are herbivores, they mate ritualistically (a feature meant to eliminate the potential for sexual violence), and Crake has stripped them of the impulses that generate religious attitudes.

On the other hand, the beliefs and rules of conduct that form the God’s Gardeners religion are an alternative means of shaping humanity into the ideal.

Rather than exercising dominance over living things, the God’s Gardeners reimagine the relationship between humanity and nature. They believe that humans should act non-violently towards other creatures, maintain a vegan diet, and live sustainably off of the Earth’s resources by using recyclable or biodegradable clothing and housing materials.

The religion is grounded in ethically-framed scientific observations, such as the recognition of the limitations of the Earth’s resources. They also recognize human beings’ responsibility for the damage they have caused to the environment. The defining feature of the God’s Gardeners is the practical lessons they teach about how to live a good life in harmony with nature.

We can further consider religion as a technology in that it enhances our ability to connect with individuals with whom we might not share any commonalities besides shared beliefs. This leads to a frame of mind that is non-egocentric as well as considerate of humanity’s relationship with nature.

This can be seen in the novel when Ren and Toby are able to reunite with one another and with other members of the God’s Gardeners who share their belief in non-violence after finding themselves in the desolate, hostile world left behind by the Waterless Flood. When they encounter unfamiliar survivors are therefore cautious of them because they could potentially be dangerous. Their ability to come together in this dystopian setting is another way that their shared religion gives them a better chance of survival.

In the face of an unethical society in The Year of the Flood, the God’s Gardeners represent a speculative take on how religion may function and evolve with the concerns of a scientifically advanced world. By presenting religion as a valid form of technology—that is, as a set of tools that transform the human experience—Atwood resists a secularized course of development in the genre. This positive portrayal of religion encourages other works of speculative fiction to examine the world through a reimagined religious frame, and to use that frame to explore what it means to be human.

-contributed by Sonia Urlando

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