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What Harvard University Knows That ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Doesn’t

14 December 2021

4.1 MINS

Does religion oppress women, or liberate them to live with deep meaning and purpose? A new study undertaken by Harvard University suggests the latter.

Author Margaret Atwood’s novel (and now TV series) The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian story set in the near future, when a kooky religious cult takes over much of the US.

In the story, women are marginalised and relegated to second class citizens, and many become enslaved. These female slaves — ‘Handmaids’ as they’re known — have little bodily autonomy, reduced to breeding machines for their wealthy masters.

And you don’t need to watch many episodes before the underlying narrative of The Handmaid’s Tale hits you in the face: religion oppresses women. [1]  

It’s a narrative that resonates deeply with many secular feminists today. From restricted abortion rights to patriarchy, religious women are considered to be worse off than their more enlightened secular sisters.

As such, many secular feminists have taken to wearing the red and white of Handmaids at pro-choice rallies. As author Rebecca McLaughlin points out: ‘It’s a story told in red and white: Christianity is [seen to be] bad for women’s rights’. [2]

What Harvard Medical School Knows That ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Does Not

And yet, a recent study from Harvard University challenges this narrative. Its conclusion will surprise many secular readers:

‘Compared with women who had never attended religious services, women who attended once or more per week had a five-fold lower risk of suicide.’

(Not quite the narrative from The Handmaid’s Tale.)

And a study like this couldn’t have come at a better time.

Mental Health and Women’s Wellbeing

Mental health across the Western world — including for women — is in crisis. According to Lifeline, around two women die each day in Australia from suicide.[3] Those women are daughters, sisters, mothers, wives. It’s a devastating tragedy on every level, as those touched by a loved one’s suicide can attest.

Many of these women might have been saved if they had received the right support. And according to Harvard University, churchgoing is a very effective form of support.

What the Harvard Study Shows

The study, entitled Association Between Religious Service Attendance and Lower Suicide Rates Among US Women, was run by the Harvard School of Public Health. It was a longitudinal (long term) study of around 90,000 women — so it was comprehensive. According to the study:

We… examine[d] the association between service attendance and suicide… adjusting for demographic covariates, lifestyle factors and medical history, depressive symptoms, and social integration measures.’

And their results are mind-blowing:

‘Compared with women who had never attended religious services, women who attended once or more per week had a five-fold lower risk of suicide; results were robust across various exclusions, methods of analysis, and in sensitivity analysis.’

But as the study points out, the results aren’t merely because of the social benefits of regular churchgoing:

‘Although other aspects of social integration are also associated with reduced suicide, when we compared the effect size of religious attendance with social integration components, it was religious service attendance itself that seemed most prominent among these associations.’[Emphasis added.]

In other words, there’s something about the religious teachings and experience of the religious service that helps prevent suicide: such teaching/experience is lacking in other social gatherings like social clubs and gyms.[4]

Christian author Rebecca McLaughlin was as surprised as any, so she wrote to one of the Harvard researchers, Professor Tyler VanderWeele ‘to check that this was a representative result’. His response:

‘Yes! Studies suggest three- to six-fold lower rates. It may be one of the most protective factors known for suicide!’[5]

For the Sake of Women, Governments and Societies Should Take This Study into Account

Religious freedom is increasingly seen as controversial across the Western world. Here in Australia, the Federal government is hoping to legislate religious freedom into law, a law that in previous times would have received society-wide acceptance. But today, there is increasing pushback to even a plain-vanilla religious freedom legislation:

Legislation that would protect the right of churches and ministries to gather and teach their doctrines without opposition.

Legislation that would uphold the right of women to receive the support that the church provides: support that improves mental health and drastically reduces their risk of suicide.

It’s bewildering to see religious freedom becoming so politicised. Surely a responsible lawmaker would consider the impact that Christianity has had and is having across our society, not least in the lives of vulnerable women? Perhaps our lawmakers would do well to read studies such as this Harvard study, to understand the positive impact churches can have across society?

And Yet There’s More to Christianity than Mental Health

It’s worth noting, however, that the Bible doesn’t call people to follow Jesus because He provides better mental health: we’re called to follow Jesus because He’s the true Messiah.

While some people may come to Jesus because they see the transformation He brings (many of which should be evident in the lives of His followers — see 1 Peter 2:12), Jesus doesn’t promise us health — including mental health. Becoming a Christian is described by Jesus as costly. It could bring about all forms of uncertainty — relational, financial and job difficulties. You could start experiencing pressure for your faith: pressure that you wouldn’t experience otherwise.

And yet.

Knowing Jesus as Lord can bring joy and inner peace that nothing can take away (Romans 8:31-39). In a world that’s increasingly starved of meaning, Christians can feast on the meaning and hope that comes from knowing the risen Messiah.

While Jesus doesn’t promise an easy life, the hope and meaning that come from following Him often has temporal benefits: including mental health benefits, as this Harvard study suggests.

Even to the point of reducing women’s risk of suicide by five-fold.


[1]2017 interview between Steven Colbert and Handmaid’s tale actress Elizabeth Moss is also telling in this regard (view from 5:51 onwards).

[2] Rebecca McLaughlin, The Secular Creed — Engaging Five Contemporary Claims (Austin, Texas: The Gospel Coalition, 2021), p. 63.

[3] Lifeline: Data and Statistics.

[4] While the study doesn’t explain how the religious nature of services help prevent suicide (this wasn’t part of the study), it hypothesises that it’s the moral teachings around suicide that help reduce its prevalence.

[5] McLaughlin, op. cit., p. 74.


Originally published at AkosBalogh.com. Photo by Julia Avamotive from Pexels.

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