Cassandra characters and the looming threat of theocracy

In Greek mythology, Cassandra of Troy was cursed by Apollo to give true prophesies but not to be believed. I’ve been thinking of this Chicken Little of antiquity and how many activists in the atheist, and wider AHS+ movement, have been in a similar position when it comes to various threats of theocracy and religious extremism.

The US Supreme Court is actively trying to turn the country into a Handmaid’s Tale style theocracy while the UK government and right wing parties are trying to import US style culture wars into our politics. Liberal and mainstream media coverage often present these things as coming out of nowhere, but these have been the aims of Christian Nationalists for decades, this is what activists have been warning us about.

The ‘Casandra Character’ or ‘Ignored Expert’ are popular tropes. Given our current circumstances, I’m most interested in how this archetype shows up in fictional explorations of near future theocracies, and what we can learn from them.

I’ve previously called this the canary character, as the groups most likely to be targeted by theocracy and religious reactionaries tend to be most sensitive to the dangers these represent. But think Cassandra makes better analogy.

The examples

Holly Maddox, the mother of June Osborne the viewpoint character in the Handmaid’s Tale, and a veteran political activist and feminist. See a secularist review.

Sanjay, the best friend of Greg the viewpoint character in Christian Nation, an activist and founder of Theocracy Watch. See a secularist review.

Jackie, the best friend of Jean the viewpoint character in VOX, a left wing feminist and secularist activist. See my review

Common themes

Holly, Sanjay and Jackie are all outsiders. Each reject mainstream society and traditional employment, each are involved with some counterculture lifestyle, two are women, two are explicitly LGBT, Sanjay is from a religious and ethnic minority background. These are all groups perceived by religious reactionaries as threatening and subversive. All would be disproportionately threatened by theocracies. Many of these are identities that are overrepresented in the atheist and wider AHS+ movement, though not always recognised as such.

Each of these characters are seen as hysterical, their concerns dismissed, and accused of over reacting. Each of these characters have their relationships with others harmed, and their outsider status reinforced by not following societal taboos, particularly against criticising religion. Their concerns and particularly willingness to take them seriously frequently make those around them uncomfortable.

Each understand the threat of theocracy, because they listen to what theocrats and religious reactionaries want, and take these seriously and literally. Such characters often display a high degree of religious literacy, or quasi-spiritualism. They also don’t take the status quo as being fixed. Because of their outsider status, they are better able to imagine ways the world can fundamentally change for better or worse.

Holly, Sanjay, and Jackie’s relationships to their respective work’s main characters are interesting. June, Greg and Jean represent the audience, each are broadly secularish liberals. They would oppose theocracy, but don’t see it as a real threat, they would support the aims of activists but are more concerned with their everyday lives. Each see the rights and freedoms they enjoy as pretty much the natural state of things and warnings or threats to take these away as unbelievable.

What we can learn

In the myth, Casandra is cursed by Apollo because she rejects his advances. He gives her the gift of prophecy in an attempt to woo her, but when this is unsuccessful he turns angry and curses her not to be believed. The parallels to ‘nice guys’ and gaslighting are obvious. I think back to the treatment of similar characters and moments in the history of the atheist and wider AHS+ movement. Incidents such as Elevatorgate and how many brilliant secular activists have left or disassociated with the movement after the backlash from calling out discrimination.

Troy fell because Casandra wasn’t listened to about the Trojan Horse. But many in the movement have warned of Trojan Horses being used to smuggle in bad ideas from racism to transphobia, and generalised ‘anti-wokeness’. Like Apollo, many in our community want to woo and extoll the analysis of Cassandras (particularly people of colour, women and LGBTQ folk) when they are giving our community what many of us want, but curse them when they turn their criticism or analysis on the movement itself.

We need to do better at heeding these Cassandras, and do more to elevate the voices of those who would be most harmed by theocracy and religious reactionaries. Those of us who identify with these Casandra characters in the context of secular (or other AHS+) activism, could also learn from these characters. When we are emersed in these topics that many others are not paying attention to, and are being gasslit for our concerns, it can be easy to lose perspective. We should remember to value and prioritise our own mental health, and understand why others don’t necessarily have the time to pay as much attention to these issues. Maybe then we’d be more successful at warning our secularish liberal friends and mobilising them when needed.

Postscript

While in the process of finalising this article I found or remembered that YouTuber Steve Shives had a 2017 video using a Cassandra analogy when talking about similar issues within the atheist community.

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Photo information: Woman Placing Her Finger Between Her Lips

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