In The Plague, how does religion affect the mind and decisions of the town?
As with most of the work by Albert Camus, The Plague is highly critical of organized religion. When a plague hits the Algerian city of Oran, the townspeople are left to live in isolation. Many of the townspeople are forced to deal with this plague through their religion, particularly because they are left virtually powerless. While it's very interesting to look at how the townspeople are influenced by religion, it's also quite important to focus on Rieux.
Rieux is often influenced by religion in a different manner. Where many other townspeople find their strength and make their decisions based on their religion, Rieux uses his lack of religion to guide him. At one point in the novel, the text reads,
Rieux said . . . if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort . . . And this was proved by the fact that no one ever threw himself in Providence completely. (56)
Rieux's skepticism of religion assists him in being a moral man. In his view, if God does not truly exist, it becomes man's job to take care of each other and the world. The existence of an all-powerful, all-loving God, according to Rieux, would thus end the need for charity in man.
Father Paneloux says at one point, "We must accept the dilemma and choose either to hate God or to love God. And who would dare choose to hate Him?" In other words, those condemned to suffer the plague may find contempt for God for His merciless; others may praise him for his immaculate will. Others still, such as Rieux, may find it as evidence of God's nonexistence and consequently take it upon themselves to perform their own charity.
The theme of religion is a very important one in this excellent classic novel, and in particular Camus analyses the human tendency to turn to religion in times of hardship or disaster. The main character that he uses in order to examine this belief is Father Paneloux, the Jesuit priest, who distinguishes himself early on after the emergence of the plague by preaching a sermon claiming, in stark opposition to the novel's other major characters, that the plague is a purposeful representation of God's punishment on them that will be used to test God's faithful. God's act in sending the plague is stressed as being only a last resort. Note how he describes this process:
He looked on the evil-doing in the town with compassion; only when there was no other remedy did He turn His face away, in order to force people to face the truth about their life.
God is all-loving and is using this plague for his ultimate good, Paneloux argues, and however dark the situation, there is still hope, as God is using this to draw us to him. Paneloux's success in terms of the number of people who are drawn to church and who embrace religion in this time of need shows how compelling his arguments are for a people who are in fear of their lives. Religion in the novel is therefore something that is shown to give us answers and a system of interpreting what we see and hear in times of need and disaster.
Camus is critical of Christianity in The Plague. In chapter 11, when the people flock to church to hear Father Paneloux's words on the cause of the plague and what to do about it, his ideas are not helpful.
First, the plague, Father Paneloux says, is due to people's sin. God is punishing the guilty for their crimes. Yet, as many critics have noted, while Father Paneloux fills his congregation with a sense of guilt, he himself takes no responsibility for the church's participation in sin: it is "you" who have sinned, he tells them, not "we."
Using what to Camus's mind is a false logic to explain the plague as punishment for sin, Paneloux only contributes to the panic. And finally, after all his vivid fire and brimstone talk, Paneloux's ending words, calling for brotherly love, are insipid. In fact, by the following day, the sermon's impact is already weakening, leading to apathy.
Camus's point is that conventional religion misleads people with false solutions and is inadequate to the task at hand. Suffering in the end is not due to sin. Suffering makes no sense. Vague calls to brotherly love lead to apathy. Better help is found in concrete action.