Religion in Quarantine: Daniel Conway on "Faith Under Quarantine: Lessons from Camus"

The following blog post is an edited excerpt from an essay appearing in the Network’s second eBook Project entitled Religion in Quarantine: The Future of Religion in a Post-Pandemic World. This book features personal and research reflection on how their understanding of religion is being altered and shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. The eBook is available for FREE download at:

Faith Under Quarantine: Lessons from Camus
Daniel Conway

Pandemic in the Past
Long before I was made aware of the COVID-19 virus, I decided to ask my undergraduate students to read The Plague [La peste] by Albert Camus (1947). I also scheduled this reading assignment for the end of the Spring 2020 semester, which, as it turns out, meant that the students would be reading and thinking about the quarantine of Oran while enduring their very own quarantine in Texas.

The central figure of acknowledged religious authority in The Plague is Father Paneloux, a Jesuit priest who ministers to the Catholic faithful of Oran. Intending to account for the provenance and possible remission of the plague, Father Paneloux takes to his pulpit to deliver the sermon:

“If today the plague is in your midst, that is because the hour has struck for taking thought. The just man need have no fear, but the evildoer has good cause to tremble. For plague is the flail of God and the world His threshing-floor, and implacably He will thresh out His harvest until the wheat is separated from the chaff. There will be more chaff than wheat, few chosen of the many called. Yet this calamity was not willed by God” (Camus, 1991, p. 95).

Father Paneloux accounts for the outbreak of plague as the consequence of God having “turned His face away from us,” which he interprets as a proportional response to their persistent habit of taking for granted His “divine mercy”(Camus, 1991, p. 96). According to Paneloux the plague is an undeserved gift from God — and so, evidence of His love — albeit in the form of a stern admonition to return to the path of righteousness. As Paneloux explains, God has unleashed the plague as a means of claiming their full attention (p. 97).

Later on, a young boy, Philippe Othon, son of the local magistrate, has been stricken by the plague. Can it be said that this child, innocent by all accounts, deserves the plague as a punishment for his sins? Even if one were inclined to classify the youngster as collateral damage in a larger exercise of divine retribution, one would be hard pressed to see the justice and mercy of the deity whose will includes the suffering of blameless children.

Young Othon is injected with an experimental serum that is meant to relieve some of the worst symptoms associated with the plague. The hope attached to his recovery is thus suggestive of the larger hope for a more comprehensive victory over the plague. But the serum does not work as planned, and the boy’s condition continues to deteriorate. If anything, the serum exacerbates his suffering. What deity has ordained this ordeal?

Father Paneloux does not duck the ensuing challenge to his faith. In a second sermon, he dramatically raises the stakes of his exhortation to his parishioners: If the death of the innocent child is incident to God’s will, he advises, then it must become incident to the will of God’s faithful. Rather than question the justice and mercy of his God, that is, Father Paneloux questions the value he and others have attached to the life of an innocent child. In effect, his second sermon transforms the boy into a convenient scapegoat whose painful, seemingly pointless death allows the faithful of Oran to align their will with the will of Paneloux’s God.

Pandemic in the Present
I often ask the students to read The Plague and evaluate the wisdom of Father Paneloux’s quarantine-prompted sermons. This year was different because we were contemplating the quarantine of Oran while complying in real time with quarantine measures imposed upon us under the plague-like conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the questions I raised with my students were not received as abstract, academic, or hypothetical.

Owing to their own experience of quarantine, my current students have been unusually attentive to the rhetorical power of Father Paneloux’s sermons. As they now know, conditions of plague and quarantine intensify the desire for answers and amplify the need for meaning. Even those students who disagree with Father Paneloux, including those who deem him evil, cold, or heartless, have been able to appreciate the power of his appeal. What Father Paneloux understands is that in times of crisis and uncertainty, people need to be united. The world they face together must make sense, even if the sense made of it is unflattering or daunting to us. Under such conditions, Father Paneloux realizes, any explanation of the plague, including the victim-blaming explanation he serves up, is preferable to no explanation at all.

Reflections on Studying Pandemic
I will close this essay with three reflections:

First, drawing on their unique, first-personal experience of quarantine, my current students have exhibited a keen appreciation of the role of religious figures and religious authorities in stabilizing a society or polity rocked by uncertainty. They are aware that Father Paneloux’s sermons were meant to succeed as secular interventions, independent of their merit as spiritual interventions.

Second, alert to the rhetorical effect on them of Father Paneloux’s sermons, my current students have been unusually adventurous in considering the merit of Camus’ opposition to hope. Typically, Camus does not receive a sympathetic hearing. In the past, his opposition to hope and his relentless attention to the meaningfulness of the present moment have struck my students as extreme. My current students are similarly reluctant to give up their hopes for the future, but they are significantly more sympathetic to the imperative to create meaning for themselves in the here and now. Even if they are not yet willing to live a hopeless existence, they understand that some expressions of hope can be as devastating as the onset of plague.

Third, and finally, current students are noticeably more alert to the (admittedly counterintuitive) suggestion that an aspiration to “sainthood” is possible for those who do not believe in God. Jean Tarrou, the hero of the novel, characterizes this model of “sainthood” in starkly privative terms, i.e., as a lifelong quest to minimize the harm one does to others.

Daniel Conway is Professor of Philosophy and Humanities and Affiliate Professor of Film Studies, Religious Studies, and Law at Texas A&M University.

Camus, A. (1972/19910. The plague (S. Gilbert, Trans.). New York: Random House/Vintage International.