Sartre Says Religion Isn’t Responsibility
Cari Gilkison, French Literature 1996
Sartre fills his plays with many moral lessons for us. He has much to say on life, love, responsibility and the existential dilemma we all face. One very important lesson is that religion can become a crutch for people and that it is vital to take responsibility for your own life. Regret is a waste of time and, in the end, so is religion.
Although Sartre was an atheist, he couldn’t deny that man people believed in one or more gods. Instead of making a direct attack on any of the major religions—like Christianity—he uses Zeus in “The Flies.” Zeus appears to be a great god in the beginning, but is revealed for what he really is in the end. Zeus doesn’t know everything; he just tries to control everyone’s lives. He doesn’t love and protect those who worship him, but feeds off the villagers’ guilt and misery. “They’re afraid and fear and guilty conscious have a good savor in the nostrils of the gods,” Zeus says to Orestes. Zeus, like any god, is merely a manifestation of the guilty people hold, according to Sartre. People generally need someone to punish them and tell them that they are forgiven. It is easier than accepting mistakes they may make and learning from them? A god has no power over man’s ability to choose, just as Zeus didn’t have any power over Orestes once he’d made his choice. In their confrontation Orestes says, “You are the kind of gods, king of stones and stars, king of the waves of the sea. But you are not king of man.” Sartre’s statement was meant to express his belief that we must govern ourselves. As readers we are supposed to recognize this in the story, but apply it to our own lives. If there is no god to turn to, then we only have ourselves to hold accountable. There is no religion to escape to.
Sartre shows us another aspect of the problem of religion in “The Respectful Prostitute.” The words that the characters speak are contrary to their actions, thus how showing the hypocritical nature of religion. Although Fred has just seduced Lizzie, who is a prostitute, he calls her a devil. He tries to place the blame on her for his sinful actions. Words like Christ, God and Hell are tossed about as if they hold no sacredness at all. Sartre would say it is because these words are truly empty. Lizzie has a bracelet that she blames for all that bad that happens to her. “What a mess! It is all your fault, you filthy thing,” she exclaims. Like religion, Lizzie finds someone or something else to be her scapegoat. Lizzie can’t or won’t take responsibility for her actions. Perhaps the most appalling hypocrisy is the lies that she tells. Lizzie says, “It would have meant so much to you, and it would have been no trouble for me.” Sartre wants the reader to wonder what the point of religion is when it is filled with so much hypocrisy.
Regret is found in both plays and regret is often a large part of religion. Electra and Lizzie feel regret for what they have done. It is futile to regret in Sartre’s eyes, because all it does is drag you down and create a stagnant. He believes it is important to try and make the right decision in the first place and then just accept it instead of choosing something you will later come to regret. Confession and Penitence are a waste of time to Sartre because there can be no atonement.
Responsibility for one’s actions and learning not to regret are two things people can do to alleviate the burden of our often awful existence. Though things are stark, cold and bleak for the Existentialist, there is hope. We can create a better life in the here and now and that is what counts.