Spies Like Us?

Walter, you mention the fact that the spy Robert Hanssen was also a member of Opus Dei, and then go on to comment that “the oft-mooted prophylactic effect of religious enthusiasm against world-league personal misbehavior doesn’t seem to work very well.”

To draw that conclusion from Hanssen’s betrayal of his country (from what appear to have been a mix of financial and psychological motives) is an amusing debating tactic but, I reckon, a bit of a stretch. At best one can say that it demonstrates that the prophylactic effect of religious enthusiasm did not work in his case, but so what? There are very few (if any) religious folk who would claim that a belief in their creed would always be enough to prevent its adherents from committing a crime, world-league or otherwise. If anything, most religions (the more successful of which are built upon on a shrewd appreciation of human nature) recognize that even the most devout must forever be on guard against the temptations (such as KGB pay-offs) that this world has to offer, a recognition that implicitly and explicitly accepts that there are believers who will indeed stray from, to put it rather biblically, the path of righteousness. 

There may be other ways to achieve the same objective, but it would be a mistake, I reckon, to deny that religious faith can operate as a brake on personal misbehavior and, indeed, often does. Not only that, it can be a highly effective device to bring out the best in people (and the worst too, but that’s another topic). If I had to guess, that’s one of the reasons that the most widely-followed religions have evolved in the way they have, but that too is a topic for another time…

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9 Responses to Spies Like Us?

  1. The proponents of religion will simply argue that those who misbehave aren’t following the tenets of their religion.

    Arguing against religion on a case by case basis of misconduct gets us nowhere, since it only serves to discredit the individual. If we want to discredit the effects of religion we would need to cite statistics on the percentage of misconduct by religion. We could likely do that now with the major religions, but I doubt there is sufficient sample size for the secular. It is also complicated by politicians claiming religions rather than religions claiming politicians. They are too easy to disown.

  2. steveT says:

    Steel Phoenix: I’ve seen this point made several times on this website, and I think it’s incorrect. I don’t think you can just look at the correlation of misconduct and religion to determine how religion affects behavior. What we need to look at is the differential effect of the absence or presence of religion in a society. We would have to find a way to control for all other variables (wealth, background, societal norms, etc.) and then for two equivalent societies see if religion tends to improve behavior or make it worse, or not affect it.

    My own feeling is that people in difficult circumstances or in a poor society are drawn to religion as a way of improving their condition. You might look at a poor society and note how much crime there is among these religious people, but how can you say how much worse things would be without religion? I personally doubt religion would have been found in every human society if there weren’t some need for it. This is not a judgment as to whether or not any religion is factually correct, I just think it’s likely that in many human societies religion has, and will continue to provide, real benefits to people.

  3. @steveT: Sure, that would be a better way, but completely impractical. It would be nice to be able to show some data without having to create a whole new society first. We will likely just have to wait for people to grow up and give up the fairy tales.

    I doubt drugs would have been found in every human society if there wasn’t a need for them. People in poor societies are drawn to drugs as a way of improving their condition. Prostitution, being the oldest profession, must also be the most important to a healthy society. Axe murderers wouldn’t have evolved if ax murdering wasn’t an important method of population control.

  4. Susan says:

    I think one reason you find strong, or stronger, religious beliefs among the poor is that, particularly if it’s a religion that promises a blissful eternal life to the good, it provides some consolation to the impoverished. Something to look forward to: circumstances may be dreadful during your earthly existence, but after death…paradise. Provided, of course, you behave yourself during your wretched earthly existence.

  5. Bradlaugh says:

    Susan:  When I read this lovely poem, it always seems to me I am hearing the voice of a poor laboring man … though I suppose in point of fact such a person would not be writing poetry in 1600.

  6. Susan says:

    Bradlaugh: Now you touch on one of my own interests: medieval and Rennaisance literature. This poem, from the very tail end of the Renaissance, would not have been written by a laboring man, the vast majority of whom were, at the time, illiterate. I suspect it was written by a cleric. Interestingly it’s not really in the late Renaissance style–it has the tone and structure of one of those patricularly energetic nineteenth-century hymns. I can imagine a congregation of nasal-voiced Yankees whaling away at it in some white clapboard church in New Hampshire.

  7. Susan says:

    I meant “particularly” in my post above, not “patricularly” as I mistyped. But the latter’s an interesting word. Meaning specific to patricians?

    But with respect to Hanssen: Perhaps he DID justify his actions to his God. I’ve met a few people who refer to themselves as “Catholic Communists.” They regard Jesus as the first true Marxist. So if Hanssen felt the same way, maybe he thought he was selling out his country for the greater glory of God.

  8. harry flashman says:

    I went to the same HS (Taft) Hanssen did. He was 2 years ahead of me. I might have known him casually, I don’t remember – I can’t say. I do know that Hanssen’s association with Opus Dei (I was raised virulently Catholic in the same era, in the same place and attended 8 yrs of Catholic inculcation at St. Thecla’s) does summon the age-old, oft repeated suspicion of Catholics. To wit: Where does their first allegiance lie? With their nationality or with their religion? The Vatican or Washington? Monarchs, Prime Ministers and Presidents have had to deal with the complexties of that question. Considering how American Catholics have voted in the last election, it would see moot. Then again, most Catholics are not Opus Dei.

  9. Caledonian says:

    “I personally doubt religion would have been found in every human society if there weren’t some need for it.”

    The appendix occurs in every human society, but it seems to have no particular function. It’s a vestige, not an adaptation.

    Religious thinking may have been useful in ancient human societies, but it didn’t evolve to act as it does in civilization.

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