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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