"Life is difficult."

No appreciation of the psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck, who died yesterday at the age of 69, can begin without quoting the famous opening line of his record-shattering best-seller, "The Road Less Traveled."

Peck not only made publishing history-his book was on the New York Times' best-seller list for an astounding 13 years-but, within the mental health field, he heralded a significant development. He was one of the first to recognize and publicly declare that human beings' religious instincts were not pathological, that they were in fact vital to an individual's health and sense of well-being.

When Peck first published The Road in 1978, religion was taboo in the mental health field. Sexual fantasies may have been the grist for psychotherapeutic sessions but, thanks to Freud, religious yearnings were suspect. At best, the father of psychoanalysis and modern psychiatry viewed religion as a necessary evil, an illusion functioning as superego, controlling and restraining the individual and the collective id, the surging impulses of the unconscious. This dismissive attitude toward religion and spirituality infiltrated the practice of psychotherapy.

Peck countered that stance, chastising fellow therapists for considering "any passionate belief in God to be pathological."

"I grew up in a tradition where science was value free and psychotherapy was supposed to be a science," Peck stated in a 1993 interview. "But the practice of psychotherapy has never been value free. Therapists have been practicing with a value system of secular humanism and have been unconscious of it. It's not a bad system," he added. "But I don't think it is enough."

The public, and gradually his profession, began to agree. Other psychotherapists like Thomas Moore ("Care of the Soul") and Clarissa Pinkola Estes ("Women Who Run with the Wolves") wrote best-sellers. Professional meetings began to offer sessions exploring the interface between psychology and religion. In 1996, a psychology textbook written by Edward F. Shafranske and published by the American Psychological Association showed that psychologists were beginning to incorporate spirituality into professional training and clinical work. It was one of the association's best sellers at its convention that year.

Today, research funded by The John Templeton Foundation, a grant-making institution that focuses its programs and resources in the area of religion and science, explores among other things the health aspects of forgiveness, the role of religion and spirituality in recovery from cardiac surgery, and the impact of love, while other colleges and universities support a wide range of psycho-spiritual studies. There are institutes for psychology and spirituality, and social workers have an association whose members explore this relationship. Today, you can easily find a Christian psychologist or a Buddhist social worker. And you could very well find yourself meditating, praying, or doing yoga with your therapist.

Peck croons a Bette Midler song...
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  • Peck's book didn't create this explosion of interest in the relationship of psychology and spirituality. But he was a bellwether, a pioneer whose thinking tapped into America's collective desire to bring religion and spirituality out into the open. He made it safe to start a conversation that eventually changed the profession.

    In the late 1980s when Common Boundary, the organization that I co-founded, first began holding conferences that explored the relationship of psychology and spirituality, most of the therapist-attendees had read Peck's book. They told us over and over again that they had been thinking about these sorts of issues for a long time, but hesitated to bring them up at professional meetings for fear of appearing foolish or unprofessional. Repeatedly, they expressed their relief at finding an arena in which they could speak freely of their own spiritual interests and discuss how to appropriately deal with their patients' beliefs and yearnings.

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