Both psychiatry and religion care about the human spirit. I know they have seemed like enemies at times and I doubt if the extremists in either practice trust the other but trust has never been high on any extremist’s list, so that’s not a fair comparison. No, at their best, I believe both practices have overlapping interests but by tradition, they’ve rarely worked together. In The Road Less Traveled, Dr. Scott Peck associated the spiritual growth demanded by faith with growing emotional maturity but these were positive associations. To me, his more exciting, revolutionary work was chronicled in People of the Lie: The Hope For Healing Human Evil. In this book Dr. Peck suggested that evil could be cataloged and classified like any emotional illness and, more importantly, it could be treated.
Dr. Peck defined evil as when a person uses his or her political power to let some one else suffer, rather than face their own personal shortcomings. The classic example is when one person lets another take the blame for his or her misbehavior. Now, under that definition, everyone has committed an evil act at some point in their lives but committing an evil act doesn’t make a person irredeemably evil. (If it does, I lost any chance at redemption when I let my folks believe my five-year old sister stuck crayons in the pencil sharpener. I apologize, Sis.) However, it does show both the callousness and the cowardice of the actor, in this case, me. Callous, because I let my sister take my punishment and a coward because I wouldn’t tell my parents the truth. Peck points out that fear is a central motivation of an evil person (that is, someone who is committed to a practice of avoidance and scapegoating others) and the evil doer often creates chaos to distract others from recognizing that fear. Most of their conscious energy is devoted to competitions they’ve created and (often) only they are aware of, devising schemes to triumph in these competitions and avoiding the underlying conviction that they’re not very worthy human beings. For all of the damage these inflict, that’s a sad, paltry existence, a half-life at best. In a way, it fits. Those who embrace evil as a way of life, face an existence of the damned.
There are several case histories cited in the book that illustrate the doctor’s point and not all of the patients improve. However, like all patients in therapy, those who are willing to “do the work” by facing and addressing their own character flaws improve. Peck also points out that evil and good behavior have a tendency to grow. Anyone who thinks evil isn’t a contagious disease, hasn’t studied history. A single madman like Hitler could not have created the devastation of the Third Reich on his own. He required the active assistance of his political aides as well as the acceptance or endorsement of much of the German population and other world leaders. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, ” Evil flourishes when good men do nothing. However, if Dr. Peck was right, therapists can learn to recognize someone sliding into an existence of evil, and, (if the patient is willing) the therapist may be able to do something to arrest this condition and keep it from growing. That’s got to be reason for hope.
Much of the nature of evil is still a mystery and most humans are well-served to avoid it when possible because its effects are lethal. Like all deadly diseases, it requires careful treatment by a qualified practitioner. However, I hope Dr. Peck’s work will be continued by therapists and clergy alike. We have been fighting against the better angels of our nature long enough. It’s time to give the good guys a chance.