Some scholars spend a whole career focusing on specific dimensions of religion or spirituality. Others seek to understand other dimensions of human development and rarely acknowledge the spiritual or religious dimension. Social psychologist Peter L. Benson has both contributed significantly to the broad field of applied human development, and to understanding religious and spiritual development. Thus, his work is an important resource for integrating an understanding of spiritual development as a core dimension of human development.
Benson was born on May 2, 1946, in Duluth, Minnesota, and spent portions of his childhood and adolescence in several towns and cities in Kansas and Illinois. He then attended Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois, where he earned a double major in psychology and religion. He then attended Yale University, where he earned an M.A. in psychology of religion (1970), followed by studies at the University of Denver, where he earned another M.A. (1972) and a Ph.D. (1973) in experimental social psychology. After several years in academia, Benson moved to Minneapolis-based Search Institute in 1978, and became its president in 1985. In addition to a range of research studies in prevention and youth development, Benson led significant studies on the role of religion in society and in adolescent development. This growing body of work led to his receipt in 1989 of the William James Award from the American Psychology Association for career contributions to the psychology of religion.
In 2003, Benson launched a new initiative on spiritual development in childhood and adolescence with support of the John Templeton Foundation. Designed to be international, multidisciplinary, and multifaith in scope, the initiative will seek to contribute to an increased recognition of spiritual development as an integral component of human development, while also providing insights and tools that equip practitioners to nurture the spirit in young people.
As this work continues, it will inevitably reflect the themes that have shaped Benson's work to date: respect for multiple ways of learning and knowing, the relationship between person and society and culture, a commitment to both the inner journey and social change, a desire to promote the common good, and integration of science and practice. Its scope and breadth, although daunting to some, offers a unique opportunity for Benson's expansive vision and integrative scholarship to add important new insights and understanding for both science and practice.