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A series of stages of faith development was proposed by Professor James W. Fowler, a developmental psychologist at Candler School of Theology, in the book Stages of Faith. This book-length study contains a framework and ideas considered by many to be insightful and which have generated a good deal of response from those interested in religion, so it appears to have at least a reasonable degree of face validity.

It proposes a staged development of faith (or spiritual development) across the lifespan. It is closely related to the work of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg regarding aspects of psychological development in children and adults.

Faith is seen as a holistic orientation, and is concerned with the individual's relatedness to the universal:

  • Stage one – "Intuitive-Projective" faith (ages of three to seven), and is characterized by the psyche's unprotected exposure to the Unconscious.
  • Stage two – "Mythic-Literal" faith (mostly in school children), stage two persons have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their cosmic powers are almost always anthropomorphic.
  • Stage three - "Sythetic-Conventional" faith (arising in adolescence) characterized by conformity
  • stage four – "Individuative-Reflective" faith (usually mid-thirties to early forties) a stage of angst and struggle. The individual takes personal responsibility for their beliefs and feelings.
  • Stage five – "Conjunctive" faith acknowledges paradox and transcendence relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems
  • Stage six – "Universalizing" faith, or what some might call, enlightenment.


Fowler's theory has been questioned from psychological and theological perspectives and has not been validated empirically.

Although there is evidence that children up to the age of twelve years do tend to be in the first two of these stages, there is evidence that adults over the age of sixty-one do show considerable variation in displays of qualities of Stages 3 and beyond. Fowler's model has generated some empirical studies, and fuller descriptions of this research (and of these six stages) can be found in Wulff (1991). However, this model has been attacked from a standpoint of scientific research, however, due to methodological weaknesses. Of Fowler's six stages, only the first two have found empirical support, and these were heavily based upon Piaget's stages of cognitive development.

The tables and graphs in the book were presented in such a way that the last four stages appeared to be validated, but the requirements of statistical verification of the stages did not come close to having been met. The study was not published in a journal, so was not peer-reviewed, and never drew much attention from psychologists.

Other critics of Fowler have questioned whether his ordering of the stages really reflects his own commitment to a rather liberal Christian Protestant outlook, as if to say that people who adopt a similar viewpoint to Fowler are at higher stages of faith development. Nevertheless, the concepts Fowler introduced seemed to hit home with those in the circles of academic religion, and have been an important starting point for various theories and subsequent studies.

Fowler's idea regarding stages of faith has been popular among proponents of transpersonal psychology.

See also[]

External links[]


  • Fowler, James W. (1981). Stages of Faith, Harper & Row ISBN 0060628669.
  • Wulff, D. M., Psychology of Religion: Classic and Contemporary (2nd ed), New York, Wiley, 1997.
  • Volume dedicated to the Faith Development Theory of James Fowler in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. 11(3). 2001. For example:
    • Heinz Streib, "The Symposium on Faith Development Theory and the Modern Paradigm", pp. 141-142.
    • John McDargh "Faith Development Theory and the Postmodern Problem of Foundations", pp. 185-199


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