Learning about Fowler's Stages of Faith

Part of a series about My Faith Journey.

Something that has helped me greatly during my faith transition was learning about Fowler's Stages of Faith. James Fowler was a Methodist minister and university professor who observed a life-pattern that many faith practitioners go through.

The Stages

Stage 0 – "Primal or Undifferentiated" faith (0-2 years)

Infancy, with it's black & white / absolute thinking: warm/cold, safe/scared, happy/hurt.

Seeing parents as nurturers prepares children to have faith in God.

(Parents that are neglectful / abusive will engender distrust in God.)

Ideas about faith are indistinguishable from all the other sensory inputs you're getting.

Stage 1 – "Intuitive-Projective" faith (3-7 -- nursery - junior primary)

(You are intuiting the world and projecting your presence into it.)

Basic ideas about God learned from parents.

Religion is learned from adults through stories, songs, pictures, actions / pantomime, etc.

Faith is mostly a set of impressions.

Fantasy & reality frequently mixed together.

Conscious / unconscious thought mingle.

Unable to think abstractly, consider logical thoughts, or complex ideas.

Start learning / clinging to rules ("Dad! you said a bad word!")

No sense of nuance here.

Stage 2 – "Mythic-Literal" faith (8-11 -- senior primary)

Fantasy & reality begin to separate; can distinguish fact from fiction.

Children's sense of religious authority expands past parents to other ppl in the community.

Strong belief in justice / reciprocity, all wrongs will be righted in the afterlife.

Deities are anthropomorphic.

Religious stories are interpreted as literal. (e.g. Garden of Eden, Noah's Ark, Tower of Babel)

Begin to practice religious rituals (e.g. taking sacrament).

Begin to understand that other ppl might have different beliefs.

< 1% of adults stay in this stage through adulthood.

Stage 3 – "Synthetic-Conventional" faith (12-18 -- mutual/mission)

Conformity & obedience to church rules & societal expectations.

Submission to external authority structures.

Strong ties to community.

Faith journey is a collective experience.

Personal identity tied to one's religion.

Capable of abstract thinking.

Comprehends a more cohesive theology, formed from stories / rituals learned earlier.

Conventional system of values / morals formed here.

Has faith that the system (of morals, theology, etc.) the group has come up with is sufficient.

When cognitive dissonance is encountered, you put it on the shelf.

Apologetics are useful / faith-promoting for ppl in this stage.

Can see things from other ppl's perspectives / imagine what other ppl think of them.

Ppl claim their faith as their own. (Not "living on borrowed light" anymore.)

You're "in the box" (thought you recognize that there are other "boxes")

You're content.

Tend to be judgemental and cliquish.

Many adults (about 60%) stay at this stage for their whole lives.

This is as far as the LDS church (or any other conventional church) can get you.

Stage 4 – "Individuative-Reflective" faith (20-ish-35-ish -- post-mission)

Faith crisis; the shelf breaks.

Critically analyze / examine / question one's (former) faith.

Demythologizing, deconstructing.

Tough stage: angst, struggle, feelings of betrayal, disillusionment.

Leave (former) religious community.

Personal faith journey begins (rather than collective).

Reliance on your own, internal, moral compass, rather than external authorities.

You reject the "box" you were once in (and probably any other "boxes" too).

Look with disdain at ppl who are still in stage 3.

Apologetics seem disingenuous to pp in this stage.

Divorce symbols from their meanings and if the meaning doesn't hold, it becomes a broken symbol.

Openness to secular ideas.

Pick and choose which former beliefs/practices to keep or discard.

Become very interested in logical fallacies, cognitive biases, the defects of the human mind, etc.

Search for new identity / integration of past (religious) & new identities.

You're discontent

Tend to be narcissistic and rude.

Ppl in stage 3 think you are "backsliding", but you're actually moving forward.

40% of adults arrive at this stage.

Many adults remain in this stage for the rest of their lives.

Examples of famous people who appear to be in Stage 4: Christopher Hitchens, George Carlin, Socrates, Nietzsche

Stage 5 – "Conjunctive" faith (35-40? -- high priest)

Reconstruct your faith and arrive at a complex, mature, understanding of truth.

Relatively few ppl arrive at this stage. (15% of adults)

Find something irreducible in the symbols you've believed in and rebuild around those.

Questions / issues in stage 4 have been resolved... somehow.

You're putting back together the things you tore apart in stage 4.

See the limits of what logic can get you, and embrace paradoxes.

See formerly-taught religious stories as symbolic / metaphorical.

Comfortable with mystery / unanswered questions.

Embrace comparative mythology / beliefs.

Have moved past black-and-white thinking.

Believe that embracing alternative faith perspectives will deepen your own.

Syncretism is a very Stage 5 concept.

You (may) voluntarily re-enter the "box" (either the previous or a different box), but with a more enlightened understanding.

That said, you're not stuck in a single, theological box.

You re-embrace community.

Heard a Stage 5 woman describe herself as being "confused at a higher level and about more important things"

Tend to be esoteric and frustrating to ppl at previous stages (Why won't you pick a side!!!)

Examples of famous people who appear to be in Stage 5: Joseph Campbell, Jordan Peterson, Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Haidt, Eckhart Tolle

Stage 6 – "Universalizing" faith (45+?)


People in this stage have a special grace to them and seem to walk a foot above the ground.

Can relate to anyone at any previous stage of faith, and challenge their assumptions.

They cherish life but do not hold onto it too tightly.

Don't have (m)any worries or doubts.

Recognizes the value of each human soul and the need to treat others with dignity.

Treat people with compassion, devote their lives to service.

Views all of mankind as part of a universal community.

Sees all faiths as "one" / part of a transcendent, holistic, whole.

Might become a (great) religious teacher.

< 1% of adults arrive at this stage

Stage 6 ppl are often viewed as "radicals" by the population at large.

Stage 6ers sometimes seem to lose their own sense of self-preservation.

"Regular" ppl can be afraid of ppl in this stage; might get killed by ppl he's trying to help

Examples of famous people who appear to be in Stage 6: Jesus, The Buddha, Ghandi, MLKJ

My additional notes & musings:

Fowler's Stages reminds me a lot of the stages of a person's ethical growth:

Primary Takeaways

Using only a single word, the biggest things gained from each stage are as follows:

Regarding The Ordering of the Stages

I think it's important not to think of any one stage as being "better" or "worse" than any other. I heard Bill Reel once describe Stage 3 as "blue", Stage 4 as "red", and Stage 5 as "green". Using the color labels makes them seem less hierarchical and puts them all on even footing.

One justification for putting the stages into this numerical order is that no one at an earlier stage can really understand what a later stage will be like. When I was in Stage 3, I couldn't understand or identify with ppl who were in Stage 4. When I entered Stage 4, I told some ppl who are happily in stage 3 about my mindset and they just couldn't grok it. Also, while in Stage 4, I don't really "get" ppl who are in Stage 5. Hearing them talk sounds fascinating, but also kind of bizarre, and what they say sounds a bit like hippie-dippy nonsense to me.

The Stage 3 / Stage 4 Break

There's a big break between Stage 3 & Stage 4. (I've seen some diagrams that draw a "wall" between Stages 3 & 4.)

Stage 3

Stage 4

may hold on to literal interpretations of scripture

disbelieve in scripture, or at best see them as fables with some metaphorical value

submission to external authority structures

relying on your own moral compass

a uniform / shared / group experience

a personal / individual faith journey

likely to attend a conventional church

likely to attend an unconventional church (e.g. Unitarian, Buddhist, Sunday Assembly)

want answers

prefer questions

you're like a fish that doesn't understand that he's swimming in water

you know the difference between dry & wet

content / happy

discontent / angry / angsty

Quotes about the Stage 3 -> Stage 4 break

"And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom." -- Anais Nin

"A question mark is just an exclamation point that has buckled under too much certainty." -- Anonymous

"The truth will set you free, but first it really pisses you off." -- Anonymous

"Good morning, and in case I don't see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night!" -- Truman

Stages 3, 4, & 5

These stages are the most interesting to me. There's probably the biggest amount of "friction" between these.

I heard it said that societies / movements / philosophies / etc. go through three stages:

  1. Thesis: proposition, presentation, statement
  2. Antithesis: opposition, criticism, contrast
  3. Synthesis: combining, uniting, forming a complex whole

Stages 3, 4, and 5 follow this very same pattern: In Stage 3, we accept propositions laid out by religious authorities. In Stage 4, we tear them down. In Stage 5, we find a way to synthesize the previous two stages. (I'm really not sure how that occurs, probably because I'm not in Stage 5.)

Some other examples of the differences:

When asked, "Do you believe in God?"

When asked, "What is God like?"

When asked "What religion do you belong to?"

When asked "What is the universe made of?"

Stages as homes for various faith traditions

Most religious traditions were formed inside a particular stage and their teachings reflect the characteristics of that stage. Some examples:

Stage 6 is home to Buddhism: enlightenment, universalism, oneness, etc.

Stage 5 is home to Hinduism and Baha'i: all faiths seen as "true" insofar as they lead their followers to God.

Stage 4 is home to Unitarian Universalism. Best example of this is a bumper sticker I saw that said "Come to the Unitarian church where all your answers are questioned".

Stage 3 is home to mainstream & progressive Christianity: all part of the "body of Christ", strong sense of identification as part of a larger community of Christians.

Stage 2 is home to Mormonism / Jehovah's Witnesses: beliefs in anthropomorphic gods, literal belief in scripture stories, strong emphasis placed on rule-following, etc. (Both of these might actually stage at 2.5.)

Stage 1 might be home to caveman-style tribalism, which we've kind of evolved past as a species. It's a historical footnote at this point.

These are only my opinions, of course, YMMV.

Fowler's Stages and the LDS Church

When I was an active, true-believing member, I bought into the claim that it had "the fullness of the gospel" and that it was all that I would ever need. In my 20s, I read about the enlightenment of the Buddha (where he entered Stage 6) and I thought it was incredibly cool. I looked for something like that in Mormonism, and I found the example of Jesus, but I couldn't find anyone who seemed Stage 6-ish in the modern Mormon church. After I entered Stage 4, I looked back and saw that the farthest the LDS church can take a person is up to Stage 3. (Actually, closer to Stage 2.5, because they still hold on to some Stage 2 ideas like literal interpretations of mythological bible stories and anthropomorphic gods.)

I notice that the LDS church places events at the transitions of Fowler's Stages to keep members "in the fold" at potential breaking points.

A big problem with the LDS church is that they don't have any concept that Stage 4 is a natural part of people's' faith journey. The only vocabulary terms they give members for describing ppl in Stage 4 is "doubters", "backsliders", "sinners", "apostates", etc. It's all very charged, adversarial, language. They really need to recognize that post-conventional (e.g. post-Stage 3) stages exist and come up with a more mature vocabulary for communicating with / about people in those stages.

Criticisms of Fowler's Stages

These are some areas that I think are lacking or are unaddressed by Fowler:

Missing Stage

I think there is a stage missing between 2 and 3 that should cover ages 13-18. I think Stage 2 describes the late-childhood years (8-12), but doesn't adequately describe the teenage years.

Here's my reasoning: We tend to vacillate between individualism and group identity, but this is not fully reflected in Fowler's model. Here's some details:

Spiral Dynamics models this alternation between group & individual identity much better.

Things it doesn't model well

Fowler's model is a little Western-centric. It's better at modeling Western religions that make exclusive truth claims and take more of a hard-line stance. Religions such as these set up their followers to experience a Stage 4 disillusionment, but this is not the case with all religions worldwide. Many Eastern religions (notable Hinduism and Baha'i) take a broader view that "all religions are true", so they don't set up their followers to experience a faith crisis. A similar observation could be made for more progressive sects of Christianity.

Alternate Perspectives & Applications

These stages are sliced "horizontally", based on age, but they could also be sliced "vertically", as a person's faith journey is not a single-task / single-path endeavor, but rather a multi-task / multi-path endeavor, including things such as:

(A child in stage 1 might exhibit some stage 6 qualities.)

Something else I appreciate about Fowler's stages is that it can apply to more than just religious beliefs. Some examples: career path, feelings about parents, attitudes about government, etc. All of these things will have rules, power structures, expectations of obedience, etc. These stages could even apply to how one appreciates art (esp. books & film), WRT how stories are read as either literal or figurative.

Alternate Models

Spiral Dynamics - More detailed than Fowler's model, including more stages.

Perry Scheme for Cognitive and Ethical Growth - Takes it from the point of view of how we see authority figures.

Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief - Models how we deal with loss or death, but could also model the disillusionment that accompanies a faith crisis.