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.

A few ppl 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.

Have 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.

40% of adults arrive at this stage.

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

Demythologizing, deconstructing.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

Comfortable with 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, Dr. Jordan Peterson, Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Haidt, Eckhart Tolle

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


Very few ppl achieve this stage (1-2% of all ppl)

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.

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:

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 someone 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, CoC)

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.

Another example of the difference: Say you were to ask someone, "Do you believe in God?"

Stages as incubators 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 maybe 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.

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:

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.