Stages of faith

Along with the cognitive developmental stages of Jean Piaget and the social/moral developmental stages of Lawrence Kohlberg (and also of Robert Selman), there is the research of James Fowler on stages of faith. Fowler’s stages of faith are not limited to people who follow an organized religion, or even any religion or spiritual practice at all. They’re more about the way a person sees the world, the way they go about believing in things—religious, spiritual or secular—than anything.

The stages of faith are matched up with their minimum-required stages of cognitive / social / moral development. Fowler often found these stages at much later ages than listed here.

Here’s a brief summary:

Stage 1: Intuitive-projective faith (representational period-early childhood-Cerridwen’s stage 2a, or later)

At this stage kids are afraid of lions, tigers, bears and monsters. They don’t differentiate between reality and fantasy and may take fairy tales and myths seriously. They tend to see God as a formless spirit who can be anywhere.

Stage 2: Mythic-literal faith (representational period-middle childhood-Cerridwen’s stage 2b-c, or later)

At this stage, people start seeing God in anthropomorphic terms, e.g. the old white man on the throne in Heaven. They’re also trying to separate reality and fantasy.

Stage 3: Synthetic-conventional faith (concrete operational period-late childhood-Cerridwen’s stage 3a, or later)

At this stage, people tend to believe what other people in their community believe.

Stage 3 (continued): (formal operational period-early adolescence-Cerridwen’s stage 3b?, or later)

People sometimes go through a period where they grapple with meaningful issues before progressing to Fowler’s stage 4. Cerridwen (2014) puts this in her stage 3b along with Fowler’s stage 4, though it might fall earlier, in late concrete operations, for some people.

Stage 4: Individuative-reflective faith (formal operational period-early adolescence-Cerridwen’s stage 3b, or later)

In this stage people start to try to figure out what they believe for themselves, instead of going with whatever they learn from their environment. In some cases, people don’t reach this stage until after they grow up and leave home, and start to see that the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily believe the same things they grew up with.

Stage 5: Conjunctive faith (formal operational period-adolescence-Cerridwen’s stage 3c, or later)

At this stage, people move to a higher level of abstraction. They start looking at their own culture from the outside in, to get perspective. Fowler gives an example of a woman who talks about “the light within” that everyone has, and talks about Jung’s theories of archetypes.

Stage 6: Universalizing faith (formal operational period-adolescence-Cerridwen’s stage 3c, or later)

At this stage, people are willing to sacrifice themselves for a higher cause. Fowler gives Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Mother Teresa as examples.

Source: Fowler, James W., 1981. Stages of faith: The psychology of human development and the quest for meaning. Harper & Row, San Francisco.

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