Stages of Faith


James Fowler proposes six stages of faith that relate closely to Kohlberg’s moral developmental stages and that include, as well, "cognitive, affective and behavioral elements of religious development at different life stages" (Kelly, 1995, p. 71).

In the first three stages of faith development, individuals in one way or another rely on some authority outside themselves for spiritual beliefs.

      Young children, during the first stage of faith (intuitive-projective), follow the beliefs of their parents. They tend to imagine or fantasize angels or other religious figures in stories as characters in fairy tales.

      In the second stage of faith (mythical-literal), children tend to respond to religious stories and rituals literally, rather than symbolically As individuals move through adolescence to young adulthood, their beliefs continue to be based on authority focused outside themselves.


      In this third stage of faith (synthetic-conventional), individuals tend to have conformist acceptance of a belief with little self-reflection on examination of these beliefs. Most people remain at this level (Fowler, 1981; Kelly, 1995).

      Those individuals who move to the fourth stage of faith (individuative-reflective) begin a radical shift from dependence on others’ spiritual beliefs to development of their own. Fowler (1981) says, "For a genuine move to stage 4 to occur there must be an interruption of reliance on external sources of authority ... There must be ... a relocation of authority within the self" (p. 179). Individuals are no longer defined by the groups to which they belong. Instead, they choose beliefs, values, and relationships important to their self-fulfillment.


      In the fifth stage of faith (conjunctive), persons still rely on their own views but move from self preoccupation or from dependence on fixed truths to acceptance of others’ points of view they tend to be more tolerant and begin to consider serving others.

      Individuals who move to the sixth and last stage of faith (universalizing) are rare. As older adults, they begin to search for universal values, such as unconditional love and justice. Self-preservation becomes irrelevant. Mother Theresa and Mahatma Gandhi are examples of people in this form of spiritual development (Fowler, 1981).


Last modified: 12/24/13