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  • Writer's pictureAbi Sims

Fowler's Stages of Faith Development

Faith development is unique to the individual, and our experiences shape how our faith develops. James W. Fowler, a theologian and developmental psychologist, proposed a theory of faith development known as "Fowler's Stages of Faith." By using this theory, we have an outlined framework for understanding how faith and spiritual understanding evolve over time.

The goal is to evolve to the final stage, but it's rare to make it there (we'll discuss why below!) It's important to note that people may progress through these stages at difference rates, and some may not experience every stage in the sequence. Some people might also be stuck in a stage.

While reading through this post, keep these questions in mind:

  • At what age was I going through these stages?

  • What parts of myself are still in some of these stages?

  • What am I feeling as I read through these stages? (fear, hope, uncertainty, doubt, anger, confusion, joy)

  • Have I given myself permission for my faith to evolve?

  • What thoughts do I have about faith evolving?

  • Are there people in my life I can recognize in these different stages?

Stage 0: Primal or Undifferentiated Faith (Infancy)

We all start at Stage 0 as infants. This stage encompasses the earliest months and years of a child's development. Faith is rudimentary, undifferentiated, and instinctive. Here are some key characteristics of Stage 0:

  1. Instinctive Trust - Infants at stage 0 naturally trust their caregivers to meet their basic needs. This trust forms the foundation for faith to develop.

  2. Dependence on Caregivers - Children rely entirely on their caregivers for a sense of comfort, sustenance, and security. How the caregiver responds to the child's needs shape their initial experiences of relational bonds and trust.

  3. Limited Cognitive Understanding - Since infants and young children have limited cognitive abilities, faith for them is more about dependence and basic trust than conscious beliefs intellect.

  4. Undifferentiated Experience - Faith at this stage is not yet shaped by any distinct beliefs, symbols, and conscious reflection (meaning that faith at this stage is undifferentiated). It's more of an implicit trust in the caregivers and the environment.

This stage lays the groundwork for the more complex and differentiated stages that follow as a child grows and matures.

Stage 1: Intuitive-Projective Faith (Preschool to Age 7)

Stage 1 characterizes the early childhood years from preschool to age 7. During this stage, children's understanding of faith is marked by a blend of perception and imagination. Here are some key characteristics of Stage 1:

  1. Imagination and Perception - Children in this stage interpret religious concepts and stories literally. Their understanding is heavily influenced by sensory experiences and imagination.

  2. Magical Thinking - Children may believe in miracles and view God as a magical figure. There's a tendency towards magical thinking, where experiences and events are often attributed to supernatural or divine causes.

  3. Identification with Heroes - Identification with religious or heroic figures in a personal and imaginative way is common for children at this stage. These figures typically serve as a source of comfort.

  4. Simple Moralism - Moral concepts are understood in black-and-white terms. Actions are categorized as either "good" or "bad" based on immediate consequences rather than a deeper understanding of ethical principles.

  5. Dependence on Authority - Children in Stage 1 rely on authority figures, like parents, teachers, or religious leaders, for guidance and information about faith. Because they haven't yet developed critical thinking skills, they accept beliefs and practices without critically questioning them.

  6. Limited Ability of Abstract Thought - Complex and abstract theological concepts are challenging for children at this stage. Their faith is rooted more in concrete images and stories.

Stage 2: Mythic-Literal Faith (School Age to Adolescence)

This stage involves the development of a more structured and systematic understanding of faith, as people begin to engage with religious myths, stories, and rituals in a more literal way. Listed below are some key characteristics of Stage 2:

  1. Literal Interpretation of Religious Stories - Individuals in this stage interpret religious narratives and symbols more literally. They tend to see religious stories as historical events and take the teachings of their faith community quite literally.

  2. Development of Rituals - An important part of Stage 2 are rituals and ceremonies. People participate in religious practices and rituals without necessarily understanding the deeper symbolic meanings behind them.

  3. Role Conformity - There's an emphasis on conforming to the expectations and roles set by the religious community. Individuals in this stage may adopt the beliefs and practices of their family or community with critically examining them.

  4. Concrete Moral Thinking - Moral understanding becomes more complex than in Stage 1, but it's still mostly concrete and rule-based. Moral judgments are based on how someone adheres to the rules established and enforced by the authority figures.

  5. Identification with Faith Community - The sense of belonging to a specific faith community becomes more important in this stage. People in this stage find security and their identity in being a part of a religious tradition.

  6. Limited Ability for Abstract Thought - While cognitive abilities are advancing, abstract thinking is still developing. Complex theological concepts are challenging to grasp, and people in this stage rely on concrete representations.

  7. Peer Influence - Friends and peers within the religious community play a significant role in shaping beliefs. There's a desire for social acceptance and conformity.

Stage 3: Synthetic-Conventional Faith (Adolescence to Early Adulthood)

This stage is typically when individuals move beyond the literal and concrete thinking of earlier stages, and they begin to incorporate various beliefs into a more personal faith system. It involves the characteristics listed below:

  1. Formation of Personal Faith - Individuals in Stage 3 start to critically examine their beliefs and values. They begin to construct a more personal and integrated faith that reflects various influences, including family, community, and personal experiences.

  2. Adoption of Conventional Beliefs - While the faith becomes more personal in this stage, there's still a significant influence of conventional beliefs from the broader religious or cultural context. Individuals may adopt the beliefs of their faith community while also trying to incorporate their own reflections.

  3. Recognition of Multiple Perspectives - In this stage, there's an increasing awareness of different beliefs and perspectives. Appreciation for diversity and recognition that people interpret their faith in different ways is an important part of this stage.

  4. Social and Cultural Identity - Faith plays a role in shaping cultural and social identity. Individuals may identify strongly with their religious or spiritual tradition, and faith becomes a source of meaning and purpose in their lives.

  5. Conformity to Social Expectations - Although there's a degree of critical reflection in this stage, there's still a tendency to conform to expectations and norms within the faith community. The fear of deviating from accepted beliefs plays a significant role.

  6. Search for Autonomy - There's a growing desire for autonomy and self-discovery. Individuals explore their faith in the context of broader life experiences and start questioning their religious upbringing.

  7. Emergence of Moral Intuition - Moral reasoning becomes more sophisticated, moving beyond rule-based thinking. People begin to rely on moral intuition and a deeper understanding of ethical principles.

Stage 4: Individuative-Reflective Faith (Adulthood)

During this stage, critical reflection starts to become engaged. People question and reevaluate the religious or spiritual convictions they inherited, seeking a deeper understanding of their faith. Here are some key characteristics of Stage 4:

  1. Critical Reflection - People in Stage 4 engage in critical reflection on their beliefs. They question and reevaluate the religious or spiritual convictions they inherited, seeking a deeper understanding of their faith.

  2. Self-Identity and Faith - There's a stronger emphasis on the development of a unique and individual faith identity, working towards integrating their faith into a more comprehensive sense of self.

  3. Questioning Authority - There's a willingness to question and challenge religious and spiritual authorities. Individuals at this stage may no longer accept beliefs unquestioningly and seek a more authentic understanding of their faith.

  4. Relativistic Thinking - There's an appreciation for the diversity of beliefs and a recognition that truth is often subjective. Individuals understand that people interpret faith in different ays, and they become more open to multiple perspectives.

  5. Personal Responsibility - In this stage, people have a sense of personal responsibility for their faith and moral choices. Individuals recognize that they have the autonomy to shape their beliefs and values, taking ownership of their spiritual journey.

  6. Deeper Moral Understanding - Moral reasoning becomes more complex, moving beyond personal intuition to a deeper understanding of ethical principles. Individuals may embrace a more nuanced and flexible approach to moral decision-making.

  7. Integration of Experiences - Faith is integrated into various aspects of life, including relationships, work, and personal growth. It becomes a guiding force in decision-making, and gives people meaning and purpose.

  8. Openness to Mystery and Paradox - Individuals at this stage are more comfortable with ambiguity, mystery, and paradox in their faith. They recognize that some aspects of faith are beyond the ability to be comprehended, and they embrace the idea of ongoing exploration.

Stage 4 represents a significant shift towards a more mature and self-aware faith. There's a level of commitment to ongoing personal spiritual growth through critical reflection and a deeper understanding of one's beliefs.

Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith (Mid-Adulthood and Beyond)

This stage represents a deepening of spiritual maturity, where people integrate and reconcile the complexities of life, faith, and experience. Listed below are key characteristics of Stage 5:

  1. Integration of Paradox - People in Stage 5 become more comfortable with paradoxes, contradictions, and mysteries in faith. They're able to hold opposing truths and complexities without feeling the need to resolve them.

  2. Appreciation of Symbolism - There's a heightened appreciation for symbolism and symbolic meaning in religious and spiritual traditions. People understand that symbols carry deep layers of meaning that go beyond literal interpretation.

  3. Inclusive and Compassionate Perspective - Stage 5 involves an expanded sense of compassion and inclusivity. Individuals develop a genuine appreciation for the diversity of human experiences and beliefs, recognizing the validity of various spiritual paths.

  4. Continued Exploration - Faith is seen as an ongoing process of exploration. In this stage, people are open to continual growth, learning, and transformation throughout their lives.

  5. Deepening Mystical and Contemplative Practices - There may be an increased interest in contemplative practices, meditation, and mystical experiences. People seek direct encounters with the divine and a more profound connection to the transcendent.

  6. Renewed Commitment to Faith - People in Stage 5 may experience a renewed commitment to their faith or spiritual tradition. This commitment is more inclusive and less dogmatic.

  7. Wider Concern for Social Justice - There's a heightened awareness of social and global issues. People in Stage 5 often engage in acts of compassion and justice, recognizing the interconnectedness of all humanity.

  8. Transcendence of Ego - There's a greater transcendence of the ego as people move beyond personal concerns and develop a broader sense of purpose and connection with others.

Stage 5 reflects a shift towards a more inclusive and compassionate worldview where people navigate the complexities of faith with humility and openness.

Stage 6: Universalizing Faith (Rare)

Stage 6 is rare and exemplified by only a few individuals. Here are some key characteristics of Stage 6:

  1. Universal Perspective - People in Stage 6 have a universal and inclusive perspective. They extend their compassion and love beyond specific groups or affiliations, embracing all of humanity.

  2. Transcendence of Religious Boundaries - People in Stage 6 appreciate the essence of various religious and spiritual paths, recognizing commonalities and shared truths.

  3. Commitment to Justice and Compassion - There's a strong commitment to social justice and compassion. People at this stage actively work towards the well-being of all people, advocating for fairness and equality.

  4. Unconditional Love - Stage 6 involves a deep and unconditional love for all beings. People in this stage exhibit a profound sense of empathy and understanding, valuing the inherent worth of every person.

  5. Living Out Faith Through Action - Faith is expressed not just in beliefs, but through compassionate action. People in Stage 6 live out their faith in ways that contribute positively to the well-being of others and society.

Not everyone reaches Stage 6. The Stages of Faith are more like a spectrum, and people can exhibit aspects of multiple stages at different points in their lives.


At Root Counseling, we hold space for clients as they navigate their own religious and spiritual journeys. If you're interested in setting up an appointment, you can visit us here.

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