Reflecting on religious authoritarianism and fundamentalism in a variety of contemporary religions, I went back to the analysis of human growth and faith development by James W. Fowler (1940 – 2015). 

For many years now I have been interested in Fowler’s thinking. He was Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University. Fowler argued that the development of people’s spiritual awareness runs parallel to other aspects of human development. His research into stages of faith development has helped me understand my own development and has greatly influenced my own approaches to faith formation and continuing education. At Emory University in Atlanta, he was director of both the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics until he retired in 2005. He was also an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. Fowler is perhaps best known for his book Stages of Faith, published in 1981, in which he outlined his understanding of the developmental process in “human faith.”

Fowler proposed a multi-stage understanding of faith development. His analysis is closely related to the work of the developmental psychologists Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980), Erik Erikson (1902 – 1994), and Lawrence Kohlberg (1907 – 1987). He defines faith as an activity of trusting, committing, and relating to reality based on a set of assumptions about how one is related to others, the world, and the Divine.

According to Fowler, there are seven primary stages of faith development (including Stage 0) in the life of an individual. They are as follows:

Stage 0 – “Primal or Undifferentiated” faith: From birth until about age 2, people are greatly shaped by their experiences of a safe or unsafe environment. A child at this stage learns to trust the goodness or badness of the world based on the way the child is treated by his or her parents. But situations of neglect or abuse can lead to the formation of feelings of distrust and fear of the universe and the Divine. How important the early childhood environment! And the kind of day care centers in which they are placed.

Stage 1 – “Intuitive-Projective” faith: From ages 3 to 7. Spiritual awareness is learned primarily through experiences, stories, images, and the people with whom one comes in contact. What kind of people? What kind of parents? Again day care personnel? In this stage, children begin to use symbols and their imagination. Children at this stage tend to take ideas about right and wrong very literally. The ability to distinguish the real from fantasy is not yet well developed. Also, they are generally not yet able to see the world from another person’s perspective.

Stage 2 – “Mythic-Literal” faith: At this stage, elementary-school-aged children develop an anthropomorphic sense of the Divine. Metaphors and symbolic language are often taken literally. This second stage starts around the sixth or seventh year of life and continues until about the twelfth year of life. In this stage beliefs are interpreted literally. Religious truth is communicated through stories, in which morality is legalistic. But some people stay in this phase for their whole lives.

Stage 3 – “Synthetic-Conventional” faith: From about age 12 to adulthood. This stage is characterized by conformity to religious authority and the development of a personal identity. Any conflicts with one’s beliefs are ignored at this stage. One fears inconsistencies and what challenges authority. It is better not to question. Some people have arrested development at this stage; and we find them quite often ending up in fundamentalist movements. They don’t move beyond this stage.

Stage 4 – “Individuative-Reflective” faith: From the mid 20s to mid 30s. This is a stage of angst and struggle as one begins to take personal responsibility for his or her own beliefs. One begins to see that life issues are not so easily clear cut. One becomes open to the complexity of faith and more aware of conflicts in one’s belief. One also begins to question existing authority structures within one’s religious institution. This stage is an important turning point as one either accepts ambiguity and the need to explore or one simply shuts the door to faith challenges. Is this why some young people become missionaries and care-givers, while others become terrorists and suicide bombers?

Stage 5 – “Conjunctive” faith: This is the time of the mid-life crisis. People in this stage acknowledge the paradoxes found in human life and can begin to resolve conflicts about reality through a complex understanding that human life is grounded in a multidimensional and interdependent “truth” that can be neither controlled by nor completely contained in any particular institution. Everyone is a truth-seeker. Many people who have reached this stage are beginning to become more and more open to the religions and beliefs of other people. This is not because they distance themselves from their own faith, but because they believe that the faith of others can inform, deepen, and enrich their own.

Stage 6 – “Universalizing” faith: Some call this “enlightenment.” The individual realizes that all people — regardless of their sex, gender, age, religion, nationality, or culture – must be treated with compassion, guided by universal principles of love and justice. I think Jesus of Nazareth arrived at this stage when he was close to 30. And he hoped his followers would arrive there as well. Some did of course. And some still do. People who are at this stage have the potential to become important religious figures. That’s because they have the ability to interact with anyone at any stage of faith development without being condescending. People in this phase cherish life, but do not take life too seriously. They put their faith into action, challenge the status quo, and work to create justice in the world.


Closing reflection. In all segments of the community of faith – members, teachers and leaders in the church – we need to ask: How are we alert to and ministering to babies, children, teenagers, young adults, and older adults? In not just what we say, but in what we do, are we stimulating and promoting healthy human development and growth in authentic faith? 

Or…are we, by actions or inaction, contributing to interpersonal environments that stunt human growth and faith development, and distort individual and group religious understanding? Last week’s thoughts about authoritarian fundamentalism are of course part of this question. 


5 thoughts on “Why Do People Believe the Way They Do?

  1. Dear Jack,
    Just fascinating!! As you described each stage of development, I could not help but personalize the maturation process of faith in my own life. I remember well the absolutism of my early years and the comfort mixed with anxiety in knowing that my Catholic faith was totally right and all I had to do was “follow the rules” as defined by the catechism. Of course, adolescence combined with seminary years during Vatican II really stretched the boundaries and, HEAVEN FORBID, brought the notion that just maybe some of the “for sures” weren’t, perhaps, absolute. Adulthood, life experience, and good old fashioned thinking for myself have opened up a huge, beautiful world of possibilities to encounter the Divine. Now, as a full fledged gray hair, I have discovered that our God is so big, loving, and ubiquitous that finding Him/Her is much easier than it seemed back in the good old days of “pray, pay, and obey.” God loves us so much and wants us so badly that we just have to look, listen, and follow. Thank you for sharing this comforting description of a true growth of faith.
    Peace, dear friend!
    Frank Skeltis

  2. You have hit the mark, Dr. Jack, when you wrote “Many people believe that… ​the faith of others can inform, deepen, and enrich their own​… Everyone is a truth-seeker.” Each person perceives truths that impel an ethic and a vocation that are part of an apprenticeship in unfolding truth, not fables. An ascetic of daily life builds a new humanizing civilization, not merely economic progress at all costs. It seems we don’t always get it right at first, but over a lifetime together, maybe eons, in woefully absurd situations, we could say with Camus, “Courage in one’s life and talent in one’s work–that’s not too bad.” Thank you, Dr. Jack, for your courage to forge and write new language for old truths. ​

    Writing is often committed to peeling open the truth, but a writer committed to struggle courageously in honing new language, with the courage of others alongside– he or she measures what it means to be human, and not far from the last command of Jesus, “Do this in memory of Me.”

    What matters to His Spirit is not the memorizing, but the acting, courage to discover and create new ways of becoming human, of kenosis, of metanoia, of surprise. It is in the wind: even “Zelda” gamers “trust” the marketing promise, “Things are also hidden where you wouldn’t expect them to be​.”​ Though I don’t regard life as a game, humanity must evolve, mutate even, to see through the ephemora in the maelstrom of the windy old world to the reality of the ever-present Origin, in whom we live, move, and have our Being. Humanity has competence for aperspectival perception that “matters,” which after all is the “spiritual” point of the Incarnation, and of transfiguration. ​

    We have almost memorized language already that says the Spirit rises so that we converge, even in the midst of resisting the absurdity of protracted conflicts and daily murders. Etched in my memory is the voice of Paul VI, Montini, as head of Vatican State, telling the UN assembly, “Jamais plus,” Never again war, on the podium before world leaders wrestling with a human crisis. Yes, he said it because he must have believed such resistance and rejection is action that is within our capacity as humans, intentional and willing, even though surely he knew that hope is shackled by contingency even as truth is free to expand. Perhaps Teilhard and Montini nearly converged, at times.​​

    ​In 1946, Camus delivered a lecture to students at Columbia University​, ​at the behest of the new French government​.​​ ​ He was willing to take this action, a lecture tour in the USA for which he considered himself “too young,” ​about ​the ‘human crisis’ ​that defined ​the twentieth century for his “interesting generation​.​” ​ He, like my parents, ​liv​ed​ ​and grew up ​through the terrible years twixt the First and Second World Wars. ​The sheer fact that humanity has survived thus far, despite the horrific destruction we have inflicted upon ourselves and our home, offers a bulwark against despair (though it is not an “artifact of faith” as my grand-daughter says, I must believe this!), because the many possibilities of human freedom begin anew, on this very day. This is a promise from the Eternal Presence, for which we have the Word dwelling among us, within us, in our experience if we see aperspectivally. This is your perception, I think, when you prompt us to remember that “a multidimensional and interdependent “truth” that can be neither controlled by nor completely contained​…” This memory informs our actions, if we are wary, vigilant. Perhaps ​you and Camus nearly converge, at times.
    Vigilance is implicate in being human in the universe (“sobrii estote et vigilate”), so your words align perfectly with ​the obligations of​ a​ citizen​’s​ political awareness​ and actions​, ​whether in protesting and marching according to bodily abilities or limitations, or ​at the least ​in​ casting an informed vote​ by mail​. ​ ​In an authoritarian society, differences of opinion ​are​ settled by an exclusive assertion of truth, rather than an inclusive process of ​the ​dialogue​, conversation​ and persuasion characteristic of a democratically representative society. ​In the former society, ​political practice increasingly requires ​​denouncing rather than convincing those ​who ​disagree​ with you, the totalitarian. The inherent mission-creep of state bureaucra​cies​​ insinuates​​ ​a distance between individuals and ​the ​totaliarian ​state​,​ signal​ing ​an end to genuine human interaction and contact, dissolving the sense​ ​of​ ​the ​individual​’s​ ​significance and inducing feelings of isolation, loneliness and​ ​anonymity.​ I think Camus is one of the prophets for our time, not in only in his novels like “The Plague,” but also in warning us about what roosts in our rafters today: vultures of incipient totalitarianism.​

    ​A sense o​f​ meaning and purpose ​for​ ​”the masses” of​ otherwise isolated​ ​individuals in ​today’s​ society​ is sold by group identity​,​ ​how you “brand” yourself, ​​inviting ​​sameness and supplant​ing individual belie​f​s, opinions​, social consciousness​ and ​an informed ​conscience. ​ Am I reduced to being grouped into a cadre by data miners or survey analysts that identify, define or determine who I am as an individual as a person in a coded society? I like to think NOT! ​By ​entangling me in​ ​their​ mini-​perspectival quanta​ o​f​ mutual exclusion​s, the totalizers, the groupers, the collectors, the statisticians ​mechanically​ and efficiently abstract​ ​me ​as either ​f​or or against ​a set of ​doctrines, and thus​, according to their categories,​ ​I​ stand politically either inside or outside the​ ​collective.​ I object! I refuse! I rebel, therefore we are! To refuse, reject, rebel arises from surplus powerlessness, from voicelessness (the root of the term absurd, “sordino” or muted in music, for example). Resistance does not dwell in power or violence, but in the weakness of its limits, admitting and open to all who seek truth and language for the now, the situational, often nihilistic limits in which we live. Gianni Vattimo, for example, interprets Christianity as a condition of history flowing into being human, into the human being, which is contingent on willing friendship, “amicitia,” discovering the Other in one another, as much in thinking as in willing. The struggle to balance thought and action, to find “la mesure” as Camus calls it, nests in the ever-present Origin of creation, of becoming differently than before, loosely holding the before for the sake of freedom for others. Perhaps ​Camus and Vattimo​ nearly converge, at times.

    Ironically, Pilate’s inscription on the cross (“Quod scripsi, scripsi”), this casual but apocalyptic post-it about rebel resistance, IS defended, and always needs defending, in the USA’s Bill of Rights, and in the writ of obligations, the duties to one another that, as citizens, we already know in our hearts (if we would but remember!) from bitter experience, whether here on this fragile Earth our island home, or in the Heavenly City. When I read the gospels, I hear that truly it was not for political treason to Rome that Jesus of Nazareth died (“INRI”), but for walking, talking and eating with us discouraged resistors on the road to Emmaus, and way beyond Galilee, far from Rome. ​ ​Finding courage to resist nihilism– resistance is itself a form of justice– is why the implicate Word burns the human heart, the seat of the will.

    ​At my age​ (while interacting with too many doctors)​, ​I hear “​​​trust​”​ ​a​s ​another term for an individual’s ability ​freely ​to believe​​. ​A​bout ​60 years ago​ at seminary in Saginaw, I made a mental distinction twixt “faith” as the set of assumptions​,​ and “believing” as the act of “trusting, committing, and relating to reality based on a set of assumptions,” to quote your​ blog.​ What implicate troubles ensued. It seems long long ago in a galaxy far far away, that these two terms– belief and faith– evolved as complementary, quarrelsome, yet counterbalanced along a pole in motion, but not “polarized” in the current sense, akin to the stages of believing you outlined for us. Yes, believing is a uniquely human trait (perhaps religion is of Maria Montessori’s basic human needs, she a mentor of Piaget) but always an implicate history tinged with contingency, and fiercely guarded as a personal “right” of conscience.

    Thank for your sense of history, your good sense, and your sensibility.

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