Fowler’s Stages of Faith Development

Fowlers Stages of Faith - Toolshero

Fowler’s Stages of Faith Development: this article explains Fowler’s Stages of Faith Development in a practical way. Next to what this theory is, this article also contains a comparison of other development models, The explanation of the seven phases / stages including examples. After reading it you will understand the basics of this powerful psychology theory. Enjoy reading!

What are Fowler’s Stages of Faith Development? The basics of the theory

Fowler’s Stages of Faith Development form a framework for the spiritual development of people throughout their lives. The model was developed by theologian James W. Fowler. He argues that the development of people’s spiritual awareness runs parallel to other aspects of human development.

He thus suggests that spirituality is a basic aspect of human existence. Just like cognition, social behavior or motor skills. James Fowler does not define faith and religion as a single correct religion, but as a way of interacting with the universe and creating meaning in life.

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James Fowler was director of the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics.

He retired in 2015. He became most famous for his model on faith development. He wrote about this in his book ‘Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning’, in 1981.

According to James Fowler, there are seven primary stages of faith development. That includes a phase 0. The phases are explained later in this article.

Other Development Models vs. Fowler’s Stages of Faith Development

There is a lot of interest in the study of human development. Both theorists and researchers try to explain a wide range of human functions.

Some of the most well-known models when it comes to development is Jean Piaget ‘s cognitive development model. In addition, Erikson’s psychosocial model has often been cited in scientific research.

James Fowler also contributed to the development of this area of research. Fowler’s stages on faith development are based in part on these earlier works on human development. His Stages of Faith Development model has been widely used and applied in many situations and has inspired other studies.

The 7 stages product breakdown structure

James Fowler describes faith as the universal quality of human meaning making. He argues that faith is the underlying meaning-making process used by all people, regardless of which faith plays a role in people’s lives.

Faith therefore occurs at all times and with everyone. People also put their trust in money, family, religion or power. Fowler’s stages of faith development describe the process in which this happens in seven phases.

Fowler's Stages of Faith development - Toolshero

Figure 1 – Six Stages of Faith Development by Fowler

Stage 0: Undifferentiated Faith

Stage 0 starts from birth to about the second year of life. 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 parents.

The baby should develop a sense of security, consistency and confidence at this stage. These feelings later translate into feelings of trust and security in the universe and the divine.

Conversely, situations of neglect or abuse can lead to the formation of feelings of distrust and fear of the universe and the divine. In many cases this forms the seed for later doubt and fear or existence on earth.

This phase corresponds to Jean Piaget’s sensory-motor phase.

Stage 1: Intuitive-Projective Faith

Stage 1, the second stage, is the stage where children begin to use symbols and their imagination. This phase starts where stage 0 ends and continues until about the seventh year of life.

Children at this stage are very self-centered and tend to take ideas about right and wrong very literally. The ability to distinguish real from fantasy is not yet well developed. Also, they are generally not yet able to see the world from another person’s perspective. Robert Keeley writes about this: children cannot think like a scientist, cannot consider logical arguments and think through and elaborate complex ideas.

Children in this phase are therefore not yet able to develop a formalized religious faith.
Faith at this stage is experiential and develops primarily through hearing stories, images, and the influence of others. An awareness of what is right and wrong also develops in this stage.

This stage ties in with Jean Piaget’s pre-operational phase.

Stage 2: Mythic-Literal Faith

The second stage starts around the sixth or seventh year of life and continues until about the twelfth year of life. In this stage, information is organized into stories and together with moral rules are concretely understood by the child. There is still little ability to distance yourself from a story and formulate an overarching meaning.

Justice and fairness are seen as reciprocal. Some people stay in this phase their whole lives.

Stage 3: Synthetic-Conventional Faith

Stage three starts from about age 12 to age eighteen. This stage is characterized by young adults’ identification with a religious institution, belief system, or authority. Personal religion or spirituality also takes a growth spurt.

Conflicts can also begin to arise at this stage. However, these are often ignored because they threaten a person’s identity, which is, after all, based in large part on faith.

What were once simple and compelling stories is now seen as a cohesive story of values and morals. In this stage, children develop the ability to think abstractly and see layers of meaning in the stories, rituals, and symbols of their faith.

Stage 4: Individuative-Reflective Faith

Stage 4 is called individuative-reflective and runs from the mid-twenties to late thirties. This stage is characterized by fear and struggle as the person takes responsibility for his or her beliefs and feelings.

Robert Keeley argues that for generations people have experienced cognitive dissonance with real questions of faith that are addressed in this phase.

People in these stages begin to question their own assumptions. In addition to questioning their assumptions about faith, they also begin to question existing authority structures within their faith.

That’s when someone turns their backs on their religious community. That’s the only solution when they don’t get their questions answered.

Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith

This phase is also known as the time of the midlife crisis. A person at this stage recognizes that there are paradoxes and mysteries attached to the transcendent values and norms of faith.

As a result, a person goes beyond the traditional beliefs that he or she has inherited from the earlier stages of faith development.

That simply means that the difficult questions and struggles from the previous phase give way to a more comfortable place. Answers to some of the hard questions have been found and the person feels good knowing that some answers are just not easy to find.

Whereas in previous phases self-reflection was central, this phase makes way for an awareness of the importance of communities in faith development. People will therefore not soon give up their faith, partly because of the social status they have built up in the community.

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

This stage is also known as the enlightenment stage, or later maturity. This stage is only reached by a limited number of people.

A person in this stage is not limited by differences in religious movements or spiritual beliefs between people in the world. He or she views all beings as humans who can show compassion and understanding.

An example of a person in this phase is the life of Count Leo Tolstoij. In his later years he emphasized the importance of equality between people, asceticism in people’s lifestyles and the importance of compassion for all. Partly because of this, he was expelled from the Russian Orthodox Church.

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 and justice in the world.

Other examples of people in these stages include Gandhi and Mother Teresa.

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Now It’s Your Turn

What do you think? Do you recognize the explanation about Fowler’s stages of faith development? Are you religious? Do you find yourself going through different phases of spirituality? What tips do you have for people who have doubts about their faith? Do you have other tips and comments?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Fowler, J. W., & Dell, M. L. (2006). Stages of faith from infancy through adolescence: Reflections on three decades of faith development theory. The handbook of spiritual development in childhood and adolescence, 34-45.
  2. Fowler, J. W. (1981). Stages of faith: The psychology of human development and the quest for meaning. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
  3. Parker, S. (2006). Measuring faith development. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 34(4), 337-348.
  4. Rose, D. B. (1991). An instrument to measure four of James Fowler’s stages of faith development (Doctoral dissertation. California School of Professional Psychology-Fresno).

How to cite this article:
Janse, B. (2022). Fowler’s Stages of Faith Development. Retrieved [insert date] from Toolshero:

Original publication date: 06/27/2022 | Last update: 02/26/2024

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Ben Janse
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Ben Janse

Ben Janse is a young professional working at ToolsHero as Content Manager. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business School where he focusses on analyzing and developing management models. Thanks to his theoretical and practical knowledge, he knows how to distinguish main- and side issues and to make the essence of each article clearly visible.


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