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James Fowler’s Six Stages of Faith


James Fowler is involved in the study of the development of faith. Faith as Fowler states is that holistic point of reference which concerns the relation of man to the universe. He, therefore, identifies six stages through which he believes all faithful travel in their lives (Berger, 2000, Notes, Poll, and Smith). He believes that no matter the religion that one is in, one has to go through these stages. Fowler’s six stages try to explain the stages of faith in his Stages of Faith profile. An overview of these stages is shown below (Fowler, 1996).

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  1. Primal-Undifferentiated faith
  2. Intuitive-Projective faith
  3. Mythical –Literal faith
  4. Synthetic- Conventional faith
  5. SIndividuative- Reflective faith
  6. Conjunctive faith
  7. Universalizing faith

The stages of faith as identified by James Fowler

The 0 stage is the stage from birth to the age of two years. It is the stage of Primal or Undifferentiated faith. During this period, the toddler is involved in early learning and orientation to the safety of the environment in which they are. This environment is basically warm, secure, and very secure. On the other hand, it can be full of neglect, hurt, and a feeling of abuse. The biggest attention is paid to mammals (Fowler, 1996).

The first stage is between the ages of three to seven years as Fowler illustrates (1996). It is called the Intuitive-projective stage. At this stage, the psych is unprotected exposure to the unconscious. At this stage, the imagination of the person is not tamed. It is not subdued by logical thinking. It is the initial stage in the awareness of the self and at this point, an individual takes in the strong taboos in their culture. One advantage that individuals enjoy at this stage is the beginning of an imaginative nature and an ability to understand and relate the insight one has on reality.

However, this stage can also be hazardous. This is so because the child cannot restrain the mind from what it absorbs. The mind can then be invaded by images of horror and devastation that are got from the unconscious. That imagination can also be exploited by imposed taboos from the traditions surrounding the child and be programmed in that way (Notts).

The second level is the stage of faith that is in existence in school-going children. It is also referred to as the mythical or literal stage of faith. People at this stage believe strongly in the impartiality and the reciprocity of the world (Fowler, 2000). Their divine beings are often anthropomorphic. Symbols and rituals start to find their way into the imagination of the child. The setback is that these symbols only take one dimension. It is called literal because the only possible dimensions of the symbols are literal. Objective insight into the myths is not likely. Fowler says that any person at this stage is ensnared in their sequence of events in life.

Like the previous stage, there is some danger in this stage too. Belief in the universe’ reciprocity makes one attached to a severe state of perfectionism that seems to control the individual beyond normal levels. The child sets their system of religion in such a way that in the event of abuse, that child thinks of themselves as beyond redemption (Notts).

Fowler calls the third stage the synthetic or conventional stage of faith. It begins and ends with adolescence which the age between thirteen and twenty. Its main characteristic is traditionalism. Most of the people of the earth are in this particular stage. The demands of this stage are an intricate model of socialization and integration. The ordering of the universe in the individuals belonging to this stage is dictated by faith. People discover their identity by making parallels with a particular point of view. They then live through this point of view that they have created for themselves and do not stop to reflect on it. Despite the possibility of having principles, the individual might not be aware of their existence within them. Anyone that dares to disagree with one of his beliefs is categorized as the other kind of person.

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The risk that exists at this stage is the internalization of symbols and the systems they run by. This makes it impossible for objective thinking. One can develop an intimate relationship with the being they hold divine at this level. However, it is also possible to sink into desperation because of the situations that the person faces. One of the situations could be disagreeing with authority, a discovery that a certain authority is hypocritical and occurrences that are not in line with the beliefs one has had all along (Notts).

The fourth stage lasts from the period between the ages of mid-twenty the to late thirties. It is a stage of torment and effort in the faith of a person. It is also called the individuative or reflective faith. At this stage, every individual has personal responsibility for the beliefs they have and their feelings (Fowler 1996). At this stage, it is inevitable to encounter questions that concern a person’s identity. This is also so for the beliefs one has. The person becomes aware of themselves as individuals and is therefore obliged to be responsible for all the beliefs and the feelings that they have. From others, one is now bound to encounter serious inspection. It is a stage full of disillusionment and the person is irresistibly aware of their existence. The stage is capable of lasting for a long time.

People at this stage are at risk of becoming bitter with life and not trusting anything or anyone. They also learn on reaching this stage that the world is more complex than they thought (Notts).

At the fifth stage, persons recognize absurdity and transcendence. They try to make out the relationship between realities that are the source of symbols of systems that have been inherited. It is the mid-life crisis period. Fowler calls it the conjunctive faith. He individual also recognizes the symbols of other systems. At this stage, things might appear mysterious in the unconscious. They are however frightened of the power of mystery even though they seem to be awestruck by it at the same time (Fowler, 2000). The world seems to be made sacred again and full of vision. It also possesses some kind of justice that is the same as the justice as perceived by the culture and tradition of the society one belongs to. One begins to get out of the cocoon they have built around themselves and see the universe in a new light. The mind is therefore challenged to work faster than before in taking in the new world and the new culture. It becomes a world of possibility and speculation (Notts).

The last stage which is the sixth is the universalizing faith. It is a stage of enlightenment and an erosion of apprehension. One turns into a campaigner for the vision of unity. The individual in stage six does not conform to the world’s criteria of what is normal. They are often consumed by the need for self-preservation which makes them appear extraordinary and unpredictable. Our discernment of religion and prudence is put on the scale. They often tend to be very preservative of humankind and hold a lot of respect for humans, avoiding anything that would result in suffering.

Insight into Fowler’s work and relation to other people’s works

The stages that Fowler has come up with are a result of observation of man’s thoughts and behavior. Somehow, a person’s ego is put into play. In the third stage, it dominates. All the stages are however liked in one smooth process where one stage makes way for the next. They tend to be interdependent (Fowler, 2000, Poll and Smith).

Fowler, like Erik Erickson, uses study on psychology to develop the stages of faith. Erickson on his part does it no differently. He defines the eight stages of psychosocial development as he understands them. Progression through these stages reveals different characteristics and behavior which are achieved in each of the eight stages. Like Fowler, these stages are divided into levels of growth (Berger, 2000).

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From birth to the first year of life, Erik gets the first psychosocial stage. It is at this stage that babies learn to trust or mistrust the fact that other people will take care of their needs which include cleanliness and feeding. This is so much like the first stage in Fowler’s stages of faith. The child is in the undifferentiated faith where life can either be full of warmth and security or turn out neglectful and abusive. The child depends on those around it for survival and has no control over what might happen to it. It is the first stage of learning in both cases (Berger, 2000).

The second of Erik’s stages is between the age of one to three years. Self-sufficiency is the subject of learning at this stage. The child begins to be active in the events around it, taking in some of the cultural symbols it can (Berger, 2000). At the intuitive –projective faith stage by Fowler, the child begins to become aware of the self and can therefore take in the symbols of the society.

The third stage in Erik’s psychosocial stages is the stage where children begin to be interested in the activities that adults are involved in. It coincides and overlaps with the stage of development that Fowler calls intuitive as it is still the stage where the child is barely aware of themselves. They are not yet able to discern the symbols and mythologies of culture (Berger, 2000).

The age between six and eleven is the period when children are learning to be competent and industrious. All the levels have something in common with the stages of faith as illustrated by Fowler and Erickson. For both, the transition from one level to the other is characterized by some kind of confusion. The reason is that there is a reorganization of the perception the individual has of the self and the world and the priorities they had in the previous stage. Coherence is disrupted and there is a need to reorganize it (Berger, 2000).

In a book by James Fowler (Fowler, 2000), the author tries to relate the works of other writers who include Kohler, Erickson, Piaget, and Gilligan. It is from these works that the model of the seven stages of faith is fashioned. The stages of development in faith begin with the basic growth of trust, then move on to a point when the person becomes conscious of the self. This is liberally followed by the mythical foundation for faith and then the switch from the self to looking at other people’s perception of faith.

In the stage of adolescence, people start to become consciously aware of the perception of other people (Fowler, 2000). This is what influences peer pressure to a big extent. According to Fowler, “Personality, both as style and substance becomes a conscious issue. During this stage, youths develop an attachment to beliefs, values, and elements of personal style that link them in conforming relations with the most significant among their peers…” (Fowler, 2000).

Fowler further explores his stages by explaining the conjunctive stage. He says that this is a stage that makes attempts at capturing the dialectical structure that is characterized by perspectives from different points of view of knowledge and value (James Fowler’s stages of faith in profile). By recognizing the several dimensions of the symbols and myths, people in this stage can enter realities based on symbols. It permits them to exercise their enlightenment and power of mediation. They can read and enlighten them on the realities of their situations which can be offered by the traditions. People at this stage show a willingness to join the wealthy abodes of meaning which are offered by myths and rituals. What is displayed is a moral honesty to the realities of other traditions and religious values (Fowler, 2000).

The last stage that is the universalizing faith is not manifest. It is mostly a characteristic of loyalty extended to the homeland, race, or political principles for the exhibit of love and the caring ability for the general good (Fowler, 2000).

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Fowler mentions that people can reach chronological or even biological adulthood while at the same time a distinction is made of them through structural stages of faith. These stages might be commonly associated with childhood or adolescence (Fowler, 2000). He believes that some adults are detained in this way in some areas of their lives. The response to stress in areas that the stresses are extreme might be much similar to the response they would have in earlier stages of development.

According to Fowler (2000), some men are capable of apprehending the development in interpersonal relations at a much early stage. This they are not able to do when it comes to relationships to do with careers and their professions. This is not however explained by his stages of development in faith and might therefore need more investigation to prove what stages are involved (James Fowler’s stages of faith in profile).


The self is emphasized in the stages of the development of faith. Every stage is an advancement from the last. Each stage is a mark of a stable expansion of the social perspective. Also in the words of Fowler, young adulthood is a stage for the integration of logical identity and system of responsibilities. This is enhanced by the commitment that the young adult has to their spouse, jobs, and even parenthood. Perception is stretched to the third person. The ability is in turn the result of a conflict of authority. The perception from a third-person point of view gives one a position for judging conflicting views.

James Fowler in the book entitled Faithful Change (2000) looks at the function of his seven stages of faith development as a tool for assisting in understanding and projecting the changes which are might take place in the modern structures of reality in the process of entering the postmodern period. He investigates and tries to explain the common characteristics between the adolescent period when a person goes through a crisis as they advance from one stage of development to the other, alterations in the establishment of reality as a civilization shifts from one period in time to the other.


Berger, Kathleen. (2000). The developing person through the lifespan. New York: New York University Press.

Fowler, James. (2000). Faithful change: The personal and public challenges of postmodern life. Oklahoma: Abiding Press.

Fowler, James. (1996). Stages of faith: The psychology of human development. New Jersey.

Nottess, Charlie. Responses to uncertainty in a complex, changing postmodern world. 2009. Web.

Poll, Justin and Smith, Timothy. “The spiritual self: Toward a conceptualization of spiritual identity development.”

“James Fowler’s stages of faith in profile.” Web.

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