The Stages of Faith

I highly recommend James Fowler’s book, The Stages of Faith. It’s an important book in faith development theory I learned about while at Sunstone. Like most people, however, when I first read it I simply didn’t have much of an appreciation for it. To understand why, you need a breakdown of the stages themselves.

According to Fowler, there are six possible stages of faith development throughout life. Stages Three, Four, and Five are what I’ll focus most on because unless you are an adolescent or live in a very oppressive tribal society, you’ll be beyond the first two.

*Stage One is characterized by infant faith — a baby who learns to have faith that her mother or father will return to take care of her.

*Stage Two is primarily characterized by adolescence and includes a world of Gods and Monsters, black and white. Another example of those in Stage Two might be the Taliban.

*According to Fowler, the vast majority of members of organized religions are in Stage Three. This stage is distinguished by a reliance and trust in certain authority figures, literal belief, and an expectation of unity among members of the flock. Stage Three is when it all makes sense, when religion usually fits into life like a glove. Those in Stage Three are good at making connections to their own faith, often without thinking beyond the connection or rationalizing it. For example: God saves a good Christian family from death or destruction while others are not spared. Or a Mormon example might be: God spared Elizabeth Smart because of her and her family’s prayers. Notice, Elizabeth is not necessarily saved because she is Mormon, but because of prayer. However, little thought is given to other parents who prayed for their own lost children to no avail, or superficial explanations might be offered as to why their prayers failed (ie., God is testing them, or wanted their child to return home).

*Stage Four is the angry doubter. Stage Four consists of people who have begun to and eventually lose most of their trust in authority figures, and instead place their trust in themselves. In its simplest terms, it might be, “Why should I believe the Bible is the Word of God, just because I’ve been told that my whole life?” (All examples are oversimplifications, so I don’t ramble on longer than usual.) This stage may be characterized by anger and frustration, coupled with a feeling of betrayal or that one has been lied to. Many in Stage Four want to pull back the curtain for others, so that they might no longer be “ignorant.”

* Stage Five is characterized by a revaluing of one’s faith tradition and belief. Although belief is usually not literal, the metaphorical meanings have significant importance in a Stage Fiver’s life. This stage includes nuance and paradox — the ability to believe two seemingly conflicting ideas at once. It isn’t, for example, characterized by a belief that one must do certain things to earn a ticket to heaven or be damned. Rather, those in Stage Five tend to believe more for what it does for them right now in life, and that might be where they find peace.

* Stage Six is a tough one to both explain and understand. The best way I can put it is that it consists of those who become the embodiment of faith for others — Jesus, Buddha, etc. (though even that isn’t quite right). I’m no psychologist, so I may have bungled this up a bit. I’d love to hear other interpretations from those who have studied Fowler or Wilbur and faith development theory.

The beauty of the stages is the hope they might give for a Stage Four person in particular. They can discover there is more beyond the anger and the frustration. It wasn’t until I reread the book while having this kind of frustration that it really connected with me, and most people I’ve talked to share the same experience. It also helps those who might have conflicts with others of their faith. The book is not derogatory and doesn’t present the stages as though six ought to be the goal of any good human being. In short, the book helps me not storm out of Church every time I hear something that makes me cringe. I can understand where others are coming from better.

There are limitations, of course. First and foremost, whenever you categorize or rank people, there’s bound to be hurt feelings. When I’ve tried to explain the stages, or when I’ve seen others do it, no one first learning Fowler’s theory says they’re in Stage Three. Everyone insists they are Stage Five (which just isn’t true). Part of the problem is understanding that faith development is a lifelong journey. Stage Four, for example, is *not* characterized by reading anti-Mormon literature or simply Bible-bashing a few times and having flashes of doubt. I smile when I hear Mormons say they’ve been through Stage Four, and then tell me what it consists of. I want to be respectful, so I don’t challenge them, but they don’t understand Fowler’s theory. Stage Four is standing on the edge of the abyss and looking down; it means years of clashes, of struggles, of wrestling, of sleepless nights. It often means challenges in marriage and culture. It means fear over whether God is there, what he is like, what life means, etc. I’d also add, it doesn’t mean going inactive for a few years, experiencing disbelief, then returning committed to living the commandments so you can go to heaven or after realizing the error of your way. It’s so much more, and even those there struggle to explain it.

Another limitation comes because each stage believes it’s the right one. As you can imagine, the Taliban (or other Stage Two-like groups) wouldn’t have much tolerance for someone beyond them. The other stages are much the same — Stage Three believes Stage Four is full of apostates, Stage Four thinks Stage Three is deluded, and they also believe Stage Five is a sell-out. Stage Five is more tolerant (as I suggest above), but those in it might become bored with what they consider silly conversations about theology that can never (in their estimation) be known or understood, or assertions from either Stage Three or Stage Four that they have the truth .

Despite the limitations, I know reading the book helped me, and I’ve seen it help others. My friend Tom Kimball organized a phenomenal panel at Sunstone last year talking about the stages in conjunction with Mormonism. If you haven’t read it and you have a chance, pick it up.


  1. John, are you sure it’s not called The Stages of Relativism? I wouldn’t want to criticize a schema that brings comfort to so many troubled souls, but it’s hard to see why this “story of the six stages” is any more plausible than Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, or Freud’s theory of it, I, and social norms (id, ego, and superego), or any of a dozen other psychological theories.

    Since just about any believer can be put in stage 3, 4, or 5, it has an air of correlation to reality. But then you could put everyone under an astrological sign too, and that’s not really evidence that astrology explains our destiny. Beyond the fact you’ve known a few angry doubters (stage 4) who later revalued their faith tradition (stage 5), is there some type of evidence for the theory that we can see? Any testable hypotheses, or is this just another invisible dragon out in the garage? Is this claimed as a universal schema that explains something about general human nature applicable to all humans, or does it just explain those who happen to move from belief to doubt to revaluation? Just curious.

  2. a byu student says:


    You taught me that it was okay to question authority back at Deseret Book when I was just a kid (not that I’m not still just a kid). I have always appreciated that and you left before I had a chance to tell you. I am glad that I found a forum where people ask some of the same questions that I have, it makes my stage 4 moments more meaningful.

  3. One huge problem with the presentation of these stages is the fact that they are numbered, with the implication that higher numbers are better. Somehow, it’s hard not to see Stage 3 as simple and naive, and not at all as good as Stage 5, when in reality, I don’t think this necessarily the case. There’s a lot to be said for simple faith.

    I should probably read the book before saying much more, however. I’m sure I’m misrepresenting to myself the arguments made (No reflection on your description, John).

  4. Interesting thoughts, John. What are the transitioning factors from one stage to another? What events spark movement along those stages? Also, is moving among them a one-way linear movement?

  5. Jonathan Green says:

    I’m also a bit suspicious of the unavoidable implication of superiority that the numbering suggests, but the numbers have their uses as well, by sounding a note of caution to those at stage three and a note of hope to those at stage four.

  6. I’ve read Fowler’s book after hearing about it from reports from the Sunstone symposium.

    Dave – in response to your inquiry, the book is not simply Fowler’s theory about how people believe. If I recall correctly, he did want to study people’s worldviews, and started interviews with anyone he could fine. When Fowler says “faith” he doesn’t necessarily mean religious faith; he’s talking about an entire worldview. As he talked to these people about how they ordered their lives, he started to see a pattern in how the people incorporated their worldview into their choices, and how they judged themselves against their worldview. There really is a lot more to it than you suggest. It doesn’t compress easily into a brief explanation.

    Fowler’s numbering does not suggest superiority of one stage to another, it simply describes the chronology. He states that he never found someone in stage 4 who had not previously spent many years in stage 3. You can’t skip stages. Fowler never suggests that those in stage 4 have a better understanding of their worldview than those in stage 3. It isn’t a superior faith, it’s just a different stage of faith. Not every development in life moves upwards in a linear fashion.

    I’ve been in stage 4 for a couple of years now. I would dearly love to find out how to move into stage 5, because stage 4 is uncomfortable. However, I don’t think people in stage 3 are deluded, nor do I try to disillusion them (at least this is the attitude I’ve finally adopted – I was kind of unpleasant to be around the first year or so). It’s a different type of worldview; one is not superior to another. In stage 4, you’re searching for a new worldview.

  7. This account of Michael Quinn’s speech at UVSC last week ( sounded to me like a plea from someone in stage 4.

  8. i have to agree w/ the other posters that say that basically the post is making it seem that somehow those in the higher stages are more evolved, like if you’re a stage 3 then you are living in a state of self-delusion. this doesn’t mean that it can’t be a valid methodology, and for the most part i find myself agreeing w/ the analysis.

    so assuming that there is some validity to this hierarchy, could we safely say that the vast majority of active mormons are in stage 3? is this the same for most religions? also, does anyone think that there is room in the mormon church for stage 4 and 5 types? or will a good number of them voluntarily remove themselves from it as a consequence of their worldview? also, is it possible to move backwards, from say a stage 4 back to a stage 3?

    btw, i can safely say that i’m a stage 5 kind of guy.

  9. Stage Four is standing on the edge of the abyss and looking down; it means years of clashes, of struggles, of wrestling, of sleepless nights.

    I’m not sure that one should treat the stages as a natural progression — it makes it appear that to get to stage six, one must always spend years in stage four.

    I have serious doubts about that (perhaps I’m in stage four as to the stages of faith?).

  10. John H.: I am not persuaded. I am glad that the book helps you in your moments of angst and outrage, but I find it way too reductionist. For myself, I occillate between 6 and 1. No doubt the book is more nuanced than is possible in a blog post, so I won’t say anything about it. However, the typology you present both has an implicit hierarchy — as suggested by others — that is a bit troubling. (Calling the hierarchy a chronology doesn’t help much either since I don’t see any reason to suppose that the steps you describe are necessary. Why can’t I go from 3 to 5, or from 5 to 4, or from 2 to 6?)

    Mostly, however, I think that the tricotomy of simple-minded literalism, agonized and agry doubt, and enlightened but metaphorical faith is too thin to capture real complexity of belief. People can interpret some scriptures as metaphorical without thinking that scripture is only metaphorical, likewise one can struggle with the intellectual quandries of petitionary prayer while simultaneously believing in the reality of divine intervention as a result of prayer. And so on.

    Finally, how much agonized doubt and angst must one experience to have passed legitimately to phase 5? Is two weeks sufficient to make one’s faith enlightened and mature? Two months? Two years? Two decades? Don’t get me wrong, I am sure that the long dark tea-time of your soul was longer than most of your neighbors (and I’m glad that you continue with the Saints), but I am a bit suspicious of the ease with which you claim to be able to discern whether or not someone has suffered sufficiently to pass beyond simple-minded literalness.

  11. I share some of the other posters’ doubts of the usefulness of such a scheme. I think what others have expressed is a problem with the rigid linear conception of faith according to this scheme. From my own experience I don’t find faith and its growth/recession to be very linear. Thus, I find like Nate that I could be described at several stages through several minutes. I have not read the book so it could easily be that the stages are not as linear as I am seeing them but the very explanational concept of stages seems to embed a linear progression. I would feel more comfortable with a more non-linear description of faith–perhaps a quasi-quantum mechanical framework for the explosive fluctuations a person feels in faith depending on the day, hour, event, place, etc.

    There is also an implicit condescension in the make up of the stages. This has been discussed above in certain variations. But the idea that certain faiths are ignorant while those with angst are more progressed seems like an ends driven analysis to ease the angst of those who question and don’t feel as though the gospel embraces them. Like the supposed stage 3 person who looks at the angst ridden “stage 4” and thinks: well at least my faith is stronger than his/hers this conception merely repolarizes in the opposite direction so that the stage 4 can look at the stage 3 and think this angst is tough stuff but at least my faith is more progressed than simple-minded stage 3 over there. Perhaps my critiques are a bit harsh I relaize that this is simply a conceptual framework and offers insight so I hope my comments don’t come across too strongly.

  12. Floyd the Wonder Dog says:

    Below is a description of the stages with what seem to be more descriptive titles for the various stages.

    This can be found at:

    James Fowler’s Stages of Faith in Profile

    James Fowler, Ph.D. is a developmental psychologist, a United Methodist layperson, and Director of the Center for Faith Development at Emory University. He is the premiere pioneer of the study of Faith development, and his book Stages of Faith (Harper & Row, 1981) is a ground-breaking classic. His work with Faith research is of great importance to the study of transpersonal psychology in that, he posits, faith (moreso than religion, or belief) “is the most fundamental category in the human quest for relation to transcendence.” (14) And the stages of faith development, regardless of where one finds them, or in what religious context, are amazingly uniform. Faith to Fowler is a holistic orientation, and is concerned with the individual’s relatedness to that which is universal, even though the religious context be relative, even arbitrary. Fowler identifies six stages through which pilgrim of faith invariably travels.

    The first stage Fowler calls Intuitive-Projective faith. It usually occurs between the ages of three and seven, and is characterized by the psyche’s unprotected exposure to the Unconscious. Imagination runs wild in this stage, uninhibited by logic. It is the first step in self-awareness and when one absorbs one’s culture’s strong taboos. The advantages of this stage are the birth of imagination and the growing ability to grasp and unify one’s perception of reality. Stage one is also dangerous, though, in that the child’s imagination can be “possessed” by unrestrained images of terror and destruction from the unconscious, and the exploitation of the fertile imagination by enforced taboos and indoctrination.

    The second stage is called Mythic-Literal faith, in which symbol and ritual begin to be integrated by the child. These symbols, however, are one-dimensional. Only literal interpretations of myth and symbol are possible. The runaway imagination of stage one is here harnessed, and linear thinking becomes normative. Found mostly in school children (although one can maintain this state for life), stage two persons have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their cosmic powers are almost always anthropomorphic. Objective distance and critical evaluation of myth or symbology is impossible. Fowler describes a person in this stage as being both “carried and ‘trapped’ in” their own narrative. Stage two can be dangerous because the relentless belief in reciprocity forces the individual into a strict, overcontrolling perfectionism; their religious system will without doubt be either legalistic or else, in the case of abuse, the child may be convinced of his or her own irredeemability.

    The third stage is labeled Sythetic-Conventional faith. The majority of the population finds its permanent home in this stage. Usually arising in adolescence, this stage demands a complex pattern of socialization and integration, and faith is an inseparable factor in the ordering of one’s world. It is a stage characterized by conformity, where one finds one’s identity by aligning oneself with a certain perspective, and lives directly through this perception with little opportunity to reflect on it critically. One has an ideology at this point, but may not be aware that one has it. Those who differ in opinion are seen as “the Other,” as different “kinds” of people. Authority derives from the top down, and is invested with power by majority opinion. Dangers in this stage include the internalization of symbolic systems (power, “goodness” “badness”) to such a degree that objective evaluation is impossible. Furthermore, while one can at this stage enter into an intimate relationship with the divine, one’s life situations may drive one into despair (the threshold to the next stage). Such situations may include contradictions between authorities, the revelation of authoritarian hypocrisy, and lived experiences which contradict one’s convictions.

    The fourth stage is known as Individuative-Reflective. This is primarily a stage of angst and struggle, in which one must face difficult questions regarding identity and belief. Those that pass into stage four usually do so in their mid-thirties to early forties. At this time, the personality gradually detaches from the defining group from which it formerly drew its identity. The person is aware of him or herself as an individual and must–perhaps for the first time–take personal responsibility for his/her beliefs and feelings. This is a stage of de-mythologizing, where what was once unquestioned is now subjected to critical scrutiny. Stage four is heavily existential, where nothing is certain but one’s own existence, and disillusionment reigns. This stage is not a comfortable place to be and, although it can last for a long time, those who stay in it do so in danger of becoming bitter, suspicious characters who trust nothing and no one. But most, after entering this stage, sense that not only is the world far more complex than his or her stage three mentality would allow for, it is still more complex and numinous than the agnostic rationality of stage four allows.

    Stage five, Conjunctive faith moves one from stage four’s rationalism to the acknowledgement of paradox and transcendence. It is in this stage that, in Washburnian terminology, one chooses regression in the service of transcendence. In this stage a person grasps the reality behind the symbols of his or her inherited systems, and is also drawn to and acknowledging of the symbols of other’s systems. This stage makes room for mystery and the unconscious, and is fascinated by it while at the same time apprehensive of its power. It sees the power behind the metaphors while simultaneously acknowledging their relativity. In stage five, the world, demythologized in stage four, is re-sacrilized, literally brimming with vision. It is also imbued with a new sense of justice that goes beyond justice defined by one’s own culture and people. Because one has begun to see “the bigger picture” the walls culture and tradition have built between ourselves and others begins to erode. It is not easy to live on the cusp of paradox, and due to its radical drive towards inclusivity, the mind struggles to assimilate and integrate faster than it can work through its cultural and psychological baggage. It is an overwhelming, ecstatic stage in which one is radically opened to possibility and wonder.

    Stage six, the final stage, Fowler calls Universalizing faith. While in the previous stage, one glimpses a unitive view of reality, but feels torn between possibility and loyalty, and may even neglect to act on its new understanding out of a regard for self-preservation. In stage six, any such apprehensions dissolve and one becomes an activist for the unitive vision. Fowler describes it best, when he writes:

    Persons described by stage six typically exhibit qualities that shake our usual criteria of normalcy. Their heedlessness to self-preservation and the vividness of their taste and feel for transcendent moral and religious actuality give their actions and words an extraordinary and often unpredictable quality. In their devotion to universalizing compassion they may offend our parochial perceptions of justice. In their penetration through the obsession with survival, security, and significance they threaten our measured standards of righteousness and goodness and prudence. Their enlarged visions of universal community disclose the partialness of our tribes and pseudo-species. And their leadership initiatives, often involving strategies of nonviolent suffering and ultimate respect for being, constitute affronts to our usual notions of relevance.” (Fowler, 200)

    Fowler, although not normally thought of as a transpersonal psychologist, has much to offer the field. He approaches the whole question from another side, not theorizing about the internal mechanics as Washburn and Wilber do, but merely observing thoughts and behavior. It is impossible, for me, not to visualize the internal drama in Washburnian terms when reading the progression from stages three to six. In stage three, for instance, the ego is dominant and the Dynamic Ground successfully suppressed. Stage four begins the individual’s psychic undoing, as one’s cultural/religious paradigm begins to crumble and existential anxiety sets in. Stage five begins the terrifying surrender to the power of the Ground, which transforms the personality and infuses it with the vision and the courage to enter stage six, what some might call, enlightenment. One sees things as they truly are, transcending the limitations and conceptions of one’s tradition and culture. Fowler has made an important contribution, by setting the transpersonal drama in a context of religious belief, the battleground for so much of the egoic conflict. He also names my own experiences, and I have felt an incredible sense of comfort and relief in reading him when I was going through my stage four trauma. I was not, as I suspected, going crazy! For everything about which my intellect raged was described and understood through Fowler’s analysis.

  13. wonder dog indeed!

  14. Floyd the Wonder Dog says:

    Arf, arf!

    I have recently reread *What the Church Means to People Like Me*. I had been contemplating whether it is possible for a person to transcend the Liahona- Iron Rod dichotomy. This seems to indicate that it is possible for one to do so.

  15. It sounds a lot like Carol Gilligan’s stages of moral development that she developed as a nuance to her professor’s less-nuanced approach (which systematically down-classed women’s moral development because their decisions were situational and more considered rather than tending towards absolutes, as males did more often and which his system was set up to value more).

  16. Floyd the Wonder Dog says:

    There is an interview with Dr. Fowler here:
    I find an interesting correlation with the development he discusses and the formation of faith in the church. There is the child learning parables and church stories from parents and Primary teachers. Then the seminary age youth being urged to develop personal spirituality to develop testimony. Then the missionary going out to build what others would define as Christian vocation. Then there are the elderly missionaries and temple workers working on spirituality in later life. The middle age period- the one called the messy period below- seems to be one without a clear plan. Or am I missing that aspect of the picture because I am currently a fish in the water that I am trying to understand?

    Here’s an excerpt from the web site cited above.


    Jerome Berryman has made a strong case for the use of parables with children, for the gift of those powerful images for the child of five or six. We need to listen to what children are doing with those images. We need to provide occasions for them with media such as drawing or painting or acting out in dramatizations or simply with talking to an adult and with each other. We need to have chances to tap into what they’re doing with the images, not to correct them doctrinally, but to help them avoid the dangerous appropriations of those images. As I said earlier, the child of five or six is very available to suggestions. Later on in the period of ages seven to ten we need to work with the powerful stories from the Bible and from contemporary sources to give the child a clue as to who his or her people are.

    In terms of working with adolescents, one important thing is to help young people develop new approaches to prayer. One of the places we fall down in the Protestant churches in particular is in leaving prayer to be a private matter. It is a private matter, of course, but we can help young people work out approaches to prayer that take seriously their new developmental capacities and needs. Now the Roman Catholics are taking 15- and 16-year-olds on retreats where they are taught methods of contemplative prayer using Scripture. They are being taught to meditate. I think for adolescents in our time that’s a terribly important thing to do: to help them discover how they can create an inner space where they can get some respite and some distance from the terribly burdening world of overchoice and stimulation that they live in.

    In young adulthood, in the Stage Four period, it’s very important to begin to give shape to a dream. In traditional Christian terms it would be a vocational dream. It’s not just a dream of the work I want to do. By vocation I mean how I’m going to put myself and my gifts at the disposal of the human community and at the disposal of God, to make a difference in the unique way I’m called, to make a difference through my work and through other dimensions of my life. We need to develop opportunities for young adults to explore and give shape to dreams that would involve Christian vocation. It would also involve working out the theological and biblical foundations for a Christian vocation.

    For adults there are some important things we need to do in terms of rites of passage. We need to acknowledge that at mid-life one’s religious needs and depths change. Again some new forms of spirituality need to be developed.
    I have a nun friend who’s written a long paper on ministry to people in their 40s called “Ministry to Messiness.” Her point is that as we turn 40, give or take five years on either side, we’ve lived with ourselves as adults long enough to qualify the dream that took shape in our young adulthood—the heroic dream. We see that we fulfilled parts of that, but perhaps there are parts that we’ll never fulfill. We’re at a time where the dependence of others upon us is optimal. Our parents are dependent upon us and our teenage children are dependent upon us. We are carrying our heaviest responsibility in our work world. Life feels messy. We can’t get on top of it.

    What kind of spirituality can sustain people with realism and grace in that period? Then we begin to face retirement or old age and I think our need for spirituality changes again. We’re just at the beginning of investigating that and we’re trying to come up with proposals. That will be part of our work of the Center.

  17. I think a lot of the confusion about what Fowler is talking about is created by his unfortunate choice of the word “faith.” In Mormon culture, “faith” means something very different than what Fowler uses it to mean. It is possible for a faithful Mormon to eventually fall into inactivity, be rabidly anti-Mormon, then experience a spiritual rebirth and return to the Church without ever leaving Fowler’s stage 3 Synthetic-Conventional stage.

    Fowler is not talking about what you believe or how strongly you believe it. He is talking about how your beliefs affect your relationship with the rest of the world.

  18. I’d just like to chime in briefly here. I was first introduced to “Stages of Faith” during Tom Kimball’s presentation at Sunstone. It was a genuine epiphany and a turning point for me. It may well be that it’s just what I wanted or needed to hear at that point, but understanding the normal progression of faith perspectives–or in Fowler’s context, worldviews–gave me a ray of hope for my future in Mormonism and religion in general. I was very close to burning every bridge I could on my way out of the church. I read the book and found it helpful, and yes, inspirational. John has given a good introduction, but a brief summary doesn’t do the topic justice. A lot of the questions on this thread about the supposed superiority of higher-numbered levels of faith would evaporate upon consulting the book itself.

    Stage theory is not meant to be a guage of how “enlightened” you are. It simply outlines the normal course of psychological development. There is little use in trying to push anyone (or indeed, onesself) into a higher level. It’s also quite possible that people can be on the border of two stages or even include characteristics of several stages at once. Keep in mind that individual agnostics, atheists, Unitarians, as well as Mormons, Jews, and Christians may fall into any of the stages. However, it is true that some communities and organizations are more likely to understand and support people in stages 4-6. Unfortunately, in my experience, Mormonism is not one of these.

  19. James Yules says:

    I feel stupid…

  20. jftdtydtyu ftd sfar qghn td drytdrtrtertruuigyhsgfgdfgfgfgg xdfdfgsd gd gdf dfgsdt uyirhyer I want to rape you

  21. jftdtydtyu ftd sfar qghn td drytdrtrtertruuigyhsgfgdfgfgfgg xdfdfgsd gd gdf dfgsdt uyirhyer I want to rape you

  22. mother mary says:

    I wasn’t I virgin. I was really a whore and gang raped my son jesus

%d bloggers like this: