James Fowler and the six stages of religious development.

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One of the essay questions in my Human Growth and Development class exam next week will be to identify the six stages of religious development presented by James Fowler. I came across this interview with him, and thought his theories interesting and worth sharing.

James Fowler on the six stages of religious development

-- Anita (Anita_S3@hotmail.com), November 25, 2000


What stage is Al-d in?

-- (nemesis@awol.com), November 25, 2000.


There is a summary of the six stages at


I was reminded of Ken Wilber and his 9 basic structures of consciousness (perhaps taken from Sri Aurobindo).


-- dandelion (golden@pleurisy.plant), November 26, 2000.

Thanks, Dandelion. That was an interesting read. The summary, however, included Gilligan on the gender role, and I'm not so sure it's obvious where Gilligan begins and Kasl's interpretation of Fowler's stages end. I have what I need, and was curious to see what others thought.

Here's a hotlink to your article.

-- Anita (Anita_S3@hotmail.com), November 26, 2000.

Great topic, Anita.

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.

I could not agree more strongly. I would add that awakening children to this inner safe haven is but the tip of the meditation iceberg. Nonetheless it is invaluable to every child and adult who faces the deluge of stimuli rained down upon them through our day-to-day societal interactions.


-- Bingo1 (howe9@shentel.net), November 26, 2000.

The transition to Stage Four can begin as early as 17, but it's usually not completed until the mid-20s, and often doesn't even begin until around 20. It comes most naturally in young adulthood. Some people, however, don't make the transition until their late 30s. It becomes a more traumatic thing then, because they have already built an adult life. Their relationships have to be reworked in light of the stage change.

That last line is the real stickler. Flexibility in our views and opinions, a willingness to interpret personal experiences with an open mind, even if the results fall outside our constructs of what life is, what God is; does this describe yourself? People around you? Are we ourselves holding rigidly to our beliefs to the point where we turn a blind eye to legitimate experiences if they cannot be made to fit our current philosophy? Square peg experiences for round hole belief systems.

I see people every day, myself included, who work hard to maintain the walls inside which they've built their lives, to the detriment of personal growth and understanding. Stage Four is a knocking down of these walls. Traumatic indeed, but a necessary, continuing spiritually evolutionary step.


-- Bingo1 (howe9@shentel.net), November 26, 2000.

Stage Five is a time when a person is also ready to look deeply into the social unconscious—those myths and taboos and standards that we took in with our mother's milk and that powerfully shape our behavior and responses.

I went through this stage very early in life. It is as if I was born with a need for explanation and justification for traditions & rituals adults engage in daily. If the act is legitimate and necessary then one should have a reason for doing it. Pretty simple, no? Unfortunately I had no adult in my life who would answer my questions satisfactorily, to my detriment. I learned instead from watching for the results of the actions of others, which is effective but often painful when one realizes those depended upon for direction are not all that bright. Unquestioning automatons acting from habit are not role models, IMO.

Further on Fowler states:

We are ready for allegiances beyond our tribal gods and our tribal taboos.

I never understood Tribalism as a child. I do see some of the underlying causes now. Tribalism is near-sightedness in action, lack of real world education and an inability to experience compassion, IMO.

Example: I grew up Jewish and at family gatherings heard Goyim (non-Jews) sometimes vilified. They were spoken of by some as devils looking to annihilate all Jews. A convenient faceless group upon which to heap misfortune. At the same time one Jewish relative would attack another Jew verbally. I thought to myself, "has this Jew suddenly become a Goy?" I realized labeling of individuals blindly, in positive or negative light, based upon "tribe" was foolishness. My heart told me so and my experiences with people of various races, creeds and colors confirmed it.

I think this stage is necessary only because children are taught tribalism. Remove that teaching and Stage Five becomes unnecessary except as part of the practice of introspection.

Humans are social animals. Let our children know all of creation is our tribe. We are One.


-- Bingo1 (howe9@shentel.net), November 26, 2000.

Some few persons we find move into Stage Six, which we call universalizing faith. In a sense I think we can describe this stage as one in which persons begin radically to live as though what Christians and Jews call the "kingdom of God" were already a fact. I don't want to confine it to Christian and Jewish images of the kingdom. It's more than that. I'm saying these people experience a shift from the self as the center of experience. Now their center becomes a participation in God or ultimate reality.

Pardon the pun but, Bingo! "The shift from the self as the center of experience." That is pure gold. The solitary obstacle to accomplishing this most important evolutionary step is the EGO.

The ego is key to our survival as individuals. It serves positively in this important function. When the ego creates barriers between the self and others we have allowed it to overstep its duties.

Fowler presents some fine examples of people who transcended their egos. I offer Mahatma Gandhi as another extraordinary person who accomplished this, to the benefit of milions.

Namaste is a favored Indian salutation and valediction, offered with palms placed together at the heart. One translation is "I honor God within you". This is a wonderful display of sublimation of the ego.

Namaste - Rich

-- Bingo1 (howe9@shentel.net), November 26, 2000.


It is as if I was born with a need for explanation and justification for traditions & rituals adults engage in daily. If the act is legitimate and necessary then one should have a reason for doing it. Pretty simple, no?

My oldest daughter had just turned three when her uncle died. We went to the wake and she saw him laying inside the casket. When we sat down, she said, "Are they going to bury Uncle Greg with his glasses on?" I said, "Yes." She said, "Why?" I said, "It's tradition." I guess her mind must have moved along to skeletons, as after a while she said, "So the glasses will be sitting on the BONES?" I said, "Yes.", but I must admit that the picture had already been planted in MY mind, as well.

-- Anita (Anita_S3@hotmail.com), November 26, 2000.

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.

In Indian culture one's lifetime is looked upon as going through three stages. The second portion one adopts the duties of a householder - raising a family and so forth. The final portion of one's life is for dedication to completing their sadhana - spiritual journey.

Western culture makes no such allowance of which I'm aware. Fowler's point is well stated and I hope we are successful in one day making this an acceptable and even a common practice.

-- Bingo1 (howe9@shentel.net), November 26, 2000.

I had a thousand questions just like your daughter's, Anita. I'm sure most kids do. Shouldn't parents create an environment wherein children are encouraged to inquire? Wouldn't parents then be forced to educate themselves more thoroughly?

Ah, there's the rub. Some adults maintian their curiosity, such as yourself, and will take the time to consider these questions and educate themselves in order to answer them both for the kids AND themselves. Parenting 101? I would not know, but I can guess. :)


-- Bingo1 (howe9@shentel.net), November 26, 2000.

I think Debra would find dandelion's link quite interesting, if anyone out there is in contact with her.


I found a page describing Sri Aurobindo's concept of the levels of conciousness, if you are inclined to & have the time to check it out:


-- flora (***@__._), November 26, 2000.


I'll check Aurobindo AFTER my exam. Right now, I fear that if I read philosophies similar to Fowler, they'll congeal in my mind and my essay answer will be a combination.


Yeah...*I* think so, but you must remember that children typically ask these questions while we're in the middle of something and by the time they go to bed at night we have 400-500 yellow post-its inside our brains reminding us to research those questions we couldn't answer. I awakened many a night after finding a post-it that hadn't been dealt with. I wouldn't know to this day what an Armadillo eats had the question not been asked of me.

I STILL think you'd make a great parent, Bingo. It's REALLY quite a trip. YOU learn, THEY learn, and before ya know it EVERYONE knows something they didn't know before, or everyone sees something from a perspective that they hadn't previously considered.

-- Anita (Anita_S3@hotmail.com), November 26, 2000.


I'm at the end of this study unit, and it ended with Fowler, so I'm going to type here what it said [in the hope that it will help it sink in.]

Stage 1: Intuitive-projective faith(early childhood). After infants learn to trust their caregiver (Erikson's formulation), they invent their own intuitive images of what good and evil are. As children move into Piaget's preoperational stage, their cognitive worlds open up a variety of new possibilities. Fantasy and reality are taken as the same thing. Right and wrong are seen in terms of consequences to the self.

Stage 2: Mythical-literal faith (middle and late childhood) As children move into Piaget's concrete operational stage, they begin to reason more in a more logical and concrete--but not abstract-- way. They see the world as more orderly. Grade-school-age children interpret religious stories literally, and they perceive God as being much like a parent figure who rewards the good and punishes the bad. What is right is often perceived as fair exchange.

Stage 3: Synthetic-conventional faith(transition between childhood and adolescence, early adolescence). Adolescents start to develop formal operational thought (Piaget's highest stage) and begin to integrate what they have learned about religion into a coherent belief system. Although the synthetic-conventional faith stage is more abstract than the previous two stages, young adolescents still mainly conform to the religious beliefs of others and have not yet adequately analyzed alternative religious ideologies. Someone's behavior that involves a question of right and wrong is seen in terms of the harm it does to a relationship or what others might say. Fowler believes that most adults become locked into this stage and never move on to higher stages of religious development.

Stage 4: Individuating-reflexive faith (transition between adolescence and adulthood, early adulthood). Fowler believes that, at this stage, for the first time individuals are capable of taking full responsibility for their religious beliefs. Often as a response to the leaving-home experience, young people begin to take responsibility for their lives. Young adults now start to realize that they can choose the course of their lives and that they must expend effort to follow a particular life course. Individuals come face-to-face with questions like these: "Should I consider myself first, or should I consider the welfare of others first?" " Are the religious doctrines that were taught to me when I was growing up absolute, or are they more relative than I had been led to believe?" Fowler believes that both formal operational thought and the intellectual challenges to an individual's values and religious ideologies, which often arise in college, are essential to developing individuating-reflexive faith.

Stage 5: Conjunctive faith (middle adulthood). Fowler believes that only a small number of adults ever move on to this stage, which involves being more open to paradox and opposing viewpoints. This openness stems from people's awareness of their finiteness and limitations. One woman whom Fowler (1981) placed at this stage revealed the following complex religious understanding: "Whether you call it God or Jesus or Cosmic Flow or Reality or Love, it doesn't matter what you call it. It is there."

Stage 6: Universalizing faith (middle adulthood or late adulthood). Fowler says that the highest stage in religious development involves transcending specific belief systems to achieve a sense of oneness with all being and a commitment to breaking down the barriers that are divisive to people on this planet. Conflictual events are no longer seen as paradoxes. Fowler argues that very, very few people ever achieve this elusive, highest stage of religious development. Three of those who have, he says, are Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa.

-- Anita (Anita_S3@hotmail.com), November 26, 2000.

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