“Stages of Faith,” What can 50-Year-Old Research Tell Us About Conversion and Deconversion?

“Stages of Faith,” What can 50-Year-Old Research Tell Us About Conversion and Deconversion? February 13, 2023

Stages of Faith is a 1981 book by psychologist James Fowler wherein he lays out his model of faith development. This book was recommended to me by someone who was reading my research. It is written at a popular level, however it does contain data from the study used to support its thesis, and Fowler is a serious psychologist with a long career as a researcher. He compiled his model of faith development from around 600 interviews done by himself and research associates using a structured approach outlined in the appendices of the book.

Interestingly, Fowler was a contemporary of Lewis R. Rambo, the foremost conversion theorist of our time, and Fowler published his book only slightly before Rambo published his (Fowler even cites Rambo as he talks about conversion).


Stage Theory

Fowler wrote at a time in history when “stage theory” was the primary mode of thought in psychology. Stage theory dates all the way back to Freud, who developed an elaborate schema of stages one transitions through at various ages, attributing neuroses to getting “stuck” at one or another of these stages.

Fowler includes in his book a theoretical conversation between the primary stage theorists of his time: Erikson, Kholberg, and Piaget. Erikson followed in the footsteps of Freud looking at “psychosocial” development into adulthood. Piaget took a more biological approach to development, and looked at how methods of thought change in stages from childhood to adulthood. Piaget’s theories and findings are still influential in the field of education.

Kholberg has been mentioned elsewhere in this column, and he is the stage theorist which the author of this book seems to follow most closely in his work.


Lawrence Kohlberg was a 20th century psychologist most famous for his research into the stages of moral development. Basically, Kohlberg wanted to know how a 2-year-old determined right and wrong, and how it was different from a 22-year-old.

He discovered that humans went through a variety of “stages” of moral development. These stages started with a basic “wrong is whatever gets my hand slapped.” Reaching for a cookie when mom is around is wrong, but if she’s not looking, it’s okay.

The next stage is “right and wrong are whatever get me what I want.” It’s a step up from the first stage, but it incorporates a principle of “fairness.” If I want another cookie and mommy doesn’t let me have it, that’s not fair. Similarly, if I don’t want to do chores and mommy makes me, that’s not fair.

The stages go on like that with the final stage – stage 6 – being a sort of universalizing of moral ideas, meaning that the individual comes to believe that there are universal standards of moral laws which apply equally to all people, and the person internalizes this set of abstract laws.

Kohlberg notes that few people ever progress all the way to stage 6. Similar to Kohlberg and Freud, Fowler does not believe that all people transition through all of the stages of faith he outlines in his book.


The Definition of “Faith”

If one is studying the stages of faith development, one has to define what one means by “faith.” In my work on deconversion, many interesting definitions of faith have occurred in the reading. In his book Faith After Doubt, Brian McLaren suggests that faith can include doubt or disbelief, but perhaps most notable is Boghossian’s definition of faith as “pretending to know something you don’t.”

Fowler has an interesting definition of “faith.” In this book “faith” is essentially a life-focus which provides purpose and fulfillment. Faith, for Fowler, is not necessarily religious (although religion certainly fits within the category) but more like the larger narrative that gives a person their meaning and values.

The author goes to great lengths to distinguish his definition of faith from the more popular definition of simple religious belief. His definition doesn’t necessarily require religion at all, given that people find purpose in things other than religion. Fowler even notes that he has received some criticism for terming his work “Faith Development Research” if it does not necessarily include religion.

That said, if one follows the interview techniques Fowler outlines in his book, one will notice that religion is one aspect of the interview, and thus, a person’s religious stance will always be included in the final data.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to note Fowler’s position: faith is so fundamentally human that even the irreligious have something recognizable as faith. Should this prove to be true, it would lend credence to the longstanding question in deconversion research, “Is deconversion just another form of conversion?” Fowler’s work may need serious consideration in order to answer this question.


The Six Stage Model of Faith Development

A few years ago one of my followers looked at my work on deconversion and observed that deconverts appear to transition through Fowler’s six stage model. It was then that I added his book to my reading list for later analysis.

The following are Fowler’s six stages:

  • Infancy and undifferentiated faith

Fowler does not identify infancy as a “stage” in faith development, but rather the platform from which the development must necessarily occur. This is the necessary first step, as each human begins as an infant, incapable of the sort of abstract thought, myth-making, metaphor, or anticipation which define faith in later levels of life. Fowler simply notes that infants are, by nature, required to trust whatever the environment throws their direction, and that things like courage, hope, and love are seeded but not differentiated in this basic trust.

  • Intuitive Projective Faith

Fowler identifies this first stage with ages 3 through 7, and defines it as a time during which the child observes the faith of adults, imitates it, and uses imagination to fill in the parts he or she does not understand. There is little questioning as to the right-ness or wrong-ness of these faith notions – the child just assumes that adults know what they are talking about, and does not expand beyond this except in his or her imagination. Important to recognize here is that children rarely confuse imagination with reality. The child assumes there is something he or she does not understand, but does not take his or her imaginary solutions as dogmatic.

  • Mythic-literal Faith

At this stage in the person’s life, he or she begins to become part of the community, and adopt the community’s stories as his or her own. As the person begins to understand those stories, the person lends to them less of an imaginary quality and more of a literal quality. Important to note at this stage is that the person leans heavily on fairness and reciprocity as underlying values.

  • Synthetic-Conventional Faith

In this stage, the person is transitioning into the wider world beyond his or her immediate community. The person has to deal with the family community, and the school community, and the work community, and media, and is forced to synthesize the variety of views into something which makes sense and is complete. The person must form some kind of value that unifies the wider world as he or she now sees it.

  • Individuative-Reflective Faith

In this stage, the individual must ask the question “who am I apart from the social group?” The individual starts to form a coherent set of ideas which do not directly relate to his or her identity as a member of some group. This may involve finding a specific and definitive role within that group, but it also may involve a move to individualism. Fowler notes that a person at this stage may be prone to anarchist or narcissistic ways of thinking.

  • Conjunctive Faith

Fowler describes this as a reflective phase in which the person looks back at previous experience and recognizes things are not as certain or black and white as they once seemed. Fowler describes this as a “second naivety” wherein the person is able to achieve an idea of justice that transcends tribe, denomination, nationality, or ethnicity; and is able to identify his or her own errors in thought or limitations.

  • Universalizing Faith

Much like the final stage of Kohlberg’s work described previously, in this stage the person universalizes certain basic principles such as love and justice as absolute, and drops all other absolutes as uncertainties.


Fowler Speaks to Conversion

“Much of the extensive literature about adolescent conversion can be illumined, I believe, by the recognition that the adolescent’s religious hunger is for a God who knows, accepts, and confirms the self deeply, and who serves as an infinite guarantor of the self with its forming myth of personal identity and faith.”

-James Fowler, Stages of Faith


It is 280 pages into his book before Fowler begins to discuss the subject in which I am most interested: Conversion. Here is how the author defines conversion:

“A significant recentering of one’s previous conscious or unconscious images of value and power, and the conscious adoption of a new set of master stories in the commitment to reshape one’s life in a new community of interpretation and action.”

The “recentering of previous images” bit is quite close to William James’ definition of conversion some 70 years prior to Fowler, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Fowler were influenced by James. After all, I have yet to read any serious research on conversion which does not cite James at some point.


McClure (2017) says that the internet is partially to blame for the rise in deconversions, as individuals are less able to sustain exclusivist beliefs when rapidly exposed to new ideas.

In discussing conversion, Fowler suggests that an element of conversion is “sponsorship,” meaning that a person or group continues to guide the convert in faith development over the course of them becoming integrated in the faith. Gooren is a conversion researcher famous for describing conversion not as a single event, but rather as an ongoing “career” without a clear terminus. So it is possible that conversion needs to be sustained across a person’s religious life.

Given the isolation and impersonalization caused by the internet and social media in particular, one wonders if this “sponsorship” is being lost in the digital age.


Final Thoughts


Upon wrapping up my reading of Fowler’s Stages of Faith, I am reminded of McLaren’s Faith After Doubt.

Both of these writers develop and elaborate a stage-model of Faith development (with McLaren’s model including a loss of faith as a necessary stage).

A quick comparison between the two would be as follows:

McLaren’s first stage is “simplicity” which can (simply) be described as dogmatic, black or white thinking. One might be able to read this into the first two stages of Fowler’s model, insofar as the person begins as a child accepting what the adults have to say, then matures to understand the meaning of what adults are saying, and internalize that meaning.

McLaren’s second stage is “complexity,” wherein the person expands his or her understanding to the larger world of ideas, and develops more complex ways of handling beliefs. This can be mapped onto Fowler’s third stage wherein the person becomes aware of all the ideas outside of one’s immediate environment.

McLaren’s third stage is “perplexity” wherein the person begins to question everything he or she accepted. This can be mapped onto fourth stage, wherein the individual forms a personal identity distinct from the group.

McLaren’s final stage is “harmony.” In this stage, says McLaren, the person identifies the universal principle of love and discards all the troubling questions he or she had before. And this maps onto the fifth and sixth phases of Fowler’s model.

I am inclined to be more sympathetic to Fowler’s work, considering it was built on the work of previous theorists and he developed it systematically as a psychologist, whereas McLaren’s work seemed to be built largely on anecdotal experience and lacked the methodological development of Fowler.

Having said that, it seems to me that stage models all share the same flaw: it is easy to read anyone’s experience into a stage model in much the same way that people see their personalities or experiences in horoscopes or online personality tests.

One sees what one expects to see when handed a stage model.

My own model of deconversion may better be described as a vector model than a stage model, as it simply asks the questions about the antecedents, behaviors, and consequences of deconversion, all of which exist necessarily. There certainly are stage theories of deconversion, John Marriot’s being the foremost; just as there are stage models of conversion, John Rambo’s being the foremost of those.

Just because stage models are easy to generalize does not mean they should be dismissed or do not have robust science behind them, as Fowler’s clearly does.

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