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James Fowler

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Emory Center of Ethics


James W. Fowler is a graduate of Duke University and Drew Theological Seminary and earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University in Religion and Society in 1971, with a focus in ethics and sociology of religion. He pursued post-doctoral studies at the Center for Moral Development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (1971-72). He taught at Harvard Divinity School (1969-75) and at Boston College (1975-76). In 1977 he joined the faculty of Emory's Candler School of Theology. Emory named him the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Theology and Human Development in 1987. His pioneering research and the resulting theory of faith development have earned him international recognition. His best-known book, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Development and the Quest for Meaning, is in its 38th printing, and has been translated into German, Korean, and Portuguese editions.

Dr. Fowler has written or edited ten other books and more than 60 articles, contributing to the fields of practical theology and theological ethics. Four volumes of critical discussion of Fowler’s research and theory have emerged from national and international seminars devoted to his work. He has received the Oskar Pfister Award from the American Psychiatric Association, “for enduring contributions to the dialogue between religion and psychiatry” and the William James Award from the American Psychological Association, “for contributions that advance the psychology of religion.” Both awards came in 1994. In 1999 the University of Edinburgh awarded him a doctor of divinity degree, honoris causa.

From 1994 to 2005, Fowler served as the first full-time director of the Center for Ethics at Emory. He is a minister in the United Methodist Church.

He and his wife have two married daughters and four grandchildren.

A series of stages of faith development was proposed by Professor James W. Fowler, a developmental psychologist at Candler School of Theology, in the book Stages of Faith. This book-length study contains a framework and ideas, which have generated a good deal of response from those interested in religion.

It proposes a staged development of faith (or spiritual development) across the life span. It is closely related to the work of Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Lawrence Kohlberg regarding aspects of psychological development in children and adults.

Fowler's stages

Faith is seen as a holistic orientation, and is concerned with the individual's relatedness to the universal:

Stage 0 – "Primal or Undifferentiated" faith (birth to 2 years), is characterized by an early learning of the safety of their environment (i.e. warm, safe and secure vs. hurt, neglect and abuse). If consistent nurture is experienced, one will develop a sense of trust and safety about the universe and the divine. Conversely, negative experiences will cause one to develop distrust with the universe and the divine. Transition to the next stage begins with integration of thought and languages which facilitates the use of symbols in speech and play.

Stage 1 – "Intuitive-Projective" faith (ages of three to seven), is characterized by the psyche's unprotected exposure to the Unconscious.

Stage 2 – "Mythic-Literal" faith (mostly in school children), stage two persons have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their deities are almost always anthropomorphic.

Stage 3 – "Synthetic-Conventional" faith (arising in adolescence) characterized by conformity

Stage 4 – "Individuative-Reflective" faith (usually mid-twenties to late thirties) a stage of angst and struggle. The individual takes personal responsibility for his or her beliefs and feelings.

Stage 5 – "Conjunctive" faith (mid-life crisis) acknowledges paradox and transcendence relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems

Stage 6 – "Universalizing" faith, or what some might call "enlightenment".

Empirical research

Fowler's model has inspired a considerable body of empirical research into faith development, although little of such research has been conducted by Fowler himself. A useful tool here has been Gary Leak's Faith Development Scale, or FDS, which has been subject to factor analysis by Leak (Leak, 2008).


Fowler, James W. (1981). Stages of Faith, Harper & Row ISBN 0-06-062866-9.
Leak, G. (2008). Factorial validity of the Faith Development Scale. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 18 (2) pp123ff.
Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte (2005) "Politics and Professional Advancement Among College Faculty," The Forum: Vol. 3 : Iss. 1, Article 2. Available at: http://www.bepress.com/forum/vol3/iss1/art2
Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte, Fundamentals and Fundamentalists: A Reply to Ames et al.2 (July 2005)
Wulff, D. M., Psychology of Religion: Classic and Contemporary (2nd ed), New York, Wiley, 1997.
Zastrow, C., Kirst-Ashman, K. (2007). Understanding human behavior and the social environment (7th ed.) Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Volume dedicated to the Faith Development Theory of James Fowler in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. 11(3). 2001. For example:
Heinz Streib, "The Symposium on Faith Development Theory and the Modern Paradigm", pp. 141–142.
John McDargh "Faith Development Theory and the Postmodern Problem of Foundations", pp. 185–199
Howard Kurtz, "College Faculties a Most Liberal Lot, Study Finds", WP, Tuesday 29 Mar 2005, p. C1.



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