Category Archives: Stages of Faith

Low Religion

I often see people on social media complaining about the criticism that is dealt out against Christianity or the Church.  The most common responses are usually something in the vein of, “Well, not ALL Christians are like that!”  I personally think this is a cop-out; a way of dismissing whatever argument is being brought forth.  The thought process is usually that A) This statement doesn’t apply to me or people I directly know, or B) This statement is too broad and general, or C) This statement is about action done be people who aren’t “True Christians” – therefore I don’t need to address this concern.

I could write several posts on why this drives me crazy and how Christianity’s (yes, I’m using the general term) inability to be self-critical will ultimately ruin it.  But, for the sake of argument, I’d like to propose the use of different terms, ones that are at the same time both more general and more specific, ones that can be used when discussing any religion or denomination –

Low Religion and High Religion.

Here’s how I would define them:

Low Religion

LR is based on dualistic thinking, or an “either/or” view of the world – black and white, good and evil, right and wrong, deserving and undeserving.

This thinking inevitably leads to a religion that is exclusive and tribalistic, with very clear borders set up to determine who is “in” and who is “out” – us vs them, saved or unsaved, conservative or liberal.  This makes them suspicions and even antagonistic towards those perceived as “outsiders”.  The also go to great lengths to make sure no one within the tribe leave the borders.  Those that do are considered “back-sliders”, “apostate”, “heretics”, “lost-souls” and are shunned by tribe.

All LR are fear based, and in fact, can’t survive without it – fear of the wrath of their deity, fear of eternal punishment, fear of the “other”, fear of themselves, their own hearts and minds, fear of believing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing.

Fear-based religions seek to control others.  The insist that they alone hold “The Truth” and as such, can dictate the lives of others.  Not just those within their own institution, but society as a whole.  There is a strong emphasis on submission – submission to religious leaders, sacred texts, the government, social groups.

LR can also be referred  to as belief-based religion.  The emphasis is placed on holding to correct theology, teachings, doctrines, and dogmas.  They use this knowledge for the purpose of ego enhancement, shaming, and the control of others and themselves.

The sacred texts of LR are seen as divinely written or inspired and are mostly interpreted in a literal sense.  The text are often proof-texted to conform the text to their own world views.

LR puts an emphasis on the after-life – rewards for those  who are “in”, and punishment for those who are “out”.

Those who practice LR suffer from cognitive dissonance and have confirmation bias.  They tend to be anti-intellectual and anti-science. 

High Religion

HR is about non-dualistic thinking, or an “and/also” view of the world.  It embraces paradox and isn’t concerned with having all the right answers.  It is a contemplative.

HR is radically inclusive and seeks the greater good off all humanity and creation with an emphasis on issues such as human suffering, healing, poverty, environmentalism, social justice, care for outsiders, and political oppression.

Those who practice HR have risen above the boundaries created by LR and can see wisdom and goodness in all faiths, religions, and traditions.  They are willing to engage in dialog with those of other faiths in the belief that they might learn something that will allow them to correct their own truths.

Symbols, traditions, and sacred texts are viewed in a more metaphorical  and comprehensive lights.

HR is for those who have reached the 5th Stage of Faith – Conjunctive Faith.  They can be found in every religious tradition, although are rare, especially amongst the Judeo/Christian traditions.

Despite my own feelings about God, religions, and faith, I want to make a clear that I don’t have a problem with religion – I only have a problem with Low Religion.  When I (and most others) speak critically of religion/Christianity, it is almost always Low Religion that we are speaking of.  I know that there are churches that are the exception.  I know that there are individuals within churches that are the exception, ones who would be considered practicing High Religion.  But, they are just that – the exception, not the rule.

If you read something by me and another writer that’s bashing the church, and you say to yourself, “This doesn’t sound like my church!” – great; then it doesn’t pertain to you.  But if you get all defensive, if you start clamoring on about how, “not all Christians are like that!” or, “that doesn’t represent THE Church, only a specific church!” – then you’re probably part of the problem.  You are probably a part of the Low Religion I’m speaking of.  At best, you simply have blinders on, don’t get out enough, or don’t pay attention to the news and are unaware the the damage being done by religion in this country and around the world.  Maybe you know that there are problems, but would rather focus on the good and let someone else deal with the problems.  Or worse, you are active in trying to control, marginalize, or discriminate against those you consider “others”.  You are actively a part of an institution that is wreaking havoc on this country and on the lives of countless people.  

In future posts I’m going to try to use the term Low Religion instead of Christianity or the Church when applicable.  However, there are instances where being more specific is necessary.  (For example, Evangelical Christians are the only religion still hung up on the whole Evolution thing, therefore I’m going to call them out on it.)

I also want to say a quick bit to those who aren’t “like that”, who wouldn’t consider themselves to be a part of Low Religion, yet still consider themselves Christian.  If you see or hear about people doing deplorable things in the name of religion – take a stand!  Quit making excuses, quit pretending like it’s not a big deal, quit acting like it’s “just a few bad apples in the bunch,” and quit dismissing people as “not True Christians” like it’s not your problem.  It is your problem!  The reason asshats like Frank Graham and Mike Huckabee get away with saying the hateful shit they do is because none of their peers are calling them out on it!  The only people I see saying anything are the progressive Christians and “liberals”.  As Mandela said, to stay silent is to side with the oppressor.  If you don’t like what’s being said in the name of god, Jesus, the Bible, whatever, then let that be known, loudly and publicly.  Because while not “all Christians are like that”, they certainly don’t seem to have a problem with the ones that are.





Stages of Faith (Pt. 2)

In my last post, I gave a summary of James Fowler’s Stages of Faith. Here, I’m wanting to share some of my own thoughts on the stages.

The first thing that occurred to me after reading about the stages was how dead-on accurate they were.   Whether Christian or Atheist, Muslim or Buddhist, everyone I know could be readily placed somewhere on Fowler’s faith continuum.  This proved especially helpful for myself, being able to identify where I was, what was going on, and what could be expected down the road.  It was reassuring to know that I wasn’t going crazy, and that in fact many others experience this same faith journey.  So much so, that someone was able to study it and write about it some 30 years ago!

For anyone who has read this blog, it should be obvious which of these stages I am currently in.  Stage 4 fits me to a “T”.    For the last couple of years, I have been on an incessant search for answers.  I’ve unraveled everything I’ve ever known regarding faith and God, and have been trying to determine if any of it is worth keeping.   Fowler says that people can be in Stage 4 up to 5-7 years.  This is a relief, as it’s easy to get anxious, to feel like you’re not making any progress, and feel like you are finding more questions than answers.

The Stages of Faith idea also helps explain why there have been individuals who, throughout history, have risen above the commonality of their religious traditions and have done some truly great things.  It’s interesting though, that at least in the Christian circles, moving forward in one’s faith is so looked-down-upon and discouraged.  I’ve come to the conclusion that it is nearly impossible for anyone to make radical changes to their community for the better while staying within the Stage 3 mindset.  In fact, Stage 3 people are almost always the ones standing in the way of social evolution, putting the needs of their “tribe” above the needs of the whole.

It’s important to note that once someone has entered Stage 4, there is no going back; the person has reached the point of no return.  Once you’ve seen the man behind the curtain, you can no longer believe in the wizard.   Many well-meaning people will try to bring you back into the fold, but once your worldview has shifted and become  removed from the previous understanding of the faith you grew up with, it becomes very difficult to return and pretend like you are part of the same group.   Some choose to stay within their group for different reasons, but usually find themselves on the outskirts, never feeling fully included or respected.  The general idea conveyed to them is, “You’re welcome to be here, but keep you mouth shut and your opinions to yourself.”

The idea of moving on to Stage 5 is a daunting one.   At this point, everything “Christianese” bothers me.  The idea of returning to any of it seems impossible at this point.  However, I’m  wrestling with what a broader definition of Stage 5 might look like.

Does a person need to take parts of their previous faith with them?  Is it important that a person still prays, read the Bible, attends church?  Could there be a “faith” that doesn’t include theism or religion?  Could Humanism be considered a Stage 5 faith?  Remember, Fowler describes faith as a person’s way of leaning into and making sense of life, as a dynamic system of images, values, and commitments that guide one’s life.  In that sense, I believe it’s possible to have “faith” without religion.

One final thought.  There may be people who read my story or hear about others that have “lost their faith”, and think to themselves, “That could never happen to me!”

Yes, it can.

I never thought I would be in this position.  I was actively involved in the church; P&W team, Outreach Team, Lifegroup leader, the whole nine yards.  Most everyone I’ve spoken to and read about would say the same thing.  Many atheists that I’ve come across were once die-hard Evangelicals, some were even pastors.  It can happen and does happen, and it happens more frequently then one thinks.  When you’re one of the outsiders, it’s amazing to find out how many others are on the outside with you.




Stages of Faith

When on the path less traveled it, it’s easy to become lost.  With no clear markers to help guide in the right direction, soon you’re left wandering around aimlessly, becoming increasingly frustrated, and wanting to just sit down and call the whole thing quits.  Sometimes the universe sends down a little help, and lets you know you’re at least heading in the right direction.  For me, this happened when I came across James Fowler’s book Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning.  

In the late 70’s, Fowler, a developmental psychologist, along with his team, interviewed hundreds of people of all ages, backgrounds, and faiths to get an idea of the various ways people find meaning and purpose, or “faith”.

Faith, as described in the book, is not necessarily religious, nor is it to be equated with belief.  Rather, faith is a person’s way of leaning into and making sense of life.  More verb than noun, faith is the dynamic system of images, values, and commitments that guide one’s life. It is thus universal: everyone who chooses to go on living operates by some basic faith.

Using his knowledge of human development, Fowler mapped out the various stages that most people go through in life regarding faith.  They are, as follows:

Stage 1 – Intuitive, Projective

This is the stage of preschool children where the imagination is formed in which fantasy and reality often get mixed together.  During this stage, our most basic ideas about God are usually picked up from our parents and/or society.

But in this stage, reality is not well-differentiated from fantasy. For this reason, adults preaching about the negative aspects of religion – the devil and the evils of sin – can cause great harm to a child of this age, leading him toward a very rigid, brittle and authoritarian personality as an adult.

Stage 2 – Mythic, Literal

Here the child is likely to start sorting out the real from the make-believe.  Story becomes the major way of giving unity and value to experience, but the symbols in those stories are seen as one-dimensional and literal.  Moreover, beliefs, moral rules, and attitudes are also held literally.  Thus, God is an anthropomorphic being in the sky; heaven and hell are viewed as actual places, etc.

The person in the second stage is also more able to take the perspective of another person but his view of reciprocity is also rather literal. “If I follow the rules, God will give me a good life.” “If I pray, God will grant my wish.”

A person may begin to grow out of this phase when he encounters conflicts and contradictions in the stories he is interpreting literally, and begins to reflect on the real meanings.  However, some people remain in this stage through adulthood.

Stage 3 – Synthetic, Conventional

A person will normally move into this stage around puberty.  Here authority is usually placed in individuals or groups that represent one’s beliefs, – the church, parents, pastors, peers, etc.  Religious concepts are “tacitly” held – the person is not fully conscious of having chosen to believe something.

At this point, their life has grown to include several different social circles and there is a need to pull it all together.  When this happens, a person usually adopts some sort of all-encompassing belief system.  The name “Conventional” means that most people in this stage see themselves as believing what “everybody else” believes and would be reluctant to stop believing it, because of the need they feel to stay connected with their group.

People tend to have a hard time seeing outside their box and don’t recognize that they are “inside” a belief system.  What is believed is straightforward, unchallenged, and simply there.  Any attempts to reason with a person in this stage about his beliefs, any suggestion of demythologizing his beliefs, is seen as a threat.  Maintaining it’s homeostasis is of critical importance.  Marcus Borg calls this stage “pre-critical naivete.”

This is the stage in which most people remain.  Most of the people in traditional churches are at this stage.  And in fact, Fowler states that religious institutions “work best” if the majority of their congregation is in Stage 3.

Stage 4 – Individual, Reflective

When a person cognitively realizes that there are contradictions between some of his authority sources and is ready to actually reflect realistically on them, he begins to be ready to move to the fourth of James Fowler’s Stages.

People start seeing outside the box and realizing that there are other “boxes”.  In Individuative-Reflective faith, what once was tacitly held becomes explicit.  The faith the person never reflected about, and was not completely able to articulate how he arrived at it, becomes filled with both a freedom that he now CAN reflect on it, and the burden that he now feels he MUST examine.

Stage 4 faith requires that the person be willing to interrupt their reliance on external authority and relocate the source of authority within himself.   Meanings in stories are separate from the symbols themselves, so the stories are demythologized.   But, in the place of the literal symbol, the person gains the ability to make comparisons and whatever meanings they retain are explicitly held (and thus more authentic in that they are personal.)

The questions that begin to coalesce separate one from from one’s community by challenging what has been accepted as true.  Within some religious groups, this sort of critical examination is discouraged and questions bring efforts by others in the community to reinforce the established belief system.  There is also an effort to bring the individual back into the fold.  Those who remain unmoved can be labeled apostate.  As beliefs crumble, often family ties, friendships and professions are cut.  Ironically, the Stage 3 people usually think that Stage 4 people have become “backsliders” when in reality they have actually moved forward.

According to Fowler, it is ideal that a person reach this stage in their early to mid-twenties, but it is evident that many adults never reach it. If it happens in the thirties or forties,  it is much harder for the person to adapt.  The sense of loss can be  incredible and the isolation is frighteningly huge.  Bitterness, anger, suspicion and  mistrust are also common.  It often feels like they’ve been lied to their whole lives.

Many people walk away from religion all together at this stage.  Either becoming atheist, agnostic, or simply a non-believer.  Some, however, press on.

Stage 5 – Conjunctive Faith

When the person in Stage 4 becomes ready to attend to the “anarchic and disturbing inner voices” of the unconscious mind, he becomes ready to move on to Stage 5.

Here, the person begins to expand their world beyond the “either/or” stance of the prior stage toward a “both/and” orientation where the answers (and the power of the rational mind to figure them out) are not so clear.  This is the point when people begin to realize the limits of logic and start to accept the paradoxes in life.

The individual sees beyond his or her culture and worldview.  People in this stage are willing to engage in dialog with those of other faiths in the belief that they might learn something that will allow them to correct their own truths.

The person in Stage 5 has already had their symbols broken by rational inspection and consciously wills themselves to a more comprehensive interpretation of the symbol.  So, the  person learns how to re-engage with some type of faith that is beyond their rational control.  They can recognize the partial truths that any given religious tradition might offer but may choose to re-engage with it anyway.  He can appreciate and recognize symbols as such, without holding to their literal meaning.

With this very inclusive worldview, people are in an excellent position to make huge contributions to society.  The person is committed to a form of justice that extends to those outside the confines of tribe, class, religious community or nation.

However, the individual often gives in to a paralyzing passivity out of fear for their own comfort and well-being or are paralyzed by the huge gap between reality and the view they would like to hold as real.

Stage 6 – Universalizing Faith

People in this stage are able to overcome the action/inaction paradox of Stage 5 and are able to sacrifice their own well-being to that of their cause.  Fowler uses the word “subversive” to refer to these people because their contributions are so radically different from the views of the rest of society.  Such people commit their total being to their identification with persons and circumstances where the futurity of being is being crushed, blocked or exploited. (They risk their own safety in order to help the helpless in unexpected ways.)

Universalizing Faith is reached only by the very, very few.  Examples would include Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Teresa.

This information proved invaluable to me in understanding my journey, and hopefully it can help others as well.  In my next post I’ll discuss my own observations of these stages.  For this post, I just wanted to lay the information out there and get people thinking about it.



FULL DISCLOSURE:  The information regarding the stages of faith I pulled and complied from other sources, namely this chart here, and this article here.  I also borrowed from Gretta Vosper’s book, With or Without God.