The Stages of Belief Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Stages of Belief

3 Conversations

Defining Terms of Belief
A Critique of Belief | Neurotheology - is God in our Heads?
The Evolutionary Advantages of Faith | The Biological Basis of Belief
Why do we have Beliefs? | Why are Beliefs held so Dearly? | The Stages of Belief
The Contradictions of Atheistic Assumption in the Social Sciences | Science as Religion
Joining and Leaving a Minority Religion
Why Someone Might Choose Neo-Paganism Over Mainstream Religion
On Medieval Heresy | The Perceived Dichotomy Between Sexuality and Spirituality
Religion as a Tool for Social Control

In the book Further Along the Road Less Travelled, Dr M Scott Peck describes four stages of spiritual growth, and he refers to Professor James Fowler's book The Stages of Faith, in which Fowler describes six. Readers are referred to the originals for more eloquent and powerful dissertations on the subject.

The Concept of Separate Stages of Spiritual Growth

Peck and Fowler both suggest that the sequence they describe is a necessary route for all who follow a spiritual path. Peck also indicates that spiritual maturity and psychological maturity are closely aligned if not in fact the same thing. They observe that any adult individual may spend years, or indeed an entire lifetime, in a specific stage, and that they are not describing an entirely one-way street. An individual may spend a considerable period of time taking one step back into the comfort of a previous stage for every two steps forward into the challenge of the new. Both observe that the main impetus for moving from one stage to the next is asking questions about the nature of the universe. They also observe that individuals seem to move in a spiral, visiting both irreligious and religious world views, and then going round the loop again with a greater degree of maturity.

Mapping Peck's Analysis onto Fowler's

Fowler's six-stage analysis starts in childhood and ends with near-transcendence. Peck concentrates on four intermediate stages. This is how they map on to each other.

Stage I-
Stage II-
Stage IIIFormal/Institutional
Stage IVSceptic/Individual
Stage VMystical/Communal
Stage VI-

It should be stressed that the differences between Peck's views and Fowler's have been glossed over in this entry, the purpose of which is to introduce the concept of stages of spiritual growth which include stages of atheism as well as stages of belief.

Stage I

Fowler begins his analysis with a description of how a child views the world between the ages of 2 and 6. Children of these ages have a limited sense of logic; the sense of logic which they do have is magical: 'Santa Claus brings presents to good boys and girls'; 'The animals can all speak at midnight on Christmas Eve because that is when Baby Jesus was born'. This works well for a while, and children are blessed with a continually questioning nature. Between the ages of 6 and 12 most children have brought themselves to Stage II.

Stage II

This stage is far more literal; this is the age at which children stop believing in Santa Claus, and start focussing on concrete substance. Their view of the world can become very rule-based. This shows both in the rules which surround playing games, and in an insistence on adhering to family rituals. There is no traditionalist like an eight year old, who will insist on a particular Christmas activity, for example, because it is 'always' done like that.

In Fowler's analysis, teenagers are in a transitional stage of questioning and rebellion. Teenagers develop a capacity for abstract thought, and will use it to challenge not only the rules and ritual which they themselves made up when they were younger, but also the rules and rituals which they see in the adult world which surrounds them. Teenage rebellion is essentially a rebellion against the teenager's own pre-teen years, but they (and usually the people who surround them) often see it as a rebellion against authority.


This is a stage which is defined by Peck, but not by Fowler. Peck describes people in this early stage as unprincipled, self-serving and manipulative, and says that as many as 20% of the population fall into this category. He uses the word 'chaotic' because the only mechanism which governs them is their own will or whim, and unless they have strong willpower they will go this way one day and that way the next. They do not appear to have an external locus of control, but in fact this is because they have almost no control. People at this stage can be in trouble or in difficulty because they are leading their lives without any guiding principles. They are vulnerable but that vulnerability is not always apparent to other people, and is almost never apparent to themselves.

This is that state that many people are in who experience a dramatic conversion, renouncing what they see as a sinful past and embracing rebirth.

Stage III - Formal/Institutional

Fowler's Stage III is equivalent to Peck's Formal/Institutional stage.

In this stage the individual has an external locus of control. Individuals who are in Stage III have a high respect for authority, and usually lead upstanding, sober and god-fearing lives. For some Stage III individuals the statement that 'Jesus says...' or 'The Bible tells us...' is enough to confirm the validity the statement and end the discussion. These are not stupid people; it is rather that they acknowledge that people in authority are more experienced and wiser than they are. When they are themselves in a position of authority they take that responsibility very seriously.

Institutions are very important to individuals at this stage, and Peck makes the point that the institution may be a church, but it may also be the army or, indeed, a prison. Rules and form are also important. If a church institutes reform, these will be the people who will be threatened by that reform the most, and who will resist it to the point of schism.

An individual may reach this stage simply as a natural next-step to the questioning chaos of adolescence, or as a dramatic conversion from a Chaotic/Antisocial adult life. God is seen as external, and the ultimate authority, and often as one who saves the wretched sinner from their previous life of chaotic sinfulness.

Stage IV - Sceptic/Individual

Fowler's Stage IV is equivalent to Peck's Sceptic/Individual.

This is a stage where the individual seeks answers for themselves because simple authoritarian answers are no longer adequate. They will challenge not only those things which they previously took on faith, but faith itself as a response to the world. Some people who are members of a particular community or church will continue to participate in the practical aspects, but will find that they have moved to a more sceptical, secular or scientific world-view. People in Stage IV think things out for themselves, basing their conclusions on their own judgement not on the statements of authority figures.

Peck describes the move from the Stage III to Stage IV as 'conversion', where a Stage III church leader might refer to it as 'apostacy' or 'recusance'. Many lapsed Catholics are in Stage IV.

Peck also points out that not all scientists are at the Sceptic/Individual stage. Some are at the Formal/Institutional stage, taking a particular scientific hypothesis or theory as dogma, and revering the accepted authorities in their field. Likewise, people who are in fact at the Sceptic/Individual stage may choose to remain part of a particular congregation, because splitting away from it would be too disruptive to other aspects of their lives.

Stage V - Mystical/Communal

Fowler's Stage V maps on to Peck's Mystical/Communal stage.

Stage V is once again a spiritual world-view, but a world-view based on the individual's experience, and their own considered interpretation of that experience; it is not a world-view taken on trust or accepted on faith.

Individuals at Stage V are comfortable with and often explore ambiguity, paradox and mystery. Their world-view is less likely to be undermined than that of people at Stage III or IV because it is not based on the statements of an external authority, nor on a solely logical analysis of the world. There is an openness towards other spiritual traditions, and a respect for the views and stages of other people.

In many ways in Stage V the adult returns to a magical view of the universe of the Stage I child, but this time it is one which is full of subtlety and mystery.

Peck notes that conversions from Stage IV to Stage V may take years as the questioning mind seeks, finds and tests answers about the universe. We have already seen that conversions from the Chaotic/Antisocial to the Formal/Institutional stages can be dramatic events.

Peck views one of the main differences between the two spiritual stages, Stage III and Stage V as where people at those stages place authority and spirit. We have noted that Stage III individuals revere external authority. They also see the divine as something external, 'Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me'1 is a Stage III hymn. Stage V individuals on the other hand acknowledge the divine spirit throughout the universe, within themselves and indeed within other people, as Francis Thompson describes in the lines: 'The angels keep their ancient places, Turn but a stone and start a wing, 'tis we, 'tis our estrang├ęd faces, that miss the many-spendoured thing.'2

Stage VI

Fowler's sixth stage is that of selfless service. The individuals who achieve this stage are exceptional: Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the Buddha. Their spirituality is simple and very pure, but it is a simplicity and a purity which differs from the simplicities of Stages I and III and which can only be achieved by passing through the complexities of the other five stages and out the other side.


One of the things which it is easy to miss when generalising about believers and about non-believers is that not all believers are at the same stage of spiritual growth, and that not all non-believers are at the same level of sophistication in their non-belief.

It is also challenging for believers to consider that an atheist may be more mature spiritually than they are as a believer, and it is challenging for atheists to consider that their atheism is itself a spiritual state.

Finally, it is probably worth noting that both Peck and Fowler based these analyses on their direct experience of a large number of individuals. Peck is a practising clinical psychiatrist and has seen thousands of patients at all of the stages he describes. Fowler's analysis is based on his experience of hundreds of individuals, as well as an academic understanding stage theory.

Clearly, beliefs can mean different things to different people, but what gives people the dedication to follow their beliefs along Peck or Fowler's proposed paths? The next entry takes a short look at one possible answer to the question: Why are Beliefs held so Dearly?

1'Amazing Grace' by John Newton2'The Kingdom of God' - Francis Thompson

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