2012-12-14

Stages of Faith

Religions differ widely in where and how people gather; the practices and rituals adherents share when they gather; the practices and rituals in which adherents engage individually on their own; the teachings, stories, beliefs, cosmologies, and ethical codes. Despite these wide differences, it often seems important to stress a basic similarity among the world's religions. There are a couple reasons for this.

One reason is the distressing fact that people of different religions are so often at war with each other. Catholics and Protestants have fought. Jews and Moslems. Moslems and Hindus. Hindus and Buddhists. Wherever any two religious groups are next to each other, they’re liable to start fighting. We wish we would all live in peace, and we hope that by making the point that all religions are the same we can encourage them to stop shooting each other.


The world's major religions do all affirm the golden rule, and it might seem that going to war isn’t treating the other as you would wish to be treated. However, pacificism is a tenet of only a few small groups – such as, among forms of Christianity, the Quakers, Mennonites, and Church of the Brethren. The great bulk of all the religions understand the Golden Rule as having a "self-defense" loophole. Unfortunately, once we allow for wars of self-defense, even the most blatant aggression may be rationalized as a pre-emptive attack necessary for self-defense. So there we are. The universal point of similarity among religions will not prevent violent conflict between them.

There’s a second basis for saying that all religions are the same. The case for sameness across religions grows, paradoxically, out of awareness of differences within each religion. A Christian may mature spiritually as a Christian, a Muslim may mature spiritually as a Muslim, and a Unitarian Universalist may mature spiritually as a Unitarian Universalist. Growth in spiritual maturity moves a person further away from the less mature members in their own tradition and closer to the spiritually mature members of other traditions.


James Fowler’s Stages of Faith tell us that Hindus and Hopis and Jains and Jews all move through stages of faith development.
  • Preschool-age children mix fantasy and reality.
  • Around 6 or 7, kids move into a more logical very literal understanding of their religion’s stories.
  • Stage 3 typically begins as a teenager. They form a more comprehensive belief system synthesizing a broad range of ideas. But they don’t see their belief system as a belief system, but rather as the truth.
  • Stage four, often begun in young adulthood, involves critical examination of their own beliefs. Many people never go beyond stages 3 or 4.
  • Stage 5, if it is reached at all, rarely comes before middle-age. It’s a growing comfort with paradox and the limits of logic and language. Here one sees religious claims as metaphorical, and the words of any religious tradition – one’s own or any other – more as a form of poetry than the kind of truth-claim made by scientists. Stage 5 folks may enjoy spiritual writing from a variety of traditions: Sufi writers such as Rumi, Christian such as like Thomas Merton, Jewish Kabbalah literature or Zen koans – texts that offer not answers but cultivation of appreciation of the mystery of life.
  • Few people ever reach Fowler’s 6th stage, at which attachments and fears have lost their power, and the person lives from pure joyful compassion for others.
Those are the stages of development for a Jew, Christian, Moslem, Buddhist, Hindu, Humanist, Naturalist, or Unitarian Universalist. Because of those different stages within any religion – stages that are the same across religions – we can say that religions are all the same. They are different paths up the same mountain in the sense that a person within any tradition may move up through the stages. We might say religions are not basically (at the base) the same. Rather, religions come together at the higher stages, not at the base.

Professor of Religion Stephen Prothero has a recent book: God is Not One. Prothero aims to disabuse readers of the notion that religions are the same. His book details the many ways "the eight rival religions that rule the world" are widely different. However, there is no mention of James Fowler in Prothero's book. Prothero ignores how, regardless of what the faith may be, the stages of faith development are similar.

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This is part 2 of 5 of "Religions: Same and Different"
Next: Part 3: "1893 World's Parliament of Religions"
Previous: Part 1: "Where Do You Live?"