Stage 3: Synthetic-Conventional Faith

In Brief:

A “conformist” stage, very sensitive to other people’s expectations; authority is located externally; beliefs and values may be strongly held, but are not subjected to critical scrutiny; symbols are not separable from what they symbolise.

In Detail:

People generally reach this stage at around 12 or 13 years of age. It’s around this age that we begin to think abstractly and hypothetically. Often this newfound ability enables the emergence of mutual interpersonal perspective taking. This means that we can construct a hypothetical image of how others see us, and we also understand that others can envision how we see them.

One consequence of this is that we become very sensitive to other people’s expectations. This helps us, Fowler says, to “focus ourselves and assemble our commitments to values.”1 On the other hand, it often happens that people become overly concerned with others’ expectations:

One decisive limit of the Synthetic-Conventional stage is its lack of third-person perspective taking. This means that in its dependence upon significant others for confirmation and clarity about its identity and meaning to them, the self does not yet have a transcendental perspective from which it can see and evaluate self-other relations. In the Synthetic-Conventional stage the young person or adult can remain trapped in the “Tyranny of the They.”2

For individuals at this stage, “authority is located externally to the self. It resides in the interpersonally available ‘they’ or in the certified incumbents of leadership roles in institutions.”3 This does not mean that people at this stage do not make choices or develop strong personal commitments to their values and beliefs. However, Fowler says,

despite their genuine feeling of having made choices and commitments, a truer reading is that their values and self-images, mediated by the significant others in their lives, have largely chosen them. And in their [i.e., the people at this stage] choosing they have, in the main, clarified and ratified those images and values which have chosen them.4

For individuals at this stage, “the system of informing images and values through which they are committed remains principally a tacit system.”5 That is to say, they are largely unexamined. A person at this stage, Fowler says, “is aware of having values and normative images. He or she articulates them, defends them and feels deep emotional investments in them, but typically has not made the value system, as a system, the object of reflection.”6 Their “ideology or worldview is lived and asserted,” he says, but “it is not yet a matter of critical and reflective articulation.”7

Another important characteristic of people at this stage, particularly in contrast to people at higher stages, is their relationship with the symbols of their faith. For people at this stage, Fowler says, “with its largely tacit system of meaning and value, the symbols and ritual representations expressive of their faith are organically and irreplaceably tied to the full realities of their meaning systems. Said another way, the symbols expressive of their deepest meanings and loyalties are not separable from…what they symbolize.”8

A lot of religious people remain at this stage throughout their adulthood. “Much of church and synagogue life in [the U.S.A.],” Fowler notes, “can be accurately described as dominantly Synthetic-Conventional.” Critics of religion, he says, often mistakenly assume “that to be religious in an institution necessarily means to be Synthetic-Conventional.”9

A number of factors can contribute to the breakdown of this stage and prepare the individual for transition to the next. The credibility of their preferred external authorities might be undermined. A fundamentalist might find that they can no longer ignore the evidence in favour of evolution, for example, or the behaviour of a human leader will cast doubt on their credibility as a moral authority. Sometimes drastic changes to what one thought to be an unchangeable tradition can bring about this change, as happened with many Catholics after Vatican II.10 (Of course, the person might also reject the changes and hold on to the old faith, as traditionalist Catholics have done). “Frequently,” Fowler writes, “the experience of ‘leaving home’—emotionally or physically, or both—precipitates the kind of examination of self, background, and life-guiding values that gives rise to stage transition at this point.”11

Click here to read about Stage 4: Individuative-Reflective Faith.


1. Fowler, Stages of Faith, 154.

2. Fowler, Faithful Change, 62. Italics in original.

3. Fowler, Stages, 154.

4. Fowler, Stages, 154.

5. Fowler, Stages, 161.

6. Fowler, Stages, 162.

7. Fowler, Faithful, 61.

8. Fowler, Stages, 162-163.

9. Fowler, Stages, 164.

10. Fowler, Stages, 173.

11. Fowler, Stages, 173.

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