You are here: Home > Resources > Bibliography on human and faith development

Annotated bibliography on human and faith development

Over the last hundred years, developmental psychology has provided important insights for educators in general, and religious educators in particular. Because the literature on developmental psychology is vast, those of us who are practicing religious educators can't expect to know everything about the field, but we can keep informed about some of the major trends in the field.

While I'm a religious education practitioner, not an expert on developmental psychology, I have tried to keep up with the field insofar as it has helped my own praxis in religious education. This reading list includes those books that I have found provide useful insights in my religious education praxis, as well as books that have some currency in liberal religious circles today. I have included my own comments on why I have found these books useful in order to help you decide which books you may wish to read. Those books that you might want to read first I have marked with an asterisk (*).

— Rev. Dan Harper. (Originally published on the Web in January, 2003. First update and revision, March, 2006; second update and revision, August, 2010.)


* Wadsworth, Barry J. Piaget's Theory of Cognitive and Affective Development: Foundations of Constructivism. 5th ed. White Plains, N. Y.: Longman, 1996.

Jean Piaget developed a stage theory to explain the cognitive and affective development of persons up through age 14 or so. Piaget hypothesized a given, invariant progression of developmental stages in the development of a child's reasoning abilities. In his theory, stages are discontinuous, and once a new stage has been reached, there is no going back. Piaget's theory does not extend cognitive and affective developmental stages into adulthood.

Piagetian developmental theory has been enormously influential, and many researchers continue to refine and expand the theory; Barry Wadsworth's book is a good basic introduction to the state of Piagetian theory today. (Wadsworth's book is used as a text for undergraduate and graduate education courses, and may be available in university libraries.)

Although Piaget is so influential, it is important to remember that there are to structural developmental theories. Piaget has been criticized for downplaying the role of society in individual human development.

Influence on Unitarian Universalism: A huge influence; anyone working in any area of education has to have some familiarity with Piaget.


Sophia Fahs relied heavily on Piaget in her New Beacon Series of curriculum.


Fowler, James W. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. New York: Harper Collins, 1981.

Following in the tradition of Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg developed a theory of stages for the development of moral reasoning. He presented moral dilemmas to persons, and observed how persons talked about those dilemmas. Based on this research, Kohlberg developed his stage theory of moral development. (N.B.: Carol Gilligan and others accused Kohlberg of gender bias, arguing that girls actually reason differently about morality than boys; additional research then brought Gilligan's work into question.)

James Fowler based his faith development theory on Kohlberg's work. Based on interviews with 359 persons, Fowler identified six stages of faith development. Three of the stages relate to the development of children and adolescents. There are three adult stages of faith, and most adults don't reach the highest two stages; indeed, during his original research Fowler found only one example of a person who had reached the sixth stage.

Fowler's Stages of Faith has been criticized on several points. First, he has been accused of working with a small and not particularly diverse group of people; later reserachers have broadened the sample size. Second, because the theory of the sixth stage was based on a sample size of one, it has been argued that inadequate to support the theory of the sixth stage. Third, some argue that Fowler has not adequately defining what he means by "faith"; e.g., Gabriel Moran states that Fowler's definition of faith is limited to the cognitive realm, and that the definition ignores other dimensions of faith. Fourth, faith development has been rejected on the grounds theological anthropology by some persons who argue that human beings are not adequately defined by their rationalism. Fifth, I argue that a particularly problematic area of Fowler's model of human development is that many individuals do not reach the higher two stages; therefore, according to his model many human beings never reach full development, and could be judged as being developmentally disabled.

Fowler addressed the state of what he calls "Faith Development Theory" or FTD in a 2004 article, "Faith Development at 30: Naming the Challenges of a New Millenium," in the academic journal Religious Education [link].

Influence on Unitarian Universalism: A few UU religious educators became extremely interested in Fowler when he was doing his initial research at Harvard; at least one studied with him, Rev. Elizabeth Ellis (then Betty Baker). More recently, the Unitarian Universalist Association renamed the Religious Education Department to become the Lifespan Faith Development Department, and faith development has bbecome the official reigning theory of denominational headquarters.


The use of faith development goes beyond planning curriculum, however. In an article in the online Journal of Liberal Religion titled "Developmentally Challenged: Understanding Unitarian Universalism's lack of Mass Appeal" [link], Manish Mishra uses Fowler's work in an attempt to prove that many people are not capable of becoming Unitarian Universalists; Mishra theorizes that Unitarian Universalists have mostly reached the fifth or sixth stage of faith in the Fowler model, but only a minority of the population have reached either of those stages.


* Erikson, Erik H. Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: W. W. Norton, 1980.

Erik Erikson proposed a psycho-social developmental stage theory, based in part on the insights of depth psychology, biology, and anthropology. Erickson studied with Anna Freud, and was grounded in Sigmund Freud's theory of five stages of psychosexual development. Based on his own observations of children in Europe, New England, and the Lakota Sioux tribal lands, Erikson theorized that there are eight stages of human psychosocial development.

Identity and the Life Cycle offers a good overview of Erickson's theory of psychosocial development. Erickson is best know for his theory of "identity crisis," wherein individuals face a series of eight distinct crises over the entire course of life. In his theory, Erikson places more emphasis on society's role in the individual's development than does Piaget. Based on the insights of depth psychology, Erikson said that no crisis is ever completely resolved, and an unresolved crisis may re-emerge as an issue later in life.

Erikson has been criticized for lack of sound research and cultural bias. Because his work in based in Freudian psychology, much of the criticism brought against Freudian psychology can be brought to bear against Erickson's work. His wife later added to his theory, adding a ninth stage of human psycho-social development to cover the extended life-spans in the developed world.

Erikson is of interest to religious educators because he looks beyond cognitive development to psychosocial development. He is also of interest because of his greater emphasis on how society can influence an individual's development. Because his work on adolescent development has been so influential, and has entered the popular consciousness, those religious educators working with adolescents might have a particular interest in his work.

Influence on Unitarian Universalism: Beginning in the late 1960's, Erikson appears to have deeply affected liberal religious approaches to ministry with youth. That influence continues to some extenet today: any time you hear a Unitarian Universalist talking about an "identity crisis," they are using a concept that originated with Erickson.


Overall Erikson's influence has probably been in the areas of youth ministry and pastoral care, than in the area of children's religious education.


Levinson, Daniel J., et al. The Seasons of a Man's Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.

Levinson et al. come at developmental theory from the point of view of depth psychology, claiming inspiration from Freud, Jung, and Erik Erikson. The obvious critique of this book is that it is about men only. Nonetheless, like Erikson, this book has been tremendously influential, particularly in laying out stages of adult development. (Remember the pop-culture phenomenon that was Gail Sheehy's book Passages? Her book was based on Levinson's work.)

Influence on Unitarian Universalism: The pop culture phenomenon of Levinson's book and Gail Sheehy's Passages may have helped influenced Unitarian Universalists to think of adulthood as being divided into young adulthood, middle adulthood, and older adulthood.


Kegan, Robert. The Evolving Self. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,

Robert Kegan is primarily interested in adult education and in psycho therapy. Responding to critiques of Piaget, Erikson, Kohlberg, and Fowler (including Gilligan's charge of gender bias), Kegan proposes a developmental stage theory across the lifespan, incorporating psychosocial and other aspects of development. Kegan uses a spiral model of development, where persons return to the same problems and issues may times over the course of a lifetime, but from at least six identifiable stages. Persons swing back and forth between inclusion and introspection.

Kegan is a clinical psychotherapist, as well as an education theorist. The case studies he provides in this book are drawn primarily from his clinical practice, not his educational practice.

Influence on Unitarian Universalism: Kegan's spiral model has inspired certain Unitarian Universalist religious educators. These religious educators have advocated that religious education programs return again and again to certain themes. Thus, as persons move up the developmental spiral over time, they return to important themes again and again; this is the so-called "spiral/pillars" approach to curriculum planning.


* Gardner, Howard. Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books, 1999. This book updates his earlier, more comprehensive book, Frames of Mind.

In his first book on multiple intelligence theory, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983), Howard Gardner proposed that individuals possess at least seven "intelligences": linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal. In Intelligence Reframed, he added an eighth intelligence, the naturalist intelligence. Gardner is primarily interested in cognition, and he has explicitly stated that he does not believe there are separate moral or spiritual intelligences, although at this writing he continues to be open to an existentilaist intelligence. Gardner believes his intelligences are based in neurobiology.

In terms of human development, Gardner challenges us to think of individuals as having greater or lesser strengths in different multiple areas, where each intelligence in an individual exhibits "a distinct developmental history, along with a definable set of expert 'end-state' performances." Gardner's model brings into question developmental models that posit a single line of development; a developmental model using his theory might produce a bar graph, with several different lines representing different stages of development in each of the multiple intelligences.

Gardner's work has been widely tested in practical educational settings, and Gardner himself is involved in using his model in a lab school for disadvantaged children. You can get a good sense for the critiques of Gardner from his responses in this book; Gardner himself admits that more pure research (as opposed to practical implementation of his ideas) is needed.

In a 2003 paper [link], Gardner critiques multiple intelligence theory as having fallen behind the advances in biological understandings of the brain; he also believes that additional research is needed into understanding the interplay between social structures and the way human minds work. In the 2003 paper, Gardner also mentions several critiques of Piagetian developmental theory, pointing out that we can no longer take for granted, as Piaget did, that there is one general intelligence.

Influence on Unitarian Universalism: Gardner is widely read among UU religious educators, and many congregations have included a multiple intelligences approach in children's religious education. Since about 2005, however, with the adoption of faith development as the primary developmental theory used at denominational headquarters, multiple intelligence theory seems to have fallen out of favor.


Vygotsky, L. S. The Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Michael Cole, et al., ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Lev Vygotsky was a Soviet psychologist who took seriously the historicism of Marxism. Vygotsky theorized that an individual's psychological development is necessarily shaped by the historical era they live in, and individuals can benefit from the advances made by society and culture over the course of historical development. Vygotsky also observed that in certain settings children could perform above their presumed level of competence, leading him to conclude that an individual's development cannot be considered separately from a social setting. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, there has been an explosion of interest in Vygotsky among theorists, and his work is frequently cited by those doing work in the area of "distributed cognition."

Vygotsky has some interesting implications for religious education. For example, a congregation could be taken as a setting where children could perform above their presumed level of development. That also implies that a congregation could be deliberately structured so as to support children's learning.

Influence on Unitarian Universalism: Almost none; the social aspects of learning have been regretfully ignored by many or even most Unitarian Universalists.


* Moran, Gabriel, and Maria Harris. 3 chapters on development in Reshaping Religious Education: Conversations on Contemporary Practice. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1998. See also Moran's Religious Education Development (which I have not read).

A number of religious educators have directly criticized the relevance of developmental stage theory to religious education. Gabriel Moran and Maria Harris critique assumptions in developmental stage theory from the perspectives of ecology, economics, gender, and the role of death in our lives. Moran offers an alternative to a linear model of development stage theory, proposing instead "life being ordered around the center of a sphere [God]," with the possibility of growing nearer, getting farther away, eccentric orbits, and shortcuts.

Influence on Unitarian Universalism: This particular book has had little influence on Unitarian Universalism. However, the idea of developmentalism as being not entirely applicable to religious education does have a Unitarian Universalist history. During Hugo Holleroth's tenure in the UUA RE Department (late 60's and early 70's), there was little attention to developmental theory in the development of curriculums. This was probably an outgrowth of Holleroth's Tillichean existentialist theology. Holleroth's so-called "Multimedia" curriculums were roundly criticized by UU religious educators because they didn't pay adequate attention to developmental theory.


Unitarian Universalist religious educators should read Moran and Harris. Most of us Unitarian Universalist religious educators have not addressed the fundamental problems inherent in the idea of "developmentalism." If developmental theory is primarily about cognitive/affective development, is it possible that religious development goes beyond cognitive/affective development? Does the whole notion of "development" imply that persons who are further along in their development are somehow worth more than those who are at earlier or lower stages? Does a linear model of development adequately describe the complexity of a person's trajectory through life? How can we allow for non-linear discontinuous events in a person's religious life (personal or spiritual crises, "conversion" experiences, "transcendental" experiences, etc.)? Moran and Harris's critiques could help us think through these challenging questions.


Kenneth E. Hyde, Religions in Childhood and Adolescence. (Birmingham, Ala.: Religious Education Press, 1990).

Religion in Childhood and Adolescence is a critical overview of the psychological literature on developmental theory as it pertains to religious education of young people. Dense and hard to read, Hyde does not cover Kegan, Vygotsky, Gardner, or Moran. It's also two decades out of date by now.

Yet the book is worth skimming if only to get a sense of the range of approaches to developmental theory as applied to religious education, and to understand better some of the research that has been done. At one point, Hyde writes:

It would seem that as yet there are not sufficient grounds for rejecting the idea of stages as a basis for religious development, provided it is regarded as a performance rather than a competence theory and used with some caution. [emphasis added]

Note that Hyde is concerned with religious thinking, not religious being or doing. Also note that Hyde cautions us that developmental stage theory, even in the limited sense in which he uses the term, is still in the process of being tested by research.

Influence on Unitarian Universalist religious educators: Almost none. Yet given the current dominance of Fowler's faith development theory within Unitarian Universalism, it would be helpful for Unitarian Universalist religious educators to get a sense of the other approaches that have been proposed and studied; in particular Goldman and his followers are worth knowing about.