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  • Faith Development

    © Simon A. Eugster

Longitudinal Study of Religious Development in Germany and U.S.A.

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Development of religion and worldview in the adult life span is the focus of a longitudinal study at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (U.S.A.) and Bielefeld University (Germany). New grants from the John Templeton Foundation (JTF) and the German Research Foundation (DFG) of together $1.35 Million enable the research teams at Bielefeld University, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to continue with their longitudinal investigation of faith development in the years 2022 to 2024. Here is an Executive Summary:

The questions that this project has the potential to answer is, whether, how, why, and when in their lifetime individuals are changing their religion and worldview. We interpret such changes as migrations between developmentally ordered religious styles and religious types. While in our recently concluded project (JTF Grant#60806) we could demonstrate that there is faith development and initially identify predictors and outcomes, this project has a focus on two particularly interesting outcomes of faith development: (a) changes in people’s images of God and, in more general and inclusive terms, their symbolization of transcendence, and (b) their changes in prejudice and, with reference to the philosophy of the Alien, their responses to the Strange/Unknown. We assume that faith development results in narrative identity that affords a wise and humble response to the Strange that we call xenosophia.

This research is a contribution to answer these and other key questions using longitudinal data from Germany and the U.S.A. that were gathered in previous and current multi-method projects, which were based on faith development interviews (FDI) and questionnaire data (which include measures for personality, well-being, religious schema, mysticism, etc.). This project continues our research into a new wave of field work and will add another n = 460 (50% US and 50% German) longitudinal re-interviews with the FDI. This will furnish longitudinal analyses with sufficient statistical power. In addition, we survey general population samples of n = 1,250 in both U.S.A. and Germany using our questionnaire, which now includes scales for intellectual humility, God images, and questions for xenophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and other prejudice. Thus, we may be able to relate our questions of religious change to a larger population context, and demonstrate the contribution of faith development research to psychological investigation in domains such as wisdom, God images, and prejudice.

Central questions

This project seeks answers to the following questions:

  • Is there in fact development of faith, spirituality, religion, and worldviews - across the life span?
  • Can this development be understood as change of religious styles and religious types?
  • If there is religious development, is it mono-directional and irreversible? Is regression possible?
  • What are the (auto-) biographical contexts of religious development?
  • How is faith development related to indicators of emotional and cognitive development?
  • What are the most important psychological correlates and predictors of faith development?
  • How does faith development effect changes in cognition, emotion and action? Special attention will be given to changes in the symbolization of transcendence such as the image of God, and to the reduction of prejudice such as xenophobia, Antisemitism, and Islamophobia.


Religious development is being studied for the first time using the faith development interview in cross-cultural and longitudinal research. James Fowler's theory of faith development has inspired numerous research projects using the faith development interview, which Fowler introduced as instrument in the 1970s. However, in the long and respectable tradition of research in faith development, there is no major study with a longitudinal design. Thus, strictly speaking, developmental change in faith has never been evidenced empirically. Instead, all empirical results rest on the documentation of age specific preferences for specific faith stages, which are then interpreted in a framework of unquestioned conceptual assumptions that are suggested in the structural-developmental tradition. Now, in a recent analysis researchers of the project have demonstrated how religious styles change in the adult lifespan. They also identify predictors for such development.

Our research design includes the combination (triangulation) of qualitative and quantitative data. All faith development interview participants are invited to fill out a questionnaire that includes, besides comprehensive demographics, a number of scales e.g. about personality, religious schemata, centrality of religiosity, fundamentalism, pluralism, images of God, mystical experiences, intolerance of ambiguity, generativity, or psychological well-being and growth. Our new questionnaire now includes also measures for intellectual humility, God images, and questions for xenophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and other prejudice.

Evaluation and elaboration of cases studies rests on the triangulation of qualitative and quantitative data of the research participants. On the basis of a questionnaire with detailed demographics and a number of scales, psychological predictors and correlates for developmental change over time can be assessed and analyzed. Evaluation thus combines quantitative and qualitative approaches, and builds on the experience already accumulated in previous Bielefeld-Chattanooga studies.

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