Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Models of religious experience and religious conversions that focus on the way people process information. These theories are rooted in the field of social psychology, focusing on intellectual processes in forming and sustaining a worldview or on stages of intellectual development. Broadly speaking, there are two main approaches: cognitive structuralism and cognitive re-creation theory.

The theoretical perspective of cognitive structuralism posits an innate developmental structure in the intellectual maturation of humans—irrespective of cultural or religious background. Also known as cognitive developmentalism, structural developmentalism, developmental epistemology, or developmental constructionism, this perspective evolved from the work of Jean Piaget. Because each stage represents a kind of Worldview, scholars believe there are implications for religious education, moral thinking, faith maturation, and the process of conversion.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1981, 1984) identified three levels of moral thinking with two stages at each level—six stages in all. The key to his schema is increased capacity to role-take. James Fowler followed Kohlberg's work with a six-stage model of faith development, emphasizing sophistication in understanding symbolism and in perception of authority. All six stages may occur within any religion; the stages refer to the cognitive processing of symbols and myths, not to the specific content of a faith.

Some structuralists insist that change of stage is as important in transforming one's worldview as a change of one's specific beliefs. Thus each change of stage can be seen as a kind of conversion experience in itself.

Cognitive re-creation theory is based on the premise that an intense reality-transforming experience of conversion or inspiration is closely analogous to the process of artistic or scientific creativity. Developed by Daniel Batson and Larry Ventis (1982), the model focuses on psychological research on the processes of creativity, suggesting four distinctive steps in the formation of an entirely new religious worldview or of an innovative interpretation of a religious tradition: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. The theory includes analysis of the possible role of specialization in right and left brain hemispheres in religious inspiration.

See also Faith Development, Moral Development, Jean Piaget

Keith A. Roberts


C. D. Batson and W. L. Ventis, The Religious Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982)

J. W. Fowler, Stages of Faith (San Francisco: Harper, 1981)

L. Kohlberg, Essays on Moral Development (New York: Harper, 1981, 1984 [2 vols.])

J. Piaget, The Psychology of Intelligence (London: Routledge, 1950)

J. Piaget, The Construction of Reality in the Child (New York: Basic Books, 1954)

J. Piaget, The Moral Judgement of the Child (New York: Free Press, 1965 [1932])

M. M. Wilcox, Developmental Journey (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1979).

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